Tag Archives: book review

Writing Jane Austen — Elizabeth Aston

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Georgina Jackson is the author of a critically acclaimed, award-winning, dismally selling, dismal novel set in her favorite grim era of British history. The acclaim was spectacular, two years ago, but the writer’s block she now has is equally spectacular and her bank account is teetering on the edge of empty when her rude, bitchy, intimidating agent calls with a deal.

Writing Jane Austen tracks the tortuous passage of a novelist through the wilds of plotting and writing a book she doesn’t believe she can pull off. What Gina’s awful but brilliant agent has negotiated for her is a contract to finish a recently discovered first chapter of a lost Jane Austen novel. The work will make Gina a household name and, more importantly, fill up that disastrous bank account. One problem—she hasn’t read a word of Austen doesn’t want to and can’t imagine how to pull off such a feat on a killer deadline with 3,000 handwritten Austen words as her point of departure.

This is a “Perils of Georgina” book as our heroine encounters evidence of Austen everywhere, writes nothing, dodges the incessant phone calls and demands of the horrible agent, a horrible publisher and his horrible researcher sister. She leases the garret of a London townhouse owned by an academic who needs the rent. His movie star girlfriend is on location in Ireland so he has a lot of time to commiserate with Gina as she thrashes on the hook of the contract. His oboe-playing kid sister runs away from her boarding school and shows up at the front door, ready to dye her hair purple, argue Austen’s case with Gina and refuse to attend any school because the discipline bores her.

Gina visits a few locations that Jane Austen inhabited or used for her novels, keeps resisting the assignment, drinks a lot of coffee and goes for long walks, trying to discover some method to call forth a book channeled from an author she knows almost nothing about. Gradually, her life begins to resemble an Austen novel and one day she finally picks up Pride and Prejudice, gets hooked and reads all six of Jane Austen’s books in a sleepless marathon. Which doesn’t solve her writer’s block. At least she now likes Austen.

Elizabeth Aston sprinkles her adventure with country estates, costume parties, kidnappings, phantasms from the pages of Jane Austen’s books that visit Gina in odd moments, lots of chat about writers, not writing, novel ways to write a novel, failed attempts to write a novel. The procrastination is so tangible in the book it nearly becomes a character. It made me downright uncomfortable, being an accomplished procrastinator myself. Complications straight out of an Austen plot pop up everywhere, the dialog slips in and out of Austen scenes, the landed gentry share the same intrigues, piques and obsessions as Austen’s characters. The love stories are no surprise and end in happily ever afters with well-matched couples triumphing over minor adversities to wed.

Gina eventually writes a book, after Jane Austen turns her life and her writing upside down. But what happens to it and to Gina is not precisely what you expected, dear reader. It’s fine and funny, though, and Writing Jane Austen is purely entertaining and well done. You might want to settle down with Emma or Mansfield Park at the end of it and lose yourself in genuine Austen territory, not a bad way to be inspired by a book.       

Writing Jane Austen: A Novel   Elizabeth Aston |  Touchstone  2010


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A Good Year — Peter Mayle

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Peter Mayle’s A Good Year is mystery-lite. It’s a very good glass of wine—fragrant with the scents of the Provence, Mayle’s beloved niche as resident and writer—and easy to imbibe, like a smooth blend of grapes. So the book is a mini-vacation, a travel-free trip to a lovely, warm destination where not a lot happens and people are fine with that.

Max Skinner works in finance in London but his own finances are a mess. He likes his job, more or less, but hates his boss, and with good reason. The weasel hijacks Max’s ready-to-pay-off big deal and Max quits and is unceremoniously turned out of his cubicle without a dime in severance. Unfortunately, the bonus from the deal was supposed to pay off his creditors and right his listing fiscal ship—all off now.

But a solicitor’s letter saves the day with a convenient inheritance of a chateau and vineyard in Provence, the place where Max spent his childhood summers. His friend Charlie, a major real estate shark and all around cheerful guy, loans him a wad of cash and Max sets out to claim his vineyard and a new life.

Not so simple, but not too much more complicated, actually. The local lawyer is a dish and is worth far more than a modest village practice might indicate. The vineyard caretaker has a secret he is desperate to hide. The new housekeeper is a non-stop talker with a heart-of-gold and a bossy streak. The proprietor of the village bistro is hotter than her delectable cuisine and seems interested in Max. The chateau’s wine, however, is tant pis—or maybe pisse, worse than vinegar.

Into this sunny land of lovingly described meals and lively characters comes a long-lost relative with her own claims to the estate. Christie happens to be a tour guide in a Napa Valley winery, with a skill set that will come in very handy to resolve the plot. As she pokes around the estate, her questions reveal some inconsistencies that could mean fortune or disaster for the future of the property and whomever owns it. Best Friend Charlie drops in for a visit just in time and the local fabrication of lies begins to unravel.

Charlie and Christie find some common ground, leaving Max to pursue the sexy restaurateur. The glamorous local lawyer is still very much in the picture and the greed- and status-driven international  boutique wine trade edges in along with a couple of nefarious villains. Criminals and conspiracies mix with revelries at the village festival. More local comestibles are consumed, wine is tasted, an odd patch of rocky land holds an important clue.

A Good Year is a good escape book for a dreary day or an unclaimed evening when a visit to Provence is the perfect way to kill a few pleasant hours. The author’s impeccable credentials allow you to relax and enjoy vicarious imbibing, ingesting and investigating even when the clues seem a little heavy-handed and the Provenceaux too readily accepting of outsiders.   

 A Good Year     Peter Mayle | Alfred A. Knopf  2004

Beatrice and Virgil — Yann Martel

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Yann Martel is back in animal allegory with Beatrice and Virgil, a tale about a dead donkey and a stuffed monkey that might be a stand-in for the Holocaust, might be an extended examination of writer’s block, might be a plea on behalf of disappearing wildlife or might be an argument for using art to reveal the truth of history.

This is Martel’s long-awaited third novel, following 2002’s Life of Pi which won the Man Booker Prize and widespread acclaim. Pi, a story about a young castaway in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, examined some weighty ideas as well but it was, ultimately, a charming and accessible book. Beatrice and Virgil is accessible, at times beautiful, but not exactly charming.

A writer named Henry has worked for five years on the book to follow his award-winning, bestselling second novel that features wild animals and…So we know that Martel took five years to write this book but wait, it’s not that easy. The fictional author has hoped to capture the Holocaust in a flip book—one-half fiction and one-half essay. His publishers crush that idea and he crawls into a depression that keeps his hands off the keys and his mind occupied with waiting on customers at a café, working in an amateur theatrical group, taking long walks with his shelter dog and sitting for hours petting his shelter cat. His wife is an industrious and practical soul who interjects a note of sanity once in a while and retains her self-protective instincts.

Henry continues to receive fan mail for the successful book that he dutifully answers. One envelope contains a highlighted version of a Flaubert story about torturing animals and a few sides of a script about talking animals who are describing the experience of a pear. The scripted animals are lifted straight from Waiting for Godot—their conversation has the same irresistible cadence and logic, their personalities contain a vulnerable childlike quality that endears them. Eventually we learn–in dialog and stage directions that evoke Nazi Germany and the extermination of the Jews–that Beatrice and Virgil are starving to death and trying to escape torturers and murderers. The package contains a three-line plea for help and is signed by someone named Henry, surname illegible.

Blocked-writer Henry tracks down playwright-Henry and discovers a wondrous taxidermy shop with a taciturn octogenarian owner-taxidermist, a collection of rare and endangered fauna that could outclass a natural history museum, a stuffed duo named Beatrice, the donkey, and Virgil, a red howler monkey, who are guides not unlike Dante’s through an imagined heaven and an experienced hell.

The writing is marvelous. The sad scenes are heartbreaking. The mounting sense of evil is disturbing. The excruciating detail observed is revelatory and impressive. The extreme borrowing from Beckett is a treasure because Beckett did it so well, but somewhat off-putting because Beckett did it so well. I hated the end. The end was, to me, melodramatic, abrupt and out of sync with the rest of the book and the gradual emergence of meaning. After the main tale ends, a coda of thirteen hideous riddles–“games” supplied at the taxidermist’s request by blocked-writer Henry–returns the focus to the Holocaust and resonates more evenly with the rest of the book. 

Martel has a son named Theo, the name Henry gives to his newborn son in the book. Martel has a scholar’s grab bag of impressive literary references, as do his characters. Martel can write a scene of torture and subjugation that will take your skin off. Still, Life of Pi was satisfying, erudite and oddly magical. Beatrice and Virgil is fluid but difficult and disjointed. Maybe it’s the uncomfortable subject matter—the “Horrors” of the donkey and the monkey stand in for specific genocidal horrors of our own society. The animals pass the time minutely observing the world around them, bringing the observed and the remembered to vivid life. Martel makes the point that when we fail to really see, we too easily destroy. A skinny book—a mercy to a time-challenged daily reader–but not an easy read.

Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel   Yann Martel | Spiegel & Grau   2010

Why Read Moby-Dick? — Nathaniel Philbrick

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Despite owning Moby-Dick and occasionally dipping into Moby-Dick, I have never actually plowed through the whole thing. Hmmm. Major character flaw. But second—and third—chances abound. Nathaniel Philbrick whets the appetite for the quest to conquer the great white whale. In Why Read Moby-Dick? Philbrick applies his considerable knowledge of all things nautical to an historical-psychological analysis of the elements of Melville’s epic novel, making the case for tracking Ishmael’s leviathan adventures.

Did you realize the book doesn’t begin with that most famous of opening lines: Call me Ishmael?  Instead, Melville begins with an etymological disquisition of the word “whale” and then inserts a chapter of “Extracts,” quotes about whales from all of literature, from Darwin to the Bible. Finally we reach Chapter 1, “Loomings,” and Ishmael recounts his adventures.

Philbrick’s argument consists of short, readable chapters on such topics as Landlessness, Nantucket, The Anatomy of a Demagogue, Chowder, Sharks, Queequeg, Desperado Philosophy and Ahab’s Last Stand. We discover the light and dark juxtaposition of the characters Pip and Fedallah, see whaling Nantucket, a grimmer more graceless outpost than the picture-postcard vacation retreat it is today, experience a dizzying ascent up the mast to the crow’s nest and the giddy view down to the depths of the bottomless sea that awaits a single, careless misstep.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom Philbrick dedicated Moby-Dick, gets a lot of ink in the book. He served as a somewhat reluctant mentor and muse to the younger Melville. The two were polar opposites in temperament—Melville was confessional and gregarious; Hawthorne was reclusive and reserved. But their acquaintance seems to have deepened into a friendship that Melville drew upon for inspiration and that prompted him to completely rewrite a lighthearted whaling book and produce the classic that has lasted for 150 years.

Moby-Dick was strongly colored by the growing American conflict over slavery that dominated political discourse as Melville wrote. The novel is a stark depiction of economic and social reality, the classes that owned the whaling ships and those that signed onto them, and the unusual demographics of whaling crews from varied cultures and geographies. It has relevance for all the times that followed its creation, through the bloody Civil War, the violent twentieth century and the abuses of power and the environment that characterize our own time.

You can learn to make an authentic chowder by reading Moby-Dick and you can watch as a whale is butchered for its valuable oil—the pre-gasoline fuel that drove a nineteenth-century economy. The personalities and issues thrown in high relief by the enforced intimacy of a long sea journey on a small ship are metaphoric and archetypal—rich material for discussion and dissertation. But Philbrick rests his case on Melville’s basic optimism. Read Moby-Dick, he says, because its author found a way to see the clownishness and chaos of this short life with both skepticism and hope. Read Moby-Dick for a great adventure, enacted by a memorable cast and delivered from despair by a buoyant belief in redemption.

 Why Read Moby-Dick?  Nathaniel Philbrick | Viking  2011

The Hound of the Baskervilles — Arthur Conan Doyle

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I was sure I had read The Hound of the Baskervilles at some time in the distant past but there it sat on the library shelf waiting for me to reacquaint myself with Holmes and hounds. It turns out I read a lot about the book but not the book itself so I had the uncommon pleasure of spending an afternoon with Sherlock and co. engaged in discovering the details of plot for the first time.

Hound is so quintessentially Sherlock Holmes that it is like a well-made bed. Every corner is tucked in perfectly, every wrinkle exposed and smoothed to satisfying perfection. From the moment country doctor James Mortimer reclaims his walking stick and reveals the curse of the Baskervilles to the hour when the impenetrable fog descends on the moor, we are happily carried along by Arthur Conan Doyle’s clever twists and turns to the end of the tale. The heirs to the Baskerville estate seem doomed to fall under the spell of evil karma earned by an especially unsavory ancestor. But death in the remote corner of Devon, in the forbidding landscape prowled by a horrifying beast, is not as straightforward as it seems.

Malevolent characters lurk in the gloom. Weird, haunting cries travel across the moors at night. Strange warnings place everyone in harm’s way. Suspects are introduced, look blatantly guilty and then fall off the list as Holmes and his faithful eyes and ears, Dr. Watson, prowl and pry into everyone’s business. People are messy. Holmes is fastidious and attentive. He always wins—well, at least in this book we have no doubt.

The wild and lonely moor with its abandoned prehistoric stone huts, perilous quicksand, mysterious lights and hidden dangers may house a phantom or a monster. Holmes is sure of what he seeks before he ever arrives on the scene but we can’t know. What is real in the fogs, mists and treachery? Who is evil? Who is not to be trusted but not entirely black at heart? Who is lying and how does Holmes know? His Mensa-like acuity at puzzles is as appealing as his unshakable self-confidence and unapologetic arrogance. He’s a very entertaining gumshoe and it’s sport to spend the book trying to outguess him. I do love a good murder mystery, antidote to too much ambiguity, too many threads ungathered, too much badness unpunished in real life. Sherlock Holmes would probably be very irritating to know but he is agreeable and amusing to spend time with in the pages of a book. 

The Hound of the Baskervilles: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle | Signet Classics  2001

The Maid — Kimberly Cutter

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 Jehanne d’Arc was an illiterate peasant girl, extremely pious, doggedly stubborn and blessed, or cursed, with visitations from heavenly emissaries who delivered verbal messages from God. Nearly half a millennium after it rigged a public trial and burned her at the stake in the market square in Rouen, the Catholic Church declared Jehanne to be a saint and martyr.

History, and Kimberly Cutter’s intimate novel The Maid: a novel of Joan of Arc, both tell us that Jehanne did lead French troops to significant victories at Orleans and Patay that succeeded in ending the Hundred Years War. She saw Charles the Dauphin crowned as the rightful King of France in the cathedral at Reims, as her voices instructed her. She rode into battle at the head of the French army for a brief year, changed history, was captured and spent the next year as a prisoner, in chains and on trial.

Jehanne often identified herself as La Pucelle, the maid, underscoring her virginity and dedication to God’s service. This was actually clever marketing for her time because unconventional women were discounted as witches and sluts and beneath contempt and, for Jehanne to succeed in her mission, she needed a platform and very good press. Even as a virgin who sent the camp followers packing and would not allow swearing in her presence, she was under constant assault for being unthinkable, unnatural, weird and possibly mad.

Her battle tactics were as unorthodox as her outlawed male dress but they were brilliant and effective. Her courage at the front of her troops in every sortie was legendary. And her victories gave her enormous credibility. The Maid shows us all this about Jehanne but digs into the pressures and the circumstances of her days, the hesitance to embrace a fate that seemed dangerous and improbable, her sheer helplessness to do anything more than follow her voices and beg for them to guide her.

The book is faithful to the considerable history we have of Jehanne’s brief life and her tumultuous times. Hers is not an unknown story – the long public trial and interrogations are documented facts that can be read in the original court manuscripts today. What is imagined are her reactions to the people and daily events in her life, the mystery of the disappearance of her sister in the middle of a war-torn France, the personal conversations with patrons, supporters, soldiers and even the weak-willed heir to the throne. She seems to have known always that her time would be short and her death the result of betrayal. She seems to have worked her legend in order to achieve her aims.

I confess I am fascinated by Joan of Arc and have been since the nuns told us her story in a bloody year of Lives of the Saints as our lunchtime read-aloud. She was anything but a wimp – this girl didn’t mince around in a little white dress avoiding patent leather shoes that might reflect her little white Catholic girl underwear to the salacious second-grade boys who were constantly on alert for a glimpse. She rocked it with swords, horses, tough talk and battles. She won. Nobody sent her home – she won. They had to burn her alive to stop her. That part was gruesomely fascinating and just proved how awesome the chick was. Forget stigmata and founding religious orders and healing the sick. Do not mess with Joan of Arc. Just. Don’t. We loved her.  

The Maid is less glamorous than Lives of the Saints filtered through seven-year-old imaginations but no less fascinating because the story it tells is real. Jehanne La Pucelle was devoted, savvy, stubborn as hell, a great warrior and a larger-than-life personality. She burned to do the will of God and in the end her passion consumed her as completely as any flames. She was twelve when the voices first spoke to her. She was seventeen when she defeated the English and crowned the French king. She was nineteen when she may have been assaulted in her cell, slipped back into the forbidden, protective male clothing that violated Church law, was condemned for it and marched to the stake.

She is still a gutsy and enthralling icon; her life is a gift to a writer with its quick pace, major events and dramatic conclusion. The Maid is a rich read if you like Joan of Arc stories and it will probably hold your interest even if there is no Sister Mary Scholastica reading aloud over the peanut butter and jelly in your past.

The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc    Kimberly Cutter  |   Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2011

The Magician King — Lev Grossman

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In Fillory, the magical land of children’s literature and the kingdom of Lev Grossman’s spell-casting slackers in The Magician King, things are starting to go off the rails. Clock-trees are waving their branches wildly, the Seeing Hare is playing hard to get and the Master of the Hunt drops dead in the middle of a soft green grassy circle, heavy with enchantments, in the woods.

The Magician King picks up some time after Grossman’s first fantasy, The Magicians, leaves off. Quentin Coldwater is one of the four Kings and Queens of Fillory as The Magician King begins and he thinks he’s landed in a cushy spot. Although, in typical Quentin fashion, he’s beginning to get just a tiny bit bored with his perfect life. His fellow royals, Eliot and Janet from Brakebills, the magicians college on the Hudson where the three learned their stuff, and Julia, an old high school friend who didn’t get into Brakebills and acquired her magic where she could find it, contemplate the disturbing signs of magical unraveling and agree to a Quest.

The fantasy, a grown-up pastiche of J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis and some very Grimm tales, sets sail on a charmed ship in search of answers and adventure. Our hero—still no dashing Lancelot—discovers he is looking for a golden key. Eventually there will be seven golden keys. But not before Quentin and Julia reach the Outer Island, meet a child who draws them scribbled passports they later find useful, locate and try a key with dizzying, disastrous results, continue their quest back in the Earth world, revisit Brakebills to no real benefit, steal some cars, hack an ATM, mess with disenchantments at a magnificent palazzo in Venice and learn about the dissolution of magic and the heroics it will take to save it.

Quentin is less of a jerk in this second half of what is really one long coming-of-age story split into two books. He exhibits some heartening maturity and altruism, along with his burning obsession to find the key to meaning in his own life. His evolution and the rich imaginative world Grossman builds around him make this a much more satisfying read than the first book. There is still an alarming tendency to imbibe hangover-inducing amounts of alcohol as daily fuel and unmagical humans—AKA family—are sloughed off with minimal concern and consequence. Events follow the predictable story template: just when things are staring to look better, they get worse. A lot worse.

The storyline for Julia weaves in and out in alternate chapters and we learn how she acquired her magic—none of it is remotely pretty. Death and defeat are as ugly as they come in this fairytale. The scenes are salted with arcane bits of erudition that lend them authenticity and show Grossman did his homework, a lot of really strong research. But the book seems slightly long and the adventures pale as they double back on themselves in loops of endless action and reaction that start to blur together. This might be a book to savor slowly, over several days, rather than power through in one.

I liked The Magician King far more than its prequel. Grossman has built a convincing world, if a graceless and sour one. His hero grows up and sacrifices himself to save some of the others. Quentin is left sadder, wiser and more hopeful by his quest. But, despite his admirable gestures, and all the powerful magic that slips through, and from, the hands of the Fillory royals and their companions, there isn’t much there there in the end. The magicians are an intelligent and egocentric lot and remain true to form. They are alienated from their roots, their surroundings and each other—it’s still all about them. The magical and mundane realms of Grossman’s books are bleakly existential. They offer a downbeat escape into fantasy for a reader whose sunny life is in need of a few contrasting shadows. The travails of this Quest are not so much an antidote to the gloom, angst and despair of the barren landscape we already inhabit.        

The Magician King: A Novel    Lev Grossman  |  Viking   2011

We the Animals Justin Torres

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Justin Torres’ slender debut novel, We the Animals, is fierce, raging, intense and searing. Three small boys, half-Puerto Rican, half-white Brooklyn, grow up in a chaotic household of blazing love, drunken rage, gnawing poverty and feral emotion. Manny, Joel and the first-person narrator, a six-year-old who turns seven with no hope of party, cake or even a happy birthday, are a trio of trouble tumbling through misadventures in upstate New York. Ma and Paps, married at 14 and 16, work the graveyard shift, fight, make-up, drink too much, leave, come back and make a home of unbearable, all-consuming need that cages the little animals as much as it embraces them.

The language is as razor-sharp, dangerous and translucent as shards of broken glass. The adventures are all misadventures. Learn to swim by being towed out to the middle of a lake and let go. Punch, hit and use your claws because some days there are no grown-ups in the family and no one has your back. Know that your brothers, schooled to failure upon failure, always have your back, even as they kick your skinny butt and resent you for your good grades. Steal, lie, wreck stuff, learn how love and hate can be the same thing.

This family is addicted to itself and each other, broken beyond repair but stuck together against a world that has no place for them. The kids are exuberant and bursting with life, even as life grinds their hopeless parents to a pulp. The youngest remains slight, almost pretty, as the brothers mature and he discovers the lure of the local bus station with its transients and furtive men’s room. The sudden wreckage that rips them all apart manages to bind them, too, like the twisted metal of a scorched fuselage. They are imprinted on each other, wild animals in a pack that has total recall whether or not it is scattered.   

We the Animals is gorgeous writing and storytelling. Justin Torres is an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, published in A-list literary magazines. It will be interesting to see what he serves up in his next book.

We the Animals: A novel  Justin Torres  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2011

Holding onto the Air: An Autobiography — Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley

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What happened in Suzanne Farrell’s life was George Balanchine so Holding onto the Air: An Autobiography is the story of her relationship with Mr. B.  Roberta Sue Ficker was a talented young Ohio dancer in a family of ability, ambition, an absent father and a mother who struggled to bring up three girls to succeed in the arts. When Suzanne was fifteen, her mother moved the entire family to New York so her daughter could audition for SAB, the School of American Ballet that trains dancers for the New York City Ballet. Balanchine was making history in his reign at NYCB and he singled out young Suzanne as a romantic obsession and muse.

Farrell was a great dancer in a company of superb dancers but you don’t hear much about the rest—the entire story is a recounting of the extraordinary ballets Balanchine made on her, the pursuit of the teenage prodigy by a brilliant much older Mr. B., married to his fourth wife and former balletic muse Tanaquil le Clercq, and Farrell’s exultation and confusion at the laser beam of attention.

She is kind to Balanchine and not snippy about the other dancers, although her status as Balanchine’s favorite seemed to remove her from much interaction with the rest of the company. There were the exacting and daring solos, the hours of pas de deux rehearsals with celebrated partners, the post-performance noshes and debriefs with Balanchine at late-night diners on the Upper West Side, the world at her much-abused and very fabulous feet.

Hers was an amazing life and career, atypical for a dancer and graced by the fixation of the greatest ballet choreographer of the twentieth century. Holding onto the Air is a fascinating read that would be helped by some familiarity with the rigors and language of ballet—there’s a lot of insider information that benefits from context.

Farrell and Balanchine had a falling out when she married a dancer from the company who was subsequently fired. She and her husband moved to Europe for a time to find work but Farrell eventually returned to a more subdued but no less artistically rich collaboration with Balanchine. She danced with New York City Ballet until 1989 when injuries forced her retirement. Balanchine was dead six years by then but his legacy had become her life and her art long before. She was as much his creation as his muse and her story is a glimpse inside a world beyond the ken of mere mortals, where lives seem fated and elevated by the gods.

Holding On to the Air: An Autobiography   Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley  University Press of Florida  2002