Monday, December 09, 2019

Every Thing You Are by Kerry Anne King

I want to talk to you this morning about a delightful book about a luthier (maker of violins and other stringed instruments), his granddaughter, and a cello with a soul.

When Braden Healy’s mother takes him to a violin shop to buy him a violin, a cello across the room beckons him, speaks to him, and so begins a love affair that will last a lifetime.

Ophelia MacPhee, Phee for short, is eighteen years old and has been working in her grandfather’s shop, MacPhee’s Fine Instruments, for many years when he calls her to his apartment to give her her birthday present. She expects, perhaps, her grandmother’s emerald ring or something related to the luthier business. Instead, her grandfather tells her he is giving her the business. With his attorney present as a witness, he induces Phee to sign a contract saying she will take over the business.
I Ophelia Florence MacPhee, being of sound mind and purpose, do hereby swear a sacred oath  to accept and discharge all obligations, tangible and intangible, related to the post of luthier.
Although uneasy about signing and wondering about the intangible obligations, she signs the document . Her grandfather explains he is dying of cancer and that necessitates the rush to have her sign.

The eccentric grandfather has, of course, sold many fine instruments over the years,  and in a few cases has insisted the purchaser enter into an agreement to play the instrument until his/her death, and then the instrument is to be returned to the luthier. ‘A forever home, you understand. A marriage. This cello is not a thing to be acquired and cast aside. And when you die and the bond is broken, your next of kin will bring the cello back to me. Here”

Braden Healey is only twelve when he enters into this bond, and while the luthier thinks him a bit young to enter into such a bond, he remarks only that the cello has spoken. “She is the boss of us, yes? Not the other way.”

If the bond is broken, there will be dire consequences.

And so the scene is set, Phee must keep her oath concerning this cello and a handful of other instruments sold under similar contracts. Unfortunately, many years later, when Branden is a successful cellist with a seat on the Seattle symphony, his hands are severely frostbitten as he attempts to save his brother-in-law who has fallen through a hole in the ice while ice-fishing.

When Braden can no longer play the cello, he sinks into a depression and into alcoholism.  On several occasions, Phee meets with Braden to exhort him to return to playing the cello. He laughs ruefully, displaying his hands which he can use for day to day things, but which can no long feel the strings of the cello.

The author is thinking of her character Braden (and others) when she opens her novel with this quote from Nietzsche, Without music, life would be a mistake.

Adding to the tragic life of Braden, his wife and son are killed in a car accident, and he returns to his home to try to salvage a relationship with his seventeen-year-old daughter. She is also a cellist, but gives it up after her mother and brother die. While both she and her father hear cello chords echoing in their lonely house, neither plays the lovely instrument as it languishes in its corner. It is every bit as important as a character in this novel as the others I have mentioned. Kerry manages to convince me that the cello does have a soul, its voice rising and falling as the events in the novel occur.

The granddaughter, Phee, was there the day that Braden signed the contract, entered into the oath, and when he returns home, she Is diligent in her attempts to get Braden to honor his contract. She believes in the curse her grandfather has put on Braden should he break his bond. Slowly, Phee falls in love with this boy-become –man, and their relationship adds a sweetness to the story, as does a budding relationship between Allie, Braden’s daughter, and Ethan, a boy who dates wild girls and rides a motorcycle.
Stars and boys like Ethan are great at a distance. Too close, and they’ll burn your wings and dump you into the sea., a lesson she learned both from the story of Icarus and watching the dramas of other girls who have dared to fly too close to the sun.
In addition to really interesting talk about music and fine instruments, this is a compelling story. I played Bach’s marvelous cello suites as I read it, and soon, like Braden and Allie and Phee, I began to hear cello chords throughout the day. Braden refuses to talk about the particulars of his brother-in-law’s death in the frozen lake, and this mystery adds one more layer to a really captivating tale.

Will Braden play again, and what will be the dire consequences if he does not? These and other questions await your reading of this splendid novel.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

For almost all of my reading life, I have tended to prejudge pop novels and pop novelists. Certainly, that prejudice has saved me from reading many bad or so-so novels, but it has also led me to miss some real gems. Today,  I am going to say a few words about two 2019 novels. Although I don’t intend to reveal much of the storylines, I want at least to recommend these books. The first has been on the best seller lists for quite a long time. It is a novel about a house, The Dutch House, and the family who lived there in a period spanning five decades. I have shortchanged Patchett before; it took me several years to get around to reading (and reviewing) her fine novel, Bel Canto and almost as long to read The Magician’s Assistant.

A man who has been poor all of his life suddenly comes into a lot of money, and one of the first things he does is buy a house he thinks to be the grandest he has ever seen. He buys if for his beloved wife, but she is uncomfortable in the house from the beginning and comes soon to hate it. Time and time again, she leaves the house and her two children Danny and Maeve, and  stays away for greater and greater lengths until finally she leaves for good. The two children are inseparable, only comfortable in the world when they are together. Maeve attempts to be the lost parent for her younger brother, after they are forced out of the home when their father dies and leaves his entire estate to his second wife. The characters of the two children are very well fleshed out by Patchett, although their father, Cyril Conroy, is more a shadow than a fully developed character. The one provision Cyril had included in his will for his son Danny was a fund to pay for his education including any graduate program he enters. Clever Maeve devises a plan to keep her brother in school for many years, until he receives a medical degree, thus keeping a least some of their father’s money from the merciless stepmother.  

I did not find this novel to be particularly important as a socio-political statement, but since the time span includes the Viet Nam war and the political turmoil in this country right up to the present, Patchett does provide some insights into the separation of rich and poor and a running commentary on political events. Still, the most important relationship described is that between sister and brother. The scenes between them are touching and very believable and explore what I would call a kind of emotional incest.

The second book, Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew, is a wonderfully researched book about World War II and the Holocaust. I have been somewhat put off by Hoffman’s inclusion of magic in her early hugely popular novels like Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic, and magic enters this novel as well, but in a way I found much less intrusive. 
In the world that we knew, Hanni Kohn saw what was before her. She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden. 
Hanni’s doctor husband has already been murdered in a riot outside his Jewish hospital when the reader is introduced to the surviving members of the family. Hanni knows she must do something to protect her beautiful 12 year old daughter from the Nazi regime, but how can she protect her? While Hanni is able to prevent a sexual assault on her daughter by a Nazi soldier, she does so only by killing the assailant, and knows that the consequences will be dire.  In a desperate move, Hanni takes her daughter, Lea, to a renowned rabbi pleading with him to help hide her daughter and to get her out of Germany. It is the rabbi’s daughter, Ettie, who steps in to save Lea, and she does so by creating a golem. “A golem…may look human, but it has no soul. It is pure and elemental and it has a single goal, to protect. Ettie explains that the incantations must be exactly right, and that if she makes a mistake, it will mean instant death to her. She finally agrees to create the golem in spite of the great risk, but only if Lea buys identification papers and a train ticket for Ettie’s little sister, so that she, too, can escape from Berlin.

The rest of the novel describes the journey of Lea and Ava (the golem) as they escape to France and then through a long series of events that will get them to a place where they can join the French resistance and fight the Nazi occupation.

It is very clear that this book was a labor of love for Alice Hoffman, and in my estimation the most serious of her many successful novels. The bibliography at the back of the book evidences just how through Hoffman’s research was in creating this novel. 

Lea and Ettie’s life paths are entwined from the moment Ettie creates Ava and begins the long journey towards the south of France. There are so many wonderful and believable characters created by Hoffman as Lea and Ava continue their escape and find ways to enter into the fray, and to help oher Jews to escape Nazi rule.

So two hugely popular novels that deserve to be read.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Don’t Skip Out On Me by Will Vlautin

I want to talk to you this morning about a book that simply fell in my lap, loaned me by a reader friend. The book, Don’t Skip Out On Me, by Willy Valautin is not one I would have picked up on my own. For one thing it is a book about a boxer, and I don’t care for boxing. It is also one that is written in simple, almost flat prose, and I tend to favor books by accomplished word-weavers, but this short little novel gabbed me and would not let go. I finished it in the Salt Lake City airport with tears streaming down my cheeks and surrounded by passengers waiting for a New York City flight. I was not ashamed of the tears; the author had somehow so transported me that I felt as if all those around me were also finishing the book and so would understand. 

Horace Hopper is a young man half Paiute, half Irish, whose Indian father abandoned him and whose very ill mother could not really take care of him. Lucky for Horace, he spends most of his young life on a sheep ranch owned by Mr. and Mrs. Reese who love him like a son and fully intend to leave the ranch to Horace. But Horace, ashamed of his mixed heritage decides he must prove himself in the world, and he decides the way to do that is to becoming champion of the world in his weight class. He has read (many times) a self-help book that challenges the reader to build his boat one brick at a time, and to devote everything to become a champion.

Although Horace is very close to the Reeses (whom he always addresses as Mr. and Mrs. Reese), he tells them he must leave the ranch in order to pursue his dream.  

While Mr. Reese pleads with him not to leave, and Horace is well aware that Mr. Reese will not be able to maintain his twelve hundred head ranch much longer without Horace, who has been his right hand man for many years, still he feels honor-bound to make it on his own. 

Horace is convinced that Mexican boxers are the best and toughest in the world, so when he leaves the Nevada ranch and travels to Tucson, He changes his appearance and his name. He becomes Hector Hildago , and tries to learn Spanish and tries to like Mexican food (though it is too spicy for him).

Hector manages to find a trainer who will train him for a price, and he soon gets a golden gloves fight. Mr. Reese has offered to drive Horace/Hector to Arizona, but the boy says “That there were certain times when you had to do things alone.

Mrs. Reese asks her husband why Horace needs to be a boxer.
I’m just not sure, he whispered. I’ve thought about it over and over and I’m just not sure. But remember, he’s young, and a lot of young men want to prove themselves.
It turns out that Hector is an incredibly hard hitter, but not really a boxer, so from his very first fight, he takes a lot of punishment. Diego, his trainer tells him: “You hit as hard as any kid I’ve seen in a long long time. You walk into punches but man oh man do you have power.”  While he wins his early bouts, he is very badly beaten in almost every one. While the descriptions of the fights are grisly, they are well done and soon the reader becomes used to the fact that in almost every fight Hector’s nose is broken, and eventually it will just not stop bleeding. In addition, his retina is detached in one fight, and a doctor tells him he should not fight again, and that if he does, he risks losing sight in one or both eyes.

While I have concentrated so far on Horace’s life as a fighter, I think the book is really about honor. In his dealing with women, with managers, and with poor folks he simply meets on the street, Horace is utterly honorable. He gives away his money simply because he sees others that need it more. Mr. Reese has taught him that the important thing in life is to be honorable and truthful, and Horace is both almost to a fault. 

On the book cover, one critic says, “No one anywhere writes as beautifully about people whose stories stay close to the dirt. Willy Vlautin is a secular—and thus real and profoundly useful—saint.”

And yes, the simplicity, the simple elegance of Vlautin’s prose carries this story along. I intend to read all that he has written. 

When it becomes obvious that Horace will not become champion of the world, and really can’t fight anymore, he knows he can go back to the Reeses and the ranch; he knows they want him to come home, and in most ways he wants to go home.
When  he got back to his room each evening he crawled into bed paralyzed with anxiety and shame. Why did he have to tell Mr. Reese everything? Why couldn’t he have just kept to himself that he wanted to be Mexican and wanted to be a world champion boxer? The nights crawled by. Hours seemed like days. He would get lost in thoughts of Mr. and Mrs. Reese, the ranch, and the horses and dogs, and when he did his stomach would give out and he would feel like he was falling. He wanted more than anything to go back to them, to the comfort of them, but always something inside forded him not to.
Will Hector Delgado revert to Horace Hopper, and will Mr. Reese finally find him and take him home. The answer to this question will require you to read the book. It is a wonderful little book and you will be glad you read it. I feel I really learned something about honor and truthfulness.