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Please begin with an informative title:

A few weeks ago, I had a health scare.

I'm sure by now everyone knows that I went from having a back spasm, to having a gallbladder attack, to having no gallbladder, with shocking swiftness.  I'm still getting my head around the fact that I was desperately ill even though I felt pretty normal, and that I came close to permanent damage to my liver and pancreas.  I'm also getting my head around the fact that the lack of a gallbladder means that I can no  longer eat certain foods without suffering what we might delicately call "serious alimentary consequences."

Among these foods is cheese.

To say that I am less than happy about this is rather like saying that Casablanca is a movie about a guy and a jazz club.  If there is one food that I truly can say I love beyond all others, it's that quintessential product of the New England dairy cow, cheddar cheese.  Smoked...laced with herbs...from Cabot or Grafton Village or Granville...melted...shredded...used as the basis for the Best Mac & Cheese Ever...chopped into a salad...sprinkled on a pizza for extra zip...as a sandwich...on a burger...spread on a slice of crusty French bread and eaten with beautiful red grapes and a cold glass of dry ginger ale for a summer picnic...sliced thin and draped over a piece of fresh apple pie...sprinkled over tortilla chips, broiled, and eaten with fresh tomato chunks as nachos....

Can you guess what my favorite dairy product is?  And can you imagine how painful it is that a few curls of cheese over a salad had me running for the bathroom the other night?  

That's right.  Thanks to my little health crisis, I can't eat whole milk dairy products, at least for the foreseeable future.  I also can't have most salad dressings, stir fries, hamburger, pork, fried chicken, fish and chips, tuna or chicken salad, red meat with more than the merest trace of fat, or tortilla chips.  That I can stuff myself on fruit, vegetables, grilled or baked chicken, turkey, frizzled ham, skim milk, the vaguely milk-flavored wax called "low fat cheese," or pretzels is all well and good, but for all the benefits of a low fat diet to my cholesterol and my poor, abused liver, part of me longs to cut off a chunk of excellent smoked cheddar, drape it on a Triscuit, and shove it in my mouth.

Alas.  

Intro

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Since I can't eat cheese (or steak, or pizza, or any of a dozen other favorites), I must needs content myself with less gustatory pleasures for the time being.  For me, that means good books and fine music.  And being the generous soul that I am, tonight I bring not Books So Bad They're Good to amuse you on this steamy Saturday night, but A Baker's Dozen of Books (and Music) Guaranteed to Delight.  The following are six books that I have read over and over, from a humorous take on Victorian life to a brilliant, romantic historical novel; six pieces of classical music that I can, and frequently have, listened to on continuous loop while I write; and one movie that I adore.  Obviously not everyone is going to share my tastes, but the following is a list of items that have given me delight for years:

Books:

Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) - Jerome K. Jerome, a journalist by training and inclination, set out to write a travelogue about the gentle joys of boating on the Thames.  Instead he ended up writing a comic masterpiece about three inept predecessors of Bertie Wooster, their boon companion and dog Montmorency, and their misadventures on (and frequently off) the greatest of British rivers.  From the narrator's belief that he has every disease in the medical textbooks except housemaid's knee…to Harris's butchering of HMS Pinafore in front of an audience of bewildered partygoers…to the epic battle against a tin of pineapple…to J's encounter with an insistent little sexton who all but drags him down to the crypt to see the skulls…this book makes me laugh every single time I read it.  Even better, there are some astonishingly lyrical descriptions of riverside towns and tourist attractions, and a tender, moving passage about a betrayed woman's decision to end her life in the bosom of the Thames.  One of my all time favorites.

The Letters of E.B. White - White, one of the writers who made The New Yorker great, is best known as possibly the finest essayist of mid-century America.  His collected letters are every bit as perfectly written and insightful, with wonderful glimpses into his life as family man, writer, and farmer.  Highlights include his son Joel's unusual birthday gifts (a top hat, a book of A.E. Houseman's poetry, and a bottle of Amontillado), White's bemused reaction to librarian Anne Carroll Moore's underhanded attempt to get him to withdraw Stuart Little from publication, and a moving letter to his beloved wife Katherine a few years before her death where he wonders how he will possibly get along without her.  Best line:  "I turned forty today, and celebrated by hanging around a sawmill."

Crazy Salad - Nora Ephron is best known today for writing When Harry Met Sally and other romantic comedies, but back in the late 60's and early 70's she wrote about women for Esquire and New York.  And how she wrote!   I first read these brilliant, hilarious, passionate essays as a teenager, and I still remember the shock of the last line of "A Few Words About Breasts" as if it were yesterday.  Other beauties include an evisceration of the Pillsbury Bake-Off, an expose of "feminine deodorants" like FDS and Pristeen, and a chilling look at Linda Lovelace and porno chic, back before we knew that Lovelace was being beaten by her then-husband.  Ephron followed this up with Scribble Scribble, which isn't as good but is still worth reading for her account of a proto-flame war involving an old-school Italian restaurant and its legendary spaghetti sauce recipe.

And Be A Villain - Rex Stout is one of my favorite mystery writers, and this book is quite possibly my favorite chronicle of Nero Wolfe and his smart, sarcastic, fashion plate Man Friday, Archie Goodwin.  Poisoned soda, a smart-mouthed teenage fangirl, poisoned candy, Wolfe refusing to accept money from vendors who manufacture food he hates, poisoned husbands…this one has everything to satisfy a mystery reader, all told in Archie's signature breezy style.  And just when you think it can't get any better, Stout introduces Wolfe's great enemy, Arnold Zeck, who is even more malevolent than Professor Moriarty.  I've read this one at least six times and love it just as much I did when I first picked up my aunt Betty's copy in the 1970s.

A Civil Campaign - This entry in Lois McMaster Bujold's brilliantly subversive Vorkosigan series is one of the funniest books I have ever read, bar none.  Miles Vorkosigan, former intelligence agent with a dual identity, has fallen in love at last with a beautiful, damaged widow…and instead of taking her out for dinner and a show, he decides to stage his courtship as if it were Operation Overlord.  Worse, he tells everyone he knows of his intentions except his beloved.  The resulting chaos includes a dinner party that ends with Miles' ladylove Ekaterin fleeing shrieking from the table straight into the arms of his parents, a crazed scientist who might have created the perfect food (the rights to which belong to someone else), Miles' brother Mark trying to impress his girlfriend's parents and falling flat on his face, an inheritance fight where a woman is so determined to win that she changes her gender, and the science fictional equivalent of a custard pie fight.  I defy anyone to read this without needing to sit on a towel.

Checkmate - one of the very few romance series I've ever been able to tolerate is Dorothy Dunnett's magnificent Lymond Chronicles.   Francis Crawford of Lymond and Sevigny, brilliant, wounded, and doomed, is one of the great characters of 20th century fiction, and his story, told in prose that can only be described as "pyrotechnic," deserves a far wider audience than it currently enjoys.  This final volume, where the intertwined destinies of Lymond, his indomitable wife Phillipa, his sister Marthe, and the royal families of France, Scotland, and England finally resolve themselves, is one of the most satisfying and heartfelt books I've ever read.  The penultimate chapter almost gave me heart failure the first time I read it, and I mean that only in the best way.

Music:

La Pellegrina– the entertainment surrounding the 1589 wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinando of Tuscany and Christina of Lorraine was one of the major cultural events of the late Renaissance.  What we'd now call a multimedia production involved plays, musical performances, allegorical masques, lavish costumes and special effects, and some of the most beautiful music of the 16th century.  We're lucky enough to have the plans, stage directions, costume sketches, and engravings of the scenery, so we have a very good idea of what the celebration looked like.  We also have the score for the six intermedi that were performed between acts of the comedy La Pellegrina, written primarily by Cristofano Malvezzi.  Gorgeous, lyrical, and lush, this is a treat even for those don't necessarily like early music.  Even better, about fifteen years ago the BBC did a meticulous recreation of the original production, with costumes, sets, dance, and music all based as closely as possible on what Ferdinando and Christina would have seen on their wedding day.   Someone uploaded the Japanese edition of the performance to Youtube, and if you can overlook the incongruity of Japanese subtitles on an Italian proto-opera staged by the BBC, you'll have a wonderful time.

Giulio Cesare – Handel's finest opera is simultaneously romantic, tragic, and very, very funny.  It purports to be about the meeting between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra in Alexandria, but the libretto is as much an excuse for the exquisite music as anything approaching the historical reality.  The Glyndebourne production of about ten years ago, recently imported to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, is a visual and aural wonder, with stunning costumes, a quirky but fun resetting of the action to the early 20th century (complete with zeppelins!  Yes, ZEPPELINS!!!!), and Bollywood-style dance numbers that require the soprano to dance as well as sing.  The English version has a better orchestra (conducted by early music legend William Christie), the Met's stars one of the top three countertenors in the world (David Daniels), and both productions are graced by scene-stealing countertenor Christophe Dumaux as Cleopatra's deranged brother Tolomeo and the magnificent Patricia Bardon as the vengeful widow Cornelia.  As good as these are, though, if you're looking for sheer musicianship, check out Youtube for footage of countertenor Phillipe Jaroussky singing Sesto in an otherwise ludicrous Salzburg production from last year.  His “Cara Speme” got a thirty second ovation, and the duet “Son Nata A Lagrimar” with Ann Sophie von Otter had me almost in tears.  Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

Fanfare for the Common Man – Aaron Copland was an unlikely candidate to compose this, perhaps the most quintessentially American piece of music ever written:  born in Brooklyn to a Lithuanian Jewish family, he studied composition in France with Nadia Boulanger and made no particular secret of being gay during a period when this could have sent him to jail...and ultimately, none of it matters.  This short, sparse, instantly memorable brass fanfare, originally intended as a musical equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, celebrates not kings, not dukes, not royal pomp or churchly ceremony, not the grandeur of old Europe or the wealth of the Gilded Age, but that most American of creatures, the common man who is born free, works hard, and seizes his destiny in both hands.  Copland set the standard for what can only be called the American style in orchestral composition with this and other works like his ballet scores for Appalachian Spring and Rodeo, and his film score for The Red Pony (itself based on a collection of short stories by John Steinbeck about that most American of subjects, the West).  My favorite version is conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, but there are plenty of interpretations of this flawless distillation not only of a style and a time period, but of the American ideal.  I'm listening to it as I write, and I swear the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up.

Jupiter Symphony – Mozart was perhaps the purest musical genius of all time; a prodigy who continued to grow as musician and composer until his tragically early death, he was composing almost as soon as he could walk, and was the toast of Europe before his voice broke.  This brilliant late symphony is majestic, joyous, and as close to perfection as any orchestral work ever written, from the opening chords to the stunning last movement.  There are many, many recordings, but you can't go wrong with Andre Previn for a traditional arrangement or Sir Jeffrey Tate's chamber version on original instruments. It's been said that the dazzling five-theme counterpoint of the last movement is as close as we'll ever get to proof of the existence of God, and whether or not that's true, it's certainly proof of what heights the human mind can achieve. Perfection.

Rhapsody in Blue– if Copland set the standard for American orchestral works in the 1940's, George Gershwin set it two decades earlier for the incorporation of native musical traditions like jazz into the classical world.  From the opening crescendo by a wailing tenor sax to the soaring, optimistic finale, this mini-concerto for piano and orchestra is nothing less than a portrait of Jazz Age urban life in all its beauty and drive.  Originally performed by Gershwin himself and Paul Whiteman's jazz orchestra, it's since become a standard of both the piano and orchestral repertoires, and if the actual orchestration was largely done by Ferde Grofe because Gershwin didn't have the necessary training, so what?  This, the later tone poem An American in Paris, and Gershwin's scintillating Broadway scores paved the way for Copland, Barber, and a host of other American composers.  Andre Previn's version is terrific, but there's also a surviving piano roll of Gershwin himself, and if the latter lacks the dynamic shading of an actual recording, it gives us an idea of how the composer himself wanted his first masterpiece to sound.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - yes, I know it's a warhorse.  Yes, I know that the opening phrase has been parodied, quoted, mocked, and used beyond the point of cliché.  Yes, I know that Beethoven wrote a lot of other great music, from the piano sonatas to the Choral Symphony  to Fidelio.  I know all of this, I agree, I nod up and down with enough vigor to need a chiropractor, you're all absolutely right…and you know what?  None of that changes the fact that this symphony is a masterpiece.  The opening line is quoted so often because it's a classic, one of the most dramatic beginnings to a piece of music in the classical repertoire, and it only gets better.  The last movement, seguing from anxious, almost timid pianissimo to what can only be described as the musical equivalent of Hope emerging from Pandora's box, is an anodyne to despair.  Plenty of good versions exist, from Herbert von Karajan to Bernard Haitink, but my favorite is still the swift, urgent, glorious interpretation by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony recorded when war raged in Europe.

Bonus:  One Movie

Better Than Chocolate - I first saw this sweet, funny gem of a love story on a hot summer night at the local opera/vaudeville/movie theater.  The story of a clerk in a radical feminist bookstore, the blonde, motorcycle-riding artist she loves, her friend the FTM transsexual, her sexually repressed mother, her straight brother, and his bisexual girlfriend, Better Than Chocolate tackles some serious issues (violence against the LGBT community, sexual awakening and openness, feminist pornography, family relations),  but the overall tone is sunny, optimistic, and wonderfully loving and romantic.  My favorite scenes:  a paint fight between two characters as they revive a neglected room; the brother's introduction to carnal delights he never dreamed possible; and a gorgeous, erotically charged encounter between the protagonist and her new girlfriend as they use their own bodies to create art.  I'm smiling just thinking about this.

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So...what are your favorite foods?  Your favorite books?  The music that is the soundtrack of your soul?  What movies always make you smile?  It's been a rotten week all around, so come sit by the firepit and share whatever lightens your burdens in this vale of tears....

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Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON
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alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
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Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
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FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
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Sat 11:00 AM You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews pwoodford
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

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