Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Stunning Ending, A Beautiful Home

In the last two weeks, I have enjoyed two relatively short, masterful novels by two of the most revered authors of our times: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and Home by Toni Morrison. Both books featured a memorable protagonist, great supporting characters, and mesmerizing prose, and both captured the passage of time in all its catastrophic beauty.

Home is the tenth novel by Morrison, who has won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Nobel Prize in Literature! To compare any new novel from this powerhouse to her previous work always seems unfair, if only because Beloved is one of the uncontested heavyweight champs of the literary world from the past fifty years. In truth, each and every Morrison novel is a gem, and Sula, Song of Solomon, and Paradise can take pride of place next to Beloved as highlights of an extraordinary career.

Home is a wonderful entry to the Morrison oeuvre.  In fact, a phrase employed by The Guardian to describe The Sense of an Ending works just as well for Home: "A work of beauty, in a minor key."  Home is not a sprawling novel like Song of Solomon, nor is it as complex and multi-layered as Paradise. In fact, it's relatively straightforward in its telling, in spite of covering a great span of years and several characters. The protagonist is Frank Money, who recently served in the Korean War. Leaving the desegregated military to rejoin a segregated society has been difficult for Money, who has taken to drinking and found himself in trouble more than once. The love of a good woman has settled him, but as the novel opens, he is leaving Seattle to return to Macon, Georgia, the hometown he loathes and vowed never to set foot in again. Alas, his sister Cee, the real love of his life, is critically ill. A letter has arrived telling Frank only to, "Come fast. She be dead if you tarry." Having protected his sister since childhood, Frank escapes from the psych ward of a hospital and catches a train across the country.

The majority of Morrison's novels (with the notable exception of Song of Solomon) feature female protagonists, and what a wonderful, indelible, diverse group of women they are. Here, at last, she returns to a male protagonist, albeit one who is motivated mainly by his love of the women in his life. Frank Money stands with Morrison's best creations, in spite of his relatively short amount of "air time." This book is less than 150 pages in length, and in addition to Frank's story, there are chapters focusing on his latest girlfriend, and his wicked grandmother. Additionally, Morrison indulges just a bit of her experimental side with some short, italicized chapters told from Frank's point of view (most of the book's chapters are told in the third person omniscient tense), in which he argues with Home's narrator and challenges the reliability of the narration.

Similarly, Julian Barnes presents us with an unreliable narrator in The Sense of An Ending, although on a much larger scale. Unlike Frank Money, Tony Webster narrates the entirety of Barnes's novel, which covers more than sixty years in his life. Like Penelope Lively's exquisite Moon Tiger (1987), The Sense of An Ending raises questions of the validity of our memories when shaping our own life stories. As we read, we have no choice but to trust Tony, yet he steps back multiple times to warn us that his memories may have holes in them, and to pointedly question whether his narration has been warped and reshaped by the intervening years. Like Claudia, the protagonist of Moon Tiger, Tony is employed to raise (but never truly answer) some philosophical questions, as well as more straightforward ones of time, memory, and the nature of autobiography.

All questions of narration and philosophical themes aside, The Sense of An Ending is a captivating novel that held my interest from page one. A character study of one man, it is also the tale of a secret, one that comes back later in life to shake things up and raise questions about the past. If this all sounds a bit heavy or melodramatic, never fear: Barnes keeps the pace moving and always pointed forward, in spite of the fact that his character is constantly looking back. Themes of young love, class warfare, and wasted opportunities rear their heads, but the novel never feels mired down in its own intellect. Ultimately, the secret from the past, involving a suicide and a burned diary, serves as enough of a plot to drive this otherwise character-driven novel right down the literary highway at full speed. The conclusion of The Sense of an Ending packs a wallop, the sort of old-fashioned shocking revelation that has propelled many great books throughout history, and one that practically forces you into a reread. You'll see, upon finishing The Sense of An Ending, just how much thought and brilliant foreshadowing Barnes instilled in this novel.

Home is equally well-crafted, hinging not on a secret, but a rescue. Frank races from West Coast to East Coast in a racially divided America to save his sister, who has fallen victim to the experiments of a doctor by whom she was employed. The nature of these experiments is made explicit, but they are not a crucial part of the story. The main theme here is sibling love, and there is genuine beauty in the way that battle weary Frank is single mindedly focused on the well being of Cee.  Cee is no weak woman, though. She emerges in her own chapter as hardworking, interested, and plucky, and by the end of the novel she has made a transformation within herself that will shape the rest of her life. For Morrison to render this supporting character so vividly within such a short amount of pages is testimony to her ongoing powers as a writer, one of the greatest we've ever seen (and America's only living Nobel Laureate).

Both Home and The Sense of an Ending are short, fast-moving novels, expertly crafted and beautifully written. Julian Barnes and Toni Morrison need no further accolades from anyone, but it's certainly refreshing to see that neither is resting on their laurels. Their latest novels can stand proudly beside their past works.  And who knows: maybe their career bests are yet to come?  Based on the strength of Home and The Sense of an Ending, that possibility is certainly not out of the question. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pete Yorn: A Decade in Review

Ok, so Pete Yorn's landmark debut CD, Music for the Morning After (Musicforthemorningafter, to be precise) is actually eleven years old, but I like dealing in decades. I remember fondly the first time I heard him in 2001, one of the best years of my life. The first-rate radio station WCLZ had launched (initially calling itself The Point), and they actually played amazing, diverse music, unlike any other FM station in Maine at the time. On late night drives between Augusta and Farmington, I heard "Life On A Chain," and was intrigued by this gravelly, masculine voice. I liked "Strange Condition" even better, with its catchy chorus and the pleading undercurrent to the vocals. Not long after, I bought the CD, fearful that I would be disappointed beyond those two songs. All these years later, it remains one of the most consistent debut albums in my collection, with standout tracks including the bittersweet ballad "Just Another," the moody "June" (with great drum work by Yorn), the flirtatious "Closet," and the beautifully sung "EZ." 

Two years later, in 2003, Pete Yorn released his sophomore album, the generally overlooked Day I Forgot.  In retrospect, this album was not that bad, and I still play it from time to time. I think the problem was that it sounded so similar to his debut, but without the novelty factor and with slightly weaker melodies.
Having basically written Yorn off as a one trick pony (albeit with a very great trick), I was delighted to find that his 2006 effort Nightcrawler featured some of his best work yet, joining Music for the Morning After as a CD you can play from start to finish with great pleasure. "Georgie Boy" is a social issue song that broke new ground for him lyrically; "Bandstand In the Sky" is an athemic, wonderful album closer; "Vampyre" is appealingly spooky; and "The Man," with background vocals from Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, is one of the strongest songs of his career.

In 2009, Pete put out the cleverly titled Back & Fourth (he was back, with his fourth album), and yet again, he scored on all fronts. "Social Development Dance" is a heartbreaking story of a lover who passed away, featuring the strongest lyrics that Pete Yorn has written to date. The nostalgic "Last Summer" has elements of Fleetwood Mac in its opening chords and catchy melody, never a bad thing. "Paradise Cove" and "Close" are instantly addictive, offering up two distinct slices of Yorn's poppier side. Overall, Back & Fourth rivals Music for the Morning After as Yorn's most listenable work.

Since that album, Pete has put out a collaborative effort with actress Scarlet Johansson (Break Up), and 2010's self titled album, which has a slightly harder feel to it. Both of these projects see him continuing to hone his craft and challenge himself at the same time. With his distinct voice (a love or hate thing, like with Alanis Morissette), a knack for catchy melodies, and his constantly improving lyrics, Pete Yorn's future as a reliable practitioner of enjoyable, pop-rock music seems assured.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Concert Review: Regina Spektor Live at the State Theater

Last night, my friend Lisa and I walked from the Old Port (specifically, Five Guys) to the State Theater in Portland to see one of our favorite performers, Regina Spektor. Three months earlier, we had stood in line for Fiona Apple, and now we were back, with a few differences that included much lower temps and a line that had formed down High Street instead of Congress.

This was my second time seeing Regina, and Lisa's first. I was really excited for her, because I knew she was in for a dynamic performance. And, of course, I was excited to see her again, as she is one of my all time favorite singers.

I love people watching, and I was pleased to see that I didn't feel as old this time around as I did when my friend Matt B. and I saw her at the Orpheum in Boston back in 2009. At that time, I honestly felt like the bulk of the audience was in their 20s, and those of you who know me know that I am much older than that.  This time, there were a lot of thirty and fortysomethings, and I was delighted to see several people who appeared to be in their 70s, including the couple seated next to me. There were also lots of girls wearing Regina Spektor shirts, one young woman who seemed to have done her hair like Regina, a few guys I would like to date, and just a generally diverse, enthusiastic crowd.

The opening act was wretched, easily one of the worst I have seen over the years of taking in many concerts. His stage name is Only Son, and during the intermission, my friend Steven (also in the audience) texted me that he is Regina's husband! I nearly wept. His lyrics were cringe-inducing, particularly a song about having a baby and wanting it to be a boy, and I was so bored during his whole set, clapping out of politeness, but thanking my lucky stars that I would soon be seeing a woman who would blow this dude clear out of the water on her worst day. But whom she had somehow chosen to marry.

When Regina and her band took the stage at 9:18, the crowd erupted into huge, passionate applause, which was sustained throughout the night. Portland crowds are always amazing, and you could tell that the State was filled with true blue Regina fans. This was also a polite crowd for the most part, although one lame contingent to our right started up some clapping during a song that did not call for it, and Regina looked at the audience skeptically and said "Really?," sort of calling them out but in a polite manner which just won me over even more.

Regina's latest album is What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, and so of course, I expected her to play the heck out of it, which she did.  She performed ten of the album's eleven songs. Although I did not swoon over this album quite as much as her previous effort, 2009's amazing Far, I am now a bonafide fan, because each performance of What We Saw's songs was absolutely fantastic, and I cannot wait to explore this album more. And of course, lead single "All The Rowboats" has thrilled me since it was released back in February, and last night's performance was haunting and electrically charged. What a brilliant piece of music, in which she sings of rowboats in oil paintings which come to life after the museum closes. Throbbing, scary, energized: this song is where it's at.

Regina's music brings up a lot of emotions for me. My ex was a fan of hers before I ever was, and during the song "On The Radio," the tears were flowing down my sissy face. What a lovely, well-written song for the ages. I cried again during "Us," and I'm not afraid to admit it. Other highlights for me were "Blue Lips," from Far, which loses none of its dramatic intensity when performed live; the soaring and blissful "Better" from Begin To Hope; "Firewood" from the new CD, which is an exquisite ballad; and the piercing "Ballad of a Politician," also from the new CD, which just seems to sum up so much of life in this complicated century.

With every song, Regina's vocals soared. Her piano playing was remarkable, as was the way she turned her microphone into percussion. Unlike Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan, she doesn't have a forthright, natural stage banter; she is far from combative, like the amazing Fiona Apple, who scolded the crowd; in fact, Regina seems genuinely shy! She was humbled and delighted by the crowd, and specifically said something about Maine being a great audience. Hopefully, this means that she'll be back.

I will end this review by saying that I was struck once again by what a talented lyricist this woman is. She crams so much of life into her songs. I'm thankful to have seen her in concert twice, and I will say that last night's performance at the State Theater in Portland, Maine, ranks as one of my favorite shows in a lifetime of great concerts.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Perfect Novel: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

There is something to be said for experimentation in literature.  When authors play with form and technique in the right way, the results can be breathtaking, as evidenced by works as disparate as Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, the recent NW by Zadie Smith, and the bulk of the oeuvres of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.  From these authors' willingness to take chances, pleasure is bestowed upon the reader.

Similarly, there is something to be said for a good, old fashioned, linear novel.  I have read several of these this year, most recently, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald.  I don't want to group books unnecessarily, but in 2012, I have had the pleasure of reading a handful of brilliantly conceived, expertly executed novels by three powerhouse British female authors: Penelope Lively, Barbara Pym, and now, Penelope Fitzgerald.  All I can say is: wow.  The Booker Prize was bestowed upon Lively's Moon Tiger in 1987, and Fitzgerald's Offshore in 1979.  Pym was nominated for Quartet in Autumn in 1977.  In all three cases, the Booker judges knew what they were talking about.

In my readings of the history of the dying art form known as soap operas, I have learned that in their heyday, these shows won people over with nothing more complicated than what Stephen King has extolled time and again in his essays on fiction: good, solid storytelling.  People have always enjoyed a good story: cleverly plotted, skillfully paced, with characters who resonate, or at least elicit a genuine response.  There is something to be said for a novel that gets about its business right away, in a succinct, economical style.  Certainly we don't want all novels to be like this, but there is a reason that certain books have held up over the years.

Penelope Fitzgerald is considered one of the greatest British writers of the 20th century.  To be more specific, she was thrice nominated for the Booker, winning for Offshore.  Her 1995 novel The Blue Flower, arguably considered her masterpiece, won the National Book Critics Circle Award.  And on the Times' list of The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945, she ranked 23rd.  Clearly, a writer of many accolades.

I came to Offshore with high expectations, having wanted to read it for about a decade.  I was in a bit of a post-brilliance lull, not sure what I could read that would in any way measure up to Zadie Smith's NW.  I tackled a slight but charming novel by Stephen McCauley, Insignificant Others, which bought me some time, but was hoping for something a little more this time around.  Or maybe not.  After all, in a year that has blessed me with so many great reads thus far, perhaps I would not happen upon another five star book for a while.

Yet, Offshore is one of the best novels I've ever read.  The setting is the Thames River in London in 1962.  A group of residents reside on riverboats, or barges, separated from the people on land and gauging much of their activity by the rise and fall of the river's tides.  Richard and his unhappy wife Laura live on Lord Jim; Maurice, a male prostitute, resides on Maurice; Willis, a hapless older man, is the owner of the leaking Dreadnought; and Nedda and her two daughters, Martha and Tilda, call Grace home.  There is also Woodie and his wife Janet, whose boat Rochester becomes a temporary boarding home when some of the other river dwellers undergo minor tragedies.  Throw in a criminal named Harry, who is using Maurice to store stolen goods, and a pregnant rat-chasing cat named Stripey, and you have the recipe for a book that is an interesting (and natural) combination of comedy of manners, domestic drama, love story, and crime caper.

Fitzgerald throws us into the action with a languorous but important opening scene that involves a monthly meeting of the boat owners, in which they discuss important issues and basic boat business.  Like a motley home owners association!  The book unfolds at a nice pace.  Offshore is by no means plot driven, but there is definite forward momentum and plenty of activity for all of the characters.  There is never a dull moment, and Fitzgerald's characterizations are strong enough that you come to care for everyone, even the supporting players like Mr. and Mrs. Woodie.  Although, again, the novel is more character than plot-driven, the various threads do come together in a well-choreographed manner at the denouement.  I walked away from the book feeling fully satisfied, in spite of a final scene that leaves you hanging and raises questions about most of the characters' fates!  In some strange way, this is comforting. 

In closing, I will say that this is a short novel, clocking in at 141 pages, and one in which every single sentence seems to matter.  There is no excess here, nothing that seem pointless or wasteful.  Sprinkled throughout are perfectly crafted sentences, insightful dialogue, and moments of quiet beauty.  Offshore is a book that simultaneously moves quickly, and yet lingers on life's little moments with a striking clarity.  I would recommend it without reservation and go so far as to say it's that rare thing, a perfect novel.