music notes · stuff I read

Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym

Summary from Goodreads:
The spellbinding memoir of a violin virtuoso who loses the instrument that had defined her both on stage and off — and who discovers, beyond the violin, the music of her own voice

Her first violin was tiny, harsh, factory-made; her first piece was “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.” But from the very beginning, Min Kym knew that music was the element in which she could swim and dive and soar. At seven years old, she was a prodigy, the youngest ever student at the famed Purcell School. At eleven, she won her first international prize; at eighteen, violinist great Ruggiero Ricci called her “the most talented violinist I’ve ever taught.” And at twenty-one, she found “the one,” the violin she would play as a soloist: a rare 1696 Stradivarius. Her career took off. She recorded the Brahms concerto and a world tour was planned. Then, in a London cafe, her violin was stolen. She felt as though she had lost her soulmate, and with it her sense of who she was. Overnight she became unable to play or function, stunned into silence.

In this lucid and transfixing memoir, Kym reckons with the space left by her violin’s absence. She sees with new eyes her past as a child prodigy, with its isolation and crushing expectations; her combustible relationships with teachers and with a domineering boyfriend; and her navigation of two very different worlds, her traditional Korean family and her music. And in the stark yet clarifying light of her loss, she rediscovers her voice and herself.

Gone is a really interesting memoir about musical talent and identity. Kym is a violinist who is one of the true child prodigies, who conquers the the toughest pieces in the violin literature at an impossibly young age, and whose 1696 Stradivarius violin was stolen at the height of her career. Her memoir looks at not just her career, but the toll it took on her, how much her career and training pushed against her Korean upbringing, and how she succumbed to a bad relationship that may later have led to some really bad decisions.

The writing style is very interesting. It isn’t very polished but winds around, almost stream of consciousness at times. She really tries to get at the heart of performing at such a high level so young. Kym also pushes into the period of depression and mourning she went through after her violin was stolen.  A violinist’s relationship to the violin as instrument becomes very personal, almost like a child or a partner, which is a much different relationship that one I am familiar with as a pianist.  As a pianist, you can’t tote your instrument around and get to make-do with what you find at your venue (if you’re super-famous/fancy/loaded, you can rent the piano of your choice as you tour).

You may start reading Gone to see whether Kym gets her violin back, but you’ll stay for her journey.

Edited to add: Kym is releasing an album of violin music played on her Strad on July 18, 2017.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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mini-review · stuff I read

Tender: Stories by Sofia Samatar

Summary from Goodreads:
The first collection of short fiction from a rising star whose stories have been anthologized in the first two volumes of the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series and nominated for many awards. Some of Samatar’s weird and tender fabulations spring from her life and her literary studies; some spring from the world, some from the void.

I haven’t read Sofia Samatar’s novel (yet – I’m not dead, yet) so I jumped at the chance to read this collection.  There are a lot of good stories in Tender, particularly ones where the world of the story seems “normal” then one small twist reveals that it is actually dystopic (ex. “Selkie Stories Are for Lovers”, “Honey Bear” and “How to Get Back to the Forest”). These stories cluster in the front half of the book (Tender Bodies) and it made the collection feel unbalanced to me. For this reason it didn’t gel as a collection for me, but the actual writing of the stories is superb.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Blame It on the Duke by Leonora Bell (The Disgraceful Dukes #3)

Summary from Goodreads:
Have you heard?
The future Duke of Barrington has just been gambled away by his father. To an heiress!
The delicious details thus far…

Nicolas, Lord Hatherly, never intended to marry—nor add to the “mad” Hatherly line—but now he must honor his father’s debt to a social-climbing merchant or lose the family estate.

A notoriously wild marquess, won by her father at a game of cards, is the very last thing Miss Alice Tombs wants. She’s spent the last three seasons repelling suitors in spectacular fashion so she’d be at liberty to explore the world. She’ll just have to drive this one away as well.

Until Nick proposes an utterly tempting arrangement: one summer together to prove the legitimacy of their union, then Alice is free to travel while Nick revels in the time he has left before the Hatherly Madness takes hold.

It will be easy to walk away after a few months of make-believe wedded bliss—won’t it? Alice and Nick are about to find out…one sultry night at a time.

This ought to be fun . . .

I’ve been enjoying Leonora Bell’s romances and Blame It On the Duke is a very nice third entry in the Disgraceful Dukes series. This installment has a delicious twist on the old “gambled the wife/mistress/sister/daughter away” trope: Hatherly’s mad father (the titular Duke) gambles him away to a flush-in-the-pockets baronet with a daughter he wants to marry off in the most social-climbing matter possible. The daughter, Alice, is actually an accomplished translator (of Sanksrit) and while a Society husband would be a hindrance, the rakish Hatherly – who doesn’t want a wife or children hanging around to watch him go mad – is perfect for her plans (escape England and her mother). Of course, those pesky things like hearts and feelings get in the way.

Bell does a much better job with this book in balancing her light elements (translation, bedroom scenes, one sweet house cat named Kali) with the dark (there’s quite a bit about the inhuman conditions of insane asylums of the period). And Bell now has three side characters she could choose from for the next book….

ALSO! Princess Bride jokes!

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

Summary from Goodreads:
In four years Prime Space will put the first humans on Mars. Helen Kane, Yoshi Tanaka, and Sergei Kuznetsov must prove they’re the crew for the job by spending seventeen months in the most realistic simulation every created.

Retired from NASA, Helen had not trained for irrelevance. It is nobody’s fault that the best of her exists in space, but her daughter can’t help placing blame. The MarsNOW mission is Helen’s last chance to return to the only place she’s ever truly felt at home. For Yoshi, it’s an opportunity to prove himself worthy of the wife he has loved absolutely, if not quite rightly. Sergei is willing to spend seventeen months in a tin can if it means travelling to Mars. He will at least be tested past the point of exhaustion, and this is the example he will set for his sons.

As the days turn into months the line between what is real and unreal becomes blurred, and the astronauts learn that the complications of inner space are no less fraught than those of outer space. The Wanderers gets at the desire behind all exploration: the longing for discovery and the great search to understand the human heart.

So, before we begin, The Wanderers is not like The Martian.  I know it’s being marketed that way – because NOVEL ABOUT SPACE AND ASTRONAUTS WHAT ELSE DO WE COMPARE IT TO – but The Martian is a much different book, very action-driven.  The Wanderers is very character- and setting-oriented so it makes for a very different reading experience.  So, onward.

The Wanderers turned out to be a very enjoyable and thoughtful novel about space exploration that doesn’t actually explore space…or does it? It actually reminded me a lot of Carl Sagan’s Contact (the movie adaptation at least, since I’ve not actually read the book) with it’s range of time and philosophy about the nature of space exploration (and odd charismatic billionaires). I really liked the characterizations of the three astronauts Sergei, Helen, and Yoshi. They share the narration between themselves and with several family members and Prime employees.  At the outset I wasn’t sure if I liked expanding the narration beyond the astronauts, but over the course of the book it turned out to be very interesting. It’s very easy to think that the story of space exploration lies solely with those who leave our atmosphere and forget those who remain behind.

Dear FTC: I picked up an ARC of this book from a batch sent to my store by the publisher.

stuff I read

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Summary from Goodreads:
From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country.

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by oppression and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

Kostova’s new novel is a tale of immense scope that delves into the horrors of a century and traverses the culture and landscape of this mysterious country. Suspenseful and beautifully written, it explores the power of stories, the pull of the past, and the hope and meaning that can sometimes be found in the aftermath of loss.

I loved Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian when it came out.  I mean loved.  I have a signed first edition, first printing.  But I was so disappointed in The Swan Thieves.  It was so blah I DNF’d it at fifty pages – I do not DNF books lightly.  Most just hang around the house for years until I finally finish them.  So I entered into reading The Shadow Land with bated breath.  Being set in Bulgaria, I had high hopes.

The Shadow Land was good…but not nearly as gripping as The Historian. The multiple story layers do not mesh well and it takes nearly half the book for the real crux of the story to start firing. The first half is this strange, meandering tale of an American girl (who, although 26 years old, is annoyingly naive) who winds up with a box of cremains and the oddball cabbie who helps her try to find the cremains’ family members.  There’s also a very strange moment where Alexandra, having worried almost constantly so far that the cabbie Bobby will take advantage of her, thinks Bobby has made a pass at her until he very casually throws out the fact that he’s gay.  At which point then it is “OK for them to be friends” and so on because she doesn’t have to worry about attraction between them.  It could have been handled better. (The very ending of the book feels extremely tacked on and hasty, in my opinion, but your mileage may vary.)

The second half of the novel, though, is comprised of a beautiful, gutting story about a gifted musician arrested in a Stalin-era purge in Bulgaria and who survives through sheer force of will. This portion of the novel is where Kostova’s talent as a writer lies.  These layers, told by various elderly characters and a written account, blend very well and reveal the lingering effects of Communism.  It was interesting to read this book after having read Elif Batuman’s The Idiot and how she depicted mid-1990s Hungary; the two authors came at it from different angles which made for good reading.  I am glad that Kostova put out a new book – I want her to keep writing and exploring these ideas.

The Shadow Land is out today, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann

Summary from Goodreads:
From the bestselling author of the National Book Award winner Let the Great World Spin comes a lesson in how to be a writer—and so much more than that.

Intriguing and inspirational, this book is a call to look outward rather than inward. McCann asks his readers to constantly push the boundaries of experience, to see empathy and wonder in the stories we craft and hear.

A paean to the power of language, both by argument and by example, Letters to a Young Writer is fierce and honest in its testament to the bruises delivered by writing as both a profession and a calling. It charges aspiring writers to learn the rules and even break them.

These fifty-two essays are ultimately a profound challenge to a new generation to bring truth and light to a dark world through their art.

I’ve only recently discovered Colum McCann (let me tell you, Dancer is amazing).  This little book contains life advice disguised as writing advice very much in the vein of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It gets a bit platitude-y at times, in my opinion, but the later chapters have a really wry voice.

Also, dude can write a sentence about anything.  That alone is worth reading.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher.

mini-review · Reading Graphically · stuff I read

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Summary from Goodreads:
An intimate and poignant graphic novel portraying one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam from debut author Thi Bui.

This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.

At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.

In what Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “a book to break your heart and heal it,” The Best We Could Do brings to life Thi Bui’s journey of understanding, and provides inspiration to all of those who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past.

The Best We Could Do is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking graphic memoirs I’ve ever read. Bui’s attempts to understand herself as a new parent by trying to understand how her parents grew up and existed before she came along will resonate with any reader – that it is all set during the turbulence of the Vietnam War makes it just gutting. The art is superb with sharp pen-and-ink drawings colored by soft pastel watercolor. A must-read and congrats to Bui for being selected for BN’s Discover program.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.