This year has been a busy one in the arts journalism business. When that happens, I fear, we tend to short change the written word, on the protext that books can be read anytime, while performances and exhibits pass by on certain dates.
For the first time this year, let's look at some of the books I have read lately, and perhaps you will see some things which will cause you to turn a page as well.
THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE
True crime books can be especially interesting, because of the added element that the events they describe actually took place.
On the other hand, some of them fade to blandness, because the people described in the book are actually around, and may sue the author or the publisher if the book isn't documented rigidly.
''The Monster of Florence'' by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi not only recounts the fascinating search for an actual Italian serial killer, it also delves into the country of Italy's court and police systems, and throws some light onto a contemporary crime scene, the prosecution and eventual release of American college student Amanda Knox.
In keeping with the recent tradition of giving serial killers, colorful nicknames such as ''Jack the Ripper'' and ''Son of Sam,'' when someone began committing gruesome murders in the fields surrounding the historic city of Florence, the newspapers quickly dubbed the killer ''The Monster of Florence.''
Beginning in 1969, young couples holding romantic meetings in autos parked in rural lanes outside of Florence were periodically found murdered. The fact that it is traditional in Italy that many young people live at home with their parents until they are married means that the number of young people who resort to holding encounters in their cars is even more frequent than it is in our country.
The male victims were always shot, and found still in their autos. The women were sometimes shot and sometimes killed with a large knife, and their bodies were always removed from the car and mutilated in grim ways.
I'm afraid that modern police dramas on television have made even worse the public thinking that police officers should just go to the crime site and have the undoubtedly guilty criminal arrested and in prison within 54 minutes. The fact that the cases created by crime series' writers are often solved in a manner virtually impossible to believe, just doesn't seem to be a factor in many people's thinking.
Also, in 1969, evidence possibilities such as DNA detection and computerized files of finger prints and other such information did not exist.
Co-author Mario Spezi was a newspaper reporter who wrote about criminal cases. He began to research the case, and to turn up possibilities, such as that an earlier crime had been committed on the nearby island of Sardinia, when a distraught husband had killed his wife and her lover, in a manner quite similar to the Monster's crimes.
Soon, the public was demanding why the police couldn't investigate as effectively as Spezi did.
About this time, American college professor Douglas Preston rented a farm house in the area with his wife and children while he carried out a sabbatical study in the area. The fact that one of the Monster's crime scenes was on the farm they were renting attracted his interest, and he began to meet and discuss the case and its investigation with Spezi.
When the police investigation began to attract increased public anger, certain of the police officials and prosecutors began to haul Spezi and Preston in for questioning. If you want to learn a valuable lesson about the importance of the U.S. Constitution and its protections, this book can teach you why those protections are important to have.
One prosecutor, in particular, demonstrated a behavior of settling on one suspect and hounding that person beyond endurance, even when it became manifestly obvious that he was not guilty. Spezi was imprisoned for a long period of time, and Preston was advised to leave Italy and to stay out of the country, as long as the case was active.
The authors point out that Amanda Knox was selected by exactly that same prosecutor, and they claim that she was convicted and jailed with no meaningful evidence, like the various defendants in the Monster case.
The book is well-written and easy to read. It's paced fairly fast, and balances well to give enough information that the reader understands what's being said, yet not so much that one gets bogged down in minor details.
''The Monster of Florence'' has 326 pages, in paperbound edition, and is marked for sale at $14.99. It was published in the U.S. in 2009, by Grand Central Publishing, and you can find it at ISBN number 978-0-446-58127-1. The online catalog of the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library system lists 11 libraries which have one or more copies available for borrowing, as well as a number of other true and fictional books by Preston.
NADJA: ON MY WAY
Many people, including myself, are fascinated by the mind of a genius. What are the qualities which set apart a person who stands head and shoulders above nearly everyone else on earth, from someone who is merely hard-working and with a positive outlook.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is one such genius. Her ability to produce the most complicated and emotionally thrilling sounds from a violin have made her one of the most respected concert violinists and teachers in the world today. Within recent memory, she performed for the members of the Jamestown Concert Association, with an orchestra at the Reg Lenna Civic Center in Jamestown, and some music lovers still cherish the memory.
The artist has published a brief autobiography, in which she maintains the same casual ease which she showed on stage, when she held her million-dollar instrument by its neck and flipped it into the air and caught it, while waiting for the orchestra to reach the section of the concerto at which she would need to play.
To quote the author, ''Being a musician is never easy. It takes guts or stupidity to walk onstage and play the violin. If you have a bad day, you have it in front of thousands of people. But, no matter what happens in your life, the music is always there. Friends may run away, but Brahms never well. But, he's listening.''
The future violinist was born in Rome in 1961. Her parents separated while she was very young, and she credits the combination of support and direction from her mother and grandparents for her eventual success. Her original name was just Sonnenberg, but she has added her mother's maiden name of Salerno, in appreciation for that family's support.
The book is written for young readers, who might be considering a career in the arts. She spells out in clear terms the demands of such a career, and the kinds of choices which she nearly made as a young student, which would have destroyed her career and her development as an artist.
The young Nadja was stubborn, for example. She could play reasonably good music with a faulty technique, and was nearly thrown out of the Juilliard School for refusing to attempt her teachers' advised techniques. She shares with her readers the way she found to compromise between what worked for her and what is traditionally held to be the best methodology for performing.
The book is short, and has only 75 pages in hardbound edition, plus a list of her professional recordings, as of the publication of the book, and an index. It's not gripping reading, but it's pleasant and easy to read, and parents who are struggling with how to best serve a talented child - how much pressure, how much praise, how much expenditure of money, etc. - will find it a treasure.
Young, potential artists should be happy to read it, as well.
''Nadja: On My Way'' was published by Crown Publishers in New York City. Online booksellers list it for sale between $3 and $15. Find it with ISN'T number 0-517-57391-1. The online catalog lists one copy available from the two-county library system. It is located in Randolph.
VINCENTE MINNELLI: HOLLYWOOD'S DARK DREAMER
Everyone knows that popular performing artist Liza Minelli is the daughter of singing icon Judy Garland. Many people know virtually everything about the two women. Not as many know the father in that arrangement: Vincente Minnelli.
For those who are interested, a recent biography by Emanuel Levy can fill you in on the long and successful career of Minelli, and of his convoluted relationship with Ms. Garland.
No less an expert than Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote the lyrics to ''My Fair Lady,'' ''Camelot,'' and a great many more musicals, once called Minelli ''the greatest director of motion picture musicals the screen has ever known.''
Among the films he directed were ''An American in Paris,'' ''Meet Me in St. Louis,'' ''Brigadoon,'' ''Gigi,'' and many more classics of the genre. Among his many non-musicals was ''The Long, Long Trailer,'' starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
The future director was born in 1903, and was originally named Lester Anthony Minnelli. He was a lonely and awkward young man, but he inherited a solid family background in the performing arts. His father, for example, was a successful composer of band music, and he operated with his brother, a summer theater in Delaware, Ohio, which performed in a circus-like tent. One of his aunts was a performer on the flying trapeze with a major circus.
One thing the book points out about this background is that when many young people first show indications that they have talents in an unusual field of pursuit, often they are discouraged, if not prohibited from developing their talents. Because the Minnellis were used to ''show business types,'' they accepted and encouraged his talents.
While still in high school, he would change his own first name to the French spelling ''Vincente,'' because he recognized that sounding experienced and sophisticated was the first step toward being treated seriously and not dismissed out of hand by busy people in positions of power.
Minnelli's entire life was a perpetual struggle between a deep-set shyness and lack of self confidence, and a provable talent and a head full of creative ideas. Fortunately, his dogged pursuit of the jobs and opportunities that he wanted won out more often than the bullies and hot shots who tried to shout him down and put themselves into the places he wished to go.
Family members would later remember him staring into a mirror and saying to himself, ''Look at you. You're 9 years old and you haven't accomplished a thing yet. You're a failure.''
Minnelli first worked his way into theater as a set and costume designer. Often, his suggestions to directors made developing productions so much better that gradually the invitations to direct, himself, came along. He directed plays in Chicago, then got hired for Broadway shows in New York City, and eventually found his way to Hollywood, where he found his way into the major studios and became internationally celebrated for popular motion pictures, especially musical films.
While he would marry, before his death of emphysema in 1986, three successful women, in addition to Judy Garland, Minnelli also became involved in homosexual relationships. Various people are interviewed in the book who suggest that despite the frequency of gay relationships in theater and motion pictures, public prejudice was so strong that threats from rivals frequently convinced those who participated in such relationships to withdraw from competitions for jobs, or to allow others to force their ideas into works of which they were in charge.
The relationship between Minnelli and the star of the film which the book evaluates as ''his first masterpiece,'' ''Meet Me in St. Louis,'' is central to the book. Garland was an established movie star who had been deliberately fed endless pills so that she could work unbearably long hours with endless pep, then crash to lengthy sleeps from which it was difficult to awaken her. Her husband's attempts to wean her off the pills were opposed, not only by Garland, but by the studios.
As a result, the couple indulged their daughter Liza, probably marring her character for life by buying her cooperation with endless gifts, trips, and other such experiences.
The book is an endless parade of names such as Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, and many more who were made stars under Minnelli's direction.
It's not an intellectually deep biography, but it's well written, impressively documented, and full of people and events which are likely to interest you.
''Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood's Dark Dreamer'' was published by St. Martin's Press, in 2009. It has 406 pages in hardbound edition. You can find it with ISN'T number 0-312-32925-3. Although the library system's catalog lists five different volumes by Levy, there are no copies of the Minnelli biography as of the time of this writing.
A true crime study, a biography for the young of a world class musician, and a study of the career of a Hollywood director, all reviewed this week. Life truly is a banquet.