Gay’s aim seems to be the application of a scholar’s circumspection to the Mozart myth, and the best that can be said of the...

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MOZART

            In the ‘60s, Yale historian Gay won a National Book Award for a history of the Enlightenment; for the third installment of the Penguin Lives he depicts the lightning career of its greatest musical mind.

            Gay’s aim seems to be the application of a scholar’s circumspection to the Mozart myth, and the best that can be said of the book is that it establishes historical context with the efficiency so compressed a format demands.  The worst that can be said is that it’s dry.  That may be unavoidable, given the amount of information it has to convey in so brief a span.  But the few excerpts from Mozart’s notoriously bawdy and scatological correspondence explode through Gay’s measured academic prose like a carnival at a Mass.  He tries to remain evenhanded in treating the vexed subject of Mozart’s authoritarian father, but judicious citation does all the editorializing he needs.  Leopold to Wolfgang, 1778:  “You must with all your soul think of your parents’ welfare, otherwise your soul will go to the devil.”  In general, Gay’s analysis of the orchestral music suffers from the effusion and imprecision of the amateur:  “The dissonances and chromatic shifts Mozart so brilliantly deployed provided his astonished listeners with moments of simple poignancy or sheer delight…To experience them is to enjoy a spectacle of energy translated into beauty.”  But he fares better with the operas, which are clearly his passion.  And surprisingly, his austere demystification of the most overly dramatized episodes in Mozart’s life – the anonymous late commission of a Requiem Mass, his purported poisoning – imbue its end with even greater poignancy:  fate and conspiracy are easier to assimilate than bad luck and incompetent doctors.  One month music’s supreme genius was a healthy and productive 34-year-old; the next month, as it happened, he was dead.

Pub Date: June 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-670-88238-0

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1999

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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