Thursday, November 30, 2006

Books for Sale

The 10 Best Books of 2006

Tis the season for lists!
The link above leads to the list from the New York Times. It includes one book that I've read this year and can recommend highly: The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud. It would make a good gift for the book-lover on your list!

I can also recommend The Book Thief, listed right now on the right as one of the books I'm currently reading. So far it's engrossing and beautifully written. It's set in World War II Germany and narrated by Death. (It's also perched atop Amazon's top ten teen books of 2006, but don't let that dissuade you.)

Have you read any of the books on the Times list? And what was your favorite book you read during 2006?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Let the Fun Begin

Looking for gift ideas for the music lover in your life? Amazon has posted its "Best of 2006" list. As usual, I'm gratified by how nicely my tastes and Amazon's match; without giving anything away I can only say that there is substantial overlap between my top ten, due to appear here next week, and theirs. What do you think of the list? And what are your favorite CDs of 2006?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Saturday at Symphony Center (reprise)

Boulez, CSO tour Mahler's No. 7
Symphony gets musical analysis that is a joy

I warned you there would be another concert post, didn't I?

Saturday night we again trekked downtown for a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert, this time to hear them play Mahler's 7th Symphony. Spry 81-year-old Pierre Boulez took the podium for the first time as Conductor Emeritus, an odd title for a man who appears as vital as anyone else we've seen conduct, including the much younger Jarvi last week.

Before the music, I must comment on the surroundings. Last week we sat way up in the gallery, four rows from the front and miles from the actual players. This week our seats were much closer--we were in the front row of the upper balcony, which is three feet behind the last row of the lower balcony but quite a bit cheaper. You'd think this was a bargain, right?

You'd be wrong. The upper balcony has everything going against it but the price. The overhang, which my concert companion hates for the way it obstructs the sound, was not much of a factor where we sat in that regard, but it definitely did something to the circulation. After last week's airy, comfortable experience in the gallery--where the warm air, by rights, should rise up to heat you--this week's cramped, stuffy, and just plain hot experience in the balcony caught me by surprise. The burly fellow next to me actually removed his sweater and listened to the concert in a theme T-shirt, and by the end I must admit I was jealous.

Despite these impediments, it was a fantastic concert. Many consider the 7th Mahler's weakest symphony, but you have to give him credit--he brings it in the end, something that cannot be said for some of the others (4 and 9, I'm looking at you). Boulez can be chilly as a conductor, delivering clean readings that leave out some of the emotion others find in a score--but I'll take that over the sort of messy reading a Barenboim can deliver, as evidenced by his insanity inducing 5th last spring. Boulez's internal movements were pretty, and the first and last were rousing and raucous, just as they should be, taking full advantage of the CSO's powerful brass without losing control of the line of the music. (If you want to hear for yourself, they're playing it again tonight.)

Now the waiting begins; we don't go back until May for Bruckner 7, followed in rapid succession at Ravinia by Mahler 5 and 6. Any concert suggestions?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Saturday at Symphony Center

'Concerto' composers offer refreshing view of outsiders

After a few months during which our only concert-going involved a certain creaky singer-songwriter, we were back at Orchestra Hall Saturday night, way up in the gallery for a program assembled by conductor Paavo Jarvi. The night included two concertos for orchestra, one by Kodaly and another by Lutoslawski, as well as Gershwin's piano concerto and an intriguing newer piece, Zeitraum, by Erkki-Sven Tuur.

The whole program was splendid, though the sonics up in the nosebleeds got a little muddy during Kodaly and had me worried that we were in for a troubled night. But when pianist Wayne Marshall joined the action for the Gershwin, the hall seemed to warm up; the piano sounded clean in the rafters and the jazzy piece--which left no doubt about its composer--seemed to win over most of the crowd, occasioning both an embarrassing post-first-movement burst of extended applause and a partial standing ovation at the intermission point.

But it was the crowd, not the hall, that detracted most from this experience for me. During Zeitraum, an admittedly challenging piece that played with concepts like fast and slow and quiet and loud, the loss of focus around me was apparent; the couple immediately in front of me started shuffling about, and the man kept looking at his wife to indicate his boredom. The piece was 15 minutes long! And constantly surprising at that.

Fortunately, Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra is too powerful to be denied. Its 32-minute playing time sailed by, with the CSO brass taking it by storm, the kettledrum showing off its might, and the strings playing for their lives. It was all I could do not to leap up and shout "Paavo!" at the end.

We go back next Saturday for Pierre Boulez's reading of Mahler 7. Don't be surprised if you see a part two to this post!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

You're Still No Vegas

Another TV trend has caught my eye this week. After seeing no mention of Atlantic City in anything I watched for longer than I can remember--perhaps since Seinfeld--suddenly two shows in two days have used the shifty gambling town as a plot device.

First How I Met Your Mother took the gang to the boardwalk to try to get newly back together couple Marshall and Lily hitched. The writers took several potshots at AC, including one character exclaiming that half a dead whale was rotting on the beach and, when learning that they were about to board a boat, asking, "Is that what the wooden thing between all the garbage in the water is?"

Then last night's House saw House and Wilson embark on a road trip with guest star John Larroquette, who insisted that he'd find the world's best hoagie somewhere among all the old people smoking.

Based on the two shows, here is what I have learned. Atlantic City is:
  • A good place to not get married
  • A good place to kill yourself so your son can have your heart
  • Filled with smoking old people
  • Staffed by whiny voiced old people
  • Incapable of providing the proper ingredients for a sandwich
  • Close enough to Princeton that you can drive a just-dead body home and still use the organs
I am sure the city fathers are very proud.

Back to Not-So-Black

Trent Lott returns to Senate leadership
Mitch McConnell unanimously chosen to be Senate minority leader

Looks like the GOP incursion into the Democratic stranglehold on the black vote is over. A week after Lynn Swann and Michael Steele went down in flames, Senate Republicans have installed Trent Lott as their minority whip. Not exactly the politic thing to do if you want to court black votes, as Lott's fall from grace after he said Strom Thurmond should have been president to prevent "all these problems we've had" painted him as a racist. I'm not saying Lott is any worse than many of his fellow GOPers--indeed, I suspect he's a good deal better than most--but this move doesn't look good. And when you combine it with the party's choice to pass over Steele for Mel Martinez, Hispanic and of electorally-critical Florida, for the party chairmanship, it seems clear that the new minority party has written off the old minority group in favor of a new one. Does this mean the loud cries for a fence with Mexico are over?

Interesting, by the way, that the GOP's Southern Strategy is writ large in their leadership choices: Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Lott of Mississippi. Meanwhile, Dems chose folks from Nevada, Illinois, Washington, Michigan, and New York to be their leaders. What this says about the possibility of two quite regional parties in America is pretty clear--it's happening, at least for now. Look west, old men! That's where the action is now...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Best Supporting Queer

Knight, Harris outings a product of the times

This is one of many articles I've seen in just the last few days that turns the recent bevy of gay men in show business coming out of the closet and builds a trend story. But unlike this week's EW, which basically says, "Well, that's progress for you," this one questions where we're headed--and essentially questions the masculinity of its subjects. Just after calling the gay press bitchy, the article says:
Harris and Knight might appear to be challenging Hollywood's conventional wisdom that actors disclosing their homosexuality risk having their off-screen persona cloud audience perceptions of any roles they play onscreen. But a closer inspection of their current TV roles undercuts their significance.
Come on! T.R. Knight's character slept with Meredith Grey; Neil Patrick Harris's Barney has slept with every woman he could since How I Met Your Mother began last season. But the article dismisses the first as "one of the girls" and the second as "a caricature."

There is a point to all of this, though--one that annoys me even more:
Neither Harris nor Knight are in the mold of the traditional leading man, and that's a huge distinction. That type of role is predicated on an actor's sex appeal to the opposite gender. Absurd as it sounds, on some level viewers have to believe the object of their affection could somehow reciprocate their attraction.

Just imagine if "Grey's" resident heartthrob, Patrick Dempsey, who is not gay, had come out. Would McDreamy still be as popular, and would that affect the popularity of "Grey's?"
And it's hard not to grant the point. But the article goes on to imagine the day when a tabloid outs a "sexy lead actor." Will that dim his prospects?

I'm sure it's a valid question. But I'm equally sure that the writer of the article, Andrew Wallenstein, has a certain someone (or someones) in mind. He could probably rattle off a list of in-the-closet actors. Why is it OK for him to know, but not OK for us? And when will journalists stop accepting complicity in a lie?

Friday, November 10, 2006

At It Again

top 200 songs of the '90s

Paul and company are at it again, this time making a list of the top 200 songs of the 1990s. If you're like me, you can think of 50 or 60 off the top of your head--which is what makes this list so interesting to watch as it's revealed day by day.

What, you were expecting post-election gloating? It's a wonderful week for Democrats, to be sure. But Tammy Duckworth lost. Dan Seals lost. Gay marriage was banned--again--in another seven states. We won a major battle this time around. But the war--in so many senses of the word--is far from over.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Tuesday Night Incest

TV Review: Boston Legal - "Trick or Treat" @

Something strange is happening on TV Tuesday nights.

For the last several weeks, Boston Legal focused on a big murder trial. When it finally resolved last week, the upshot was that the young man on trial was innocent. However, viewers learned that his mother was not--she had killed the woman her son was sleeping with because she wanted to have him all to herself. By allowing the plot to develop over six weeks, the show made the moment that mother and son kissed after the trial almost vomit-inducing.

This week's House continued the incest trend. A married couple both came down with similar symptoms after a robbery attempt. The diagnosis? They shared a rare genetic condition--because they also shared the same father. This gasp-worthy conclusion appeared to tear the couple, in love since childhood, apart.

Cue Boston Legal! Not to be outdone, the show has been developing a relationship between Denny Crane and a younger woman, Bethany, who happens to be a dwarf. This week Bethany brought her mother (played by Delta Burke) to town to meet Denny. But it turns out she and Denny have known one another for a long time--and used to be engaged. Bethany, her mother claims, is--can you guess?--Denny's daughter.

What is going on? Have you noticed incest plots in other shows, or is this strictly a Tuesday-night, hour-long dramedy phenomenon?