Tuesday, 13 December 2011


by Julia Kuttner

The Conductor, by Sarah Quigley

the conductorThe Siege of Leningrad has earned its place in 20th century history as one of the most horrifying events of the Second World War.  Much has been written to record a great city’s descent into starvation, death, and the barbarism that desperate citizens visited upon each other in their efforts to stay alive.  Leningrad, the City of Ghosts:  bombed and strafed night and day by the Luftwaffe and hammered mercilessly by the German troops on its borders, it is a miracle that there were still people alive and sane at the end of the siege, more than 800 days after it began.
Sarah Quigley ‘s novelized account of the Siege, and the reaction to it by the city’s cultural elite stands alone;  it’s more than just a story of the composition of a Symphony by Dimitri Shostakovich, his 7th, called the Leningrad Symphony, his evocation of the horrors of war and his attempts to make sense and beauty of an ugly world;  it’s also a powerful and compelling tribute to the courage, tenacity and willpower of a group of starving musicians of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, led with iron resolve by the Conductor Karl Eliasberg.  A fellow student of the Conservatoire with Shostakovich, he could never hope to aspire to similar greatness, instead having to employ his more workmanlike talents to lead  the second-string orchestra of Leningrad,  perpetually battling his contradictory  feelings of envy for always being on the periphery of the elite social circle surrounding Shostakovich, and his true admiration for his genius.
It took this reader at least a quarter of the novel to engage with Ms. Quigley’s characters;  initially I felt that they were two-dimensional and forced, but as the story progresses and she finds her wonderful rhythm the events are revealed with a stark beauty and terrible clarity that nails the reader to the page;  there’s no escape from the horror and  tragedy besetting the Conductor (when the country’s leaders order Eliasberg and his orchestra to perform Shostakovich’s newly completed 7th Symphony to boost the morale of the people, there are only 14 of his original musicians left alive – the rest have starved to death), he must find anyone who has the breath to blow a horn, and a huge reserve of determination within himself to complete the task – and survive. 
When Ms Quigley writes of music, the SOUND of it, she makes beautiful music herself;  In my reading experience there has been only one other writer who could do the same, and that was Anne Patchett in ‘Bel Canto’. What a singular gift this  is, and how fortunate we are to enjoy it.  As an added bonus, this book comes with an audio CD of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony – what a delight to listen to the music whilst reading the book.

11.22.63, by Stephen King

stephen king

Stephen King has produced an astonishing body of work during the course of his career – 52 novels at last count – and all involved to a greater or lesser degree with fantasy, the supernatural and outright horror:  this time he decides to explore time travel, and the consequences of going back to alter cataclysmic events in world history.  What would happen, say, if someone was able to return to 1963 – and prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald?
Maine English teacher Jake Epping is provided with the opportunity to do just that in 2011, through the existence of a time portal in an old diner soon to be removed to make way for a national chain store.  He is introduced to this phenomenon by the terminally ill manager of the diner and begins his mission very reluctantly, first trying out a ‘dummy run’ of going back to 1958 to alter the fate of a person very dear to him, the janitor at the school in which he teaches.  To anyone who grew up in the 50’s, Mr. King’s version of those years is solid and sound;  his ear for idiom and his eye for detail is as sharp and funny as always and, as always, he can build suspense and dread within the fluttering heart of any reader with effortless ease.
This book covers a lot of emotional and historical ground;  it’s a whopper in size, feeling and scope, and it poses some fascinating questions, including what state the world would be in if Kennedy HAD survived his assassination – would the Vietnam war have really been avoided, and hundreds of thousands of lives saved – or would something even worse have happened, because as Jake finds out more than once, history is obdurate:  it doesn’t like to be tampered with, and will throw up many obstacles in the path of anyone who will try to do just that.  This is an exceptional story from a very fine storyteller.  Highly recommended.   

Wouldn’t it be presumptuous – but fun! -  to have a Horowhenua Library Best Reads of 2011?  After all, it’s that time of year when all the august publications –  TheNew York Times, Time magazine (and don’t forget The Listener!) et al present their lists of the crème de la crème of contemporary writing.  Well, a cat may look at a king, so I shall take it upon myself to compile my very own highly subjective list of the best of  the titles  I reviewed for the Library for 2011.

1.       Agaat, by Marlene Van Niekerk
2.       The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht
3.       The Passage, by Justin Cronin
4.       The Wake of Forgiveness, by Bruce Machart
5.       Swamplandia, by Karen Russell
6 & 7 Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh
8.       Hokitika Town, by Charlotte Randall
9.       La Rochelle’s Road, by Tanya Moir
10.    The Larnachs, by Owen Marshall
11.    A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
12.    The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan 
13.    The Conductor, by Sarah Quigley
14.    11.22.63, by Stephen King
I f anyone requires more detail (and my usual verbosity) about any of the above titles, just scroll down;  they are all below in  various monthly sections.  And I’d like to say this:  isn’t it great that we have a library that punches waaay above its weight, providing us with such excellent reading choices.  Levin is fortunate indeed.  Happy New Year to all. 

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