On Books: A View of America

The Book: American Gods – Neil Gaiman

Some books are in the back of your mind for a long time, telling you you should read them, telling you to look for them, to find them, and snatch them up when you do. American Gods was such a book for me. I didn’t go out on a specific mission to find it, but in every used bookstore and thrift shop I went to, my eye was searching.  Finally, I bought it new from a bookstore down the street, having remembered I wanted it while I was searching for a friend’s birthday gift.

American Gods follows Shadow Moon, a man who has just been released from prison only to find that his wife has died in a car accident and that he is now being recruited by the mysterious ‘Mr. Wednesday’. What follows is a journey that goes through an America filled with gods and goddesses and leads up to a war between the new gods and the old.

Now, the novel takes a while to get off to its plot. Gaiman is a world builder, so it might seem at first that the story is disjointed or episodic in nature. However, once the reader gets past this, he/she is thrown into an epic display of imagination. The story is gritty, dark, and tinged with humor. It takes a good hard look at America and displays an essence of it that many people do not see or want to see.

Gaiman’s writing is at times a bit clunky in the novel, but for the most part his prose is well put together, and there are a few passages that are simply beautiful. I personally enjoyed the interludes (or “Coming to America” stories) that were interspersed throughout the book and described how different gods and goddesses arrived in the United States. It really showed how the US is a conglomeration of many different and ever-changing peoples and beliefs, and that, though they may not get along, they can work together when it is necessary.

The book definitely dealt with a lot of heavy topics that are not easy to read about – loss, death, religion. Because of this, it was start and stop for me at the beginning due to my own personal anxieties. However, working through them with the book (and with Shadow) was worth it in the end. American Gods now has a place of honor amongst​ my favorite novels.

Overall score: 5/5 stars

-MC

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Tranquility

Sitting on the balcony, you stare into the distance, over the rooftops behind your apartment and into the sky, which is turning pink as the sun sets, and you watch the planes go by.  One by one they pass, going higher and higher, off to their destinations.  You wish each of them a safe flight.  You wonder where they’re going, and you wonder if it’s better than where you are now.

It’s warm. Warmer than it has been in a long time, and you relax in the metal chair you’re sitting in, comfortable because of the cushion you brought out, comfortable because it’s not cold.  Your gaze falls from the sky to the plant on the table in front of you, and you talk to it, low, soft tones.  Maybe you sing to it too, don’t plants like music?

A helicopter passes overhead and you look up, squinting to see if it has wheels or if it doesn’t, but you can’t tell.  You wish it a safe flight as well, and go back to staring beyond the rooftops into the pink horizon.  It’s calm.  You’re calm.  You let the moment last as long as you can.

-MC

On Books: Music Heals

The Book: The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway

Continuing with my musical theme, I picked this book up off the shelf to be my next read.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is inspired by the true story of Vedran Smailović, a cellist who played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor during the siege of Sarajevo in various areas of the city. The book, however, is much fictionalized (which Smailović was [understandably​] displeased about).

Galloway’s novel features four different characters, each with different stories. It opens with an unnamed cellist who witnesses a shell attack that kills 22 people, and thus decides that he will play Albinoni’s Adagio at the same time every day for 22 days in honor of each victim. This is the only time we see from his perspective – the rest of the novel switches between the other characters; a female soldier who calls herself “Arrow”, a father, Kenan, who is living with his family, and Dragan, an older man who works in a bakery.

These three characters’ stories are twined together as the book goes on, each chapter swapping between them. Though they never meet, it is clear that each one of them is similar in that their lives have been destroyed by the war, and that they are no longer who they once were and can only dream of how life was in the past. It is only through hearing the cellist play that they are able to regain hope and the belief that peace will one day return to Sarajevo.

In terms of writing style, I thoroughly enjoyed Galloway’s. It flowed seamlessly between characters and time frames, and I felt as if I were in the novel myself. Each individual was dynamic and their stories were moving, and I felt I could connect with them and was rooting for them. I also enjoyed that the cellist’s playing truly was a medicine for the pain and suffering each citizen of Sarajevo was going through – by listening to him, they could imagine life as it should be – the city would rebuild itself, years would shed off friends and family, those lost would be found again. For me this was a true connection – there has been many a time when I myself have found solace in the notes or lyrics of a song. Music is powerful – it has indeed saved lives. Why should it not also help people cope with war?

I would recommend this book for people who are interested in the influence of music on a population, or for people who are interested in historical fiction. Or for anyone who just wants to read a beautifully written and sad, but, in the end, hopeful story.

Overall score: 5/5 stars

-MC

Chosen

Waiting to go home yesterday was a shy looking, tan, labrador-esque dog. Her owner stroked her soothingly and she sat quietly as the trains came and went.

Another woman cooed at her and made kissing noises, and the dog made no move of acknowledgement other than looking warily at her. After a few minutes, the dog stood and turned towards where I was standing. We made eye contact; I smiled softly, mouthed “hi puppy”, and stopped staring.

The dog wagged her tail, slowly came over. I looked back, put my hand out softly – she sniffed it, looked up, wagged her tail again, went back to her owner.

My train came and I got on, blessed.

-MC

Trouble on the Tracks

I took the train back Boston with some friends, for it is generally a much more pleasant and short trip. This time, however, it took four hours to get back, not including the fact that it was already 40 minutes late.

First, we stopped to let an express train pass. Second, we stopped to let another train go the opposite direction. Then, as we trundled along, a splintering noise sounded beneath the wheels.

“What was that?” My friend asked.

“Sounded like sticks.” I replied.

The train stopped. People, seething, mumbled amongst themselves.

“What’s going on?” An irate passenger asked of the conductor.

“We hit a deer and need to check for damage.” Came the reply.

It was not sticks, we all realized. The crunching and scraping under the wheels was flesh and bone and sinew.  It was the tearing and snapping of something warm and once very much alive.

“Attention passengers, sorry for the delay. We had a deer strike…”

I can still hear it.

Ripping and popping and then utter silence.

It was sticks. It was sticks. It was sticks.

-MC

On Books: A Violin’s Life

The Book: Antonietta – John Hersey

“Read me,” said the book, “for I have been waiting on the shelf for a very long time.”

And so I did.

Antonietta follows the life of a very special Stradivari violin from its creation to modern times.  The book takes form in five acts, with “Intermezzi” in between each, which allow the reader to follow the instrument as she encounters such famous entities as Mozart (and all who know me know why this book was rescued from a tag sale), Berlioz, and Stravinsky before finally ending up with a businessman named Spenser.

What really intrigued me about the novel was the fact that each act was a different writing style:  when the instrument is being built in the home of Antonio Stradivari, it is that of a regular novel; in Mozart’s presence, the story continues on in the form of letters.  With Berlioz, the story is written in a series of movements (as would be found in a symphony).  With Stravinsky, the point of view changes between a trio of characters.  When Antonietta finally reaches Spenser, the tale is in the form of a screenplay.  Each different ​style adds a fresh perspective to the violin’s life.

I found that the three “Acts” in the middle of the novel (Mozart, Berlioz, and Stravinsky) were the strongest.  The chapter with Stradivari was very technical due to the fact that it surrounds Antonietta’s creation, and at times I found myself skimming the more tedious details of her construction.  While this did not make the chapter unenjoyable per say, I did feel a bit bogged down by minute bits of information.  Mozart’s chapter I found to be the strongest – and most entertaining, as I laughed out loud at a lot of the letters – but this could be due to bias.  That aside, the back and forth was at times heartbreaking as well as funny, and I felt that Hersey had done Mozart quite well.  Berlioz and Stravinsky were also moving as characters – their chapters were well written and dynamic.  However, the final chapter with Spenser was by far the weakest.  Perhaps that was the point, as Spenser claims to be tone-deaf, and because Antonietta had changed drastically between its previous and current owner, but there was a lack of passion and respect for the instrument that had been at the forefront of the other chapters.  The characters also seemed flat and stubborn, which was also probably intentional, but it left a sense of dismay by the end of the novel.

That being said, I did enjoy the book overall.  Hersey was able to bring Antonietta to life, and her story was quite compelling.

I also found myself wanting to look up some music by those composers in the novel who are not as familiar to me (Schoenberg anyone?). Thank God for YouTube.

Overall score: 4/5 stars

-MC

Nonsense

Apples make apple pie

Apple pie tastes like cinnamon

Cinnamon smells like fall

Fall in love with a picture

Picture a child dancing

Dancing in the rain

Rain in spring

Spring is here

-MC

On Tea: Earl #1

The Tea: Earl Grey Tea, Typhoo.
Caffeinated: Yes
Water Temperature: 212° (boiling)
Milk/Sugar: I put in milk, others can put in sugar (alone or in addition) or neither.
Aroma: If you’ve ever had Earl Grey tea before, you know the smell. A sweet, citrusy aroma specific to this type of black tea.
Taste: Tangy, slightly bitter citrus flavor as is typical with Earl Grey (go bergamot!). A fragrant cup.
Would I venture to buy a whole box?: I would, mostly because of the dapper fellow on it. This isn’t the best Earl Grey I’ve had, but it is a decent tea to drink in the morning.
Overall score: 3.5/5 stars

-MC