Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Swan Thieves - A Review

As a book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society Review (in print and online at www.historicalnovelsociety.org), I sometimes get really lucky and receive a great book that is more than just fun to read, it's a truly literary experience. That's the way I felt about Elizabeth Kostova's latest novel, The Swan Thieves, and this is what I wrote about it earlier this year for the HNS Review:

An enchanting story and a deeply human experience. At the end of it, one feels compelled to paint, or write, sing or make music, or simply live with greater intensity. The crisis of mind—and soul—of a famous artist that begins the story leads the narrator,  psychiatrist Andrew Marlow, on the reluctant hero’s journey as he unravels the haunting obsession that has caused his patient to attack a painting with a knife. Kostova deftly weaves two stories of love and art from the Impressionist era in Paris to contemporary rural Maine and New York. The larger-than-life figure of Robert Oliver, the artist-patient, looms over the narratives of the women who have loved him and the doctor who is determined to free him from the silent cage he has chosen to inhabit.
Kostova’s writing is always good, and sometimes exquisite. Here’s a sentence describing how Andrew feels upon seeing his 90-year-old father for the first time in a few years: “When I saw him waiting for me in his good summer clothes…I felt as always both his reality and the thin air that would one day replace him.” She uses letters, narrative, dialogue and exposition with ease. The story is weighty, and moves slowly, thoughtfully—not a book to rush through, but to savor and ponder as you read it.
There is a little unsteadiness in the plot. The fortuitous connections seem just a touch too easy, and the last chapters almost rush to the conclusion. But these are minor issues compared to the over-arching quality of the writing and the humanity of the characters. The Swan Thieves is a deeply involving story, and one that will resonate for a long time after you’ve closed the book, like the sound of a very old church bell at dusk.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

1967 - A Stellar Year for Music

My little sister emailed me late tonight that she was listening to Simon & Garfunkel's wonderful song, For Emily Whenever I May Find Her -- from the Parsley, Sage album. She was remembering how we used to listen to it in our bedroom at night - she was in 8th grade, I was a senior in high school. Our two older sisters had already left home: one for college, one for married life -- it used to be all four of us in one room! But for a little while, back in 1967, it was just me and Peggy and the songs we shared: Richie Havens, The Doors, the Beatles (of course). So, even though it was late here in San Francisco, and even later in Chicago where she lives, I called her up and we talked.

I remembered when that S&G album came out, the winter of 1967-68, and there was one night when my friends and I trekked out to Naperville from our town of LaGrange (some 30 miles west of Chicago). We took the commuter train, and our friend whose family lived out there came (with his mom driving) to pick us up. Naperville back then was still country - farmland, and old farm houses here and there. It was a frosty night, just like in the song; the trees were cloaked in ice, the stars were very close in the black sky--and our young love was going to last forever.

Thanks, Peggy, for remembering our songs!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day, Irish Music and My Dad

The local classical station is playing Irish music today for 'the day' and it makes me think of my Irish Dad and how he used to sing around the house. There were seven of us kids, and two adults -- and one bathroom! How we used to line up in the hallway in the mornings! My Dad had a good singing voice, and he would treat us to funny songs like "I've got tears in my ears from lying on my back, crying at night over you" as well as sentimental ones like "Do you remember, that time in September, when life was young, and oh so pleasant" (or something like that). My Dad was "mostly" Irish, with a little bit of French Canadian, and he was a master punster. We all used to groan at his jokes but we thought they were great, and to this day, my siblings and I email each other jokes and puns to make each other laugh. Happy St. Paddy's Day, Dad! Here's mud in yer eye!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Guns - In America, a Literary, Musical Psychotic Heritage of the Frontier

I can't get over the news reports of people wearing their guns to Starbucks, among other public places, just because they can. It made me think about all the popular songs that mention guns: from "I Shot the Sheriff" to Queen's opening line, "Mama, just killed a man, put my gun against his head, pulled the trigger now he's dead."  I just googled "songs about guns" and found a site that lists 2,584 of them! I don't even want to know how many stories, although offhand I recollect a novel which became a TV mini-series called, simply, The Gun, about all the different owners a single gun passed through, and those people's stores - sort of like the Red Violin, only it's a gun.

What's the deal with our national obsession with guns? I suppose it goes back to the Wild West, where the absence of The Law created the necessity for each person to own a gun for protection, from both animals and humans. The whole notion of the Frontier and what it has meant to the U.S. is a fascinating one for me. I have recently read Frederick Jackson Turner's "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" originally published in 1893, and find his analysis both interesting and disturbing. He presented his ideas at a speech at the Chicago Columbia Exposition in 1893, opening with the announcement that the U.S. Census Bureau had officially declared the frontier "closed" in 1890. I keep going back to that idea as a starting point for a novel, although I'm not quite sure what it means at this point. It's just such a darned fascinating idea!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"One must suffer to be beautiful"

My sisters and I heard this phrase a lot growing up, particularly when our mother was doing something like combing knots out of our hair and we would yelp and complain. It was a concept that was very much in keeping with our Catholic upbringing, what with the nuns telling us to "offer it up" whenever we had a reversal or problem, and the annual Lenten practice of giving up something you really liked in order to purify your soul and focus on spiritual things. And I don't disagree with the concept, especially as a writer -- a good friend of mine once said, "when you're happy, all you can write is Hallmark cards." And from the musical perspective, it makes me think of Ringo Starr's best song (imho), which has the opening line, "You have to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues...and you know it don't come easy." Which brings up the question, why would you "want" to sing the blues, i.e., be unhappy?  

It's not about choosing to be unhappy - Lord knows, we don't have to go looking for opportunities! I think the key word here is "sing" -- if you want to sing the blues -- if you want to express the deep places of the human heart and how it feels to be there -- if you want to write or compose or dance or draw or paint or photograph the essences of life, the richness of experience -- we're talking about the transformation that comes when one experiences suffering, loss, privation, death -- and is able to move through them, in them and with them to a better understanding, a deeper, truer love of life and friends and love. I want to sing the blues, and I'm happy to pay the dues.