Two Novels about Musicians

Love Is Blind:  The Rapture of Brodie Moncur     William Boyd     (2018)

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Brodie Moncur was born with perfect pitch, and this is his ticket out of the grasp of his alcoholic father and repressive family situation in rural Scotland in the 1890s. Brodie’s superb piano-tuning abilities take him to a shop in Paris, where he suggests an endorsement scheme to help sell pianos. This is how he comes to be the tuner for concert pianist John Kilbarron. Brodie travels around the European continent in Kilbarron’s entourage and falls in love with Kilbarron’s mistress, the elusive Russian soprano Lika Blum. Difficulties result.  

Keep the title of this novel in mind: Brodie is blind to all the danger that his head-over-heels passion draws him into. I was on tenterhooks with worry about his affair with Lika being discovered, and I got fully immersed in the melodrama of the great but erratic and fading pianist Kilbarron and Kilbarron’s slimily malevolent brother, Malachi. Flitting from city to city, the fin de siècle characters inhabit sites deftly conjured with only a few broad strokes of description by the novelist. In each locale they create great music or make love or evade discovery, always seeming very much of their era.

The writing here is lyrical and effortless, sweeping the reader along and creating sympathy for Brodie’s plight. Late in the novel he ruminates: “It was astonishing how quickly life could change, how the ground moved beneath you and the landscape you thought you were living in turned out to be entirely different. Like waking up after an earthquake.” (303)

The weaknesses of Boyd’s story lie in the failure to develop fully the tantalizing story line about Brodie’s family and the lack of substance in the depiction of Lika. Even acknowledging these faults, Love Is Blind is a solid read.

The Ensemble     Aja Gabel     (2018)

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Playing in a high-powered string quartet is challenging to the body as well as to the mind; the personal interactions of the four musicians, both on stage and off, are also a part of the mix. Novelist Aja Gabel, described on the dust jacket as “a former cellist,” has an insider’s understanding of the musical details as well as of the relationships involved in chamber music performance.

She introduces readers to the fictional Van Ness Quartet: Jana (hard-driving first violinist), Brit (reserved second violinist), Henry (note-perfect violist), and Daniel (unhappy cellist). If you played in your high school orchestra or if you’ve sung in a choral group or if you’ve collected all three of Yo-Yo Ma’s recordings of the Bach “Cello Suites,” you may appreciate the many musical insights about performances of the quartet. If you know little about classical music, you’ll miss some of the subtleties about the rehearsals and performances of the quartet, but you can still enjoy the plot and the very good character development of this novel.

For my review of another novel about a musician, click here.

A Novel with Heart

The Ice House     Laura Lee Smith     (2017)

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When I reviewed Laura Lee Smith’s previous novel, Heart of Palm, I resolved to read The Ice House as soon as my local library ordered it. Here is a novelist who can weave a complex plot and manage to tuck in all the seemingly loose threads by the end. She can conjure up characters who are like people you know, maybe because their conversations are so convincing. She can take you inside a manufacturing plant (in The Ice House, it's a company that produces those bags of crystal clear ice) and make you feel as if you’re getting a personal tour, from the production floor to the administrative offices to the parking lot. Best of all, her novels have heart. Her characters wrestle with tough decisions in their lives, and they do the very best that they can. They’re imperfect but basically likeable.

The Ice House is set mainly in Jacksonville, in the same sector of Florida as Heart of Palm, and once again, the oppressive heat of the region is highlighted. In The Ice House, the outdoor weather contrasts with the mandatory frigidness of the ice-making plant, where workers wear heavy parkas year round. One of the owners of the plant, Johnny MacKinnon, bears the nickname “Ice,” and a chunk of the novel’s action takes place in the chilly northern reaches of Scotland, where Johnny grew up and where his ex-wife, son, and granddaughter live.

“Johnny’s father used to have a saying: And as soon as you’re oot one load o’ shite, there’s another.” (30)  This is how the arc of the narrative works, with one catastrophe after another occurring for the main characters. Johnny is facing surgery for what may be brain cancer. He’s estranged from his adult son, who’s a heroin addict. And his ice company is being charged with negligence for a leak of ammonia gas; the potential fines would wipe out the business. Minor characters also encounter serious problems. My favorite struggler is Chemal, the Puerto Rican teenager who lives next door to Johnny. Chemal becomes a Sancho Panza of sorts to Johnny’s Don Quixote as they take off on a hasty, ill-advised trip to Scotland.

The Ice House is about trying to reconcile the issues in life when death comes stalking. It’s about showing compassion and accepting the differences in the people around you. And I found the ending highly satisfying. 

Books in Brief, Part 6

In this post I offer reviews of three novels that are nothing like each other.

The Gunners     Rebecca Kauffman     (2018)

At age 30, Mikey’s vision is rapidly deteriorating from early-onset macular degeneration. He works as a maintenance person at a factory in small-town America, where it can be hard to make new friends. And he has a strained relationship with his father, who lives nearby. Back in childhood, Mikey had a circle of friends who called themselves “The Gunners.” They were misfit kids, most with difficult family situations, who met secretly in an abandoned house to help each other navigate growing up. The Gunners separated from each other when one member, Sally, suddenly deserted the group in high school, and four of the six Gunners left town to seek their careers elsewhere. The loner Mikey reconnects with the Gunners when Sally dies unexpectedly. As the five remaining friends gather together for Sally’s funeral, readers can assess each person and view all their interactions. Alice, for instance, may seem too loud-mouthed and pushy, but she’s also incredibly loyal. Many secrets from the past are revealed as friendships are re-established.

Kauffman’s novel is touching in a simple and straightforward way. Her sentences tend to be short, declarative, and matter-of-fact, but underneath the language she creates a deep pool of emotion. The Gunners delves into the many facets of friendship—including the potential impediments to its endurance—and leaves readers with some assurance that the world can be a more decent place if you have true friends.

The House of Broken Angels     Luis Alberto Urrea     (2018)

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Summon up your high-school Spanish or open an online dictionary as you drop in on the de la Cruz family in San Diego. The patriarch, Big Angel, is in the terminal stage of cancer when his near-centenarian mother dies. Big Angel schedules her funeral the day before his own birthday party, so that distant family members (including Big Angel’s younger half-brother, Little Angel) can come for both events. Big Angel is the only one who knows for certain that he won’t live to a birthday after this one. The novel unfolds over the two-day weekend of the funeral and then the birthday party, with a number of flashbacks to previous decades and to cross-border adventures through the memories of the characters. Forget any stereotypes of Mexican Americans that you may have: Big Angel, for example, is a retired IT professional, and Little Angel is a university professor.

The dialogue in The House of Broken Angels is lively and realistic, though I did get somewhat lost in the scenes with younger family members speaking in street jargon that mixes English and Spanish freely. Bestselling author Urrea describes this big, heterogeneous family lovingly but without blinders. Readers will encounter flirtation, adultery, loving spouses, crime, successful careers, kindness, cruelty, anger, happiness, and the daily give-and-take of life. The de la Cruz family is Mexican American, but they could be a family of any ethnicity in the United States of the early twenty-first century. Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the end of the novel to learn how Urrea drew on some of his own family experiences in crafting The House of Broken Angels.

The Quiet Side of Passion     Alexander McCall Smith     (2018)

This twelfth volume in the series of Isabel Dalhousie novels is another mellow trip to Edinburgh, a city with exquisite natural beauty, a strong link to its history, and an assembly of odd characters. In The Quiet Side of Passion author McCall Smith revisits the familiar theme of Isabel’s habitual meddlesomeness. Isabel can’t help but get involved in a case of doubtful paternity in a family she meets at her older son’s nursery school. She also engages in unwise arguments with her niece Cat’s new boyfriend. I was cringing as Isabel launched into spirited debates, with a man she’d just met, on the merits of hunting, tattoos, and other controversial subjects. Isabel is dedicated to truth-telling and is constitutionally unable to withhold her opinions. “That was the trouble with being a philosopher, she sometimes told herself; you argued points that did not always need to be argued.” (96) Isabel is not only a philosopher and not only the editor of The Journal of Applied Ethics, but also the wife of the handsome musician Jamie, the mother of a toddler and a baby, and the owner of a large house that needs upkeep. A significant portion of The Quiet Side of Passion is about Isabel’s attempts to employ people to help her with her daily tasks. Alas, for all her intellectual achievements, Isabel has few skills in hiring or in personnel supervision, and the results are amusing. Fans of the McCall Smith novels will want to follow Isabel’s latest adventure. Readers who aren’t familiar with the series will get enough background from this novel to appreciate the interactions of the key characters.

 

A Very Long Marriage

 Midwinter Break     Bernard MacLaverty     (2017)

Irish author Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break, is a masterful study of the pleasures and trials of a very long marriage.

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Gerry and Stella are in their seventies. They grew up in Northern Ireland during the hidebound 1950s and then experienced the Troubles, that period of Catholic/Protestant terrorism and guerrilla warfare on the island that began in the late 1960s. As adults, they moved to Scotland to escape violence and pursue their careers, Gerry in architecture and Stella in teaching. They’re retired now, financially comfortable, and their grown son lives in Canada with his family, so their lives have emptied out, in a sense. To fill the void, Stella, who has always been a devout Catholic, is trying to develop her spiritual life further. Non-believer Gerry, on the other hand, has upped his alcohol consumption to a dangerous level.

It’s January, and Stella has organized a short vacation to Amsterdam for the two of them. If trading one cold, dreary winter site (Scotland) for another that’s equally cold and dreary (the Netherlands) seems odd, well, it is. Readers eventually learn Stella’s hidden agenda for the trip, just as readers come to understand Gerry’s obsession with alcohol, which he tries to hide.

MacLaverty manages his prose in such a way that he makes the minutiae of daily life truly fascinating. I do not know how he does this. At the level of the sentence, the actions of his characters are trivial, but the overall effect of his paragraphs and chapters is riveting, even when he’s describing such mind-numbing details as negotiating suitcases and shampoo bottles and security checks in an airport. Part of his technique must be rooted in his dialogue, which is so perfectly tuned that I feel certain I’ve heard some of the lines verbatim in real life.

Stella and Gerry are at heart quite compatible and affectionate toward each other, although she does carp a bit about his drinking, and he engages in some gentle mockery of her religiosity. Gerry automatically steers Stella by the elbow at busy street corners, knowing her fear of traffic. Stella indulges Gerry’s long tarrying at certain art works in the Rijksmuseum. They both have physical ailments that are common for their ages, but they don’t let these dominate their lives; instead they have “the Ailment Hour,” a limited time period each day when they tell each other about their aches and pains.

All is not connubial bliss, however. Shadows from a horrible past event hang over the couple, and the full power of this event is not revealed until late in the narrative. The stereotypical issues of many Irish tales, religion and drink, are key to the conflicts between Stella and Gerry, but in MacLaverty’s capable hands they are never trite. Stella’s religious beliefs, for example, are treated respectfully. But MacLaverty does go full Irish in invoking James Joyce in the final chapters of Midwinter Break, as Stella and Gerry deal with a snowstorm. MacLaverty’s characters live in Scotland, and he sends them vacationing in the Netherlands, but the pull of the old Ireland of “The Dead” from The Dubliners is still strong. Midwinter Break is a book that you’ll mull over for many days after you close the covers.

Applied Ethics in Scotland

A Distant View of Everything     Alexander McCall Smith     (2017)

The Isabel Dalhousie Series

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The detective is a fortyish woman in Scotland who edits an academic journal about applied ethics. Seriously? Only Alexander McCall Smith could pull this one off, and he has, for eleven books in this bestselling series of mellow mysteries.

It all started in 2004 with McCall Smith’s The Sunday Philosophy Club, where we meet Isabel Dalhousie. Isabel is an independently wealthy divorcée, so she can afford to pursue her scholarly interest in ethics without pay, and she has the time to investigate activities she comes across that she considers ethically questionable. “There was no reason why she should become involved in the affairs of others, but she seemed to be irresistibly drawn into them. And every time that she did it, it was because she imagined that there was a moral claim on her.” (69)

You might just call Isabel a busybody, but she has many other defining qualities. She speaks Italian, attends classical concerts, collects fine art, and works crossword puzzles. She treasures her city of Edinburgh, though she’s half American: “Her own heritage, she thought, was enviable: Scottish commonsense philosophy on one side and American pragmatism on the other. That was a perfect combination.” (163-4)

Isabel can be stuffy. She muses on sundry subjects randomly, and she can go off into quotes from the poet WH Auden (whom she calls “WHA”) at any moment. She refers casually to the writings of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Since I live with a philosopher whose specialty is Kantian ethics, I have assistance with these references, but you can always Google them. The philosophy background adds considerably, I think, to the multifaceted personality that McCall Smith is building for Isabel. (Reader friends of mine either enjoy this approach or despise it.)

Where this series gets spicy is at the third installment, The Right Attitude to Rain (2006), in which Isabel enters into a love affair with Jamie, a handsome, kind bassoonist who’s fourteen years her junior—and also the former lover of Isabel’s niece. As with other aspects of the McCall Smith novels, you’re likely to find the Isabel/Jamie affair either charming or ridiculous. The vagaries of this relationship intertwine with the mystery plots through the rest of the novels.

The mysteries don’t usually involve death. In fact, in A Distant View of Everything, the most recent of the series, Isabel investigates whether a matchmaker’s pairing of a couple is suitable. This plot line is thin, but the ongoing saga of Isabel, Jamie, and their expanding family fills in. Yes, I’ll reveal that the cougar Isabel gets pregnant in her forties, and Jamie is a doting dad.

McCall Smith uses a fair number of Scots words and phrases to add Edinburgh flavor to these novels, but he’s usually careful to provide clues to his dialect choices in the context. In case you’re wondering, though, Scots slang for a toilet is “cludgie,” and in British slang the cheap theater seats, in the highest balcony, are called “the gods.”

And one more thing: the Sunday Philosophy Club doesn’t actually meet. It’s more a pleasant idea. If you want to catch up with the Isabel Dalhousie books, here’s the list to date: The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004), Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (2005), The Right Attitude to Rain (2006), The Careful Use of Compliments (2007), The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (2008), The Lost Art of Gratitude (2009), The Charming Quirks of Others (2010), The Forgotten Affairs of Youth (2011), The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds (2012), The Novel Habits of Happiness (2015), A Distant View of Everything (2017). In addition, three shorter Isabel Dalhousie stories are available as e-books.

Glaswegian Misery

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine     Gail Honeyman     (2017)

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Residents of Glasgow, Scotland, often get a bad rap from the rest of Great Britain. Their accents, their cultural scene, and even their weather are disparaged. Along comes Glaswegian Gail Honeyman with this exceptional novel set in Glasgow. Given the title and the cover art, it looks to be chick lit, but (whoa, baby) hang on for a wild ride of seething misery behind that cover.

Eleanor Oliphant is a 30-year-old accounting clerk with a degree in classics and a solitary lifestyle. “Awkward” doesn’t begin to describe her. She’s an outcast among her office mates and spends each weekend downing two bottles of vodka to fog the memories of horrific events in her past. (We don’t get the full circumstances until very late in the novel.) Eleanor speaks in first-person narrative, combining stilted language from her bookish background with comments that demonstrate how isolated she is. She doesn’t understand the basics of social interaction, having been raised by a barbaric “Mummy” and then, from the age of ten, shunted from one foster home to another.

As the action of this novel commences, Eleanor is trying to update herself in order to become appealing to a local pop singer whom she’s developed a crush on from afar. She gets a new hairstyle, a cell phone, and makeup to cover the scars on her face. (Did I mention that there were horrific events in her past?) The scenes in which Eleanor has to interact with salespeople and personal care staff are simultaneously hilarious and cringe-inducing. Here is Eleanor getting a bikini wax: “She painted a stripe of warm wax onto my pubis with a wooden spatula, and pressed a strip of fabric onto it. Taking hold of the end, she ripped it off in one rapid flourish of clean, bright pain. ‘Morituri te salutant,’ I whispered, tears pricking by eyes. This is what I say in such situations, and it always cheers me up to no end. I started to sit up, but she gently pushed me back down. ‘Oh, there’s a good bit more to go, I’m afraid,’ she said, sounding quite cheerful. Pain is easy; pain is something with which I am familiar.” (15)

As her self-improvement kick proceeds, Eleanor is, quite accidentally, drawn into potential friendships with several genuinely kindhearted people who look past her social faux pas and her physical disfigurement. Having friends is something that Eleanor can’t get her head around at first, and she resists. She also, embarrassingly, continues to pursue that worthless pop singer. More about the plot of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine would introduce too many spoilers. Instead I’ll tell you that I read this book around the clock, unable to put it down. I wanted to know more about poor Eleanor and about how she got to be such an outsider. I wanted to know if her newfound friends could help extricate her from her self-imposed exile in her grim flat.

At the end of the book, one of these friends smiles at Eleanor, and she describes how she feels: “The moment hung in time like a drop of honey from a spoon, heavy, golden.” Hope springs.

A Lighthearted Side of Scotland

The Bertie Project     Alexander McCall Smith     (2016)

The universe of readers of novels in English divides into those who can’t stand Alexander McCall Smith and those who can’t wait for the next installment from him. I’m in the latter camp.

The Bertie Project is the eleventh book in McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street Series (see list below). Interestingly, the chapters of all the 44 Scotland Street books have first appeared in serialized form in the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman. This publishing approach constrains McCall Smith’s chapter length and requires that each chapter have a cliffhanger, although the cliff is usually more like a small berm in your backyard.

Scotland Street is a real thoroughfare in Edinburgh, but #44 is fictional. In this multi-family building of flats, which are kind of like American condos, McCall Smith follows the lives of the inhabitants. Some of them are ordinary citizens, like Pat MacGregor (a young art student who goes to work in a gallery) and Stuart Pollock (a statistician with the Scottish government) and Domenica MacDonald (a wise anthropologist). Others are caricatures so inflated that the reader marvels that they don’t simply burst. These include Bruce Anderson (a twenty-something narcissist obsessed with personal care products), Irene Pollock (a domineering mother obsessed with the writings of Melanie Klein), and the identical triplet sons of Matthew and Elspeth Duncan.

Even when some of these denizens of 44 Scotland Street move to other residences, McCall Smith keeps an eye on their activities. And over the course of the series, Cyril, a beer-swilling dog with a gold tooth, moves into 44 Scotland Street. McCall Smith skewers affectation wherever he finds it.

The star of the entire 44 Scotland Street Series is undoubtedly Bertie Pollock, who starts out as a precocious five year old and ages very slowly toward seven. I seldom laugh out loud when I’m reading a novel, but pronouncements from young Bertie can be so hilarious that I have to stop reading to wipe the tears of laughter from my eyes. Bertie is forced by his shrew of a mother, Irene, to take lessons in Italian and saxophone and yoga. He’s dressed by her in pink overalls that embarrass him. He’s hauled off to psychotherapy sessions even though his mental health is excellent. I keep hoping that someone will rescue poor, sweet Bertie. McCall Smith dangles that possibility in front of his readers repeatedly throughout the series, notably in The Bertie Project.

Here’s one of McCall Smith’s descriptions from The Bertie Project:  “Why could Bertie not be left alone to grow up in the way that suited him? He was, after all, a particularly appealing little boy, free from any discernible character defects, obliging, gentle, and, most remarkably, utterly without guile . . . He described the world exactly as he saw it; he expressed in a completely open way the thoughts that went through his mind; if asked what he was doing or thinking he answered in a way that concealed nothing, held nothing back.” (168)

I can’t tell you too much more about The Bertie Project without spoilers. Bertie and his family are prominent. Bruce the Narcissist acquires a new girlfriend, an Australian. Matthew and Elspeth have nanny troubles.

As if a many-stranded plot with a large cast of characters isn’t enough for the 44 Scotland Street novels, McCall Smith adds complaints about the grim Scottish weather, encomiums to his beloved city of Edinburgh, digs about Glasgow, analyses of Scottish visual arts, criticisms of bad grammar, digressions on the history of Scotland, and opinions on the tensions between Scotland and England, both medieval and modern. I find most of these tangential peregrinations amusing, the one exception being the story line about Scottish nudist societies . . .  In any case, as you embark on each chapter, you never know where you’ll end up.

Maybe the unpredictability is why some people hate McCall Smith’s novels, or maybe some readers dislike his sense of Scottish superiority. My Scottish heritage probably biases me toward the books, because I also enjoy the other McCall Smith series set in Edinburgh: the thirteen Isabel Dalhousie novels. Isabel is a philosopher who edits a journal on applied ethics and solves local mysteries. She’s also an unintentional cougar. Watch for my blog post on this series in the future.

McCall Smith’s best known novels are The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, seventeen charming books set in Botswana and starring detective Precious Ramotswe. Two other McCall Smith series are Corduroy Mansions and Portuguese Irregular Verbs; these are less successful, I think, but worth reading if you’re a true fan.

Check out Alexander McCall Smith to determine if you're a fan or a detractor! Here are all the books in the 44 Scotland Street Series: 44 Scotland Street (2004), Espresso Tales (2005), Love Over Scotland (2006), The World According to Bertie (2007), The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (2008), The Importance of Being Seven (2010), Bertie Plays the Blues (2011), Sunshine on Scotland Street (2012), Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers (2013), The Revolving Door of Life (2015), The Bertie Project (2016).