Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show by Geoffrey Nunberg (Public Affairs, 264 pages, $26). If the title makes you chortle, regardless of your personal ideological drift, you should know it comes from the 2004 Iowa presidential primary - specifically, an anti-Howard Dean TV ad from the "arch-conservative Club for Growth" in which a fictional announcer asked a fictional middle-aged couple about Dean's tax proposals. What Berkley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg is doing in this book is giving a thorough shaking to what is universally perceived as the Democrats' current crises in language and "narrative" in which the Right has, clearly, had not just the lion's share of success characterizing the opposition but the tiger's and rhinoceros' share too. Nunberg is a rough and ready partisan, not a theorist suffering emotional frostbite. It's just that his prescriptions for the revival of a persuasive political language for the Left come from as much scholarly breadth as hard-headed realpolitik. His book comes out July 5.
For the Love of Music: Invitation to Listening by Michael Steinberg and Larry Rothe (Oxford University Press, 251 pages, $28). No current American symphony orchestra takes the written word more seriously than the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under former Buffalo Philharmonic conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. So enlightened is the orchestra that its program guides not only feature superbly written introductions to works on the program but marvelous informal essays on various classical matters by annotaters Michael Steinberg and Larry Rothe.
The two have a solid grounding in German musical culture that bonds their outlooks. Steinberg - who actually lives with his family in Minneapolis - is the senior member and one of the great living writers on classical music. He is a former music critic with the Boston Globe and program notater for the Boston Symphony but it isn't his current duties writing for the San Francisco Symphony that most lend themselves to widespread attention, it's the exceptional wit and wisdom and scholarship of his previous listener's guides to the Symphony and the Concerto and Choral Masterworks.
Rothe has been the San Francisco Orchestra's publications editor since 1984. Between them, they've written essays that are charming and totally persuasive about what is, arguably, the only crucial one of all musical arts, the art of listening. These essays are not just dreary auditions for a berth in some harrumphing musical professoriate. The heart of the book, of course, is writing on the German musical tradition - Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, with side visits to Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. I personally like best, though, their writing on musical contemporaries from Lou Harrison to John Corigliano. It is, bless it, an enjoyable book for all levels of musical scholarship - beginning, intermediary and advanced.
- Jeff Simon