Orfeo – on the Man Booker Longlist

9780393349849_p0_v1_s260x420Some books just make you smarter when you read them, and National Book Award winner and MacArthur Fellow Richard Power’s Orfeo raised my level of music appreciation while reminding me of the frightening power of modern science and technology.  Without the recommendation of the Man Booker long list – Powers is one of the first four Americans to be on that prestigious list – I would not have read this. Orfeo is both  a thriller focused on a fugitive fleeing across country from Homeland Security and the reminiscences of a seventy year old avant-garde composer whose retirement project is using bacterial DNA to splice musical patterns into living cells.

When his dog dies, Peter Els calls 911, annoying the policemen who answer the call – until they notice suspicious vials and Peter’s homemade laboratory.  The next morning, as Peter returns in his car from his morning walk (like many walkers Peter drives to a park to walk), he sees his house surrounded by the ubiquitous yellow tape, as men in hazmat suits are carefully packaging all his belongings.  He keeps on driving, and Powers begins a lifelong elegy uncovering how Peter’s life has brought him to this point.  Most of the novel is in flashback, from Peter’s childhood to his first love who convinces him in college that his talent for music should be acknowledged, as he switches majors from chemistry to music composition.  Eventually, he marries someone else, has a daughter, and falls into the perpetual search for the perfect score, with a few successes along the way – but too few to be noticed.

Powers invokes Mahler, Messiaen, and many others, using classical music the same way Melville used whaling.  At times, I skimmed over the information – much as I had in Moby Dick – searching for the thread that led back to the story.  Powers’ line: “Maddie’s eyes crossed a little when he went on too long about harmonic structure,” hit a chord with me.  Nevertheless, at one long interlude, when Peter plays the 5th Symphony, I found Shostakovich on my iPhone and played it as accompaniment to his description.

The novel really is more about music than bioterrorism, but Powers cleverly connects the easy access of modern technology and its dissemination.  As Els drives from Pennsylvania cross-country to his former wife, his old friend, and finally, his daughter, the watchful observance of ATM machines, phone logs, and highway cameras follow.  The possibility that anyone – even a well-meaning musician – could become the target of a zealous government pursuit may be the real terror, but, in the end, Els learns to use the social media to counterattack.

Despite the haunting remorse of not having listened more carefully in Music Appreciation 101, I found myself immersed in the story and finished the book quickly – in awe of Powers’ use of the “silence between the notes.” The emotional impact of following the protagonist had me lost in what Powers describes as “…the book’s power to erase  {the reader}…the single most useful trick of fiction…” If you decide to read the book, beware that the opener is only a teaser, and you will wallow through pages before you get the rhythm.  If you are an impatient reader, or one who must look up every obscure reference, this may not be for you.

The Man Booker Longlist 

The Bookman’s Tale

9780670026470_p0_v1_s260x420Charlie Lovett balances the controversy over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays with romance and mystery in The Bookman’s Tale.  Although the story is heavy with meticulous research that only a British lit major could appreciate, the intriguing search for proof that Shakespeare really did write his plays is balanced with a touching modern-day love story.

Lovett bounces around in time, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, and if you miss the date before each chapter, you will lose your place.  Peter Byerly, a collector of antiquarian books, who is bereft over his wife’s death, is the connection between the Bard’s contemporaries and current events.  When Peter finds a dated Victorian watercolor portrait of his dead wife inside an old book, he begins a search leading him to Shakespeare’s annotations for  “Winter’s Tale.”  If the notes are authentic, the book would be proof that Shakespeare really did write his own plays.

Lovett uses flachbacks to reveal Peter’s life as an introverted student but the present-day mystery of Peter’s  precious find in the English countryside involves murder and forgery.  When the author flips back to Marlowe and Green in the 15oo’s, he not only offers historical information but cleverly ends chapters with a cliff-hanging alternative to history that reappears in Peter’s twentieth century pursuit – but the action is slow-moving and laden with heavy details.

Written by a collector of rare books and a former antiquarian book seller, the story has comprehensive explanations of book restoration and the process for verifying providence and authenticity.  My friendly librarian, knowing my affinity for the Bard, suggested this book, and I enjoyed the slow pace and historical details, balanced by the romance of true love, but I admit to impatiently skimming through some of the descriptions to get to the solved mystery.

Peter and the Starcatchers


As the prequel to James Barrie’s famous character, Peter and the Starcatchers explains how Peter Pan came to be.  After recently enjoying the Tony Award winning Broadway green show * of Peter and the Starcatchers,  I downloaded the play’s inspiration – the first book in the series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson to my Kindle, and followed the adventures of a young orphaned boy who became the mischievous flying scamp.

Barry and Pearson involve all the familiar characters – the lost boys, the mermaids, the pirates, the local natives, the crocodile – but no TIger Lily or Wendy.  The pirate captain Black Stache loses his hand and gets his hook, but the Starcatchers are the focus of this tale.

Molly and her father, members of a small group of elite world protectors, with the help of talking porpoises, are escorting a trunk full of magic stardust to prevent its falling into the hands of the bad guys. Peter and his fellow orphans from St. Norbert’s have been conscripted to sail to the island of a despot.  Their paths cross with a mad pirate chase through a wild storm that lands them on an isolated island in the middle of nowhere.

When the stardust leaks out of its trunk, its strange power causes rats to fly, fish to turn into mermaids, and mortal wounds to heal.  The adventure is wild and adventurous with constant excitement.  By the end, Peter’s has eternal youth and flight dexterity with a new home and a protector – Tinkerbell.

If you are looking for a different holiday story that will secure the attention of young and old – clap your hands and show you believe.

* The green refers to the proscenium, stage floor, sets, and props – all created out of recycled objects – bottle corks, buttons, plastic bottles, rope – and a little magic.

Catherine the Great

From obscurity to greatness –  with the help of an ambitious mother –  Catherine the Great offers insight and historical context with drama.

After eight years of research and writing, Robert K. Massie leaves nothing out.  Through a dense and fact filled documentary, Massie manages to reveal the human personalities, and suddenly you are in the eighteenth century – with court deceptions, dukes and emperors trading lives for power, royals using overwhelming wealth to show favor or take it away, secret lovers, lives ruined for the wrong allegiance – a great way to learn history.

Massie, who won the Putlizer for his Peter the Great, creates a suspenseful plot with the innumerable facts at his disposal, and he manages to instill humanity into the historical icons as if they were characters in a play. The result will have you attending to his words, and reading for the next installment as Catherine’s life unfolds. Nevertheless, I found myself dozing off in some sections; this is a slow methodical read and you will have to persevere to reach the end.

Becoming Catherine

Ensconced in posh surroundings, weighted down with jewels and silver, the teenage German princess is summoned by the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, to be betrothed to the heir of the Russian throne, an immature and petulant boy.  They have no choice but to marry, but it’s nine years before the marriage is consummated.  In the meantime, Catherine has learned the language, converted away from German Lutheranism to Orthodox Russia, and solidified her ambition to someday be Empress.

Massie uses letters and references to document the saga – many from Catherine’s own memoirs – and he maintains interest by inserting humorous episodes when they are available.  In attending a ball with the men dressed as women and the women as men (better to show off Empress Elizabeth’s legs), Catherine writes:

The very tall Monsieur Sievers… was wearing a hoop skirt the empress had lent him…Countess Hendrikova, who was dancing behind me, stumbled over the hoop skirt as he turned…I fell beneath the hoop skirt which had sprung upright beside me…there we were all three of us, sprawling on the floor with me entirely covered by his skirt.  I was dying of laughter trying to get up…no one could get up without causing the other two to fall down.”

Not all is balls and frivolity.  Massie describes poignant moments of despair, and illnesses that almost sever ties.   In his thoroughness, he relates every toothache, court gossip, and secret – some are entertaining.  Catherine’s invention of a side-saddle she could unobtrusively switch to ride astride to avoid her mother-in-law’s criticism foreshadows Catherine’s later “triumphant entrance into the capital” riding in uniform on her horse as the new ruler.

Empress Catherine

Pages of colorful portraits of the principals divide the book, with the first two hundred pages providing the background to the second half – Catherine’s reign.  Like other powerful women, Catherine overcame obstacles, asserted her independence, and managed people as well as countries.  She learned early that people prefer to talk about themselves, and she listened.  But she believed in “enlightened autocracy – what I despair of overthrowing, I undermine.” Massie writes that…

“she was intelligent, well-read, and a shrewd judge of character… She softened imperial presence with a sense of humor and a quick tongue.”

By writing her Nakaz, a suggested code of laws that condemned torture and capital punishment, and endorsed the principle of the  “equality of all before the law,” Catherine hoped to lead her country away from the feudal rules of serfdom.  She founded Russia’s first College of Medicine, established hospitals, and became one of the first to be inoculated against smallpox. Her collection of art gave her the reputation as “the leading prospective customer for all owners with major collections,” and she housed her holdings within magnificent architecture.  Catherine was a reader, motivated by the “dullness” of her husband.  She wrote in her memoirs: “When he left me, the most boring book seemed delightful.” Massie notes that she “always kept a book in her room and carried another in her pocket.


To maintain the historical momentum, Massie finishes each section of Catherine’s life, and then backtracks to comment on others who influenced her.  He manages to insert Voltaire’s life into the mix as well as King George of England’s problems with the “colonies.”  John Paul Jones, Father of the United States Navy, has a cameo appearance in the Russian war with Turkey.  This zigzagging can be distracting, but without providing the information, Massie’s portrait of Catherine would not be as complete or understandable.



Her personal life was never forgotten; although she suffered through a miserable marriage with Peter (who she may have managed to have assassinated), she had at least a dozen lovers – usually young handsome guards – and had three children.  Massie’s chapter on Catherine’s “favorites” offers insight into a powerful woman who was lonely and yearning for love.  She found it many times, and with Potemkin, ten years her junior and possibly her second husband,  sustained a relationship that survived – even after both took other lovers. Potemkin became powerful in his own right, building cities, “ruling southern Russia like an emperor…{and gave} Russia access to a new sea.”

Her Children

Massie ends his saga with Catherine’s progeny, specifically Paul, her son (whose father could have been either her husband Peter or a lover).  Massie reminds you who everyone is and where they came from, eventually focusing on her son’s second fruitful marriage to Sophia/Maria – yielding nine grandchildren, and her favorite, Alexander.  Although Catherine groomed Alexander from a young age to be her successor, his marriage never produced an heir, and the dynasty passed on to Nicholas, Alexander’s younger brother and Catherine’s youngest grandson – the one who had “escaped her strict supervision.”  Not even an Empress can control everything.

Massie’s Marvel

Robert K. Massie

Massie tells Catherine’s life from her point of view and, for the most part, turns dry historical facts into a readable and entertaining story full of intrigue and messy politics.  Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman may be one of those books that is good for you to read, as well as a good read.

A magnificent history lesson – and you won’t have to take a test after digesting it.

Read about another powerful historical woman: Cleopatra