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Talking Book Revisited

Talking Book, a review of the cover album by Macy Gray (429 Records, $15.99)

It has often been said (and frequently on the TV show American Idol) that Stevie Wonder’s songs seem deceptively simple, yet they are actually complex and difficult to sing.   Thus, it may seem odd that Macy Gary, with her raspy voice and somewhat narrow range, has elected to not only cover a Stevie Wonder song, but an entire album of Stevie Wonder.   Talking Book – the first of her albums that I’ve listened to – is a re-working of Wonder’s classic 1972 release, and Gray covers all 10 of the original tracks in order.

Surprising though it may be, the results show that Gray’s judgment is just fine and she generally adds some energy and unique flavors to Wonder’s sometimes understated original versions.   (In college, I often listened to Talking Book and felt it was filled with great songs.   But his recordings seemed like preliminary, unfinished versions.)

“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” now comes off as nice and breezy and jazzy, with a few Brasil ’66 touches.   It would be the perfect song for a Sunday drive in a top-down convertible in southern California.

With “You and I (We Can Conquer the World),” Gray adds a sense of joy and hopefulness to the romantic tome.   “Blame It on the Sun,” one of Wonder’s almost-lost classics, is now brought back to life.   The sorrow for a love, once here, now gone, lies just on the edge of Macy’s voice.   “Tuesday Heartbreak” sounds like a track from a romantic movie soundtrack (hint, hint).   And the essential song, “Superstition,” is now spooky and moody, but awfully nice.   Gray presents the listener with a seemingly daydreamed version of Stevie Wonder’s simply great original.

“Big Brother” is more upbeat than the original recording.   In a word, it’s sweet.   Three of the songs, “Maybe Your Baby,” “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” and “Lookin’ for Another Love,” are perhaps too true, too close to the original versions, but with Stevie that’s not such a bad thing.   And Talking Book closes on the bright spot “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever).”   Here Wonder’s romantic anthem is presented in an arrangement that makes it sound as if two songs were merged into a medley.   A sense of joyfulness returns with traces of Johnny Nash-style sound (“I Can See Clearly Now”) heard in the background.

As a concept, attempting to recreate (and perhaps improve upon) one of Wonder’s better albums seemed far from promising.   It was, after all, forty years ago that the vinyl album arrived in record stores.   But Macy Gray holds her own and, strangely enough, her world-weary voice presents just the opposite message – that she loves life and the music of Stevie Wonder.

I have the feeling that Stevie Wonder will be quite pleased with this audio valentine; something that may also be true for a number of music purchasers.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Stevie Wonder’s album Talking Book was released on October 28, 1972.   Macy Gray’s cover version was released on October 30, 2012.   A review copy was provided by a publicist.

This review originally appeared on the Blogcritics Music site:  http://blogcritics.org/music/article/music-review-macy-gray-talking-book/ .

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Beauty’s Only Skin Deep

One Day: A Novel by David Nicholls  (Vintage, $14.95, 448 pages; Random House Audio, $19.99, 13 compact discs)

If ever there was a clear-cut category for One Day, “dramedy” is where it belongs.   By now it’s likely that the book, audio book and movie have been enjoyed by countless tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people.   The story thread is not really new.   A similar example this reviewer recalls is Same Time Next Year.   In the play and movie of the same name, a couple’s thrown together by chance, has a romantic encounter and agrees to meet on the same weekend each year.   They do so for 24 years.

One Day revisits the main characters, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew each year on the 15th of July, St. Swithin’s Day, for 20 years following their graduation from Edinburgh University in Scotland.   Emma and Dexter spend graduation night together at the beginning of this saga.   Dexter is a beautiful young man from a well-to-do family who enjoys being admired and bedded by many women.   Emma, on the other hand, comes from a lower-class background and is significantly brighter academically than Dexter.   However, her life experience and confidence are seriously lacking which does not bode well for her success in life.

Post-graduation finds them in London.   Dexter exudes confidence and is highly photogenic which lands him a job as a TV show host while Emma toils away at menial jobs including as a waitress and eventually the manager of a Tex-Mex restaurant.   Their annual check-ins prove to be both funny and poignant.

The years roll by and it is clear that both Emma and Dexter are good friends, although Emma is clearly more devoted to Dexter than he to her.   Let’s face it, Dexter is devoted to Dexter.   On St. Swithin’s Day their lives don’t always intersect, although Nicholls provides the reader with ample evidence of how each is managing life.

This novel has been reviewed twice previously on this site.   The prior reviews were written based on the hard copy.   This review is based on the unabridged audio book.   The word “unabridged” is key here because, unlike the book, the movie version is highly abridged and offers little more than snapshots of some of the July 15th episodes.   This reviewer is grateful to have heard the audio version prior to viewing the movie because the film was no more than a shallow glimpse into the characters’ actions.   Sadly, the serious and deeply moving aspects of the book were lost in the movie version.

Author Nicholls is a genius at dialogue and fortunately for this reviewer, the audio version was captivating.   Anna Bentinck lends her talents to the character voices and manages to do a good job on both the men and women’s parts.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The audio book was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.

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The Unforgiven

The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson (Broadway, $14.00, 336 pages)

“Grant had never forgiven her for stuff that happened twenty-six years ago…”

Annabelle McKay is a student at U.C., Santa Barbara when she meets her future husband Grant at a students’ apartment eviction party in Isla Vista.   Annabelle and Grant have a whirlwind romance, and she drops out of school to marry him; he’s been offered a teaching position at a college in Manhattan.   The new couple has no place to live, so in the interim they move in with Grant’s mentor, Jeremiah, Jeremiah’s wife Carly, and their twin toddlers.

The newly married Annabelle is shocked to find that Grant has no time to spend with her.   The same holds true for Jeremiah when it comes to Carly, a former dancer and now instructor.   Thus, Annabelle and the older Jeremiah (who’s home on a one-year sabbatical) become responsible for maintaining the apartment and taking care of the children.   It is not too difficult for the average reader to see where this is headed, as the abandoned parties come to seek comfort in each other’s bodies and beds.

Yes, this is popular fiction wrapped in the guises of a serious adult novel; although it is an interesting twist on the usual telling, which places the new husband in the role of unhappily just married.   It is usually, on page and in film, the young man who finds another to soothe his discomforts.

Annabelle’s infidelity is discovered by Grant, and this stolid man advises her to never return to him if she elects to live with  Jeremiah.   But somehow a deal is struck – after a series of implausible events – and Annabelle and Grant make a pact to live together again as husband and wife.   A key condition attached to the pact, as insisted on by the proud Grant, is that they never speak of (or to) Jeremiah again or of “the stuff that never happened.”

No, this is not where the story ends, it is where it begins.   As the novel opens, it is almost twenty-seven years later and a still unhappy and restless Annabelle is Googling for information on Jeremiah.   She comes to find that he’s a widower now, as Carly died of cancer.   Annabelle and Grant live in a community outside of New York City, but she cannot stop herself from thinking of what would happen if she were to somehow run into Jeremiah while visiting her married, pregnant daughter in the city.

Even Annabelle knows that such a chance meeting is unlikely, except in stories such as this one.   After another set of implausible events (the second of two sets, if you’re counting), Annabelle has moved to New York City to take care of her daughter and guess – just guess – who she runs into!   Not much more needs to be said about the plot, as this will either seem like an interesting story or a rehashing of what has come before in other novels and films.

Blurbs on the book jacket compare author Maddie Dawson to both Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, which seems to this reader like a stretch.   While Dawson writes in the “straight ahead” fashion of Berg, her style is sometimes plodding by comparison and the time shifts are awkward and distracting.   There may be a hint of Tyler’s factual reporting but without Tyler’s sense of suspense.   When Anne Tyler writes about small events in the lives of her characters, there’s a feeling that something unexpected is about to occur.   (Something is going to happen and we don’t know what it is.)   Such is not the case with the predictability of The Stuff.

Then there’s the matter of the characters.   I encountered not a single likeable character in this novel, which provided little incentive to continue the reading.   In fact, while only pages away from the story’s end I realized that it didn’t seem to matter to me anymore how it ended; there being no one to relate to in the cast.

To be fair and clear, this is not a story without merits – it does offer some interesting thoughts on parenting and life’s regrets.   But there are many other novels out there about re-living one’s life over again, or returning to the scene of one’s youth, and most of them (such as Allison Winn Scotch’s Time of My Life or Berg’s The Last Time I Saw You) offer more interesting tales than this one.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This is the third of three reviews of The Stuff That Never Happened posted on this site.   The novel was well recommended by Kelly Monson, and highly recommended by Kimberly Caldwell.

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Helplessly Hoping

The Best of Me: A Novel by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central Publishing; $25.99; 304 pages).

The Violets of March: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume; $15.00; 304 pages)

“He shouldn’t have come back home.   He didn’t belong here, he’d never belong here.”

I had never read a story by Sacramento native Nicholas Sparks, so I had high hopes for The Best of Me, his latest novel that I downloaded as a Nook Book on my Nook Color e-reader.   It starts off very promisingly, a tale of forbidden romance between the well-bred Amanda Collier and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Dawson Cole.   Amanda and Dawson grew up in the town of Oriental, North Carolina and societal pressures kept them apart.   Now it’s decades later and both of them are drawn back to Oriental to attend the funeral of Tuck, a man who was a father-figure of sorts for both of them.

Amanda has married a relatively-successful dentist and she’s a mother, but she’s never lost the feelings she had for Dawson.   Dawson, who has pined for Amanda his entire life, has remained single, working on oil rigs and living in a double-wide trailer outside of New Orleans.   The question raised by this story is, “Will Amanda and Dawson finally get together, even if it is late in the day in their lives (Dawson is 42); if so, what will it cost them to change their lives competely?”

Sparks writes in a calm, polite and seemingly timeless fashion, at least through the first four-fifths of the book.   But it’s when the reader gets to that last fifth – in sight of the finish line – that the story falls apart like a child’s sand castle on a beach hit by a high tide.   The ending is nothing less than trite, predictable and tacky; some serious readers are going to find it so bad that they may feel personally insulted.

The Best of Me starts off like a major motion picture but ends like a poor-quality “made for TV” film broadcast at 2:00 in the afternoon on a weekday.   If you love hokey corn packaged as romance literature, you may like this one.   For me, one Nicholas Sparks book is far more than enough.

Fortunately, The Violets of March, the debut novel from Sarah Jio is a fine antidote to having one’s hopes dashed by reading something as predictable as The Best of Me.   Jio has written a story about a young woman who has it all, a fine marriage and a successful writer’s life in Manhattan, when it all falls apart.   Emily Wilson’s husband suddenly leaves her for a younger model, and so she departs for some much needed rest and recuperation at her aunt’s home on Brainbridge Island in Washington State (a ferry ride from Seattle).   Once there, she finds a diary that was written by her lost maternal grandmother Esther, a woman who died under mysterious circumstances at a time when the love of her life had broken her heart.   (Esther, like Amanda Colllier, was married to a man that she did not actually love – a man who served as a substitute for her true love.)

All of her life Emily has been told that she looks exactly like her grandmother Esther, and she comes to find that there are some similarities in their lives.   Thus, Emily becomes determined to find out exactly what happened to this woman who she never met.   This is not an easy task, as no one in her mother’s family is willing to talk about what happened in the early 1940s.   Readers raised in families that pride themselves on keeping their secrets deeply buried will identify with this unique story.

Kudos to Jio for fashioning a satisfying ending in which everything comes together, made all the more satisfying due to its lack of predictability.   Jio does not rush events nor does she paste on a false-feeling ending to “…an unsolved family mystery and an unfinished love affair.”

The motto of Emily Wilson’s grandmother Esther was, “True love lives on.”   So does good writing and with The Violets of March, Sarah Jio shows that she’s a writer to watch.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy of The Violets of March was provided by the publisher.   The reviewer paid, unfortunately, for the Nook Book edition of The Best of Me.   (Spark’s novel is sometimes entertaining while one’s reading it, but the elements of the story simply don’t add up or ring true.   In retrospect, there are simply too many improbable and implausible events which precede the groaningly awful ending.)  

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The Author’s Perspective

Today we’re conducting the first part of an interview with Maddie Dawson, author of the novel The Stuff That Never Happened.   Kimberly Caldwell (KC) asks the questions in this stage of the interview.

1.  KC:   The Stuff That Never Happened is about a woman who weighs the allure of an old lover against the solid dependability of a marriage she seems to be outgrowing.   Where did the idea for the novel come from?   Is it autobiographical?

MD:  I suppose in some senses, all novels have autobiographical elements in them.   Authors are always using their own experiences as springboards for the torture we put our characters through.   That being said, nothing specifically about Annabelle’s situation is anything like my life.   But I was once in love with a man who, while not precisely married, had little children and a complicated life with the mother of those children…  and we had a crazy, up and down relationship for a long time, with lots of drama and thrills and chills until the day we finally broke up for good.   And then one day, fifteen years later, I got on a train and there he was, in a nearly empty train car, and we had a two-hour ride together.   It seemed almost pre-designed by a kindly universe to give us a chance to look at what had been, to compare our lives – and to reflect about what it had all meant.

Frankly, it didn’t mean very much.   (Real life can be so boring sometimes.)   He was as impossible as I remembered, vague and noncommittal, and just as infuriating to talk to as he ever was.   We parted, both of us grateful, I think, that things hadn’t worked out for us way back when.   Still, it got me doing that thing I’ve been doing my whole life: thinking how much more interesting things might be if life was a novel.   After that, it seemed everywhere I looked everybody had a what-if person tucked away, someone to think about when real life seemed unsatisfying.

And so the character of Annabelle was born, a woman who married too young to Grant, a man she barely knew, and who then fell in love with someone else during the first year of her marriage.   After a time apart, Annabelle and Grant manage to reunite and go on to have a happy life together, raising children and creating a stable life and community in his home town in New Hampshire.   They make a pact never to speak about Annabelle’s betrayal again, to pretend it just never happened so that they can go on.

What I was mostly interested in exploring in this novel was what came next for Annabelle and Grant: the stuff that came after the kids leave home, after their family responsibilities are over.   It’s then that the cracks in their marriage really become apparent.   Grant realizes the sacrifice he’d made in his career to stay married to Annabelle and feels compelled to catch up; Annabelle realizes that she’s stifled in a life that no longer seems to need her, and she senses Grant’s long, leftover anger.

But what is one to do?   Are we just supposed to settle for living with past memories, or do we still have a life ahead of us to create?   After twenty-eight years together, is it even possible to start over?   To me, that’s when the story really begins: with Annabelle’s realization that she doesn’t know anymore what she owes herself and what she owes Grant and her children; what she will lose by remaining unhappy  in her marriage, or by venturing out into the unknown, or traveling back to the past.

2.   KC:  How did you decide how to present the story?   When you began did you know what Annabelle’s decision would be?

MD:  Ha!   What an interesting question!   As it happens, I didn’t know what Annabelle’s decision would be.   Sometimes I thought she would stay with her husband, but there were times I was sure that her old lover had been the right one for her.   For a while, when I was writing, I thought maybe she’d end up with neither of them – a woman alone making her way through the world.   I just kept writing, sure that one answer would emerge.   And as happens in novels – unlike real life – things finally seemed to settle themselves clearly in one direction over the other.   I’ve heard from lots of readers who have said they were so relieved at the way it turned out, but I have one dear friend who says she still wishes Annabelle had made the other decision.

As for the presentation of the story, I wrote it in two periods: the past, 1978-80, when Annabelle and Grant first met as students at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and impulsively married and moved to New York, and then in the present, 2005, when their lives are settled in New Hampshire and their children have left home.   I wanted to tell it this way because both time periods were equally compelling to me.   I didn’t want to simply tell the 1970s stuff in flashback, but to let the events unfold as part of the main story.

3. KC:  What makes novels about other people’s relationships compelling?

MD:  I think we’re all hungry for details of other people’s stories.   And, let’s face it, romantic relationships carry an extra wallop of mystery to them.   How many times do you look at couples you know and think, “What in the world can they possibly see in each other?”   Perhaps we’re trying to answer that mystery at the heart of ourselves: why am I with this particular person?   Will we be able to last?   Do we have it better or worse than other people?

In novels, I think, relationships make sense.   They have reason and nuance, and we can peek in other people’s insides and compare them to our own.   I love riding around in someone else’s head for a while.   It helps me to understand myself much better.

To be continued… (In the concluding section of this interview, we have four additional questions for Maddie to answer.)

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Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson (Broadway, $14.00, 336 pages)

If you’ve ever caught a glimpse of a former lover and let your mind travel down the “what if…” path, however briefly, you’ll enjoy The Stuff That Never Happened.   It’s the debut novel by Maddie Dawson, who captures the silent desperation of pinning for the excitement of the “bad boy” who got away when all of your friends think the good guy you married is God’s gift to wives.

Annabelle McKay, at 46, is well aware that she is the envy of the faculty spouses at the New Hampshire college where her husband is a big-wheel professor.   Grant is solid and dependable.   He’s not the type of husband who would leave her for a younger woman just as her upper arms are starting to go flabby and she and Grant are losing their biggest common denominator – their two kids.   Besides, there’s still enough of a spark in their marriage that they schedule sex every week in the morning he doesn’t have an early class to teach.   But Annabelle has never squelched the memories of the passionate affair she had 26 years ago that left wounds too deep to speak about.   It’s that vow of silence between Annabelle and Grant that is the fat finger on Annabelle’s contentment scale.  

Dawson lets Annabelle tell her own story, and she does so in a voice that draws you in like a new friend who’s just starting to open up and confide.   Therein lies the real treat of this novel.   Annabelle tells her life in two parallel story lines, the one that takes place in 2005, the present; and the one that set her on her present course in 1977.   You watch the mature Annabelle wrestle with her emotions and her choices when she unexpectedly meets her old lover at a juncture when life’s possibilities seem to be opening up again.   You see Annabelle at 20 as she is struggling to emerge from a dysfunctional family and chart her own course – with very little perspective and few emotional navigation aids.

Woven together, the stories are compelling in the way that celebrity divorces are:  The central problem is as old as the human race, and the details are riveting as much for what they divulge about a couple’s private life as for the mirror they hold up to one’s own life.   The Stuff That Never Happened will be the book you pass to a friend and say, “Let me know when you’ve read this.   I want to know what you would have done.”

Dawson’s characters are insightfully drawn and convincingly flawed.   Even the characters that only make cameo appearances are fully formed.   Padgett, the grad-student trophy wife of Clark, a colleague of Grant’s, texts through the couple’s getting-to-know-you dinner at a restaurant.   And when Clark announces that he’s taking a sabbatical so he and Padgett can travel the world, Dawson shares his gum-revealing, fool-in-love grin, and says, “He puts his big bald forehead into her unlined one, like a mind meld on Star Trek.”   With just a few sentences, Dawson sketches a guy who’s very much like a guy you know at work and a woman one-third  his age whose lack of apparent charm is a throwback to the very serious, Gloria Steinem wanna-be of the early seventies, only Padgett’s social consciousness is directed at saving the environment, not womankind.

Maybe you can tell:  I thought this was a great read.   It’s an astute people-watcher’s take on a timeless conundrum.   It would make a great beach read.   But if you take it on vacation, load up on sun screen.   You’re not going to want to put it down.

Highly recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

The Stuff That Never Happened was released in trade paper form on August 2, 2011.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of 13 rue Therese: A Novel by Elena Mauli Shapiro, which will be released by Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company tomorrow.

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