Tag Archives: romance

This Ain’t No Disco

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Harper Perennial; $15.99; 560 pages)

“There was no statute of limitations on murder.”

Lauren Belfer has produced a grand, glorious and occasionally disappointing tale of medicine, war, love and other things in this 560 page historical novel.   This is primarily a fictional account of the discovery and development of penicillin soon after the United States was dragged into World War II.   Belfer sets the scene well, convincing the reader that Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming experience for the average American; quite comparable to 9/11.

The primary character is one Claire Shipley, a photographer for Life magazine which provides her with the credentials to witness history in the making.   In this role, Claire comes to meet and fall in love with James Stanton, the physician who is heading the government’s military-based efforts to develop the new drug on a massive scale.   Claire can relate to the importance of Stanton’s mission as her daughter died from a blood-borne disease at a young age, a disease that might have been halted by penicillin.

One early surprise about this novel is that Stanton reports to a civilian authority figure in Washington, D.C. – a man by the name of Vannevar Bush.   Bush, a key scientist and organizer of the project that led to the development of the atomic bomb, comes across as a very serious and intelligent figure, yet with a touch of playfulness.   With Bush, Belfer succeeds in bringing a lesser-known historical figure to life.

She also succeeds, at least during the first half of A Fierce Radiance, in juxtaposing two stories, the story of the medicine, science and sheer luck behind the development of a life saving drug, and a love story.   Claire and James meet the love of their lives when they meet each other, but each has issues and problems that make their becoming a couple unlikely.   Each has perhaps seen too much of life by the time they’ve met.

If Belfer has played it safe to this point, she soon gambles with the reader’s patience and understanding.   This is because a murder affecting one of the major characters occurs, turning a two-headed story into a three-headed one.   Now the novel is not just about the war and medicine and love during wartime, it also becomes a murder mystery.   It seems at first a bit much especially when – wouldn’t you know it – a New York City Police Department detective (wise and grizzled) enters the scene.

Of course, the author has provided herself with a very broad field to work in here; one can tie together a lot of loose ends in close to 600 pages.   What Belfer does so well is to write in a voice that makes the reader feel “calmed and safe.”   There’s a patience and politeness in the voice that will seem familiar to readers of Anna Quindlen and to those who have read the other recent novel about life in the U.S. during World War II, The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.   It’s as if the oh-so-calm voice does take us back to an earlier time with ease.

Yet there are at least two problems with the telling.   First, the omniscient point of view of the narrator becomes tiring and also keeps the reader from knowing each of the characters as well as we would like.   Because the omniscient (godlike) narrator goes into the mind of every character, the author skimps on well-rounded character development.   This becomes frustrating to the reader and may be a major reason the omniscient voice is used less and less in today’s popular fiction.

Next, while Belfer has written a story that reads like an overly long screenplay, if it were made into a film, most viewers would be very far from satisfied with the ending.   The author does not take the easy way out…  she ends the story with a whimper rather than with a bang.   In this she may have successfully reflected the happenings of life in a truer way than it might be displayed in a tightly scripted and highly dramatic Hollywood-style ending.   This may well be to the author’s credit but it is asking a lot – in fact, far too much – of a reader to devote more than 550 pages to a story that sometimes sizzles before it blandly fizzles out.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   A Fierce Radiance will be released in trade paperback form on March 29, 2011.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

With a Little Help From My Friends

The Island: A Novel by Elin Hilderbrand (Unabridged Hachette audio book on 13 CDs; $34.98)

When the going gets tough for Chess Cousins, she and three other East Coast ladies retreat to Tuckernuck Island off the coast of Nantucket.   These ladies are not just anyone; they are Chess’s mother Birdie Cousins, aunt Ida Bishop and sister Tate Cousins.   Tough doesn’t begin to describe Chess’s situation as her recently dumped fiance has died in a rock climbing incident and she has walked out on her editorial job at a prestigious culinary magazine.   To make matters worse, Chess decides to cut her shining golden hair and shave her head.

Birdie masterminds their trip to the family vacation home on Tuckernuck.   The house lacks hot water, electricity, and television and cell phone reception.   After a 13-year family hiatus from vacationing on the property, the ladies come together for the month of July.   The plan is to allow Chess the solitude and support she needs to get beyond her depression.

Author Hilderbrand present a masterfully simple story that expands as the days on the island are counted off, one by one.   The cadence of the story, narrated by Denice Hicks, is one of calm repetition that includes descriptions of the locale, conversations, meal preparation and the introspective thoughts of the ladies.   The activities they perform daily become part of the story line.   There are bursts of emotion that erupt from the interactions of the characters.   The narrator balances the dulcet tones of Birdie with the harsh outbursts from Tate and Chess.   India’s throaty voice is a sharp contrast to those of her sister and nieces.   This is only right as she is a worldly woman who is herself the widow.

The key male character is Barrett Lee, a golden hunk of a man in his thirties, who is the caretaker of the house.   He brings the food, wine, ice and clean laundry daily from Nantucket.   Although Nantucket is only a half-mile away by boat, it might as well be on another continent.   Both Barrett and his father Chuck before him have captured the hearts and imaginations of the respective generations of sisters.

The sense of isolation felt by Birdie, India and Tate serves to prompt them to deal with their own issues even though they are supposed to be assisting Chess.   There is a sense of dancing around each one’s life situation, avoiding the whole truth, shying away and then revisiting them again and again.   Each revisit brings more of the backstories to the fore.   The complexity of the emotions and fears brought on by the need for someone to love is flavored with loving kindness, frustration, self-awareness and anxiety.

In a sense, the book is a confessional.   The four points of view on love and loss, sibling rivalry and what it means to be loved are beautifully portrayed in this multi-generational saga.

Highly recommended, and, yes, it’s a fine example of chick lit.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the audio book was provided by Hachette Audio.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Seasonal Giveaway

Thanks to Grand Central Publishing and Hachette Book Group, USA we have a copy to give away of Sundays at Tiffany’s by America’s bestselling author, James Patterson.   He wrote this novel with Gabrielle Charbonnet and it’s being featured this month as a Lifetime original television movie, which will be shown on December 11th, 12th and on the 31st – check your TV listings!   Alyssa Milano stars in the Lifetime film version.

Here is the official synopsis of the book, and also a short excerpt –

An Imaginary Friend

Jane Margaux is a lonely little girl.   Her mother, a powerful Broadway producer, makes time for her only once a week, for their Sunday trip to admire jewelry at Tiffany’s.   Jane has only one friend: a handsome, comforting, funny man named Michael.   He’s perfect.   But only she can see him.   Michael can’t stay forever, though.   On Jane’s ninth birthday he leaves, promising her that she’ll soon forget him.

An Unexpected Love

Years later, in her thirties, Jane is just as alone as she was as a child.   And despite her own success as a playwright, she is even more trapped by her overbearing mother.   Then she meets someone – a handsome, comforting, funny man.   He’s perfect.   His name is Michael…

And An Unforgettable Twist

This is a heartrending story that surpasses all expectations of why these people have been brought together.   With the breathtaking momentum and gripping emotional twists that have made James Patterson a bestselling author all over the world, Sundays at Tiffany’s takes an altogether fresh look at the timeless and transforming power of love.

Prologue / Jane’s Michael

Michael was running as fast as he could, racing down thickly congested streets toward New York Hospital – Jane was dying there – when suddenly a scene from the past came back to him, a dizzying rush of overpowering memories that nearly knocked him out of his sneakers.   He remembered sitting with Jane in the Astor Court at the St. Regis Hotel, the two of them there under circumstances too improbable to imagine.

He remembered everything perfectly – Jane’s hot fudge and coffee ice cream sundae, what they had talked about – as if it had happened yesterday.   All of it almost impossible to believe.   No, definitely impossible to believe.

It was just like every other unfathomable mystery in life, Michael couldn’t help thinking as he ran harder, faster.

Like Jane dying on him now, after everything they had been through to be together.

This fantasy-romance tale in trade paperback form has a value of $13.99 in the U.S. and $15.99 in Canada.   In order to enter this book giveaway, just post a comment below with your name and an e-mail address.   Or you can send an e-mail to Josephsreviews@gmail.com with this information.   This will count as a first entry.

To enter a second time, tell us what you would like Santa to get someone you know this Christmas.   It doesn’t matter who it is, just as long as the gift is not for yourself.   It can even be for your dog or cat!   Just answer the question and this will count as a second entry.

In order to enter this book giveaway, you must live in the continental United States or in Canada.   If Munchy the cat picks out your name as the winner, you must supply a residential mailing address when contacted.   This book will not be shipped to a business-related address or to a P. O. box.   You have until Midnight PST on Thursday, December 30, 2010 to enter, so don’t delay! 

This is it for our typically complex contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Missing Persons

Continuing a Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew

6.   What is the most interesting or surprising fact you learned about your grandmother?

I discovered that she’d had a love affair of some sort with a French brigadier who was in charge of a German POW camp a couple miles down the road from the little village where she and her fellow relief workers were headquartered after the war.   That really was a surprise.   When I developed those photographs from the packet of negatives, almost the first thing I noticed were several photographs of a handsome man in a French uniform – he looked like Clark Gable – and I thought, “Who is this?”   But it wasn’t until I started doing research in the Wellesley archive that I found out his name, then later I found letters from a nurse in Lucile’s unit that corroborated what I’d already begun to suspect.   My father loved finding out that his mother had had a romance.   That was perhaps the single most important discovery for him – it humanized her more than anything else I found out.

7.   Your story is in essence two stories – the biography of your grandmother, and the story of a daughter trying to provide a mother for her elderly father.   How did you meld these two stories together?

Mostly by trying to remember that one didn’t have much relevance for the reader without the other.   Also by recognizing that these are not only two stories, they are two impossible stories:  My grandmother has been dead for over 75 years and almost everything that once belonged to her was thrown away, so to try to “find” her I had to look past what I didn’t know into what could be or might be true.   My father lost his mother over 75 years ago.   I couldn’t “give” her back to him; but I could give him my efforts to reconstruct her life, and that brought the two of us much closer after many years of estrangement.

Yet always, always I had to keep my eye on what I couldn’t do, couldn’t know.   Which, oddly enough, is what gives this book tension and coherence, or that’s what I hope.

8.   You discover that the function of family history is “to explain what is essentially inexplicable – how we came to be ourselves.”   Do you feel that you, and your father, now have a better sense of who you are and how you became that way?

History is made up of people and what they do and what they fail to do, just as people are made up of all the history that has gone before them.   What I helped my father reclaim, I believe, is the feeling of being connected to something larger than himself.   Lucile was an intellectual, an early feminist, a business executive, a relief worker, a wife and mother.   She was a person of history, who was a product of her times, and also more than that, as we are all more than just “products” of our time.   Through his mother, my father was connected to tremendous world events, to commercial innovation, political change, seismic social shifts, war.   And so, I discovered, was I.

Of course, we are also very much products of a family history, shaped by certain traits and tendencies, either genetically inherited or passed along, as well as influenced by family losses and achievements.   Putting some of my own tendencies within some sort of ancestral context was liberating for me at least.   Or maybe it simply made me feel less alone with them.

9.   You are the author of three acclaimed novels.   How was the writing process for this nonfiction book different?

Well, frankly, I first tried to write a novel about Lucile, especially after I started learning about her experiences in France after the war.   I thought I could make her come alive after I started learning for my father even more palpably through fiction.   And she seemed like such a promising heroine for a novel!   The grocer’s daughter in ruined France.   But the fact of her kept getting in the way of the fiction I was trying to create – and the fact kept being more interesting.

So to answer your question, the process was not entirely different from what usually happens for me, which is that I have an idea for a novel and then I work away at that idea for years, and the result is nothing like what I first imagined.   In this case, I had an idea for a novel and then abandoned the idea of a novel and wrote a biography instead.

10.  What do you want readers to take away from Missing Lucile?

I’ve come to think that every family has a “missing person,” someone who died young, or disappeared, or was exiled from the family for some real or perceived crime.   Missing relatives are ghosts – real ghosts – and they haunt us by making us wonder how life might have been had they not vanished.   Maybe we would be kinder, or braver, or have made better decisions.   Maybe we wouldn’t have felt so at odds with the world.   Who knows?   I suppose I’d like readers to finish the book and realize that no one is really missing if you start looking for her.

Missing Lucile has been released by Algonquin ($23.95; 296 pages).   “Takes us deep into the lore of history as well as family.”   Sven Birkerts

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Hang On Sloopy

Woof: A Love Story by Sarah Weeks; Illustrated by Holly Berry (HarperCollins, $16.99, 32 pages).   Age range: 4 to 8.

A dog is a dog/ and a cat is a cat/ And most of the time/ it’s as simple as that/ Or is it?

Young children’s literature is alive and well!   The dynamic duo of author Sarah Weeks and illustrator Holly Berry have teamed up to create a colorful, delightful and endearing picture book.   Woof is the story of a dog who, at first glance, becomes smitten with a lovely white kitty.   His tale is set forth in rhyming verses guaranteed to delight both the listener and the reader.   The illustrations are created using an imaginative combination of original woodcuts and photographic images.   The effect is just eye-catching enough to enliven the story without being jarring.

Woof is big enough for the reader to hold it while allowing the listener to easily turn the pages.   Although the story line is a bit improbable (it involves a buried trombone ), it sets the stage for a dialogue about ways of communicating that can take place between the person reading the book and his or her young listener.   Clearly, woof and meow are not the only way for the two characters to share their feelings.   Music is the key to their understanding of each other.  

Delightful – 5 Woofs (or Meows).   Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   “This humorous and heartfelt story is about the power of love and the power of music, told through the eyes of a lovelorn dog and the cat he adores.”   HarperCollins

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fast Company

Breaking the Rules: A Novel by Barbara Taylor Bradford (St. Martin’s Paperbacks; $7.99)

“She is a top supermodel, one of the world’s most beautiful women.   Men love her.   Women adore her.   So why is someone trying to kill her?”

Who are these people?

Fortitude, commitment and romance are the main ingredients of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Emma Harte series.   Breaking the Rules is the seventh and most recent book in the series.   Considering the squeaky clean virtuous heroine, M, readers will soon realize that she isn’t the one breaking the rules.   Yes, our spunky and independent English lass has some felonious thoughts; however, since M does not follow through with putting them into play, she is able to retain her image.

Author Bradford seems to abhor loose ends and she takes 488 pages to provide her reader with a neatly bundled story.   What this reviewer wants to know is who are these people populating the story?   Surely there is a family with extreme wealth and power headed by gorgeous women whose great loves are lurking just around the corner.   Maybe they exist in never, never land, but not in the real world.

Maybe that’s the draw of romance novels.   They are geared to transport the reader away from the mundane and, in recent times, painful reality of every-day-life.   What is the target audience?   Is there an age group that Bradford aims to please?   If so, perhaps happily married, grandmas-to-be aren’t  part of the group.   Too much fantasy, just like too many cooks, can spoil the story for a reader who takes pleasure in the small joys of life.

By the way, the costly pink champagne used throughout the story is a not-so-subtle indicator that Bradford’s characters are more than a cut above the average celebrant.   Too bad she had to hammer the reader over the head with the reference!   The Hermes Kelly handbags were proof enough that these people are not at all like you and me!

Recommended if you like that sort of book.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the book was purchased for her.   Barbara Taylor Bradford’s new novel is Playing the Game (St. Martin’s Press; $27.99; 400 pages).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Hello Goodbye

Antonia Fraser is known in England as Lady Antonia Fraser, her father having been an Earl.   Her forthcoming book Must You Go? – My Life with Harold Pinter will be released in the U.S. on November 2, 2010 by Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday.   Fraser’s memoir centers on her 33-year love affair with, and marriage to, the celebrated playwright and poet Harold Pinter.  

We’ll have a review up by the release date of Must You Go? but, in the interim, it’s worth noting that this memoir is getting fantastic write-ups on the other side of the pond.   Here’s a small sampling.

“Writing with exemplary clarity and courage…  Fraser keeps her gaze steady and her heart open.”   – The Independent

“The book is intimate without being confessional, and on certain subjects (Fraser) prefers to say nothing.   But she’s not so discreet as to be dull, and there’s a lot of humour.”   – Blake Morrison, The Guardian

“It may lack sensational revelations but Antonia Fraser’s memoir of married life with Pinter is eccentric and hilarious.”   – Rachel Cooke, The Observer

“It is neither autobiography nor biography but a love story, romantic, poignant and very funny, illuminating her husband’s character and creativity.”   The Times

“This book works, just as it appears their lives (together) worked, as the most touching and enduring of love stories…  The ending is… almost unbearably moving.   The whole of this lovely book fills you with a gratitude that happenstance can, once in a while, not screw up and find the right girl for the right boy.”   – Dominic Dromgoole, Financial Times

“It’s enormously enjoyable to read…  because this is a book that’s intimate without being confessional, and that’s a very unusual thing today.   At the end of it you feel you’ve had an insight into a great romance…  She’s really pulled off something of enormous subtlety.”   Tina Brown, The Daily Beast

“This book – full of funny and tender things – satisfies on more than one level.   It is an intimate account of the life and habits of a major artist; it is a pencil sketch of British high society in the second half of the 20th century; and it is, more than either of these things, and much more unusually, a wonderfully full description of the deep pleasures and comforts of married love.”   – The Spectator

“The final third of Must You Go? is dominated by Pinter’s ill-health, his award of the Nobel prize, and his courageous struggle still to speak out on the issues that concerned him.   In many ways they are the best part of the book.”   – Robert Harris, The Sunday Times

Interested?   Lady Antonia Fraser will appear at the Los Angeles Public Library (630 W. 5th Street) at 7:00 p.m. on November 8, 2010; and at the San Francisco City Arts & Lectures Herbst Theatre (401 Van Ness Avenue) on November 9, 2010 at 8:00 p.m.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

White Room

The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier (Henry Holt & Co.; $25.00; 304 pages)

“…my house, my home, had become something deep and comforting to me, far beyond what I’d ever expected to find or feel in an unprofessional world, or a world outside of ideas, of letters and literature.”

“…most men tend to live one-dimensional lives…”

Have you ever watched one of those home improvement shows on a channel like HGTV where you patiently wait through the whole show for the big reveal at the end – and then the end is a disappointment?   That’s kind of the way I felt about reading this book, which I wanted to like more than I did.   There was just less here than I expected to find.

This is basically the story of a romance between an academic homeowner, Joy Harkness, and a handyman-carpenter by the name of Ted Hennessey.   Joy leaves the politics of Columbia University to teach in an innovative new program at Amherst College in Massachusetts.   She has plenty of money so she buys her first real home, which is a run-down Victorian.   Of course, it needs to be run-down in order for Teddy to enter the picture.

It was the character of Teddy Hennessey that just did not add up for me and made the read slower than it should have been.   When we first encounter Teddy, he’s the handyman who listens to The Who cassettes all day on his boom box.   That’s when he’s not reciting the poetry of Yeats, from memory no less.   Now, really, what are the chances of hiring a handyman like that?   Well, virtually none in the real world.   Highly improbable to say the least.

“I’ll always be her child!” he snarled.

Oh, but then we think that maybe Teddy’s a closet intellectual who is just dying for the chance to go to college, something that Joy can help him with, right?   No, it turns out that Teddy is afraid of going to school because then he’d have to leave his sainted mother who has him wrapped around her finger like a 9-year-old.   So we’re left with a man-child who is simply not likeable (at least I can’t think of any male I know who would feel any sympathy for him).   Why the once-married, yet independent, Joy is attracted to the wuss that is Teddy is a sheer mystery.

Since the romance between Teddy and Joy appears to be doomed – he, by the way, calls her “man” – Joy develops an attraction to her abode.   This is merely a comforting, if hardly an earth shattering, premise on which to build a novel…

“I turned and noticed, as I climbed up the steps to the porch, that my house looked warm and welcoming.   The rooms were lit, glowing from within; the colors they reflected were soft and inviting.   There was life in this house, and I was part of it.”

There was also a lot of crying in this book.   “Tears ran down my face and puddle around my nose before soaking the pillow.   I didn’t know why I was crying…”   “I’ve cried more this year than in the past twenty combined.”   “(I) cried until I didn’t think there could possibly be any liquid left in my body.”   I’m not sure why the otherwise solid – and growingly feminist – protagonist needs to experience such intense crying jags, another confusing factor.

One more confusing thing concerns a major scene in the book.   Joy’s married-but-separated friend Donna is savagely attacked by her former husband.   Donna’s ex uses a golf club to beat her nearly to death; pieces of her scalp are found on the club by the police.   Donna apparently has several broken bones in her face and is in critical condition.   She is rushed to the hospital for life-saving surgery and facial reconstruction.   A number of characters in this story act commendably, taking care of Donna’s children during the time that she’s away.   Eventually, Donna returns home on Valentine’s Day and the very thing the reader wants to know goes hauntingly unanswered – what does her face look like?   (It’s as if the character departs as a human but returns as a ghost.)

On the plus side, there’s some nice humor:  “I went into the dressing room and emerged from the curtain in outfit after outfit, like a puppet in a Punch and Judy show.”   But as for the ending of this story, it just seemed to me to run out of steam rather than conclude in a definitive (and logical) way.

Some will be attracted to this book because of its promise of a type of late-in-life feminism, or the notion that someone can, in a sense, partner with one’s surroundings.   Both are promising and positive notions but they did not eliminate a sense of hollowness.   Still Diane Meier has a nice, entertaining writing style; she’s a smoother version of Anna Quindlen.

“I had no story, or, at least, none that I could see.   But my vantage point was, perhaps, too close to the shore to see that I had, at last, begun to swim toward my own life.”

For the right reader, there may be lessons here that will assist in commencing a journey of self-examination and discovery; for that it is never, ever, too late.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

There I’ve Said It Again

How to Buy a Love of Reading: A Novel by Tanya Egan Gibson (Plume; $15.00; 400 pages)

Two highbrow writers and several low brow nouveau riche folks who reside in a community ruled by excess and one-upmanship are skewered with wicked satire in this irresistible debut novel by Tanya Egan Gibson.   Rest assured, Ms. Gibson takes the time, and she has the talent, to fully develop her characters.   Everyone from the protagonist, Carley Wells, to the object of her affection, Hunter Cay, takes their turn in the spotlight.

This is far from the usual ugly duckling or misfit gone berserk story.   Rather, the reader is permitted to delve into the complexities of what appears to be a very “simple” girl.   Carley is the vulnerable 16-year-old daughter of a brassiere mogul.   She does not fit in size-wise or intellectually with her prep school classmates.   Moreover, Carly has not encountered a book that she likes.   This is problematic as she is expected to earn a passing grade in prep school literature and go on to college.   To make matters worse, her harridan of a mother, Gretchen, lacks even a smidgen of empathy or love for anyone but herself.

Hunter Cay is a brilliant writer and obscenely beautiful fellow who is one year Carley’s senior.   He and Carley formed an unusual friendship when he and his mother became part of the wealthy community following his mother’s divorce from his billionaire father.   Carley loves him unconditionally and proves it by her willingness to accept whatever attention and caring he gives her.   She dotes on him and is also a first-class enabler of his vices.

There are parties galore to celebrate birthdays, literature and Hunter’s mother’s engagement.   The descriptions of the elaborate decorations, clothing and food for these events are spot on for a wealthy enclave, which makes this reviewer think that Ms. Gibson may have attended a few such parties in her own lifetime.   Carley’s birthday party has the craziness reminiscent of the masquerade ball in the classic film “The Pink Panther.”

All of this foolishness aside, there is much more to this book than a satirical plot.   The theme explores the idea of growing up into who you need to be to allow yourself to lead a meaningful life.   There are casualties along the way – the notion of the value of extreme wealth being one of them.   Even with billions, some of the characters are hard pressed to escape their personal fears and demons.   By the end of the tale, the reader will have a deeper understanding of human frailties and an expanded sense of compassion.

Highly recommended.   The trade paper version was recently released.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized