When Only Greatness Will Do
I think of great books as having a distinct, urgent voice. Their narratives pull you along insistently, convincingly, as if nothing else in the world mattered while you're reading them. They're beautifully written, weave great stories, and open a window on a world you may not have looked through before.
You know what I mean... If you're reading this blog, good money says you can name at least a handful of books that have done that for you over the years. Last summer for me, one of those books was Alice Sebold's novel The Almost Moon (Little, Brown), which was both so horrifying and so compellingly and sensitively written that I couldn't put it down. (It was published in Oct 2007, but I had an early galley copy.) Not every reviewer loved it. There were such high expectations for that second book by the author of The Lovely Bones that perhaps it was doomed to disappoint, as is so often the case with a second book by an accomplished first novelist. But that tale of a woman and her fractured, dangerous and all-consuming relationship with her parents (and herself, for that matter) was so mesmerizing that I practically carted it all over the beaches of the Outer Banks for a few days until I finished it. Don't you love it when a book has that kind of power? Don't you want a book like that every summer -- or every month, for that matter? I'm with you! (Click here for more info on The Almost Moon if you're interested -- but beware, there may be some spoilers here...)
While I make my way through bookshelves filled with a host of promising summer '08 titles, here's one worth mentioning right now: a really fine new memoir by Lang Lang, Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story (Spiegel & Grau, on sale July 15). The Chinese pianist's road from near poverty while growing up in Shenyang, to stunning success on some of the greatest stages of the world, is well known in some corners; he's been written about and covered by everyone who knows anything about classical music. We told his story in Reader's Digest in our April 2006 issue, and it was published around the world in 22 of our global editions. Now along comes his memoir of his full rags-to-riches story, in his direct, clear voice. What's so striking in these pages (and also true of so many outstanding talents in their field) is just how hard he worked to achieve his goals.
I love this passage about his early practice sessions:
At first I practiced after dinner until 7:00. Then until 8:00. Then until 9:00, 10:00, and sometimes even 11:00. The walls of the apartment building were thin, and neighbors on all sides—even those from adjoining buildings—began complaining.
"Stop the racket!"
"That music is driving us crazy!"
"I'll kill you if you don't stop!"
"I'll break your hands!"
"I'll call the cops!"
"'Ignore them," my father would say flatly. "Keep practicing."
If they persisted in complaining, he'd answer them with screams of his own. "My son is a genius! You are lucky to get to hear him play for free! One day people will pay good money for the privilege!"
Guess what? That father was right.