Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / October 17, 2010

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By Alex Ross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp., $27

In what sounds like some highbrow laboratory experiment, Alex Ross was raised entirely on classical music — “the music,” he calls it, borrowing jazz players’ term for their art. When, in college in the 1980s, he was introduced to cutting-edge rock, he brought to Radiohead the same articulate intellectual intensity commanded by Beethoven and Brahms, an approach that recommended him to The New Yorker, which snapped him up as its music critic when he was in his 20s.

That posture of eclectic inquiry infuses this absorbing collection of magazine pieces. A Bob Dylan song, for example, elicits references to Schubert and Purcell, though Ross is no less astute about Dylan’s impact on popular culture, and that culture’s impact on Dylan.

A 2007 article, “The Anti-Maestro,” profiles Esa-Pekka Salonen, then of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose mandate seems to have been not unlike Ross’s at The New Yorker: attract a hip new audience without driving off the old one. The piece thus functions as a polite rebuke of New York’s own Philharmonic and its hidebound patrons, though not so polite as to forbid a reference to the latter’s “necrophiliac leanings.”

By Rebecca Connell
Europa, 240 pp., $15

“I have this talent for following,” the young protagonist of this debut novel tells us. We must accept this claim skeptically, since, although she introduces herself as Lydia, we know she is actually called Louise. Adopting the name of her mother, who died when Louise was a child, the daughter sets out to find and punish the man she holds responsible for Lydia’s death — Nicholas, Lydia’s lover. But unbeknownst to Louise, Nicholas is already suffering agonies of guilt and regret.

Nicholas isn’t hard to find: He lectures at Oxford. Just as Nicholas, years before, had contrived to stay close to Lydia by befriending her husband, now Louise gets close to Nicholas by cozying up to his son, an Oxford undergraduate. But before she can exact her unspecified revenge, the plot presents a final twist that would be shocking if we hadn’t seen it coming a mile away.

Rebecca Connell has clearly studied the grandes dames of the British psychological thriller, like Ruth Rendell and P.D. James, not the most age-appropriate style for a writer — and characters — some generations younger to emulate. A distinct odor of midcentury mildew clings to this glib but hollow melodrama.

The Life of Sarah Bernhardt

By Robert Gottlieb
Yale University, 256 pp., $25

Reading Robert Gottlieb’s sly biography of Sarah Bernhardt, we understand why her name lives on while her contemporaries’ have faded. Heedless of rules, ravenous for attention, Bernhardt was a celebrity in a very contemporary sense. In fact, no less an authority than Henry James credited her with inventing the profession.

Born in the 1840s to a minor Parisian cocotte and, probably, one of her aristocratic clients, Sarah would doubtless have followed in her mother’s disreputable footsteps had not someone suggested the theater. The rest is history, or rather legend, concocted largely by Bernhardt herself, who left little to chance, at least when it came to publicity. Famous for her incandescent stage presence and (by her era’s standards) her slender figure, she captivated Paris and the universe, tirelessly performing tragic heroines into her 70s. The bane of moralists, modernists, and anti-Semites, she devoured lovers by the score and flaunted her illegitimate son as a daring accessory.

Does the world need another Sarah Bernhardt biography? Maybe not. But the estimable Gottlieb takes such evident delight in providing one, generously illustrated, that we receive it with the same pleasure.

Amanda Heller, a critic and editor who lives in Newton, can be reached at