books recently read

TIN MAN by Sarah Winman is a beautiful novel of the deep love and friendship between two men who grow up together in working class England. One is an orphan and they share the nurturing of a mother, whose raffle win of a knock- off print of Van Gogh’s sunflowers begins the story. Fragile souls interested in literature and art, they are shaped by circumstance into roles of endurance. Their lives unfold bound together by their history, their surroundings, and their love. Sunflowers, nature, and art pervade.

The story is a mirror image of THE ANIMATORS by Kayla Rae Whitaker – a similar story with two female protagonists set in New York City and the American rural south. Told skillfully in a much harsher style to fit the setting and using a different kind of art as catalyst, this is a tale of heart-breaking devotion and addiction.

THE ENSEMBLE by Aja Gabel reveals an inside view of the workings of a string quartet. From student days to mid-life four talented musicians struggle to have normal lives, while performance is the ever- present priority. They search for relationship between themselves and others, handle and mishandle professional jealousy, and seek to integrate the effects of their early lives into the present. As their stories unfold, the author provides analyses of well-known quartet pieces with details about timing, tempos, difficulty, balance…all the aspects of what it means for four people to coordinate their playing. Musicians will appreciate this, while the psychological portraits of the quartet keep the pages turning.

I seldom re-read books, but after recommending a book I once loved (many years ago), I decided to find out if it still earned my admiration.  SEEING THROUGH PLACES by Mary Gordon (2000) is a memoir of  growing up in her grandmother’s regimented home, living with her disabled mother and other relatives, experiencing college, marriage, divorce, and wanting to own the Cape Cod house where she rents with her own children and does her writing. I found this uneven, but still intriguing and helpful in understanding some of the actions and responses of those whose childhoods were steeped in the Catholic traditions she reveals.

SUMMER WIVES by Beatriz Williams is a page-turner about Fisher Island, where Portuguese island people and Wasp summer people live in mostly peaceful co-existence. This one is a love story full of family unrest, class clashes, secrets, sailing, step-families, and ultimately, murder and adventure. A good beach read and an excellent future Hallmark movie.

Richard Russo has written THE DESTINY THIEF: ESSAYS ON WRITING, WRITERS AND LIFE. For anyone who writes, wants to write, plans to write, tries to write…this is the book to inspire you! Memoir, commentary, and instruction manual presented in clear and graceful prose, his writing makes the next book feel like you have lost your footing and slid back to a lower level of communication (regardless of the second author.) The “Getting Good” chapter – a teacher’s point of view on teaching point of view is superb!

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UNBELIEVABLE

Unbelievable: My Front Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History by
journalist Katy Tur is an insider’s look at the Trump campaign. Her book amplifies the observations and suspicions of those of us who have watched the rise and fall and rise and fall, etc. of DT with disbelief. If you have become familiar with the cable news personalities and the Trump antics, you will appreciate this behind the scenes look. Tur was there at DT’s first gathering in a New Hampshire backyard all the way to the “media cage” at the enormous and unpredictable rallies to the election night surprise. She tells the story well, alternating campaign chapters with election night re-telling, all with a growing sense of Trump’s possible win. Her interactions with the candidate and his followers and with her cable TV colleagues add spice to this engaging and quick read.

Memories

My father and I were not close.  We didn’t talk much, but I remember…

When he was on the board of a retirement home and purchased overhead projectors for bedridden residents. The projector was demonstrated in our living room for the benefit of my sisters’ dates and friends. All were invited (required) to lie on the floor and watch the overhead show.  My sisters must have been extremely embarrassed. As a much younger member of the family, I considered this good fun.

When Rice-a-Roni first appeared, there was a television ad with the jingle: “Rice-a-Roni. A San Francisco treat.” My father loved that jingle and it echoes in my head every time I notice the Rice-a-Roni display at the supermarket.

An enthusiastic DIY-er, my father often reached that spot where a helper was required to hold something or move something. Pressed into service, I always did it wrong! I dreaded the “Marta, come here” summons and the inevitable barrage of loud criticism sure to follow.

However, the life lesson learned from being his DIY assistant was his frequent admonition to “take your time and figure it out. Don’t force it.”  Good advice for life, in general.

I was a surprise, late-in-life baby and not the boy my father hoped for. He did little to participate in my activities. When I was a young child in Buffalo, I would hang out with him as he shoveled snow (lots of snow) in the late evening. As a teen, I would meet up with him in the kitchen early in the morning, as he enjoyed his morning coffee. Years later, I realized his amazing ability to accomplish whatever he set out to do. I wish I had paid more attention and had learned more from him. I wish I knew more about him, his family, his work, his beliefs.  I remember him with affection and appreciation on this Fathers’ Day.

HARMONY

HARMONY: A NOVEL by Carolyn Parkhurst left me with a chilling spine tickle. It’s the story of a suburban  family with two tween daughters. Tilly, the older one, has a brilliant mind and close to zero social intelligence. Her sister Iris loves her and is both embarrassed by her behavior and baffled by her need to protect and explain. Chapters are narrated by Iris and their mother Alexandra whose frustration grows day by day. There is a lot of love in this book and a lot of patience. Father Josh has a calming influence, when alarming situations occur.  No extreme Tilly behavior such as licking the floor in a restaurant or shouting out obscene words in public dims the love surrounding this family.

As options diminish and frustrations increase, Alexandra meets Scott who offers hope.  After a few therapy sessions, Scott asks the family to trade in their current life and move to a rural farm in Maine where he is starting Harmony, a camp for families with special children like their Tilly. The family takes on the role of staff and serves as examples for the visiting families at the camp.

As they settle in, there are puzzling signs that Scott may be moving toward a kind of cult leader. He separates families and preempts their usual methods of dealing with each of their “special” children. Each time there are explanations which reassure the group.  Things gradually become more troubling with strange games, punishments and Scott’s unpredictable anger.

Parkhurst frames the story with a prologue of what might have been a very different story and an epilogue that  is deeply poignant. In between, this is a page turner that informs while it touches the heart.

 

Castle memories

Such a challenge to get rid of stuff! Today, I packed up some of the toys taking up needed space in a spare bedroom.  What memories they evoked!

Tyler, my oldest grandson is in his late twenties. One of his favorite items was a plastic castle, complete with two bands of fighting knights and a very scary, big giant whose demise depended on the launch of a fair sized plastic “rock.”  I remember being persuaded to purchase this toy; overcoming my reluctance towards the violent narratives of play. Another grandson, Nathan, now in his late teens, also enjoyed this castle. My middle-aged daughter (Tyler’s mom) still comments on the castle, when she visits and I know she will be disappointed by its absence.

Matchbox cars!  These remind me of hours and hours spent at Toys R Us, while Tyler chose just the right car. During his annual summer visits, our toy store trips tested the patience I believed a grandmother should practice, while he examined aisles of toys for the perfect thing to have.

Legos!  The chunky school bus with the little wooden people! Plastic animals! Puzzles! Raggedy Ann! Most of the toys were used by the boys. Granddaughter Sophie, now in her twenties, was more into art projects and VHS tapes. Busy Town tapes by Richard Scary and the The Incredible Journey (1 & 2) by Sheila Burnford among others were watched over and over. I never did figure out how she absorbed the stories, while talking the entire time she watched.

Now Sophie is staying with me as she prepares for the next chapter in her journey. I have made a little more room for her… and another little advance in the getting- rid- of- stuff part of My journey.

(Those children’s books?  Still here!!)

 

A FOND ADIEU

Just about half way through my 80th (!) decade, I have had one constant in my life. That constant? My piano! Recently, I said goodbye to the 1928 Knabe grand piano that no longer functioned. Releasing this part of my life after 75 years has stirred up many emotions.

For the first half of my life, the treasured instrument belonged to my mother. When I was a child, she taught piano to young people and as I sat and observed, I must have also absorbed, because suddenly I was playing the piano. I do not remember “learning” this. It just happened, as did learning to read and to write. I quickly moved through the piano teachers’ literature to arrive at middle school age with a fairly competent ability to play standard classical adult numbers and popular songs.  These basic piano standards continued to provide playing pleasure for me. The piano was a handy emotional outlet, a way to get the frustration, anger or depression out without actual human interaction or communication. In my childhood home, there was a music room. The piano was placed near a window and I spent many long hours playing to an imaginary audience outside that window, including numbers “composed” as I went along.

Somewhere in my teen years, my repertoire expanded to include more complicated pieces such as the two- and three-part inventions and partitas of Bach which were oh- so- satisfying to play.  I was often pressed into accompanist duties at church and other gatherings. As any musician knows, accompanying requires a slightly different skill set and my anxiety always got in the way of my performance. Suffice it to say – not my favorite thing!

A sudden move to another state was the most traumatic event of my 14-year-old life, but when we arrived at an unfamiliar and temporary home, the piano was there. And I played it often! Practically mute and unable to function in my new environment, I could still discharge my feelings through the music. However, I lacked the discipline to move on to more challenging music and did not find a new piano teacher. My expertise did not really improve, but stalled at the level where it remains today.

During my college years, I rarely played the piano and did not reveal my abilities to the people around me. A secret hiatus. The suite where I lived senior year had a piano and one day I sat down and played, surprising myself and everyone. I knew when I got home, I would return to my piano.

The next chapter was marriage and family. Before our first baby arrived, I informed my husband that owning a piano was essential to our family. Soon a spinet piano became a part of our household goods. I enjoyed playing it, but it never provided the same intensity of expression as that of my mother’s grand. Visits to grandma’s always included some piano playing for me.

Sometimes, I would be startled by a strong emotional connection, whenever I happened to hear one of the pieces my mother often played when I was a child. Years later, I realized that she had stopped playing the piano and I believe that that was one of the symptoms of her longtime depression. When she died, the piano was mine and became the centerpiece of the living/dining area in our home.

So, this large piece of “furniture” grew in significance over the years. I enjoyed playing it always. Getting it tuned was more sporadic than routine and the condition of the instrument deteriorated. Re-building became a common recommendation from piano technicians, but the estimated cost was not possible for me. The piano evolved from instrument to furniture. As I struggled with the emotional significance, my family and friends grew tired of hearing me talk about what to do about the piano.

Now, the piano is gone. A large space has opened in my home and in my psyche where the weight of the piano had become so familiar. The relief is a surprise! Soon, I will accept the loan of my daughter’s piano, a beautiful console mostly unused in her home. She is moving to a smaller house; my care of her piano is a perfect solution for both of us.

And I can’t wait to start playing again!!

Wild Oats

I know many people who have nothing but disdain for Shirley MacLaine and her unusual beliefs. I have always found her very interesting.  Her theories and experiences cannot be proved true or false. (Similar to one’s belief in a supreme being.)

Her new book ABOVE THE LINE is a first person account of movie making. The movie is “Wild Oats” (not yet released here?) Most of it was shot in the Canary Islands in 2012 in an area identified as ancient Atlantis. The movie is grossly underfinanced and the actors salaries are necessarily deferred. That means they are fourth in line to get paid, if the movie makes any profit. Nevertheless, MacLaine feels compelled to participate (along with Jessica Lange & Demi Moore, among others.)

As the adventure of film making unfolds, many parallels between Atlantis and our present world appear to the author. If you can tolerate her commentaries and her outré beliefs, there is much to learn here about how movies are made. The spice of gossip is lively and the mundane details of the work are revealed with MacLaine candor. I enjoyed this book, including the quotations sprinkled throughout and the distinctive MacLaine nudges to think outside the box.