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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Surrey Performing Arts Library

What a magnificent facility the Performing Arts Library is! I went there today for the first time in years and it is an Aladdin's Cave!

There are vast quantities of scores which mean nothing to me as a non-musician, but what I care about is the sheer number of audio CDs. I picked up a copy of Missa Solemnis, a work I probably have on cassette somewhere (recorded in my student days).

Listening to a work by every major composer from this library is a sort of parallel project to my own. I don't intend to do it but someone else might take up the challenge?!

The incredible thing is a lot of people in Surrey probably do not realise this library even exists. Although there is a small fee to take out a CD it's a fraction of the cover price, and those Wagner box sets do not come cheap!!

There's also a listening area for you to sample the CDs before you commit to hiring them for a week.

So although the Beethoven book I read was poor, it has sparked a re-interest in music. I like Beethoven's piano music best. His symphonies were one of the first classical CDs (or even records in some cases) I ever listened to, but some of his other pieces I now prefer. Missa Solemnis is a bit of a challenge to my non-musician's ear, I never really enjoyed it in my student days.

Although I sometimes claim to know every major bit of classical music it's probably not true -it's a huge exaggeration! I just have heard every (well most) major bit of classical music that Nottingham Library happened to possess in 1988-1989, there are probably huge gaps. I'll have to make my trips to the Performing Arta Library more regularly to fill them in and revisit the stuff that has laid dormant in my head for 25 years.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 by Harvey Sachs

Book 33, The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, I found to be rambling and - once again - I felt at the end of it that I didn't know much more about the world then I had done when I started it.

The Ninth tries to be too many things. First of all it describes the creation and first production of the Ninth symphony. This part of the book was good. I'd always imagined that the premier of seminal works like the Ninth were major events that it would be wonderful to go back in time and see how the composer really wanted it to hear. It was quite a revelation to realise that orchestras in the early Nineteenth century were far worse than they are now. Also Beethoven's main concern was the amount of money he'd make from the performance, rather than him giving the world a masterpiece.

The rest of the book is made up of rambling sections about Romanticism in music and writing (the author for some reason goes into some detail on Byron's life); then comes a blow by blow account of the Ninth (this promised to be for non-musicians, but I can assure you that. as one. it didn't make much sense); and finally a bit about what Beethoven's contemporaries made of the ninth (most of them, believe it or not, didn't leave any record!).

I award The Ninth 4 out of 10. Although the book was dull and rambling it has achieved its objective because it has got me listening to music again! It's been many months, years in fact, that I have even had music on in the background. In years gone by I always had music on in my room and, as a result, have absorbed most of the major pieces of "classical" music in my unconscious mind over the years. But for many years now I have stopped listening to music. As I write this I am (of course) listening to Beethoven and have been all afternoon - the Piano Concertos at the moment, I did the Ninth earlier (I have to say it's not my favourite work of his! But according to Harvey Sachs even a lot of professional musicians don't really "get" the Ninth so I am not alone).

The moral of this blog entry if there is one is that even poor books can change your life. Coin Collecting for Dummies wasn't a great book but I have bought my first coin this weekend! A book is like a companion for several hours of your life, it can push and prod your life in a direction you might not have gone.

And so to the next book, number 34 in this project, what will it be and where will it take me?  Bookcase 34 contains a copy of one of the most influential books of my life: The Lives of the Great Composers. I spent a few years listening to hundreds of CDs as a result of reading that book, and the broad timeline of music that it describes I have very much assimilated into my understanding of history. Funnily enough the book I eventually chose from Bookcase 34 is about events that changed the world (of Music)

I'm hoping Howard Goodall is a bit more of a populist, a musical Bill Bryson, than the last book's author Harvey Sachs, who was too academic. Apparently Howard Goodall's been on TV, which I rarely watch apart from sport, which I hope is a promising sign that he's a man of the people!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Masterpieces of the British Museum by The British Museum

Book 32, Masterpieces of the British Museum, was a bit like the actual museum. It covers a huge area of human knowledge and history right across the world, and is presented in an order which is hard to fathom.

A lot of the "masterpieces" in the book are not works of art, some are everyday objects from different historical periods. Others are pure art with no purpose whatsoever. There's no real connection between any of the objects other than they are in the museum. Some are undoubtedly important historical objects, others are works of art by major artists, others still are archeological artifacts which have been pulled out the ground. There is no rhyme and reason to it all, but most of it is vaguely interesting, and there are undoubtedly some pieces in the museum which are of major historical important like the Rosetta Stone. All in all though it's a bit of a jumble and I award Masterpieces of the British Museum 4 out of 10.

That's the end of the Art section of the library, and I now move on to Music, a more comfortable area for me. There was a book I had already read on this bookcase: Last train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick about Elvis (highly recommended along with its sequel), but in the end I picked The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 by Harvey Sachs.

I have read quite a few books about the great composers, I am not sure I have read a whole book before about Beethoven, I certainly have read works about lots of his contemporaries though like Mozart, Haydn and Schubert. Hopefully this one will fill in a few gaps about someone who completely changed the whole face of music with one work, which is the area that this book concentrates on.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Coin Collecting For Dummies by Neil S. Berman/Ron Guth

Book 31, Coin Collecting For Dummies, was an interesting book. I was an inveterate stamp collector when I was a teenager, but have never collected coins, so it was new to me, but sort of familiar.

Collecting stamps is a good way to learn the history of a country, and the same applies to coins. This book gives a good overview of collecting coins. There were just two problems with it. Firstly it's an American book so it's mainly about American coins. I've never been to America and never held an American coin in my hand in my entire life so it's probably not where I would want to start collecting. All the dealers, magazines, books and fairs which the book refers to are American and completely useless to me. Secondly, it's very dated. Although it's the second edition from 2008 it's obvious that much of the text is still from 2000 and the some of the parts about the Internet look very out of date indeed. If you ignore that though it's a good book and I give it 6 out of 10, far higher than the rest of the  books I have read in the Art section! In fact compared to the last few books I have read Coin Collecting For Dummies is a masterpiece!

As a follow up to Coin Collecting For Dummies I have already bought a coin album and will dip my toe into the world of numismatics. Who knows where it will lead me?

My next book, Book 32, is the from the final bookcase in the Art section.

Masterpieces of the British Museum is pretty self-explanatory. I've been to the museum three times I think and always found it a bit haphazard covering such a large part of the world and so many topics. Hopefully this book will point me in the direction of some of the better works. Even if I were to buy a guide book in museums, which I usually don't, I rarely actually read it! This effectively allows me to read the guide before I go next time, and Masterpieces of the British Museum is a lot thicker than a standard guide book.

Friday, May 15, 2015

How to Look at a Painting by Françoise Barbe-Gall.

Book 30, How to Look at a Painting, was probably the worst book I have ever read!

Never can a book have been so inappropriately mistitled. I don't think a single sentence of this work described in a generic way how to look at a painting. Instead a random selection of around 40 paintings were described in the most pretentious and roundabout way. At best what was written can be described as random text to fill the available space in between the pictures.

A book like this shouldn't be hard to write. It should slowly introduce the reader to art starting with fairly simple works and progressing slowly to more abstract pieces. The skills conveyed to the reader should apply to any painting.

Instead a truly monstrous lie has been assembled. I find it staggering that this book could be published under such a title. How to Look at a Painting gets the lowest possible score of 1 out of 10 and it doesn't even deserve that.

Both art books I have read have been dire, this even worse than the Cezanne book. There are two art bookcases left and I know there are some half decent art books about as I have read one or two before that I have at least reached the end through choice!

Anyway the next book from bookcase 31 is not about art per se, it's about coins!

I was a great stamp collector as a teenager and it was my great passion for much of my mid-teens (not many people can claim that I bet!). I have never been a coin man, I appreciate the joys of collecting, and I would like to take up again one day. Maybe this book will give me the impetus I need.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Cezanne by Hajo Duchting

Book 29, Cezanne by Hajo Duchting was, in a word, rubbish! I've never read 220 pages that told me less about the subject matter than this book did.

I honestly could have learned more about Cezanne by reading his Wikipedia entry than Hajo Duchting's book taught me. The problem with it is it jumps straight in at the deep end and assumes all sorts of knowledge about art, French literature and the man himself. I had none of this knowledge so it washed over me.

But the language itself was in part flowery babble. I don't know whether this is intended to be a "coffee table" book that nobody reads, instead just flicks through and looks at the pictures, but for me I just wanted to read and understand the text and glance at the pictures.

Here's an example of Hajo Duchting's "babble" picked at random from page 85:

His work of the 1870s differed from the earlier period in being the product of new discipline: sophisticated composition and a lighter palette showed that a maturer Cezanne had learned the lessons of Pontoise well. His statements were fundamentally the same though. However various Cezanne's subjects and stylistic phrases there was a psychodynamic constant that made its presence felt throughout, objective though he might aim to be. That constant was the reconciliation of opposites, the mythic union, the longed-for purification of a besmirched existence full of conflict into a new crystal-clear unity which would enfold what was once divided and discrete in an all-embracing higher order.

I'm sorry but no matter how many times and how carefully I read passages like this, which abound through the book, I could never tell you what they meant. Anyone who understands his point I bow deeply before.

Another irritation about Cezanne is that the pictures the text refers to are often many pages back or forwards from the text itself. It's like two people have cobbled together this book and never spoken about it.

Anyway Cezanne gets 2 out of 10, the text gets 1 and the pictures 3!

Now Having read my rant it leads me nicely to my next book, number 30, How to Look at a Painting by Françoise Barbe-Gall.

I have written before about my frustration with art. I want to get it, I am prepared to put the effort in, but with many pictures I am left feeling empty. Of the 100 or so pictures in the Cezanne book for example I would have said I got nothing whatsoever from 95+ of them, and disliked quite a few.

What am I doing wrong? I can listen to the great pieces of music from the past and enjoy them without having more than a rudimentary knowledge of music, why can I not do the same with art? Hopefully How to Look at a Painting will provide the answer!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Choosing a Care Home by Independent Age

Book 18, Choosing a Care Home, has been completed. I wasn't allowed to take this book out of the library, as it lived in the Reference section, so had to sit in the library and read it gradually.

Choosing a Care Home is a useful book if you are looking for a care home, or thinking about going through the process. I am not in that position at the moment but it's not inconceivable I will be at some point in the future. No matter how much money you do or don't have you still have choices on how much you have to pay and what you are entitled to, so it's an important area to look into, financially, as well as to meet the needs of the person needing care. I used to work in the care industry so know a bit about it from what I picked up while working on the IT side, but this book has filled in a lot of gaps. I award Choosing a Care Home 5 out of 10.

Meanwhile I am ploughing on through the Art section of the library, 10 books or so on from the Reference case where I was when I started Choosing a Care Home.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Painting Ceramics by Simona Hill

I'll be honest there was not a lot of point me reading Book 28 Painting Ceramics because I had no intention of going anywhere near a ceramic with some paint.

I dutifully went through the book though as that is the mission I have set myself - to read a book from every bookcase in the library. Had I got access to all the equipment needed I might have attempted some of the mini projects in Painting Ceramics if I had had the free time. But I would have had to buy everything from scratch (the library doesn't extend to painting equipment sadly!). Besides I know from my time at school in the dreaded Art Block that whatever I produced would look nowhere as good as the beautiful items in the book.

I can see some point in painting ceramics because at least you can use the objects afterwards and making them look nice and original is a worthwhile thing to do. I hate to sound defeatist though but I just don't have the ability to do this sort of thing very well. It looks so easy in the book but I know I would struggle to emulate their efforts. My skills lie elsewhere, and I can make things in my own domain of knowledge look incredibly easy when most people's heads would melt even climbing the foothills of what I do best! We all have our own knowledge bastions but, of the things we don't know, some are definitely easier to take on board than others.

Painting Ceramics, like all these books in this part of the library, is not cheap to buy new and it's a great resource to have guidebooks like this available to take out and try for free. I award it 3 out of 10, which is no reflection on the book at all just on what I personally got from it.

I remain in the "arty" section of the library but move on to Art itself, and I have picked a book about Cezanne for book 29.

I would love to be able to understand and appreciate art more and that's been my position for most of my life.  Music I can enjoy but I struggle with Art and always have. I really got to understand classical music when I was a student by reading a book called The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg. It's a wonderful book and I'd love to get an equivalent in art as the best way to understand music is to understand each composer's place in history. I have tried to find such a book before about the history of art but never managed to read one that hit the spot as well as Schonberg's masterpiece. Instead I have to read books like Cezanne which focus on one artist at a time. I have read quite a few books like this about one artist already, but not on this subject. Cezanne is fairly modern being from the Nineteenth Century so hopefully there is a good understanding of what made him tick and how it relates to his art in this book.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Inchies by Peggy Donda-Kobert

Inchies is not a book intended for people like me who have no interest in creating decorative artifacts that have no practical use.

I suppose if you want to create "Inchies" it's a good book. For me it was pointless and gets 1 out of 10.

The second and last book in the craft section is about painting ceramics

I'm not anticipating this to be much better than Inchies but once it's done Craft will be done and dusted and I'll never have to go there again. It reminds me of my schooldays when we chose our Options at the age of 14 and I realised I'd never have to enter the Art Block again.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Secret Life of Money by Daniel Davies and Tess Read

The Secret Life of Money I found a little disappointing. I was hoping for a simple explanation of what money was and how it works.

Instead The Secret Life of Money was just a series of examples of how different sorts of businesses work. Most of the examples were fairly interesting, but there was no overall structure to the book. The examples seem to be thrown together in any order. I give in 6 out of 10, with a bit more effort it could have been a better book,

I now move on to one of the most difficult sections for me to find a book in - Craft. I am the least creative and practical person in the world so this is an alien world to me. Most of the books in this section are about things like knitting and are a series of instructions. It was hard to find one that was even mainly prose. In the end I picked one about "Inchies" which didn't have many patterns.

An "Inchy" is a small one inch creative square. I can't envisage ever making one, but let's see if this book can convert me!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone

The Everything Store, book 25, was a very well written and researched book all about the Amazon founder.

The book is more a history of the company rather than a fully fledged biography, which I guess is why it is the business section. Amazon has been shaped by Jeff Bezos very much in his own image, but you don't really get to know the person like you would in a fully biographical work.

I have read books on these shelves before about big companies like Macdonald's, Tesco and Walmart. They have all been anti-books, and this book is definitely a pro-Amazon book so it makes a change to read something from the other side of the fence. Amazon is not the most ethical company in the world, and it does have an unfair advantage over traditional stores, but it offers great value and choice for the consumer.

Above all Jeff Bezos, like the founders of other big tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple have grand visions which are years ahead of their time. All the founders of these companies were very focused and drove their pet projects on long beyond the point where they had amassed a personal fortune. I admire their drive but like most normal people I suspect I would cash in once I had something worth a few million and I no longer needed to work!

I award this book 9 out of 10. The only minor gripe is there's a lot of office politics in the book, and most of the people he spoke to have left Amazon so you are getting the picture of people who at the end of the day weren't a perfect fit for the culture.

Next up is bookcase 26 and the second book in the Business and Finance section.

The Secret Life of Money claims to reveal what money really is and how it works. Economics is not a strong point of mine I have to confess so I am hoping to learn something here.