Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Song Reader, by Lisa Tucker

Anyone who knows me at all even a little bit knows that I get songs stuck in my head all the time. Like, all the time. My head is rarely quiet. A word will remind me of a song (not always logically) and it will be there for ages. And sometimes there is no apparent stimulus.

So when I ran across a book about a woman who “reads songs” – who basically uses the songs people have in their heads as a basis for amateur psychoanalysis – I couldn’t resist. If this actually existed, I would be tempted to try it. In fact, it might come up eventually when I start seeing a counselor.

I was absolutely captivated. I’d never heard of the book before running across it in a charity shop, but the only reason I didn’t finish it in one night was because I hit a chapter break around 2 am, and I’m trying to make an attempt to stay on a normal sleeping pattern. I woke up early (not deliberately) and had the book finished by 9.30.

It’s set in a small town in the Midwest – the back of the book says Southern, and it’s about five hours from Kansas City, but I can’t remember if they ever actually specified the state. Mary Beth and Leann are two sisters, with quite a large age difference between them. Their dad is gone and their mother is dead, so Mary Beth, who is legally an adult, raises her sister. Mary Beth is the song reader. Leann is an overly intelligent young teenager.

It’s a book about the connection between music and memory; it’s also a book about mental illness (catatonic depression, and something that might be OCD or something like that). Mostly, though, it’s a book about love. Passionate, sexual love; family love; twisted destructive love; friendship and loyalty. Love is the driving factor in so many parts of this book, including past events.  Lack of love is the driving factor in most of the other parts. Parental relationships are destructive; romantic relationships are passionate and life-changing; sibling relationships are the most important factor in your life.

The two boyfriends – Mary Beth’s and Leann’s – were amazing. Almost too good to be true, except not so perfect that they couldn’t be. I loved them both. I loved most of the characters in this book, actually. I got a little bit frustrated with Mary Beth at the end, with the pressure that she inadvertently put on Leann and her patterns that were set in the relationship with their mother. I hated her a little bit for forcing their father to leave – tricking him into leaving, essentially – but given what we already knew about her character and her problems it made sense. Mary Beth is a fixer. She is there for people to need her, and she throws herself into other people far more passionately than she does for herself.  She will do whatever she can to make people’s lives better – and that started with her mother, and continues on to her song reading. Of course, because she gives everything she has to other people, she has no reserves left for herself, for when things go wrong.

One message that I took from this book – probably not ultimately the intended message, but one that I’ve thought for several years – was that sometimes it’s necessary to be selfish. It’s not good to be selfish all the time, of course – to expect the world to live up to your expectations and to criticize it when it doesn’t instead of doing what you can to change it. But you also can’t stay sane when you invest 100% of yourself in other people. You have to let yourself be selfish and need people sometimes; you can’t make your entire life revolve around other people needing you, or you’ll have nothing left.  Leann is a much stronger person than Mary Beth because she works both ways. She is there for other people when they need her, and she gives a lot, whatever she can. But she also has a role of her own in the world, a personality of her own; she doesn’t exist only when she is needed. And that is what allows her to survive emotionally the events that Mary Beth cannot.

And I haven’t even really gotten into the whole song-reading thing – which, to be fair, is only ever seen from Leann’s perspective, and she is not the one who actually does it. But the idea is fascinating, and the connection between music and memory is fascinating, and I’ll have to think about that one a little bit more.

I loved this book, I really did. I didn’t expect to, but I did. If you can find it, I recommend it.

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Handle with Care, by Jodi Picoult

Warning: Handle with Care is a recently published book, and there are spoilers below.

It took me longer than I expected to get through Handle with Care.  I’ve enjoyed the other two books of hers that I’ve read (My Sister’s Keeper and Nineteen Minutes), even if I couldn’t get through an audio book of The Tenth Circle.  Plus, my sister became almost instantly absorbed in Handle with Care, and any book that can hook my sister that quickly must be worth reading. And it was worth reading, I don’t want to say that it wasn’t. But as I told my sister, it was frustrating and sad – and since I’m also trying to read The Princes in the Tower, which makes me frustrated and angry, it was possibly more harrowing than it needed to be.

It was plenty harrowing, too. Another reason that I had a problem getting through it was because, for most of the story, I had very little sympathy with Charlotte. I understood the instinct behind Charlotte and Sean’s initial visit to the lawyer, and I understood to some extent why she followed through on the wrongful birth suit. But I found her incredibly unsympathetic for about two-thirds of the book.

She was so victimized, by herself. She focused so much on what couldn’t happen – what Willow couldn’t do, what she couldn’t do because of Willow, that she lost sight of what she could do. It is not a coincidence that she became a lot more likeable, and happier as a character even in the midst of the chaos that she created, when she started being proactive rather than reactive – when she started baking, and when they went to the conference in Omaha.

I don’t want to diminish the difficulty of raising a child with disabilities, either physical or mental. It is incredibly difficult and expensive, and of course no one knows how they will react to a situation until they are faced with it. But filing a lawsuit like that is not proactive, it’s reactive. It’s mercenary.

I almost think I would have liked her better if it had been a more clearly mercenary motivation. Of course, then she wouldn’t have had the revelation at the end that she was being totally selfish (something that everyone else, including me, had realized long ago). But if they had really exhausted all of their financial resources, if they’d done all of the fund-raising possible, if she’d been baking as much as possible and selling it and it still wasn’t enough, then I would have had more sympathy with the suit. But, as Charlotte realized near the end of the trial, she was doing it for herself. She was doing it to get some kind of recognition that her life was hard, harder than she’d expected and harder than she’d wanted. And that’s what I didn’t like about her for a lot of the book – that sense of victimization, of needing public acknowledgement of her victimization.  And, as I said above, I liked her a lot more when she wasn’t focused on that, and at the end when she was finally honest about her motivations.

She was just so miserable for the first part, and behaving miserably. She was self-isolated for so long, buried in her sense of “my life is hard” that she didn’t even consider seeking out support, and blew off the support that she did have. It is almost unforgivable that she didn’t discuss even the possibility of the suit with Piper, that she blindsided her like that. It is also almost unforgivable the way that she refused to listen to Sean and discuss the suit with him, and just continued on blindly, trying to convince herself that she was doing the right thing. I can understand, given her behavior through the rest of the book, how she completely ignored all the signs of Amelia’s problems, but I don’t like her for it.  In fact, most of her behavior I can understand but just because you understand something doesn’t mean that you agree with it, approve of it, or like it.

But she is, of course, only one character. The major character, sure, but only one. And I really liked Piper, and Amelia (I had a lot of sympathy for Amelia) and Sean and Willow – although there wasn’t a whole lot of Willow until the horrifically sad ending; she was mostly there for the suit to revolve around. And Marin, as we got more involved in her story.  (How heartbreaking was her birth mother’s reveal?)

I think I felt the most for Amelia. She’s trapped by these events. She has no control over them and yet they have a profoundly negative impact on her in the way that only teenagers can be affected by these things. She’s intelligent and intuitive and exerts control over her life in the only way that she can. Most stroppy teenagers are tiresome, because there’s no rationale other than their being teenagers. With Amelia, there is a definite catalyst for these things beyond puberty – and she recognizes that but doesn’t have the self-control, or in some ways the desire, to stop it.  And then you add the element of “survivor’s guilt” – in this case, guilt about being healthy when Willow isn’t, and being upset about the things in her life when Willow has even less control and even more pain, and specific guilt about forgetting the letter at the beginning – to the chaos of puberty and the lawsuit and the ramifications from that, and it’s really no wonder that she acts out the way she does.

As a book, it’s really well done. Once I realized what it was that was upsetting me the most, and once I stopped reading it in short bursts, I raced through to the end – and was devastated, of course, by the ending that was horribly reminiscent of My Sister’s Keeper. There was one aspect, in retrospect, that was touched on but not really developed, and that was the abortion argument. There were a few hints that Charlotte, despite being a Catholic, wasn’t absolutely opposed to abortion, and that part of her mentality was not explored in as much depth as the social and emotional and familial ramifications of the lawsuit itself. But that’s my only quibble with the writing, and it’s entirely likely that if it had been included, it would have come across as preachy or made the book too emotionally busy and I’d be complaining about its inclusion instead.

It’s more My Sister’s Keeper than Nineteen Minutes, if that gives it any context. Those being the only other Jodi Picoult books that I’ve read so far, those are the only ones I can compare it to. She’s definitely an author that I will pick up again. Just not until I’ve recovered from this one.

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Dick Francis

Dick Francis has always been one of my favourite authors. He’s one for whom I will read everything he’s written – I think the only thing he wrote that I haven’t read yet is his biography of Lester Piggott. He’s the reason that I’m interested in horse racing, especially National Hunt (jump) racing.  For anyone who doesn’t know, he was a jump jockey himself, who rode in the Grand National 8 times, including for the Queen Mother.  His books almost all revolve around the horse world – his best books feature it in a prominent position, either as a setting or as the main character’s profession (jockey, usually) or both.  His family helped him with the research on a lot of his books, and – after a break of a few years after his wife died – his son helped him write them. He died last weekend, of old age. One last book with his son is set to come out this fall.  And this is one of the best tributes ever, I think.

I have a hard time picking my all-time favourite Dick Francis book. There are quite a few that I love, and will start with when I get in a Dick Francis mood. I can never remember the name of the one with the inventor, Steven Scott, but it’s one of my favourites. Decider, about the builder who finds himself with a share in a racecourse, is fascinating, as is the one about the actor set in South Africa (I think it’s Wild Horses, but that might be the one about the film director….and that’s also a really cool one). Proof makes me wish I knew more about wine. The Sid Halley books, the closest thing he’s got to a series, are great, as is the first Kit Fielding one (the second one is fine, but not one of my all-time favourites). The one about the South African rancher who ends up essentially spying is cool. To the Hilt is one of the best of his later years, even though it is a little bit farther away from the racing world. There are just so many fantastic books!

They’re not great literature, I must say. They probably aren’t going to be studied in fifty years’ time. They’re fast reads, “genre” reads in what is becoming a specific part of mystery/crime fiction: the racing mystery (there are a few “new Dick Francis”es out there). But they are interesting, and not obviously formulaic (Dan Brown, I’ve got you down almost to the page), and let you feel what it’s like to be in that world. When I go racing (too rarely!) I base most of what I know and what I look for in the races and at the course on what I learned from reading Dick Francis books. He, of course, talks about what it’s like in the inner circle, where I stand at the absolutely cheapest area possible, but I still know what I’m looking for because of him.

RIP, Dick Francis. I hope your race is run well.

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Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare

The more I experience Much Ado About Nothing – at one time my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies, although it has since been superseded, I think, by As You Like It – the more I am convinced of two things:

  1. Claudio sucks.
  2. Beatrice and Benedick were “together” before the men went off to war, and it did not end well. I am not sure yet how they broke up, but that’s where the root of their bickering comes from.

This is also a play absolutely filled with references and wordplay that doesn’t exist anymore. I want to do a bit more research about some of them, which may help me figure out a bit more about point 2.

Let’s look briefly at Claudio. He is one of the most shallow creatures in literature. He falls in love with Hero because she is pretty. There’s virtually no indication that he’s even talked to her before the play starts (even though most interpretations do play it as if Hero at least had a crush on Claudio pre-play). He is also far too easily convinced by rumour, insinuation, and flat-out lying that he is being betrayed. It happens at the party, when the most disreputable characters in the play tell him absolute lies that the Prince is wooing Hero for himself, and it happens again the night before the wedding  when he is led to believe that Hero is not a virgin. In both of these cases, he takes the word of people that should not be trusted – Don John and his men – and you would think he would know that they cannot be trusted, since Don John has only recently been reconciled with the Prince! He does not seek out any further proof in either case; he is so non-confrontational that he is more willing to believe ill of his friend and his love than to do anything in his own behalf! He does not deserve Hero, at all, and it’s so frustrating to watch, read, or hear.

Now on to Beatrice and Benedick. They clearly know each other before the play starts, in a way deeper than Hero and Claudio – Beatrice “promised to eat all of his killing”, there “is a kind of merry war” between them, and the best quotation: “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.”

Their breakup I get from things like their mutual protestations of never marrying, especially to each other. It’s definitely a form of protesting too much, like they’re trying to convince each other and themselves. They’re also very willing to believe that the other loves them based on overheard lies and rumours, as if they had already had these suspicions themselves – but they, unlike Claudio, ultimately confront the other with this information and get confirmation. The quotation above also gives clues to it – false dice, as if there was some sort of misunderstanding, the idea that Beatrice has lost Benedick’s heart and the implication that it is a more distant losing than simply their conversation at the party.

There are a few lines that I do not have cultural context for yet, to know if they support or alter my argument: “Signor Mountanto” – is there any symbolic significance to the name “Mountanto”? There’s also a line that’s cut out of most performances that I’ve seen/heard: Beatrice says “He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle’s fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt.” I….have no idea what that means. What is a “jade’s trick”, that Beatrice accused Benedick of using? Why does Benedick refer to Hero as “Leonato’s short daughter”? There are others, I am sure…..I will need to do a closer rereading and some research.

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Update on The Princes in the Tower

I am having a very difficult time with The Princes in the Tower. I am trying to approach it with an open mind, but I have been a Richard apologist since I first read The Daughter of Time. Maybe my reservations will be swept away as the book continues and more evidence is explained, but at this point I am still not convinced that Richard had sufficient motivation to brutally murder his nephews. He’d been totally loyal to his brother, one of the few people who stayed loyal throughout. It is (or may be) true that he needed the Princes out of the way in order to become king, but a secret, unrevealed killing doesn’t really accomplish that. Their disappearance doesn’t benefit him as much as a lie about their death would have.

It also doesn’t help that Weir, for all her protestations of objectivity, is writing after she has been convinced of Richard’s guilt. The chapter on sources is little more than reasons why the pro-Tudor chronicles are really accurate and unbiased. No, really they are. I mean it.  Totally accurate and unbiased. And thoroughly convincing in their accuracy and objectivity. And she refers to any pro-Yorkist text as “revisionist” which despite any efforts has a connotation of “twisting or rewriting history to make our guy look good, even if it means resorting to bare-faced lies.” Maybe it’s just me, but a really impartial view doesn’t focus on one suspect exclusively and detail the parts of his upbringing that would create amorality. Seriously, is there nothing in Henry Tudor’s early life that would make him feel entitled to the throne and willing to, at the very least, fight a battle over it?

Maybe this imbalance will be redressed in further chapters. And maybe this is just my own personal Tudor exhaustion (how many books on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I do we really need?). I’m trying to keep an open mind. I will keep reading and see if she convinces me, but right now I’m very skeptical.

(I will, of course, post again when I have actually finished it. Update to come. Eventually.)

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Desert Island Discs

Have you ever done the Desert Island Discs game?

I have.

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Do You Come Here Often? by Alexandra Potter

Writing a book that’s based, in plot and/or structure, on another work, is very difficult. There’s a fine line between an homage/inspiration and blatant stealing. Personally, I like the similarities to be there, but relatively subtle – although as I say that, I think of The Edge of Reason which lifts scenes almost word-for-word from Persuasion, and yet somehow I loved that and thought it worked pretty well, while I couldn’t get past the first chapter of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty because I kept hearing Howards End in my head and yes, I know that’s deliberate, but it didn’t work for me. Maybe I just know Forster too well – although you could say the same thing about Persuasion since the scene that tipped me off in Edge of Reason, while a major scene, isn’t one of the more obvious ones.

Anyway. For the most part, let’s say, I prefer things to be a bit more subtle. Or creative if they’re not subtle. The other Alexandra Potter book that I’ve read – Me and Mr. Darcy – is creative, but not really subtle. But then, it’s not meant to be. The title is “Me and Mr. Darcy”. The main point of the main character’s trip in the book is so that she can live out Pride and Prejudice. And she does. But it manages to be creative and interesting, which is why I kept it in my last book cull (even though there are a few British/American speech pattern things that don’t quite work, and I can’t believe that someone who’s so interested in Jane Austen really knows that little about England in general. Or packing for an air journey) and why, when I saw “new” Alexandra Potter books at the library and at the bookstores, I wanted to read them.

I put new in quotation marks because Do You Come Here Often? is a 2009 reissue of a 2004 book that was written probably in 2000/2001. There are a few year markers in the first part of the book, which is actually kind of annoying – if you’re going to specify the year, then the year should have some significance, should be meaningful somewhere else in the book. The type of references that these were, though, would have been just as effective if they’d been general and non-specific, instead of “look how I’m setting my book in a specific place and time!”  I forgot about it by the end, though.

Anyway, it’s a retelling of When Harry Met Sally, and it’s a lot more subtle about it than Me and Mr. Darcy was with Pride and Prejudice. There are also enough differences in the story to make it more of a homage than a retelling, including an extra subplot. But the basics are there: Hate at first sight between the main characters; lengthy gap before they see each other again, in a fairly random circumstance; they become platonic best friends; their best friends end up meeting and falling instantly in love; they sleep together when the heroine is in emotional turmoil over her ex, and then don’t speak again for weeks; the hero makes a big romantic gesture at the last minute. They even watch When Harry Met Sally together, and the hero quotes it near the end.

It’s not a perfect book, by any means. It starts very slowly, Jimi isn’t really a likable character at the beginning (at least, his self-description made me shudder and go “Oh, one of Those Guys.”), the prologue was oddly coy/vague (until it was explained about three-quarters of the way through the book, at which point I had to go back to the prologue and go “….ohhhhhh.”). There were any number of things that, looking back on it from the distance of six hours, I wouldn’t have done if I’d written it, or would have done differently.  But, by the end, it works. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did (around the point where Grace leaves Spencer) I raced through to the end. (Plus, I felt smart when I figured out the When Harry Met Sally thing.)

I’ll keep it around, at least for now. I will also probably try to find Who’s That Girl at the library, and read it next time I’m there.  I’ll probably also watch When Harry Met Sally in the next day or so…..

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