Playlist 2009

Songs are stories, too, even when there are no words. This was a year of new beginnings, of renewal, the chance to do a little better. Thanks to my friends for all the great music and for all the sweet dances.

A New Beginning, Bare Necessities
The Boatman, Bare Necessities
The Hole In The Wall, Bare Necessities
La Gitana, Jacqueline Schwab
Trad: Dolce De Coco, Yo-Yo Ma, Paquito D' Rivera, Romero Lumbambo
Hable Con Ella, Alberto Iglesias Featuring Vicente Amigo & El Pele
Dongo, Elixir
Bird In The Bush, Elixir
Red Star Line / The Adirondack, Elixir
Brae Reel / Rare / Old B, Elvie Miller & Naomi Morse
Flatworld, Elvie Miller & Naomi Morse
Emma's Waltz , Elvie Miller & Naomi Morse
Bought And Sold, Neko Case
Pretty Polly, Orange Line Special
Polly, Kate Rusby
Young James, Kate Rusby
Singing Bird, Leela & Ellie Grace
Morning Grace, Leela & Ellie Grace
Queen Of The Earth, Child Of The Stars, Leela & Ellie Grace
Waltz Three, Susan Conant
Bonnie at Morn, Susan Conant
Bonny Cuckoo, Bare Necessities
Mad Robin, Bare Necessities
Oft in the Stilly Night, Flow Gently, Sweet Afton, Jacqueline Schwab
Coaineadh Na Dtri Muire (Lament Of The Three Maries), Jeanne Morrill
Glory, Jeanne Morrill
My Images Come, Jeanne Morrill

The Queen of the Tambourine, by Jane Gardam

I so much liked Gardam’s Old Filth that when I saw this novel of hers at the Ivy Bookstore, I picked it up without even checking to see what it was about. Once I started to read, I was surprised to see that it was an epistolary novel, surprised because of the coincidence of just having read two epistolary novels (The Sorrows of Young Werther and Pamela) and also because the form is not much used these days, though it was very popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

In general, I ‘m not very fond of gimmicks in novels because they often substitute for good writing. An example is this year’s best-selling Pride and Prejudice and Vampires. Yes, the title is funny, but after the cover and maybe a page or two, it becomes obvious that the odd juxtaposition is all there is to the book. The new sections inserted into the text of Austen’s novel are poorly written and offer no further surprises. When I realised I was chuckling over Austen’s wit and skipping over the execrable interpolations, I chucked the book and went to reread the original.

Using an old-fashioned form, such as having the whole book be letters to someone, seems like a gimmick to me. However, Gardam does not disappoint. Eliza, one of Barbara Pym’s “excellent women”, lives in a London suburb with her husband Henry. She begins by writing a letter to her neighbor, Jean, who has apparently taken off on a world tour, leaving behind husband and children, suburban neighborhood, and the rather snarky note Eliza had sent her containing what Eliza believed to be constructive criticism. Although Eliza does not actually know Jean except to wave to in the Army and Navy Stores, she continues to write to her, shifting gradually from talking about neighborhood concerns to more personal ones.

Reading her riveting and often uproariously funny letters, one begins to wonder just what kind of skewed glasses Eliza is viewing the world through. In last week’s blog on Pamela, I mentioned how hard it was (maybe just for me, as I’m notoriously gullible when it comes to what people say about themselves) to tell if Pamela was telling the truth, or maybe the whole truth, since we only get her point of view. No such problem with Gardam, who plays on our suspicions through Eliza’s recounting of scenes with Henry, other neighbors, the director of the hospice where she volunteers with “the Dying”, not to mention her accounts of her own actions. However, even as Eliza begins to unravel, there is never any doubt that she is telling the truth as she understands it.

We see a relationship grow between the two women, even though we never hear Jean’s voice and Eliza only occasionally mentions responses she’s received from Jean (a few letters, a gift) without quoting them. I was so seduced by Eliza’s voice—hilarious, poignant, painfully open—that I was willing to follow her anywhere, even into what, in retrospect, seem pretty bizarre adventures. And in the end, she touched me deeply. This book is even better than Old Filth and that’s saying a lot.

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson

Having spoken last week about what I believe is the honorable, even heroic calling of writing and reading fiction, I thought it appropriate to go back and read one of the earliest novels. As with The Sorrows of Young Werther I was very familiar with this 1740 classic but had never actually read it. I knew that it was an epistolary novel, a series of letters, and hugely successful. Unlike earlier epistolary novels which were adventure or romantic adventure stories, Richardson’s story is more about the character of Pamela, a 15-year-old housemaid and life in an upper-class household.

Pamela is by her own account a pious and respectable girl whom everyone loves. Unfortunately, her master loves her a bit too much for her comfort and makes unwanted advances which she parries using her feeble weapons: words, fainting fits, and the support of other servants, though that support must be tempered by their fear of and dependence on their master. Thinking about how helpless she was to prevent him if he chose to force himself on her, I was reminded of The Tale of Genji and how such behaviour was considered commonplace. 18th century England is a long way from 11th century Japan, but I was not surprised to find Pamela’s aristocratic neighbours and servants from other houses declaring that Mr. B making her his mistress should be the obvious and ordinary outcome. Even today, with all the strides we have made in enabling women to be our own selves and not some man’s servant or property, there are too many women who are helpless against their abusers.

The first part of the story is a series of letters Pamela writes to her parents relating her problems with Mr. B. and asking for their advice. The second and much longer part is a journal that she keeps, still addressing her parents as though writing a long letter to them, telling them of her trials and assuring them of her determination to preserve her honor. She also tries to analyse people’s motives, including her own.

Richardson chose the epistolary form because of its immediacy. The first-person voice of someone in the throes of the experience does draw in the reader, and I happily plunged into the story. Unfortunately, Pamela’s voice did not interest me for very long. I soon began to find her endless complaining tiresome and her infinite perfection quite irritating. Of course, she is writing to her parents, so it is natural to relay compliments that she has received, knowing that they would enjoy hearing praise of her, but she goes on at such length about how everyone finds her so remarkable, so good, so smart, so beautiful, that it’s hard not to think “and so vain”.

One of the drawbacks of first-person voice is that we only hear that person’s view of events. Is Pamela a reliable narrator? Probably Richardson means her to be, since his intention with the book is to present a portrait of how girls ought to act. And not just girls. The last few pages are taken up with reminders to gentlemen, aristocrats, servants, clergymen, etc. of the lessons they should have learned from the story. Yet, it is hard not to wonder if Pamela didn’t plan the whole thing from the start in order to trap Mr. B. into matrimony, and if she isn’t perhaps a bit more wicked than the image she presents to her parents.

What kept me reading, in spite of the long lists of rules for right conduct in serving maids and wives, was the tension between the social classes, the niceties of who could sit down in whose presence, the particular amount of authority that a housekeeper might have, what happens when a woman marries a man from a lower class and vice versa. Richardson specifically instructs “lower servants” to “distinguish between the lawful and unlawful commands of a superior”, implying that they should disobey the latter. But, however radical he may be about social class, Richardson promotes a coldly conventional view of women’s roles, where a wife is little better than a servant.

Life Sentences, by Laura Lippman

Cassandra’s two memoirs have been bestsellers, but her recent novel is not doing so well. While she’s trying to decide what her next project should be, she hears a reference on the news to an old murder case involving a former classmate of hers and decides to use it as the core of a memoir describing the very different paths she and her school friends have followed.

When I was writing my memoir, I not only read many memoirs and books about writing memoirs, I spent a lot of time pondering the ethics involved. I couldn’t tell my story without mentioning other people, and I debated about what sort of rights I had to tell someone else’s story. Knowing how faulty memory and perspective may be, I worried about getting things wrong. While it’s generally understood that a memoir is one person’s view of what happened, I wanted to be as accurate as possible. I didn’t want to be one of those memoirists who take liberties with the truth, but I did want to include dialogue and other dramatic devices. In the end, I did my best and trusted the emotional truth to compensate for any errors. The danger, of course, in revealing one’s emotional truths is that they are not always pretty.

Some people criticised Cassandra’s first memoir, which told her father’s love story, how he fell in love with a young Black woman whom he rescued during the riots in Baltimore following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. During the rescue, he was badly beaten and taken to the hospital, leaving ten-year-old Cassandra bereft, waiting for him to bring her birthday cake home. Some months afterwards he left Cassandra and her mother to live with and then marry Annie, braving the censure of friends and colleagues alike, censure which was not so much for the divorce but for the bi-racial marriage.

Some of her readers were offended by Cassandra’s complaining about the ruin of her birthday party because it seemed so petty compared to the horror of King’s death. I, too, have been offended by novels that co-opt tragedies of the Civil Rights Movement to add ready-made drama to the relatively trivial problems of some White girl or boy. Similarly, I resent books that use the attacks on the World Trade Center to heighten the drama of a pet dog dying or the silly problems of a bunch of spoiled yuppies.

So I was not disposed to like Cassandra very much, and the description of her subsequent book and other actions didn’t appeal to me much either. Eventually, however, she did begin to grow on me. Cassandra doesn’t flinch from the truth. Instead of striking back when criticised, she looks for where she may be in the wrong. I like that. As she returns to Baltimore and reconnects with her former friends, she learns some home truths about herself.

Cassandra contacts the three women who were her close friends in elementary school, chosen on the first day not because they were Black but because they seemed self-confident and had already staked a claim on the best-placed quartet of desks. She had attended a different junior high and when they met up again in high school, somehow she was no longer part of their group.

There are many references to heroes—Cassandra’s father is a Classics professor—but this is really a book about race. I sometimes think pretty much everything in Baltimore is really about race. Kudos to Lippman for taking on issues so hard to explore without giving offense and impossible, in the end, to see from both sides. To me, the heart of the book is Cassandra’s inability, no matter how close she may have been to her three friends, to understand what life was like for them. Lippman adroitly expands this theme beyond race, adding a resonance that lingers long after I’ve set the book down.

I believe that what Lippman does here represents the best of what fiction is capable of. Yes, fiction can be entertaining and escapist, but where it really shines is when it opens our minds and our hearts and enables us to see the world from within someone else’s skin. Undertaking this journey is the most honorable motivation for our becoming writers and readers and thus makes heroes of us all.