Tag Archives: Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

The Corrections: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen (Picador, $17.00, 576 pages)

Corrections Franzen

“I’m going back to New York City/I do believe I’ve had enough….” Bob Dylan, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”

I received this book as a gift from my son, which is why I proceeded to read an author I had not previously sampled. It’s a unique gift when an avid reader discovers a writer that, for lack of a better term, “lights them up.” Some novels are decent, enjoyable for certain audiences of a certain time; quaint, funny, guilty pleasures. But one occasionally comes across an author who can just plain write the hell out of a story. Jonathan Franzen is one of these gifted writers. His National Book Award (2001) winning work, The Corrections, is as fine a contemporary novel as I have encountered.

(I don’t know why I did this – because I never do – and it isn’t fair. But as I was reading the book, I could not resist the urge to compare Franzen to another accomplished author whose work I have read, Philip Roth. Roth is brilliant when he’s good, occasionally doles out some nonsense for his readers to deal with, and appears to possess a certain love-hate relationship with writing.)

Emid Lambert has been the caretaker of her ailing husband Alfred, a sympathetic victim of Parkinson’s disease. Her only desire is to enjoy one last Christmas get together with all of her children at her home in the fictitious community of St. Jude. Lambert’s perception of what constitutes the “perfect family” – considering the badly flawed personalities of her children – is comical at times; but it’s presented in a prescient way. Talk about humanity and life on a page!

Chip is an intellectual with tremendous promise as a college professor who loses it all because he cannot keep his zipper shut (ever hear that one before?). He’s so obsessed with getting his screenplay accepted, he actually abandons his parents – who have traveled across the country to see him – without warning, leaving them for his sister Denise to attend to. She is a brilliant cook who apparently has been sexually confused for most of her life, and a lesbian affair ruins her meteoric rise to stardom. Just when you want to like Denise, she comes across as some bizarre combination of helpless, frigid and psychopathic.

Gary, who lives the suburban dream to his great financial resources, corrals a middle school boy’s vision of perfection (a combination Barbie doll, cheerleader and model), Caroline. Who could ask for more? He is initially a sympathetic figure, with his wife appearing to be a highly manipulative woman, until it becomes obvious that he could be the most self-centered individual in the rather strange family!

It is a bit more than implausible that Chip somehow disappears with a Lithuanian revolutionary. Each child’s story is told in succession rather than interwoven, and this leads to characters being abandoned for lengthy portions of the almost 600 page story. It’s not completely clear why Denise’s relationship must be explored in great detail to advance the story and satisfy the reader. What is clear is that in the end, Enid sort of gets her wish fulfilled. Be careful what you wish for.

Franzen seems to have over-written the story in order to fill the expectations for a lengthy, classic, modern novel. So I would not consider this to be a “perfect” book. But is it a good read? Absolutely!

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

Mr. Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Late for the Sky

american music

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Vintage, $15.00, 256 pages)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time, too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”   Jane Mendelsohn

This one  is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.   Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is  one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who we are and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices  during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the theater?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,” Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with  her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his work.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   

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Other Voices, Other Rooms

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Knopf, 237 pages, $23.95)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

This one is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.

Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the movies?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,”  Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his job.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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