The Star Spangled Banner: Who knew?

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A lot of people complain that The Star Spangled Banner is hard to sing. I agree! However, one of the things I have discovered in my four decades of life is that singing is something you can actually get better at with practice. I know this for a fact, because I once decided I was going to learn to sing that damn song if it killed me. Every morning I attempted to sing it in the shower. And I gradually got better at it, until finally the day came when I could reliably make the transition between “dawn’s” and “early.” Before I knew it, I was nailing “proudly” every single time. And I knew roughly how low to start so that I could still produce sound when I got up to “glare.” This was more than twenty years ago, but guess what. I can still do it. Yep, I am living proof that you don’t need to be a professional musician to make it through the national anthem.

But, you may ask, why bother? I mean other than fear of social censure, why would anyone even want to sing that stupid song. It doesn’t even make sense. Compare it to songs like America the Beautiful, or My Country ‘Tis of Thee, which brag about our majestic mountains and shining seas, our sweet land of liberty — in our national anthem we are asking IF the flag is still flying. Not exactly confidence inspiring.

Well that is what I always thought, until this morning when I stumbled across this essay by Isaac Asimov. He lays out the historical background of the poem, which was written after the War of 1812. The battle which Francis Scott Key witnessed, it turns out, was one of the highest strategic import. The British had already sacked Washington. If this particular fort were to be taken too, our young country would truly have been lost. So, the battle raged all night with bombs bursting in air, etc. Come morning, the only way he could tell who had won was by peering through the haze to see which flag was flying. And guess what… there are three more stanzas (who knew?) which reveal that yes we beat back the Brits:

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Now that’s some patriotic fervor, eh? Go practice!

Vacation reading

So we were on vacation last week, and rainy weather plus a sick kid meant I had plenty of time on my hands for reading. Glorious reading! I got through three books, each very different and each very rewarding…

Galore by Michael Crummey is the best book I’ve read in a looooooong time. This amazing novel is the definition — the PLATONIC IDEAL — of rollicking yarns and prose poetry. It is EXACTLY the type of book I most love. It has all my favorite elements. Big sweeping epic third person omniscient narration. Vivid setting & history (Newfoundland) that is an important part of the plot. Multiple generations, multiple perspectives. Myth & folklore. Doctors & priests. A bit of magical realism. Strong female characters. Biblical imagery. Luscious language. Bittersweet humor. And it is strikingly original. And totally engrossing.

Galore reminded me quite a bit of Midnight’s Children. Michael Crummey just might be Canada’s answer to Salman Rushdie. This book was nothing short of awesome. I hope it wins a zillion awards.

I chose Ursula Hegi’s Sacred Time from the library at random, having never heard of the book or the author. It was quite a change after the wild romp that was Galore, and I’m not sure I would have checked it out if I had known more about it. In a nutshell: Sacred Time belongs to the “Ripple Effects Of A Child’s Death” genre. If that’s not your cup of tea you might want to skip this one.

That said… this book is very well executed. Yes it is about the death of a child, and the reverberations of that death through the family and through the years, but it completely avoids the three Ms of melodrama, maudlinity (maudlin-ness?) and manipulation. The characters are complex, three-dimensional and (for the most part) likable. The book is set mostly in the Bronx, with the three sections of the book taking place in three decades, the 1950s, 1970s, and 2000s. There is lots of period detail and cultural references which gave the book some fun moments, despite the grim subject matter.

Zombie, Ohio. Yes, it is a zombie story. If you are into zombies I highly recommend this one. I’m not a huge fan of zombies — for one thing, there are too many internal inconsistencies, like do they digest their food and if not, how can they keep eating all those brains — but I do like post-apocalyptic fiction and therefore I read the occasional zombie story.

This one is unusual in that it is told from the zombie’s perspective, and furthermore the zombie, in life, was a philosophy professor at a small liberal arts college, tee hee. Like all zombie stories, it is really gross, but it is also funny. E.g. the scene where the newly-minted zombie has to figure out how to actually open a skull so that he can get at the brain, giggle giggle.

BTT: grocery stores & symphony orchestras

I know, it’s not even Thursday, but when I came across this question I felt like I just had to answer it: If you could write a book, what would it be about, and why?

Well. This is kind of weird, but I have always wanted to write a cozy murder mystery set either in a grocery store or a symphony orchestra. Either one, I think, would be hilariously fun to write. The reason this is weird is because I don’t read a whole lot of cozy mysteries. I’m not that interested in finding out whodunit. But I do like the ones that give you a little window into another culture, kind of like some episodes of CSI. And oh my goodness you could have so much fun with a grocery store! Or a symphony orchestra! You could have rivalry, say, between the produce and deli departments, or the cashiers & baggers. And the new store manager would be the prime suspect. Or you could portray the differences between the first and second violin sections, who unite against the oboes who think they’re boss because the orchestra tunes to them, you know? And the prime suspect would be the guy who failed the audition… or the new assistant conductor… or perhaps the crazy harp player…

Like every other bookworm in the world (I assume) I have tried to write. A lot. I love to create characters & settings, and I love to craft sentences. But I am always stumped by plot. I create these characters and I have no idea what to do with them. I have a feeling that writing a mystery would kinda solve that problem, because with a mystery you would have to start with the plot. You would have to know where it’s going — who did it — before you start.

Hmmm, I think I know how I’ll be spending the rest of this day…

Chris Pavone: The Expats (progress report)

Welllllllll it’s been over two weeks since I last posted a “weekly” review. Couldn’t be helped. Huge, unavoidable work crunch. But now all that is over and I’m starting to catch up on my reading. I have about three different books in progress right now, including The Expats by Chris Pavone. I put this on hold at the library months ago. Usually a good sign when 150 other people want to read it too, right?

I’m only on page 55, but so far I am not impressed. I guess this comes with the spy-story territory, but I absolutely can’t stand it when the protagonist knows stuff that isn’t shared with the reader. To me it seems like the worst kind of manipulation, a cheap trick for creating suspense. For example:

Also, she didn’t want to admit to Dexter the things she’d done, the types of acts she’d been — still was — capable of. If she couldn’t tell him the whole truth, she was loath to tell any of it. That seemed worse. And since the worst of it was that morning in New York, which was also the reason for the end of it all, her story wouldn’t be complete — it wouldn’t make sense — without explaining that event. And her story wouldn’t be defensible with it.

What morning in New York?? What event?? I don’t want to be forced to keep reading just to find out this background info. Suspense should unfold naturally. We should find out what’s going on along with the protagonist. Authors, if you’re going to use third person limited, it’s only fair to keep the reader in the loop, so to speak.

Also the flashbacks (or flashforwards?) are not well executed. The sequences are too short, and the different eras are too close together (only 2 years apart) so that it is very hard to keep track of where you are.

That said, the idea of a spy story that also involves marriage & family is intriguing. The setting is colorful (Luxembourg) and I am mildly interested in discovering how it all turns out. For now I will keep reading…

Joshua Ferris: The Unnamed

The Unnamed is a portrait of a man brutally ravaged by mental illness. He suffers from a very extreme obsessive compulsive disorder: he finds himself compelled to go out walking, for hours on end, no matter the weather, until he becomes so exhausted that he cannot stay awake any longer. When he wakes up, behind a dumpster or wherever, he calls his wife, she retrieves him, and they return, warily, to normal life, and wait for the next incident. The book is told almost entirely through his perspective and much of it revolves around his poignant struggle to understand the mind-body dichotomy, to reclaim his body that insists on this crazy walking against his will. At times he is completely psychotic. He loses fingers and toes to frostbite. He cannot work. His relationship with his wife and daughter is damaged beyond repair. And despite a vast battery of medical and psychological tests, no doctor is ever able to come up with a name for what ails him, let alone a cure.

Yep, that is The Unnamed. It’s very, very well done. Well crafted, well written. Not a single word out of place. If you like unreliable narrators and intense explorations of mental illness, this is definitely the book for you.

It’s not really my thing though. I prefer rollicking yarns and prose poetry; sweeping sagas with reliable third person omniscient narrators that take you out of yourself and into another world. I read The Unnamed because my book group picked it for this month. I’m glad I read it. It certainly made me think. I never would have read it otherwise. It’s good to push the envelope, right?

Lisa Grunwald: The Irresistible Henry House

After reading a string of rather excessively macho novels I made a point of looking for something a little softer when I went to the library this week. I came home with four books, three of which were written by women and are all about, y’know, relationships and stuff. (The fourth is a Booker prizewinner by a man, Plainsong, which I may or may not read. Actually, “may or may not read” applies to all of my library books. That’s the beauty of the library. One of the many beauties.)

Anyway The Irresistible Henry House was… well… irresistible. I read it in two days. Which is very unusual for me, alas. I don’t know if you heard the story on NPR, but back in the day (early 20th century) many college Home Ec programs had a “practice house.” An actual real house where Home Ec majors could go and live and practice, y’know, household stuff. Often these practice houses would also include a “practice baby.” Yes, a real baby. They would get a baby from the local orphanage and it would live in the house and the girls would take turns being its mom. These babies were then highly sought after by adoptive parents because they had been raised using the very latest child-rearing methods & philosophies. Like feeding on a schedule. And not picking it up when it cries, because “if you don’t train him now, you can’t train him later.”

So, this is real. They really did have practice houses and practice babies back in the day. And Lisa Grunwald has written a novel about it. Henry House, as you might have guessed, begins life as a practice baby. He has a different mother each week. And, it turns out, he is quite a charming charismatic little fellow, to such an extent that when his time is up (age two), the program director finds she can’t bear to part with him, and he ends up staying. He spends his whole childhood being cared for by practice moms. The ramifications of this are fascinating. Henry learns to be perfectly democratic with his moms. He learns to never ever show a preference for one over the others, not even by implication such as sharing a favorite color. (I actually know someone like this, in real life. It is freaky.) And as he grows up, predictably, this leads to big problems in the romance department.

Aspects of this book are hard to take. Particularly the child-rearing methods. You don’t have to be very far along the attachment parenting spectrum to be offended by the outdated philosophy. And Henry’s difficulties with adult relationships are painful to read as well. However, Grunwald does an amazing job with the material. This story could have been cheesy and maudlin, but she totally makes it work. Henry is a complex, three-dimensional character. Martha, the program director who refuses to read Dr. Spock and treats the practice babies brutally (by today’s standards), is also complex. Sure, I wanted to strangle her, but I also had a lot of sympathy for her. It works because the writing is so good. The author doesn’t pull her punches, and she never preaches. She is completely matter-of-fact. She lays it out, and you draw your own conclusions.

Other aspects of the book are a lot of fun. Henry is a charmer after all. And furthermore the book is set during the baby boomer era with tons of cultural references. There is plenty of color and humor to offset the hard parts. A page-turner for sure.

Highly recommend. Especially if you’ve been reading a lot of macho boy writers lately.

Michael Chabon: Gentlemen of the Road

I created a new genre category for this book: Rollicking Yarn. I’m also including this in the Prose Poetry genre because every sentence made me squirm with joy. In fact, if rollicking yarns aren’t your thing you might want to get yourself a copy of this book anyway, and just read the chapter titles. (Examples: Chapter One, On Discord Arising From the Excessive Love of a Hat; Chapter Nine, On Anxieties Arising From the Impermissibility, However Unreasonable, of an Elephant’s Rounding Out a Prayer Quorum.)

In the afterword, Michael Chabon reveals that his working title for this novel was “Jews with Swords.” Which makes me laugh (and Chabon also talks about why the idea of sword-wielding Jews strikes us as funny despite the existence of such well-known Jewish sword wielders as Judah Maccabee), but in fact this book is about Jews with swords.

The two main characters, Amram and Zelikman, fit the typical buddy story profile — Amram is the big, brawny (though not stupid) extravert and Zelikman is the small, clever introvert. Together they travel through the Caucasus, circa AD 950, having one adventure after another. They are Jewish, sort of, and they carry swords, sort of. (Actually Amram carries a battleaxe named Mother-Defiler and Zelikman carries a pointy thing called Lancet.) And, as they travel through the Caucasus having adventures, Michael Chabon, who has such a way with words, describes it all with delicious wit and precision. Example:

The moon rose, and in her faint, cool light Amram watched Zelikman creep along. In his long and skinny shanks there was none of the grace but all the intensity of a cat going about its fatal mousing, the patience, the grim reserve of a predator. He rose up behind the nearer picket, covered the man’s face with his leather-gloved hand and embraced him with the other arm.  A moment later he eased the man to the earth. When, rarely, Zelikman recalled his mother to Amram, it was often a bedside memory of her seeing him through fevers and nightmares, or singing to him in the soft Latin dialect of her grandmothers, and the shade of that unknown Jewess always seemed to appear in Zelikman when he anesthetized a guard or watchman and laid him tenderly on the ground.

I’m going to end this post with Chabon’s definition of adventure, from the afterword:

Adventures are a logical and reliable result — and have been since at least the time of Odysseus — of the fatal act of leaving one’s home, or trying to return to it again. All adventure happens in that damned and magical space, wherever it may be found or chanced upon, which least resembles one’s home. As soon as you have crossed your doorstep or the county line, into that place where the structures, laws, and conventions of your upbringing no longer apply, where the support and approval (but also the disapproval and repression) of your family and neighbors are not to be had: then you have entered into adventure, a place of sorrow, marvels, and regret.

“That damned and magical space,” oh yes!