Elegant prose graces a deeply thoughtful memoir.



Pulitzer Prize winner Kennicott, senior art and architecture critic of the Washington Post, makes his book debut with an absorbing meditation on grief.

Unsettled by the death of his mother, the author was drawn to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, especially Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording, an emotional, aggressive interpretation, “clarifying as with colored light the intertwining lines of Bach’s thirty variations.” As a piano student years before, he had not mastered anything by Bach, preferring instead dazzling pieces by Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms: “fast and with lots of drama.” Now, he decided to confront the challenges of the Variations. “I had no illusions that I would ever master them well enough to be satisfied by my performance,” Kennicott writes. “Rather, it seemed a way to test life again, to press upon it and see what was still vital,” to attain “clarity, accuracy,” and, not least, a sense of order and control. This desire for control in the face of sorrow, mortality, and loss recurs as a contrapuntal theme as the author chronicles his obsession with the Variations—their place in Bach’s oeuvre, reception, and demanding technique—along with a memoir of growing up in a tense household dominated by his moody, brittle, often vindictive mother, whom he wishes he could better understand. As he questions what it means to truly know a piece of music, he asks, as well, what it means to know any person. During adolescence, he found in music “a refuge” from chaotic family life, “an adult space where I was fully responsible for my actions.” At home, practicing piano functioned as a kind of “wordless communication”; “I would make music for an ideal mother who didn’t exist, and she listened to a son who, through music, spoke without irony, or condescension.” Now, as an adult, he seeks in music not solace, nor epiphany, nor a “miraculous entrée to higher consciousness,” but instead a “raw moment of openness” to “an emotional resignation that is beyond pleasure, or healing, or anything that can be captured in words.”

Elegant prose graces a deeply thoughtful memoir.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-393-63536-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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


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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