Tag Archives: Carnegie Hall

Mean Mr. Mustard

Devil’s Trill: A Novel by Gerald Elias (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 304 pages)

“…musicians far greater than myself have overcome far greater obstacles in life than losing ridiculous little competitions.”

I’m generally not a huge fan of mysteries but this was one that I could not manage to put down.   Devil’s Trill centers around Daniel Jacobus (who likes to be called Jacobus, never Daniel), who was once a gifted musical child prodigy.   As a thirteen-year-old, Jacobus took second place – the same as coming in last – at the prestigious Grimsely Competition at Carnegie Hall.   He’s always had a grudge about what happened to him at the Grimsely – a unique competition held at 13-year intervals – and he subsequently lost his eyesight due to an infection.   Despite this, Jacobus managed to have a fair to middling career as a classical musician, who could literally play blind, without the need for scores.   In the last few decades, he’s made a living as a musical instructor for young musicians – some of whom, in a sense, he grooms to win the prizes and successful careers that escaped his own grasp.

As we meet Jacobus, he elects to be present – along with his latest student, Yumi Shinagawa of Japan – at the latest edition of the Grimsely, where the winning competitor is granted the honor of performing with a priceless Stradivarius violin.   All is fine except that once the special evening is concluded, its determined that the $8,000,000 Stradivarius has disappeared from the reception held at Carnegie Hall.   There are many suspects, but Jacobus soon comes to realize that the New York City police suspect him most of all.   (Jacobus has often publicly expressed his opinion that the Grimsely uses child prodigies unfairly, and he comes to find that all of its winners ultimately fell short of the brilliant careers they were once promised.)

Since the rare violin was under the protection of two armed guards before it was stolen, it’s clear that whoever took it was a person with a deep knowledge of the classical music business.   Forced to clear his name, Jacobus will join with the intelligent and precocious Yumi and a music-worshipping insurance agent to attempt to solve the crime before the police do.   The effort may require Jacobus to leave the country, cementing the perception that he’s a guilty man.

“Unaccustomed to the idea of happiness…  Jacobus was at a loss how to proceed.”

“Jacobus did not suffer zealots gladly…”

What makes this read especially enjoyable is the character of our protagonist, Jacobus.   He’s brilliant but a self-proclaimed grouchy old man:  “…now we’re all just old farts.”   He may remind some readers of the main character-physician in the current TV series, House.   Jacobus lives by his instincts, but he attempts to rule sighted people by intimidation (only his extremely high I.Q. lets him get away with it the majority of the time.)

Having a basic knowledge of classical music will assist the reader but is not required.   Elias, who is a violinist, concertmaster and professor of music, supplies all of the necessary background on the composers mentioned in the story, such as Jacobus’ idol Ludwig von Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Mendelssohn, and the other great Masters.   Reading Devil’s Trill is like sitting in the audience as a great orchestra plays Beethoven’s classic Fifth Symphony.   Highly recommended.

This reader looks forward to picking up the next novel in the Daniel Jacobus series, Danse Macabre.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A review of Devil’s Trill: A Novel by Gerald Elias.

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I Still Miss Someone

Composed

Composed: A Memoir by Rosanne Cash (Viking, $26.95, 245 pages; Penguin Books, $17.00, 256 pages)

“It’s me.   They are all me, the good and the bad.”

Rosanne Cash’s memoir starts off flat and rather dull before it kicks into gear; it then becomes more engaging with every page.   Composed has the same type of non-chronological structure as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which perhaps is not an accident as Bob gets a lot of play in this account of the life of Johnny Cash’s daughter.   It almost goes without saying that this is also a first-hand tribute to her late father, the Man in Black.

“On Friday, September 12, air had still gone in and out of his lungs; he had moved his limbs and made sounds.   He had actually squeezed my hand and lifted his eyebrows.   It was a difficult day, the last day of my dad’s life, but not unbearable to me.   The next day, the beginning of my dad’s life in the past tense, was unbearable.”

Rosanne paints her father as a man with faults and addictions (brought on by a jaw broken during dental surgery), but also as a loving man who quietly gave guidance to his daughters.   She came to take him for granted during his life – always sharing him with the world – but has found life difficult without him.

Early in his career Bob Dylan wrote songs based on dreams, and here Rosanne points out that her life has been shaped by a series of remembered dreams.   One of them involved Linda Ronstadt and Cash’s realization that she had been faking it in her career to that point, afraid to take serious chances.   After having that momentous dream, Rosanne resolved to work harder, especially as a serious songwriter.

Another dream involved her father and her need to let him go:  “When I woke…  I felt relief.   It was no longer my job to take care of him, as he was being taken care of, wherever he was.   The legacy of his work was intact, in my dream preserved as carefully and conscientiously as if it had been in a museum.   Something settled…  I could let him move on now.”

One surprise about reading Composed is finding out that Johnny Cash’s daughter is far more a fan of rock musicians than country singer-songwriters.   Yes, she has her idols and heroes in the latter category but she was heavily influenced by Dylan, Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles.   All of these influences seem to have come together in her biggest hit single, “Seven Year Ache.”

As with the afore-mentioned Chronicles, Rosanne Cash writes in a style that is so unique it could not have been ghostwritten.   She has been a long-time student of words and she finds just the right ones to accompany each and every tale of her life told here.

“If Magritte had painted my childhood, it would be a chaos of floating snakes, white oxfords, dead Chihuahuas, and pink hair rollers.”

Composed paper

Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to a memoir is to say that it enabled the reader to come to know the person who wrote it.   Having read Composed, I feel that I now know Rosanne Cash and I like her.   I look forward to hearing more of her music.   As a songwriter she’s joined her idols as one of the best.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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