BEETHOVEN: ANGUISH AND TRIUMPH, by Jan Swafford

18222670Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
By Jan Swafford
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – 5th August 2014
ISBN 9780618054749 – 1077 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


Passing a whopping 1000 pages (okay, around 900 minus the extensive endnotes) this Beethoven biography just kept me enraptured. Enough that I kept lugging the hardback to read at the bus stop and on the bus into work each day. Getting into work I began back diluting cultures to the compositions I had just been reading about. From this you can tell that Swafford has written a readable and inspiring biography of the Ludwig van.
Covering the totality of Beethoven’s life, Swafford also nicely givens contextual background from what is known about his immediate ancestors to the cultural and historical events that swirled around both locally and internationally. At times the biographical details on Beethoven’s benefactors seems a bit too detailed, though they are mostly discussed to highlight the ups and downs of Beethoven’s support, why he was appreciated by the upper class of the time and the limits of even their lifestyles to continuously supply patronage.
What really makes this lengthy biography work is that it isn’t merely a biography of Beethoven the person, but also Beethoven the composer in the sense that a good amount of space is spent both describing the process by which his major works were created and critique of the music itself. Swafford nicely attempts (and largely succeeds) at taking a step back from the long history of viewing Beethoven as a genius to to look objectively at his achievements.
For fans of classical music, serious or just vaguely familiar, this biography and discussion of his music will probably be appreciated. The musical analysis was at times more advanced than the basic music theory/history I was familiar with, but Swafford also does a fair job of explaining so that even the non professional musician will understand the main points, and a newbie will likely learn some wonderful things about music in general and about distinctions between different approaches (eras) of what is all lumped together as ‘classical’. In addition to covering the style of Beethoven’s output, Swafford also covers the basics of his contemporaries, particularly those he learned from.
If you are thinking about reading this but aren’t sure whether to commit to such a large work you can get a fair idea the whole thing by just reading a few chapters (interspersed with listening to some recordings I’d recommend). The first couple chapters are more laden with biography compared to a larger amount of musical focus further in, but you should still get a fair idea of Swafford’s scope and style.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler

Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 1250039819
320 pages, hardcover
Published March 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This novel is a lovesong to small town America and the struggling people who inhabit it. Written from the point of view of four life-long friends and the wife of one of them, it details their struggles to stay together in friendship and discover their adult selves in terms of past glories and failures. It is a type of novel that many people are just going to adore, because it has some psychological depth, steeped in realism, and in the end is uplifting, warm, and generally ‘feel-good’. Despite their struggles and faults all the characters in this book are really good people at heart, people who want the best for their family, their friends, and their small home town. They slip up, they aren’t perfect, but they in the end they are loyal and true. Strong midwestern folks all. In fact, the only character in the entire book who isn’t portrayed this way is a Hollywood actress who never wants anything to do with the small town and its populace, a person of the city and ultimately selfishness.

In a certain way, this all makes the novel rather simplistic, and despite its ‘realism’, somewhat contrived and a little too worshipful of a type of life and ideal person. Yet still, Butler makes it work. With something that could easily turn sappy and saccharine and utterly disingenuous and trite, Butler manages to keep things balanced between a realism and some midwestern ideal that is this lovesong. The majority of the narrative comes from the point of view of three characters, the most sincere and virtuous ones at that, but Butler intersperses those with the points of views of those that are not ideal, those that may still be lovable, but are still clearly damaged and weak.

If you want a warming and ultimately optimistic literary read of small town America then this is certainly something you should check out.

Four Stars out of Five