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16 June 2013

Book Review: Bel Canto - Ann Patchett

Bel CantoBel Canto by Ann Patchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I avoided this when it first came out because I figured it was about how the beauty of the voice can transcend violence and, being an about-to-be-failed singer, I didn't really want to delve into that glorious, if flawed, luxury of philosophical thought.

But I was on vacation this week.  And this book was sitting on my sister-in-law's bookshelf.  And I thought, "12 years is long enough to avoid a book."  So I dove in.

Phrases like "Most of the time we're loved for what we can do rather than for who we are" would have bothered the hell out of me 12 years ago.  But I was surprised to find that in my reading of the text, in my current state of life, singing seemed to have very little to do with the driving force of the plot.  Perhaps if I had read it 12 years ago when my own singing was still close, I would have felt differently.  But I viewed Roxane Coss less as a real-life diva and more as a representation of how art can be made to transcend language, societal ladder rungs and even violence.  But bullets still kill, no matter how heavenly the music may be.

At its core, this is a desert island story.  A Stockholm Syndrome exploration.  A ragtag assortment of characters make a life together because they have to.  And they begin, as humans do, to justify it.  To love it.  To fear leaving it even as they feared entering it in the first place.  It is a book, in the end, not about how art transcends humanity but how humans transcend humanity, using the simple tools of chosen oblivion and delusion.

The book ponders and wanders.  Then it ends abruptly and life for its characters ends or moves on in an unexpected direction.  And that's that.  Much like real life.

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An Accomplished Woman - Jude Morgan

An Accomplished WomanAn Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this one better than A Little Folly.  Maybe because the lead character is one of those politely sarcastic females, dripping their futile world-changing toxins within the constrains of a society that does not allow women to be powerful or single-minded.

Morgan again delights with his writing style and his sharp, observant tongue, which fits so well here because of his sharp, observant leading lady:

"Susannah did not so much sit down as demonstrate sitting down's beautiful possibilities.  From the sofa, all full breasts and flowing muslin, she beamed at her children and her life."

"'Oh, Culverton, yes,' cried George, who rowed in and out of conversations with a cheerful disregard for their drift..."

"'Really, I protest--what is left for the satirical mind to invent when reality so surpasses it?'"

"The removal of the first course interrupted, though it did not entirely stop, Mrs Vawser's tireless waving of the flag of personality.  She could still subject Mr Durrant to glances, glances away, and sharp suppressions of hilarity accompanied by slaps with her handkerchief: to all of which Mr Durrant presented the same look of a man being turned slowly into stone, and welcoming it."

"Lydia formed a dispiriting impression of a man living within thick walls of self-regard, unpierced by any ray of humour."

"'How do you like the music?' she asked.  'Artificial," he snapped, 'miserably artificial,' and he stared away: leaving Lydia to the interesting philosophic exercise of imagining what music with no artifice would sound like.  A man falling off a step-ladder, perhaps, as long as he did it spontaneously, and with no soul-destroying preparation."

While I was disappointed in the typical Regency romance ending (strong woman melting into the arms of reticent and powerful man) I found I rather enjoyed the prospect of two of them making a life together; not an altogether happy ending but an ending that is really the beginning of the story.  It's how all books should end.

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A Little Folly - Jude Morgan

A Little FollyA Little Folly by Jude Morgan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I spent the first several chapters of this book thinking "What's the point of reading this when I could be reading Jane Austen?"

Then something clicked.  Perhaps it was Morgan's clever turns of phrase:

"She would not allow praises to go to her head:--but they might be allowed to reach as far as her eyes, which, when she saw herself reflected in the hall mirror as they left, certainly seemed uncommonly bright."

"...he lounged away in a cloud of pomade and exclamation marks."

Or perhaps his clear-eyed description of trivial human failings;

"Sophie and Tom treated her with great fondness and indulgence, reassuring themselves that she had not suffered a moment's loneliness without them, commiserating her small ailments, loading her with presents they had bought at Lyme, and generally according her every sort of attention, compatible with not really taking any notice of her."

Or his sharp tongue:

"Is he not entrancing?  I could study him for hours.  It is not just the stupidity--it is the thoroughness with which it is kept up.  To remember all that slang, and not deviate into normal language here and there: to never say anything remotely interesting or thoughtful, even by accidental lapse--this requires a special kind of talent.  I can only look on in fascination.  I think the high point of the evening was when he called me a 'ninnyhammer.'"

Or his metaphoric wisdom:
"But she suspected that in many regards grown men, and women, did not grow up--that the fresh susceptibility of youth still sent its green shoots through the hard stones of experience."

Anyway, I'm hooked.  Pure Regency Fun.

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