Thursday, April 30, 2015

Beast In ViewBeast In View by Margaret Millar
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a very difficult review for me to write, perhaps the most difficult of the 300+ lame reviews I have produced so far. Margaret Millar's "Beast in View" received the "coveted" Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel of the year in 1956, yet I do not like it at all, and had to work hard to finish reading it. There must be something wrong with me.

Helen Clarvoe, a well-off, young, but lonely woman receives a nasty phone call from one Evelyn Merrick, who predicts that bad things will happen to Helen. Helen calls Mr. Blackshear, the family lawyer who manages her money, and asks him to find Ms. Merrick and make sure that she stops harassing her. Obviously, things do not go as planned; Ms. Merrick continues to call various people and tell dreadful things about people close to them. There is a murder and another death, and the reader gradually learns about events from the past.

My first gripe is minor and pertains to basic plausibility. Why would anyone believe words of a relative stranger? Suppose someone calls my wife and tells her that I committed some vile acts. My wife would laugh it off. While she knows that I am foolish, clumsy, lazy, conceited, and ... (well, let's talk about it some other time), she knows that I am not vile. Words are just words, most everybody lies every day, why then confuse something that someone says with reality? Sure, words can hurt, but not in that simple way.

Further, I am unable to relate to people who are so self-centered that their inability to align their real persona with their self-image, the fact that they are not someone who they would like to be, is the greatest tragedy of their life. Yes, it is a somewhat common human trait, but to me utterly uninteresting. I would rather read about why life is often hell for well-adjusted and well-meaning people, forced to be around each other. True, Ms. Millar introduces a thread where someone suffers because of societal norms and forces (by the way, that thread shows how dated the novel is, how much these norms have changed in the 60 years since the novel was published), yet there is too precious little of it, and we have to read instead about people's struggles with their self-perceived inadequacies.

What I can stand the least is the over-expressive style, bordering on histrionics. While one of my favorite mystery writers, Karin Fossum, beautifully whispers about Big Things, Ms. Millar screams about them in a loud, theatrical voice. Another favorite writer of mine, Denise Mina, gives nuanced, subtle, utterly realistic treatment of ill-adjusted people's motives and behavior, while the conflicts of Ms. Millar's characters seem made-up and fake. It cannot be the age of the novel. Ms. Millar's husband, Ross Macdonald wrote deeply realistic novels about human condition at about the same time.

Finally, the denouement. I guessed what the resolution will be about mid-novel, which is not a complaint as I never care whether the ending is a surprise or not. Yet, to me the ending cheapens the novel, sort of like a magician explaining a simple trick after an enthralling performance. Well, let's just say I am too dense to appreciate the greatness of this novel.

One and a half stars.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Get Real (Dortmunder, #15)Get Real by Donald E. Westlake
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The satire on how TV people script the so-called "reality shows" and how extensively rehearsed these "spontaneous" shows are seems to be the best feature of Donald Westlake's "Get Real". Yet I would have to be out of my mind to believe that anything shown on TV has much connection with reality, so I do not find the satire particularly funny. There is not much else in the novel.

"Get Real" is the last novel in the Dortmunder series (it was published posthumously in 2009). The premise of the plot is that TV producers want to film Dortmunder and his team while they are stealing something. Obviously, the guys in the team plan to take advantage of the idea and scheme to execute their own heist, quite separate from the one that is being filmed. This might be quite a clever setup for the novel, but it disappointingly fizzles towards the end.

This is my second novel by Mr. Westlake; I quite liked "The Ax", which I review here . "Get Real" is clearly inferior to that non-series book. At least the novel is a very fast read, which allowed me to get done with it in less than three hours and move on to hopefully more interesting books.

One and a quarter stars.

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

His Master's VoiceHis Master's Voice by Stanisław Lem
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This extraordinary novel from the favorite writer of my youth, Stanisław Lem, defies categorizations. While on the surface it is a suspense novel or a "mystery" (more precisely, a scientific and philosophical mystery/suspense), it is actually more of a treatise on the human species' place in the Universe. Mr. Lem, who began in 1940s as a science-fiction writer and became the world's most widely read science-fiction author, left his mark on the 20th century as one of the deepest thinkers writing about science, technology, and the future of human race. He was a philosopher, serious futurologist, humanist, and popularizer of science. "His Master's Voice" (Polish title "Głos Pana") is one of his first "serious" books, and definitely my favorite. I read it for the first time in 1968, immediately after it had come out, and loved it. I have now re-read it, and it is still one of the most enthralling books I know and certainly one of the most thought-provoking.

The events described in the novel take place in the near future. A non-random, repeating pattern has been discovered in a neutrino stream recorded by astrophysicists at the Mount Palomar observatory. American government establishes a secretive project, dubbed "His Master's Voice", aimed at deciphering the "message from the stars". After a year of work, with the scientists no closer to understanding the message, new people are recruited to the project. A famous mathematician, Peter Hogarth, who is the narrator of the story, is among them. Dr. Hogarth is able to prove that the message has a topological property of "closure", which indicates that it is an object (a thing or a process) separate from the rest of the world. In the meantime, the project's biochemists and biophysicists manage to translate fragments of the message into physical substances that exhibit unusual properties. Perhaps most interestingly, it is discovered that the particular structure of the neutrino stream helps in creating the configurations of molecules that constitute the chemical backbone of life, and thus that the message increases the probability of creation of life.

However, let's not forget that the project is largely controlled by the military who are hoping that the message will help construct some kind of super-weapon. Of course, their argument is that the other side (the novel was written in the times when there were just two superpowers - the U.S. and the Soviet Union) is probably also working to decipher the message and convert its contents into a super-weapon. I will not divulge how this subplot develops, but it is extremely successful in portraying the mechanisms of arms race, and the denouement is - I am sorry for using big words but they fully belong here - phenomenally clever. Neither will I divulge the overall conclusion of this scientific suspense novel - it is absolutely credible and it uniquely fits the premise. Find it for yourself!

I am sort of a mathematician, albeit not a very good one, no wonder then that I totally love Mr. Lem's presentation of differences between mathematics and social sciences - I was laughing for an entire day having read how Dr. Hogarth's results were not recognized by social scientists working on the project because his "style of thinking [...] provided no scope for rhetorical counterargument". Hilarious! On the other hand, Mr. Lem expertly shows the natural arrogance of a mathematical genius, who knows that the statements he has proved will always remain true, regardless of current political trends and prevailing philosophy.

When I came back to this book after 47 years, I expected I will find it dated and full of obsolete references. Amazingly, this is not the case at all. Written in pre-Internet times, "His Master's Voice" reads like an absolutely contemporary novel; it could have been written last year. The translation from Polish by Michael Kandel is superb.

I have left what is the best for me for last - "His Master's Voice" does not read like fiction. It makes the reader feel this is a chronicle of actual events, something like the story of Manhattan Project from the 1940s or any other big-scale scientific project. Several times, when reading the novel, I caught myself thinking the events have actually happened, and I had to forcefully remind myself that what I was reading was only fiction.

Trying to maintain balance, I need to mention that I do not like the Preface and the first chapter. They are a little overwrought and pompous, which makes me chip a quarter of a star off the rating for this masterpiece.

Four and three quarter stars.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How to Build a Time MachineHow to Build a Time Machine by Paul Charles William Davies
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I quite liked Paul Davies' "The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence", which I review here . I have not found my second book by this British physicist and famous popularizer of science, "How to Build a Time Machine", as interesting. Also, while the first part of the book, which mainly focuses on "spacetime", is clear and convincing, the part dedicated mostly to wormholes seems to do less than stellar a job.

Dr. Davies first debunks the commonsense picture of time that we use in our everyday life - time whose "now is taken to be the same moment throughout the universe: your now and my now are identical wherever we are and whatever we are doing." We now learn in a college physics course that this picture is wrong, which was proven by Einstein in the so-called special theory of relativity in 1905, and exhaustively tested in various experiments. Moreover, both space and time are elastic, and gravity may be thought of not just as a force but also as a geometrical property of spacetime. Not only does gravity slows time but it affects space as well.

The author then introduces the concept of a wormhole, using the well known representation of a deformed rubber sheet. This leads to the model of a traversable wormhole depicted by a flexible two-dimensional sheet, bent so that its two ends "come close together and then get connected through the wormhole." Dr. Davies continues, explaining how passing through the wormhole makes it possible to travel back in time: "Rather than inducing time to run backward, the time traveler embarks on a journey into space that ends in the past." As he points out, Carl Sagan's novel "Contact", later made into a famous movie, was based on exactly that idea. Several additional topics are touched as well in this very short book - among others, lesser-known time-travel paradoxes and parallel universes.

I find two phrases from the book absolutely hilarious - the first one unintentionally so, I believe: "harvesting virtual wormholes from the spacetime foam". As a mathematician I love the sentence "singularities are seriously bad news." To sum up: a well written, accessible, readable book, yet somehow less satisfying than I would like.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

The AxThe Ax by Donald E. Westlake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The following is taken from last December news: "Profits fall 39%, 11,000 jobs cut, [...] bringing the firm's layoffs to 20,000 employees." My comment: The cuts are needed to ensure that all executives get new private planes as Christmas bonuses. The 20,000 former employees will get a chance to enroll in a retraining program as their Christmas bonuses. Donald Westlake's "The Ax" is about middle-class resentment of corporate downsizing, about a hard-working man's anger at the fat cat executives and the stockholders. Ooops, I forgot; it is also a crime novel, perhaps a bit unusual - it is a guide how to kill people.

Burke Devore was laid off from his managerial position in a paper mill. He has now been unemployed for well over one year. With house payments, kids in college, whatever money he had saved is running out, despite generous severance package and his wife's part-time jobs. New job does not materialize so Burke takes the matter in his own hands and decides to kill all his competitors for the dream job in a successful paper company. Idiotic premise? Perhaps, but so what? Much less idiotic than in most bestsellers.

This is a well-written, very fast, easy, and smooth read - I spent less than three hours reading the novel. However, on the final reflection, it is an empty book - other than the powerful anti-capitalist sentiment, there is nothing there. Oh, maybe a little bit on how easy (or how difficult, depending on one's point of view) is to kill people.

And I love the title! I so wish I had a gift of writing reviews as short as that.

Three stars.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Vanishing The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once in a while one finds an extraordinary crime novel, a gem amid all the humdrum stuff one reads, amid all the Grishams, Connellys, Kellermans, Graftons, etc., which are virtually indistinguishable from each other and follow the same template that has been proven to attract readers. The authors I mention are actually good writers (God forbid having to read Dan Brown), but their books are, basically, all the same. Fill a 400-page template with different locations, different modes of murder, and different characters, then "humanize" the characters by adding long cheesy passages about their personal life, and voila, you have a new crime book. Not an ounce of originality - just astute business sense. Tim Krabbé, the Dutch author of "The Vanishing", seems to be saying "Screw the conventions, let's do things differently", and I so much admire him for that.

This extraordinary novella (titled "The Golden Egg" in original) has been made into two movies, a good Dutch film and a crappy American remake with changed ending, so most everybody knows the plot. A Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia are vacationing in France. Saskia disappears without trace at a service area on an autoroute. Years pass, Rex is with another woman, yet he is still searching for Saskia. Enter Raymond, the man responsible for the disappearance. We learn about his motives and Rex' and Raymond's trajectories are on a collision course.

There are three main reasons why I will award this deeply disturbing novella a very high rating, even if I find the ending laughably bad. First chapter contains some of the best writing I have ever read in a crime novel. The growing horror of Rex' realization that his life is about to change forever is portrayed with short, clean, crisp sentences, with zero extraneous fluff. The chapter is so good that I read it three times, and even the third time I found it stunning. One has to salute the translator as well for not spoiling the original.

Raymond Lemorne's motives, masterfully portrayed by the author, make him one of the most fascinating characters in mystery prose. We meet him when he is sitting on the railing of a second-story balcony and deliberating whether to jump or not. "He thought about what would happen if he jumped. He considered the pros and cons, with a dark feeling at the back of his mind that it had already been decided that he would jump." Obviously, he does jump, breaking his leg and arm. To Raymond the only thing that really exists is what happens in his mind. What the so-called real world is for other people does not exist for Raymond. Only the constructs of his mind, the mind games are real. Other people's existence matters only as far as they come into his mental games. When he plans to kill a young woman, killing one of his daughters is "out of the question" only because it would be easy to lead the evidence to him. His daughters are not more important to him than his shoes or furniture.

Finally, and to me this is the most salient factor, this novella is barely 100 pages long, but its impact is stronger than that of great majority of run-of-the-mill mystery books that use the regulation length of 400 pages, even if they are written by good, respected authors. Despite its brevity, it is a full-fledged story surgically cleaned of all the unnecessary extraneous stuff that mainstream mysteries are so full of.

The ending..., well, it explains the Dutch title, but to me it is a letdown. The disappointing ending is the only reason for not awarding the novella five stars.

Four and a half stars.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

The Name of Annabel LeeThe Name of Annabel Lee by Julian Symons
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The Name of Annabel Lee", my sixth book by Julian Symons and the weakest of the six, tries to entice the reader by using references to works of Edgar Allan Poe. Annabel Lee and Lenora, characters in the novel, are titles of his poems, and the House of Usher, which appears in the book, is the subject of his famous short story. Yet the connection between the story and Poe's motifs is quite tenuous and to me the whole Poe concept is a failed gimmick.

Dudley Potter, a Brit, teaches literature at an East Coast liberal arts college. While watching a play performed by a fringe theater group, he meets Annabel Lee, a young woman associated with the group, and becomes totally obsessed with her. She seems to like him as well and they live together for twelve weeks. When she suddenly vanishes leaving a message that declares the end of the affair, Dr. Potter embarks on a search for her, which takes him to New York, Boston, and England, where he visits his old friends in London and travels to the Yorkshire coast. During the journey he faces the shadows of his own past.

The best thing about the novel is solid, smooth writing, which is usual for Mr. Symons, the intriguing first sentence ("[...] yet there is a sense in which it could be said that Annabel Lee died twice") and the beautiful quote from Conrad Aiken ("Remember how you took the harlot's hand - And saw one instant hell's dark hinterland.") To me the novel totally lacks focus, and it suffers from a very common syndrome of mystery books: the author puts too much trust in the effect of the surprising ending. I have found the penultimate chapter hard to read, and the surprise to have been put there just for the effect. Totally forgettable novel, virtually a disaster if one compares it to the same author's fantastic "The Progress of a Crime" .

One and three quarter stars.

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Friday, April 10, 2015

The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien IntelligenceThe Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence by Paul Charles William Davies
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Paul Davies, a British physicist, is the author of numerous popular books about science, in particular about physics, and related philosophical issues. His 2010 book "The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence" summarizes the state of the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence), on the 50th birthday of the program, and suggests how the search could be improved.

Each of the ten chapters of this book raises important and interesting questions - most of them obviously do not have answers - and explores various crucial issues in regard to our place in the universe. For sake of brevity I will mention just a selected few of these. In Chapter 2 the author explores the fundamental query: is the existence of life on Earth a "freak accident" (meaning something that occurred only once) or rather a "cosmic imperative" (which means that life emerged on possibly millions of planets similar to Earth, all over the universe)?

Chapter 4 brings the discussion of two captivating questions: Suppose life appeared on a planet and the process of evolution began. Is emergence of intelligence a necessary product of evolution? Is development of science a necessary product of evolution of intelligence? I would love to learn more about other scientists' and philosophers' views on these points.

In Chapter 8 the author explains why he is convinced that "biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of intelligence in the universe." According to Dr. Davies, intelligence will mostly migrate to the machine realm as machines are more durable, more reliable, and safer than biological systems, meaning human brains. The brains will become components in the overall structure of post-biological intelligence.

The last two chapters examine the question "what would happen if we, suddenly, found we were not alone in the universe?" (I, for one, think that if a proof were found that there are other intelligent civilizations out there, it would be one of the most important moments in my life.) On the last page of the book Dr. Davies gives his personal answer to the question "Do you believe we are alone in the universe, or are there intelligent beings out there somewhere?" I will not divulge the author's answer and will only say that if I, an absolute layman in the field, were asked that question, my answer would be the same as Dr. Davies', both before and after reading the book.

Three and a half stars.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Soft Machine: Out-Bloody-RageousSoft Machine: Out-Bloody-Rageous by Graham Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book about music that I have recently read: after the ground-breaking biography of Frank Zappa , and the collection of essays about Beethoven's string quartets , I have just finished reading Graham Bennett's book "Soft Machine: Out-Bloody-Rageous" about one of the most important bands that emerged from the rock revolution of the 1960s. To me, Soft Machine's music was absolutely the best in the crucial period between mid-1960s and mid-1970s.

It would be misleading to call Soft Machine a rock band. Their music always defied categorizations. They pioneered psychedelic pop (not rock). For a little while, during the late 1960s, one could count them as a progressive rock band, where the "progressive" qualifier meant "influenced by jazz, classical music, and avant-garde". Soft Machine then ventured into jazz-rock category and so-called "fusion", and from there they went deeper and deeper into jazz and avant-garde contemporary music, including misguided excursions into the horrid "ambient music".

Obviously, Soft Machine's creative trajectory that went from dadaist and psychedelic pop to pure jazz was related to extremely frequent changes in band's personnel. No other important music band had 24 different line-ups (performing units). The musician who belonged to the most line-ups (from #1 to #17, continually) was Mike Ratledge. The next most "permanent" member, Karl Jenkins, was in 12 line-ups, from #13 to #24. Interestingly, the best known member of the band, drummer and singer Robert Wyatt, was only in line-ups from #1 to #10. The author shows that the personnel-genre relationship worked both ways: not only did changes in personnel cause changes in music, but also the turns in musical focus of the band's compositions resulted in members quitting the band or being fired.

The Soft Machine story began in mid-1960s in the Simon Langston Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury, UK. Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt, and the Hopper brothers, Hugh and Brian, all attended the school and knew each other. Kevin Ayers of Wilde Flowers and Daevid Aellen, an Australian poet, guitarist and performance artist, joined Ratledge and Wyatt to form one of the first line-ups of Soft Machine in the fall of 1966. These four, plus the Hopper brothers, plus 19 other musicians belonged to the band at different times between 1966 and 1984.

The absolute majority of artists who at one point or another played for Soft Machine were influenced by jazz or were jazz musicians. Some, like Mike Ratledge, were classically trained. Mr. Bennett writes that "Daevid, Robert and Mike had all been profoundly inspired in their formative years by bebop - which emphasized rhythmic and harmonic complexity and chordal rather than melodic improvisation - and also free jazz, with its philosophy of impulsive musical experience." Most of them were not interested in playing rock music at all. (Funny how the same thing applied to one of the rock music icons, Frank Zappa.)

Soft Machine never played to the crowd, and were never really interested in stardom. Soft Machine and Pink Floyd had very similar beginnings, often played on the same bill, yet they went in very different directions. Mr. Bennett quotes Nick Mason, Pink Floyd's drummer: "Pink Floyd were far more geared to wanting to be a commercial band than Soft Machine, who had far more musical ability than we ever did. So inevitably we went different ways."

Mr. Bennett's meticulously researched book is well written and very readable. By all means it deserves the distinction of being considered the "definitive biography" of Soft Machine. A very solid and impressive work about one of the most important bands of the rock era, who never were a rock band.

Four and a half stars.

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Sunday, April 5, 2015

End Games (Aurelio Zen, #11)End Games by Michael Dibdin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"End Games" is the first crime novel by Michael Dibdin that I have read, and the 11th and last in his series of books about the Italian police inspector, Aurelio Zen. Each novel takes place in a different part of Italy, and Mr. Dibdin who used to teach in Perugia for several years, uses his first-hand experience of the country. Despite my aversion for the concept of a crime novel series, I will look for other Aurelio Zen entries; the sense of location is conveyed very well in "End Games", and Mr. Dibdin's prose is quite accomplished.

In the novel Aurelio Zen substitutes for a police chief in Calabria, the southernmost (except for Sicily) part of Italy, because the proper chief is on leave - having displayed his professionalism by shooting himself in the foot with the service weapon. The plot of the novel, which may be categorized as a thriller, is quite complex and combines many threads. An American lawyer is killed in a bizarre way - he seems to have voluntarily walked to the place of his execution, dressed as the "dead man". A famous movie director is preparing to shoot a Bible-themed movie in the vicinity. A moron American multi-millionaire presides over a search for a hidden treasure. All these threads, as well as some others, eventually come together.

There is a lot I like in this novel - sharp observations of a particular segment of Italian society, first-rate humor, and the plausibility of the plot until almost the very end, which very rarely happens in thrillers. I particularly like the bits about the lingering effects of the latifondo system, which - as the author says in Acknowledgements - "determined the economic, social and political destiny of Calabria", and left painful scars on local communities.

However, I had a very difficult time of getting into the novel - up to about page 80 I was on the verge of tossing the book - too many threads, too many characters, and the plot too disjoint. If not for my insomnia, I probably would not have continued reading. The other thing that I do not like about "End Games" is the crudely drawn character of Jake, the stupid multi-millionaire. Of course, extremely rich people may be morons, but this caricature is too broad and shallow. Still, I recommend the book as one of the better thrillers I have read. Virtually all thrillers that I know disappoint at the end, while this one sort of works.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Friday, April 3, 2015

The Beethoven Quartet CompanionThe Beethoven Quartet Companion by Robert Winter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let's begin with a quiz: "Slowly, slowly, the melody unfolded itself. The archaic Lydian harmonies hung on the air. It was an unimpassioned music, transparent, pure, and crystalline, like a tropical sea, an Alpine lake. Water on water, calm sliding over calm; the according of level horizons and waveless expanses, a counterpoint of serenities." Which famous English author wrote these sentences about Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15 op. 132? (The answer can be found below.)

My fascination with Beethoven's string quartets, particularly the so-called Late Quartets, dates back to the late 1960s or early 1970s, about the same time that I read the novel, which contains the passage quoted above. "The Beethoven Quartet Companion" is a collection of musicological essays edited by Robert Winter and Robert Martin that offer a wealth of information about the quartets, their audiences, and performances. Alas, being totally illiterate in music theory, I can understand only fragments of the text, mostly the ones with sociological bent.

We learn about the audiences of the quartets and about the history of performances in their first 100 years. The third essay deals with an oft-discussed yet still controversial issue of Beethoven's turn from classicism to romanticism. The next chapter, my favorite, is a study of the city of Vienna in Beethoven's times and the sociology of concert goers in those times. The fifth essay presents a player's perspective on performing the quartets. Robert Martin, a member of the Sequoia String Quartet and one of the editors of the collection, writes about the rehearsal process and about various decisions that the performers need to make. The last part of the collection, by far the longest, contains extremely detailed musical analyses of every one out of 17 quartets (the String Quartet in F major is included here, in addition to the canonical sixteen).

Although I love listening to all Beethoven's string quartets, the late ones - the ones that that were termed "incomprehensible and impenetrable", "abstract", and "unsettling" by 1820s listeners - are my favorites. I think it is precisely their "abstractness" (for the lack of a better word) that attracts me. The "Große Fuge" op. 133, which was originally written to serve as the last movement of quartet op. 130, is one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of music I have heard in my life. It has always sounded to me as if it were composed in the Twentieth century rather than in 1826. Igor Stravinsky once said that "Große Fuge" is an "absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."

Wishing that I could understand at least a little of musical theory, I definitely recommend this collection, as a must read for Beethoven aficionados. (Answer to the quiz: Aldous Huxley, in "Point Counter Point".)

Three and a quarter stars.

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