Monday, May 26, 2014

A Minor ~ Margaret Ann Philbrick


Note: Recently I was contacted by author and writing teacher Margaret Ann Philbrick to review her new novel, A Minor. I am honored by this opportunity--my first little break into the writing and publishing world! (Thank you again, Margaret!) As such, this is a new experience for me. I do not typically read contemporary romance, so I have little idea what a good book in that genre should look like. I can thus only give my general opinions, which I hope are honest. Thanks for understanding!

The first thing I must say about this book, is that you absolutely have to listen to the music. Whether you're reading the hard format or the e-book, use the links provided to pull up all the beautiful piano pieces which weave this story together (I can particularly recommend the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1--but listen to them all). Ms. Philbrick has given us readers a unique glimpse into her creative process, and the emotional enhancement the music gives to the story is not to be missed.
A Minor is a tale of many loves. It opens with the estranged love of concert pianist Clare Cardiff and her husband Nero, who decide to separate temporarily for artistic reasons. While Nero stays in New England, hoping to excel at his potter's wheel out of his wife's shadow, Clare goes out to the Chicago suburbs to teach and re-group. There she discovers a new love in her student Clive Serkin, an exceptionally talented young pianist. Sensing greatness in him, she points him toward the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano competition in Moscow. But just as Clive is becoming to her the son she never had, Clare discovers that she is developing early-onset dementia. While Nero takes her back to New England for medical testing, Clive--who has fallen innocently but deeply in love with her--must find strength in his music to go on to the international competition alone. 
All through this tapestry of loves pulses the love of music--the characters' and the author's. Ms. Philbrick has a lovely and knowledgeable way of describing music in words, which anyone, not just musicians, can appreciate. However, this translation of one art form into another still leaves something to be desired, which is why you must listen to the music. It's wrapped up inseparably with the story.
Ms. Philbrick handles all her characters gracefully, especially the relationship between Clare and Clive which is most prominent in the book. Some of the secondary characters could have been more rounded out, with, however, the notable exception of Nero--the most troubled and complex figure in the story. Although possessive to the point of violence, he really does love Clare, and his greatest regret is the child they never had together. His tragic attempt to survive without her, only to lose her again to dementia, adds a dark but enriching note to the story.
Ms. Philbrick's prose style matches the formality and elegance of the classical music she describes. The only place this was a drawback was in the dialogue. While I understand the author's desire for beauty and integrity in the whole book, I feel she could actually better accomplish this through more natural dialogue. When even commonplace exchanges between characters were written in a formal style never used in real life, I found it distracting and distancing. The eloquent dialogue did work, however, in the passages where the characters were deeply discussing music--an appropriate context.
Overall, a graceful first novel and a unique literary-musical experience, A Minor will appeal to lovers of all things beautiful.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Stevenson's Impossible Dream: "If This Were Faith"

Is there anyone who hasn't shivered with joy listening to the great song "Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha? (If you haven't heard it, go find a recording of it right now--you need to shiver with joy.) I cannot hear it without being lifted up and rejuvenated to my own quest for truth as a writer and a Catholic. Don Quixote may have been mad, but he was righter in his spiritual world than most of the rest of us. There's only one way to dream the impossible dream, fight the unbeatable foe, bear with unbearable sorrow, and reach the unreachable star--by submitting ourselves to God's grace and love in our daily lives (in this I am still a very novice page!). 
However, in this post I'd like to direct your attention to a non-fictional but no less unlikely Don Quixote, a skinny Scot with a penchant for words--Robert Louis Stevenson. RLS was a fine writer and poet, but he also loved people, and had a strong sense of right and wrong. A description of him written by his wife, Fanny, shows this better than any words of mine:
...[T]he path for himself showed plainly enough before him, and it was his duty to swerve neither to the right nor the left. He believed he had no rights, only underserved indulgences. He must not eat unearned bread, but must pay the world, in some fashion, for what it gave him,--first, materially, then in kindness, sympathy, and love. Class distinctions, so strictly observed in England, he could not tolerate and never gave the slightest heed to their limitations. "Ladies?" he said in reply to an observation by a visitor, "one of the truest ladies in Bournemouth, Mrs. Waats, is at this moment washing my study windows." Once, coming upon a crowd of young roughs who were tormenting a wretched drunken creature of the streets, he pushed his way through them, and amid their jeers offered his arm to the woman and escorted her to the place she called home. "Don Quixote," he once said to my son, with a startled look, "why, I am Don Quixote!" Too much ease frightened him; he would occasionally insist on some sharp discomfort, such as sleeping on a mat on the floor, or dining on a ship's biscuit, to awaken him, as he said, to realities; and nothing pleased him more than to risk his life or health to serve another. [...] Meanness or falsity or cruelty set his eyes blazing, and his language on such occasions became far from parliamentary.
So we even see that Stevenson explicitly identified with Cervantes' mad knight.
Recently while reading through RLS's poetry collection Songs of Travel (during breaks at driver's ed class, to keep my imagination from going totally dead), I encountered what seems like Stevenson's own "Impossible Dream". Written over a hundred years before the acclaimed song, "If This Were Faith" expresses the same sentiments in very stirring verse:
If This Were Faith
God, if this were enough,
That I see things bare to the buff
And up to the buttocks in mire;
That I ask nor hope nor hire,
Not in the husk,
Nor dawn beyond the dusk,
Nor life beyond death:
God, if this were faith?
Having felt Thy wind in my face
Spit sorrow and disgrace,
Having seen Thine evil doom
In Golgotha and Khartoum,
And the brutes, the work of Thy hands,
Fill with injustice lands
And stain with blood the sea:
If still in my veins the glee
Of the black night and the sun
And the lost battle, run:
If, an adept,
The iniquitous lists* I still accept
With joy, and joy to endure and be withstood,
And still to battle and perish for a dream of good:
God, if that were enough?
*lists=  jousting arena
If to feel, in the ink of the slough,
And the sink of the mire,
Veins of glory and fire
Run through and transpierce and transpire,
And a secret purpose of glory in every part,
And the answering glory of battle fill my heart;
To thrill with the joy of girded men
To go on for ever and fail and go on again,
To be mauled to the earth and arise,
And contend for the shade of a word and a thing not seen with the eyes:
With the half of a broken hope for a pillow at night
That somehow the right is the right
And the smooth shall bloom from the rough:
Lord, if that were enough?
The rhythm of this poem is the most jagged I have ever seen from Stevenson; I feel he must have written it in one of his high passions against meanness or falsity or cruelty. But read the last stanza again. It is so rich I cannot take it all apart. It's not just the ode of the knight. It's the cry of the artist, seeing beauty transpierce--(what a word!)--transpierce and transpire our fallen world. It's the song of the sinner, being mauled to earth by passions only to rise again. It's the joy of the saint--to contend for that lovely Thing not seen with eyes, but with the soul.
Let us all take hope in God's "impossible" dream for us that is the most real thing in the world.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Honest Alan: A Tribute

A note: Of late I have been posting on the sublime, the good, the true, the beautiful. This post is on the merely fun. Please forgive my outburst of Scottish geekiness!

Another note: My apologies, I got the date mixed up! June 2, not May 2, was my Scottish epiphany. Well, here is Alan anyway, a month early.
Looking at the date today, I realized it was rather significant--for me at least. Two years ago today began my obsession with all things Scottish. The blame lies with a writer named Robert Louis Stevenson, who brought to life one of my favorite fictional characters on the face of the earth. Introducing Alan Breck Stewart: clansman of Appin, Jacobite rebel, swordsman, piper, Gaelic poet, with an elephant-sized ego and a heart of gold. You'll be seeing several versions of him in this post, but the one I always carry in my mind is Stevenson's first description of him in Kidnapped:

He was smallish in stature, but well set and as nimble as a goat; his face was of a good open expression, but sunburnt very dark, and heavily freckled and pitted with the small-pox; his eyes were unusually light and had a kind of dancing madness in them, that was both engaging and alarming...

Please enjoy my own tribute in verse to my favorite swashbuckling Highland rebel. And then go read Kidnapped.
The Ballad of Alan Breck
O, have ye heard o' Alan Breck?
O, cam ye by nae word?
He's a dancin' madness in his e'e*,
An' a hand on the hilt o' his sword!
Young Alan trod the hills and crags,
His foot kenned* every stone,
For Appin and the Breadalbane
Were his heart-land an' his home.
Down by lang Loch Leven's shores
With the wind in the birches cryin',
He'd whistle mony a merry tune,
As would leave the birds all sighin'.
Now Alan was a swordsman's son,
He learned the fencer's trade,
An' often joy and pride he took
In the singin' o' the blade.
 But then man Alan's father died,
An' left him gey* an' poor,
So Alan went for sodger's* pay,
In the army o' King George.
*very   *soldier's
Ay, Alan once a red coat wore,
Because he had nae money,
But now he's changed it for a blue,
An' one that's much mair bonny!
He cannae stay in Scotland now,
For the savin' o' his neck,
For there's a hundred gleamin' pounds
On the head of Alan Breck.
Go on, ye redcoats, search the hills,
An' guard the Glencoe heights,
But all ye'll catch is a fleetin' glisk*
O' the canny Jacobite.
An' 'ware, ye seamen, when the fogs
Come swirlin' round the deck;
A mettled voice, a flashin' e'e--
It may be Alan Breck.
He's a Hielandman forever,
An' a Stewart tae the end;
Tho' a feisty, fechtin'* warrior,
He's a true an' doughty friend!
O, have ye heard o' Alan Breck?
O, cam ye by nae word?
Ye'll ken him by his dancin' e'e,
An' the hand on the hilt o' his sword!
~Poem Ó
Mary Jessica Woods, 2013