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Friday, April 15, 2016

Would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Bel Canto is the story of a Japanese businessman's ill-fated birthday party. Mr. Katsumi Hosokawa agrees to attend a party thrown in his honor in an unnamed South American country, but only after he is promised that his favorite opera singer, Roxane Coss, will perform. The country is hoping Mr. Hosokawa's very wealthy company will build a factory there, though Mr. Hosokawa has no such plans, and simply wants to hear Ms. Coss sing. At the end of Ms. Coss's performance, the Vice Presential mansion (where the fancy party is taking place) is overrun with revolutionary rebel terrorists. (I know, PLOT TWIST much?) The rebels (I'm going to use rebels from here forward, since terrorists seems like an inapt term for this particular crew) were hoping to take el Presidente hostage, but malheureusement, il n'est pas là! (Sorry. I've been practicing my French for an upcoming trip to Montréal. He. Wasn't. There!) It turns out the President was watching his favorite soap opera (obviously, like Presidents do) and did not attend the party. This flummoxes the rebels, who proceed to try to take everyone at the party hostage, rather ineptly. When this becomes untenable (how to feed so many people? where to put them all?) and Roxane Coss's accompanist rather valiantly dies (accidentally - it turns out he is diabetic but in all the language confusion it came out too late) the rebels release all the women (except Ms. Coss) and most of the working folk (remember, they're rebelling for the common man). A strange sort of détente ensues, wherein the rebels keep trying to negotiate for things they can't actually get, and the outside world keeps sending in a Red Cross negotiatior to keep them at bay and avoid any violence. A hostage crisis that should have ended in a few hours lasts days, and then weeks, and then months, and the house turns into a kind of suspended animation land. We gradually learn more about not only the multicultural band of hostages, but also their captors, and come to find a deep-seated affection for everyone trapped in the purgatorial (vice)presidential mansion. Friendships blossom, love (both unrequited and requited) is expressed, and, oddly enough, many songs are sung. Just as you start to think that perhaps this alternate reality could, in fact, resemble a kind of happiness, and you find yourself crossing your fingers that maybe hostage situations could turn into amicably blended families of captives and captors, the outside world bursts in, the rebels are slaughtered, and the captives are "freed" from their captivity. In the end, you're left wondering how to define freedom, where to draw the line between oppressor and oppressed, and how to find ways to bring more music into your life on a daily basis (well, that might be me editorializing at the end. ;))
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Here is the first note I wrote myself about this book: My feelings about Bel Canto are very complicated, but parts of it are extremely well written.

In terms of a reading experience, coming to Bel Canto after Mambo Kings felt very much like reading Fahrenheit-451 after finishing Clockwork Orange. It was a breath of fresh air, a rekindling of my fondness for reading. It left me fulfilled in all the ways Mambo had left me empty.

That said, I had some concerns here and there (which I'll address below) and I'm not sure it's necessarily earned its spot in the forever classics. Here are my thoughts [and OH - heads up! this post isn't going to be Proust-long, but it might be Ayn Rand-long, so feel free to put your legs up, find a comfy reading spot, and grab a coffee or a cocktail or a cuppa.]

- Ah-ah-ah-ah-AhAhAhAhAhAhAhAh-ah, ah-ah-ah-ah-AhAhAhAhAhAhAhAhah, ah-ah-ah-ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-ah-Ah-ah-ah-ah-HA-ah-Ha-ah-Ha-ah-ah-ah-Ha-ah-Ha-ah-ah (scan to minute 1:10 or so in the video and see if you can find it!)
I knew this book was off to a good start when the opening quote was from Die Zauberflöte (oh I'm sorry is your German rusty, TOO? must work on your language skills, my bloggists! That's German for Magic Flute!). 

Speaker: Stranger, what do you seek or ask from us?
Tamino: Friendship and love.
Speaker: And are you prepared even if it costs you your life?
Tamino: I am.

I was trying to put my finger on when my sisters and my Mom and I first started singing the crazy high notes bit from the Queen of the Night (I mean, we were classic lovers, but that's intense even for us!) and I realized it was when we listened to the "Mozart's Magic Fantasy" tape. We had these cassette tapes that blended stories with famous works of music (like ALL COOL PEOPLE DO), and in addition to the Mozart one, we had 'Beethoven Lives Upstairs' and 'Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery'. I think it's these kinds of things that led to 6th grade Meredith proudly proclaiming her favorite song when prompted as "Ooh ooh ooh! I would have to say Vivaldi's Four Seasons, but most Particularly SPRING!" #thatclassicalnerdlife #lolz #ipromiseihadfriendsthatwerentbooks

I think one of my favorite things about reading this book was that it put me back in touch with classical music. I'm not separated from it, per se, but I used to be playing chamber music 24/7 and breathing Brahms and dreaming Dvorak, and other than playing in the pit for Phantom, my life has been music-less for awhile. I would download pieces of music when Patchett referenced them, and my heart sung in reading just the titles of some of my former favorites from the opera class I took at Haverford - Lucia di Lammermoor, Orfeo ed Euridice. It was so pleasant to be reacquainted with not just one love of mine, but two (reading, music). 

- Write what you know.
OK, so I know this is contentious within the writing community, and people come down strongly on one side or the other. I have to say, if you haven't already picked this up from my blob, I am a big fan of the writing what you know. This can be extrapolated! I'm not saying, oh, OK, so you're 23, a trombonist, and you like cats, you can only write about Those Three Things. But what I am saying is that it's important to be wary of speaking for others. We have a norm at Breakthrough - "Speak from the I perspective." It sounds silly, but you'd be amazed how many people you can offend when you inadvertently speak for them. "I think we can all agree that weasels are brilliant." Can we, though? This gets most sticky when we're dealing with an oppressor/oppressed vibe - how often are the oppressors speaking on behalf of the oppressed? Are we leaving someone voiceless? This leads me to the second note I wrote in my copy:
  • Concerns about a white omniscient American narrator speaking on behalf of foreigners, terrorist and hostage alike; feels like she's exploiting their situation to make art
When policy researchers use the term 'exploit', it's generally not viewed negatively. For instance, they might say, we 'exploited the 1965 desegregation reforms to study differentiated educational outcomes'. I thought this was very weird, and it took me a while to get used to it, since it seemed like researchers would gleefully seek out something to 'exploit' in this fashion in order to study a social phenomenon. This double-meaning of exploit came to mind when I was thinking about the note I wrote. I don't feel like Patchett takes advantage of the characters and players represented in her story, and I think she writes them well, but I do feel like she's not speaking from the "I" perspective. So here when I say exploit I almost do mean it in that social science sense. Because when I think about it, a large part of what makes the novel work, in my mind, is precisely the construct of the hostage situation. But on the flipside, I think what keeps it from being a work of true brilliance is the very fact that it's not her story to tell. How's that for a Friday paradox?

Do you need a break? Look away from the screen - make eye contact with a porcupine. Use the facilities. High five the nearest cat. 

Now Come on Down to the Hostage Situation is Right!
Ok. Maybe that was in poor taste. But here are some of the lines that I thought captured the situation most poignantly:
  • "If what a person wants is his life, he tends to be quiet about wanting anything else. Once the life begins to seem secure, one feels the freedom to complain." At first, the hostages are demure, and extremely obedient. But as time goes on, the General in charge starts thinking of them as needy children. First they want to use the restroom (fine), then they want food (fine), then they want Sheet Music for practicing Arias (SRSLY?)
  • "Ice?' Ruben offered himself, as suddenly his mind was filled with the pleasures of ice, of the snow on the tops of the Andes, of those sweet Olympic skaters on television, young girls wearing handkerchiefs of diaphanous gauze around their doll-like waists. He was burning alive now and the silver blades of their skates shot up arches of blue-white chips. He wanted to be buried in ice." Ruben is the VP, who later becomes the sort of hostage host. He gets a blow to the eye (which is the first and last real moment of violence from the rebels) and then starts fantasizing about how marvelous just a little ice on his face would be.
  • General Benjamin - "He wanted the priest and the accompanist to have left when they were told to leave. People shouldn't be allowed to decide that they wished to remain a hostage." hagh. Two people stolidly refuse to be un-hostaged, and the General finds this highly annoying. The priest is secretly deLighted because (a) he loves to be of use and (b) he has a superfancrush on Roxane Coss. :)
  • Ruben Iglesias -- "'Are you comfortable?' he would say to his guests as he swept some tender crumbs into the palm of his hand. 'Are you holding up all right?' He wanted to nose their shoes under the sofa. He wanted to drag the blue silk chair down to the other end of the room where it belonged, but decorum prohibited that." Adorably, Ruben tries to 'keep the party going' at his home. He knows that as the VP he's a sort of placeholder government official that no one has any real interest in, and quickly devolves into a man trying to keep his palatial home a pleasant living space for everyone.
  • "With a dishtowel knotted around his waist, he took on the qualities of a charming hotel concierge. He would ask, would you like some tea? He would ask, would it be too much of an imposition to vacuum beneath the chair in which you were sitting? Everyone was very fond of Ruben. Everyone had completely forgotten that he was the Vice President of the country." :0)
  • Shopping list for hostages -- "Certain things had to come in before the excess of hostages could go out: pillows (58), blankets (58), toothbrushes (58), fruit (mangoes, bananas), cigarettes (20 cartons filtered, 20 cartons unfiltered), bags of candy (all types, excluding licorice), bars of chocolate, sticks of butter, newspapers, a heating pad..." The idea of a shopping list for hostages was amusing in its oddity. I suppose most hostage situations don't drag on very long, but surely some negotiators have had to run out and get crazy violent people random things (like all candy but NOT LICORICE)
  • Mr. Hosokawa - "When had he last written something down? His thoughts were entered, recorded, transmitted. It was in this simple repetition, the rediscovery of his own penmanship, that Mr. Hosokawa found solace." Many of the hostages rediscover something simple or different about life after being taken, and Mr. Hosokawa's small moment of happiness in taking little notes reminded me of a scene from the West Wing - President Bartlet has gone AWOL and they eventually find him aimlessly dawdling through a grocery store. He points out he hasn't gotten to buy his own groceries in years, and it stood out to me as such a strange thought. I wonder - when was the last time President Obama or Michelle went out to buy a gallon of milk? Will it be weird for them when they go back to grocery shopping after the White House? Will it feel refreshing, or mundane?
  • Mr. Hosokawa - "He believed his daughters were not old enough to date and yet clearly by the standards of this country they were old enough to be members of a terrorist organization." OK, so like I said, still have concerns about speaking for others, but the fact that most of the rebels/terrorists were teenagers under the control of a few Generals who were older men definitely added a layer of complexity and nuance to the situation. 
How are you doing? Would you like some tea? Some ice, perhaps? Maybe some candy but absolutely no licorice

- Italy, England, and America, 2001
There's a line near the beginning of the book when the hostages have first been taken, and Roxane Coss tells herself she's only going to take singing jobs in Italy, England, and America, to protect herself from any future such attacks. This gave me pause, as I realized that when Patchett wrote this, 9/11 had not occurred, the Boston Marathon had not been bombed, and the London subway had not been terrorized. I found it frustrating (and arrogant) that her character blamed terror on foreign lands, but it made me sick to my stomach to realize the now vastly expanded reach of such monstrous violence.

- Who will believe that I did not do this on purpose?
This tender line from Mr. Hosokawa, after the accompanist dies:

"What if I am responsible for this death?' he said.
'How could that be possible?'
'It was my birthday. They came here for me.'"

reminded me of the horse Boxer, when he thinks he's accidentally killed a man in Animal Farm. Mr. Hosokawa didn't intend to build a factory in the land, and he knows he led people on, but he is a very sweet man at heart, and he just wanted to hear Roxane sing.

- Polyglot Gen Watanabe reporting for duty
He didn't get mentioned in my plot summary, but Gen Watanabe, Mr. Hosokawa's translator, plays a key role in the novel. The generals and the mediator use him as a translator, and the various hostages require near constant translation to be able to communicate. Here were some of my favorite lines about Gen:
  • on his Swedish being limited to lines from Bergman films in college: "In Swedish, he could only converse on the darkest of subjects."
  • "He would scatter books on the floor and pick them up at random. He read Czeslaw Milosz in Polish, Flaubert in French, Chekhov in Russian, Nabokov in English, Mann in German, then he switched them around: Milosz in French, Flaubert in Russian, Mann in English." #SUPERJELJEL I can barely read Proust in the one other language I do speak!
Here's the next note I wrote to myself in the margins: Patchett writes about music with such reverence, intimacy, intensity, intentionality

I think Patchett might rank right up there with Proust in terms of the way she writes about music. A lot of writers write spectacularly about reading and about writing, and occasionally about art, but not many in my experience write as abundantly and as reverently about music. Here are some of my favorite snippets:
  • After the accompanist has died and the room has been anxiously polled for any secret piano-players to accompany the great Ms. Coss, Kato, a Japanese businessman, sneaks to the piano and pops out a Chopin nocturne - "Now the people in the living room of the vice-presidential mansion listened to Kato with hunger and nothing in their lives had ever fed them so well."
Roxane - "Have you heard the good news?"
Messner, the mediator - "There's good news now?"
Roxane - "Mr. Kato plays the piano."  :-)
  • The General, trying to put his foot down when Ms. Coss gets sheet music delivered from a local priest so that she can practice more - "Nothing belongs to Señorita Coss! She is a prisoner like the rest of you. This is not her home. There is no special mail service that applies only to her. She does not receive packages." ahaghaghaghag. At this point, the house has become pretty pleasant, and the hostage situation is basically for show, but the General is Not pleased that things have gotten so lax. 
How are you now? I told you this post would be a doozy! You can't say I didn't warn you. Why don't you reach your arms high and touch the sky? Then come right back. I'll wrap up soon, I promise! ;)

- WSOD [my widely accepted shorthand for Willing Suspension Of Disbelief]
That brings me to my next note: improbability/impossibility of the situation going on so long (a little magical realist, almost)

I was not surprised to read in the after-book notes that Patchett is a fan of Marquez - there's a definite magical realist quality to the suspended animation hostage situation, and the strangely warm affection it produces. Here are some illustrations of this:
  • when the Generals make Gen type increasingly wild demands on the typewriter they find upstairs in the middle of the night: "What they wanted seemed to Gen to be unformed...Late at night, in deliriums of power and generosity, they demanded that everyone be set free."
  • Carmen, a young female rebel, after she has fallen in love with Gen: "Yes, the Generals wanted something better for the people, but weren't they the people? Would it be the worst thing in the world if nothing happened at all, if they all stayed together in this generous house?"
  • "Who knew that life could be so unexpected? I thought we would be dead by now, or if not dead then regularly begging for our lives, but instead I sit and I consider opera." This reminded me of one of my favorite Virginia Woolf lines: "Was there no safety? No learning by heart the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life? -startling, unexpected, unknown?"
  • "Wouldn't you say the chances of finding oneself trapped in a house with true genius are remarkably small?" There are several geniuses I would volunteer to be a hostage with. Yo-Yo Ma, Proust, Einstein, Shostakovich, Virginia Woolf. What genius wouldn't you mind being trapped in a house with? (I know, I ended TWO sentences with a preposition, but I didn't feel like fussily rearranging them to avoid it. #getoverit)
A little hostaging, a little chess, maybe later some lawn games!
The General starts playing chess regularly with Mr. Hosokawa, which I found highly amusing and rather endearing. These scenes reminded me of Offred and her 'sinful Scrabbling' with the The Commander (quick, eat those words!)
  • General Benjamin, to Gen:"Please ask Mr. Hosokawa if he would come at his convenience. There would be no need for translation. Here, write down the words for check and checkmate in Japanese. I could trouble myself to learn that much if he would come for a game."
  • "Where before there had been endless hours of work, negotiations and compromises, there were now chess games with a terrorist for whom he felt an accountable fondness."
  • "Because they were both equally talented and equally slow, neither man ever became impatient with the other. Once, Mr. Hosokawa had gone to the small sofa and closed his eyes while he waited for his turn, and when he woke up, General Benjamin was still moving his rook forward and then back across the same three squares, careful to never take his fingers off the horse's head."
  • When one of the youngest rebels wants to join in the reindeer games but doesn't know if he can: "Ishmael stayed because eventually he wanted to play chess with General Benjamin and Mr. Hosokawa, only he wasn't sure if such a thing was actually allowed."
His love was inoperable
In this novel, many men are in love with Ms. Ross. This is not surprising - she is (a) the only adult woman in the house and (2) beautiful and (d) a marvelously talented opera singer. That said, not all of their love is requited. Here's one of my favorite moments, when one of the Russians, Fyodorov, simply Has to express his love but needs Gen to translate:

"Ledbed and Berezovsky were sympathetic, but then they were Russians. They understood the pain of Fyodorov's love."
Gen, to Fyodorov, when he looks ill at the proclamation:"She wants to know what's wrong with you.
'Tell her it's love.
and later, when Roxane has to respond to the offering: "As for the love...
Fyodorov: There is nothing to say. It is a gift. There. Something to give to you. If I had the necklace or a book of paintings I would give you that instead. I would give you that in addition to my love.
Roxane: Then you are too generous with gifts.
Fyodorov: Why should I carry this love with me to the other world? Why not give to you what is yours? so tender! So sweet!

Still there? Where did you get that licorice you're nibbling on? I said NO licorice! Please hand me a chocolate frog and a mug of butterbeer so we can toast and then I can finish this off with a flourish.

Here's the last note I wrote: a kind of strangely pleasant limbo where everyone can be of use
As the captivity continues, we find needs and uses for more and more members of the group, à la a Lost or Survivor-type situation. It reminded me of Montag and the Book of Ecclesiastes. What would you bring to the hostage table? Stand-up comedy? Mad kitchen skills? A killer baritone?

Ruben, on asking Ms. Coss about cooking:
Roxane: "Is there something you would like me to sing?"
Ruben: "That I would never presume to know. Whatever song you choose is the song I have been wanting to hear. I need some advice in the kitchen. Some help."
Roxane, to Gen: "Why would he think I know how to cook? This is some sort of Latin thing, don't you think? I can't even really be offended. It's important to bear the cultural differences in mind. Tell him his scar is looking so much better. I want to say something nice. Thank God that girl of his was still around when it happened. Otherwise he might have asked me to sew his face up for him, too."
Gen, to Roxane: "Should I tell him you don't sew?"
Roxane: "Better he hears it now." The soprano smiled again and waved good-bye to the Vice President. aghaghaghahgahgahgahgahghahag I LOVED this scene. Ruben was like, HALLO LADY! Help me with these chickens? and she was like, Oh No no no sweetie, I'm a DIVA.

Gen, on trying to get access to utensils to prepare said chickens:
General Benjamin: "No knives."
Gen: "Unfortunately, that's a problem. I know very little about cooking myself but I understand that knives are imperative for the preparation of food."
General Benjamin: "No knives."
Gen: "Perhaps then if the knives came with people."

Simon Thibeault, the Frenchman, who it turns out Does know his way around the kitchen, to the rebel teenagers who have been assigned to 'come with the knives':
"We are most grateful,' Simon Thibault said. 'We know nothing about the operation of knives. If entrusted with something as dangerous as knives there would be a bloodbath here in a matter of minutes. Not that we would be killers, mind you. We'd cut off our own fingers, bleed to death right here on the floor."
'Stop it,' Ishmael said, and giggled."
and later, after Ishmael threatens to shoot Simon over slicing an eggplant: "May I inquire as to the state of the onions or will you threaten to shoot me?" OK, so late spoiler alert: Ishmael is one of the first rebels shot at the end of the novel, and I swear, for an instant, my heart stopped.

Here is a list of the things that the hostages bring to the situation:
Simon Thibeault - cooking
Gen - translation, knowledge
Roxane, Kato - music
Lothar Falken - running
Hosokawa - chess
Ruben - hosting
Father Arguedas - confession

It has been such a pleasure spending this time with you, dear bloggists (even if you Did eat the licorice that I clearly told you Not to) and I will leave you with these parting thoughts. What happens when you realize you don't want to be rescued?

Happiness in captivity
  • Father Arguedas - "He did not pray to be rescued at all."
  • Gen, to himself: "The woman you love is a girl who dresses as a boy and she lives in a village in a jungle, the name of which you are not allowed to know, not that knowing the name would be particularly helpful in trying to find it. The woman you love puts her gun beside a blue gravy boat at night so that you can teach her to read. She came into your life through an air-conditioner vent and how she will leave is the question that keeps you awake in the few free moments you have to sleep."
  • Carmen - "Ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?"
  • "Ignacio, Guadalupe, and Humberto were at the breakfast table cleaning guns, a puzzle of disconnected metal spreading out on newspapers before them as they rubbed oil into each part. Thibault sat at the table with them, reading cookbooks."
  • Messner - "More than any other negotiation Messner had ever been involved with, he found that he didn't really care who won this one. He had never felt sorry for the captors before."
  • Gen - But all of them could not possibly include Carmen. It could not include Beatriz or Ishmael or Cesar. When Gen scanned the list he couldn’t think of one he would be willing to give up, even the bullies and the fools. How had he come to want to save all of them? The people who followed him around with loaded guns. How had he fallen in love with so many people?
Patchett plays with that incongruity; the idea that it is perhaps only after we are captured and imprisoned that we can truly feel free. And yet that freedom is insecure, imperfect, and of necessity, ephemeral. But think just for a moment -- isn't it true that we are all of us sometimes wishing we could be held hostage with the things and people we love or could come to love?

Here are a final few stunning sentences for you to savor before I leave you:
  • Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned.
  • Hosokawa - "He believed that life, true life, was something that was stored in music."
  • Through the open windows came the raucous sawing of insect life. makes me think of the Peepers! They're BAAAAACK, folks! And the peepers keep on Peeping! Showing no signs that they were SLEEPInG!
  • She was reckless and brave, so great was her joy.
  • Instructions were given, those lying down were to remain quiet and still, those standing up should check those lying down for weapons and for secretly being the president. not quite zeugma (my all-time favorite literary device) but CLOSe! any secret presidents among you, bloggists? perhaps a sly Zemblan king or two?
I wish you all a wonderful weekend, replete with sunshine, warmth, gaiety, and relaxation. May you all be reckless and brave, so great is your joy. 

Onwards to Travels with Charley. Or maybe it's Ludrigger. Or Smolliver. Something like that!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

No zoot suits and no jitterbugs, please.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Mambo Kings is the tale of two brothers who leave their home country of Cuba and make it to the big-time (sort of) in the Big Peach Apple. Cesar Castillo, the older brother, is quite the lothario (sidebar: I just looked that up to confirm its meaning - 'selfish and irresponsible in his sexual relationships with women' and thought OH YES mmhmm that's exactly what I mean) while Nestor, the younger brother, spends most of his life hung up on an ex named Maria (Mar-EE-ah, I just met a girl named Mar-EE-ah...and suddenly that name, will never mean the same to MEEEEEEEEE). Nestor marries and has two kids, Cesar leaves his first wife (and daughter) in Cuba and doesn't marry again, the brothers end up on an episode of "I Love Lucy" by connecting with Ricky Ricardo, and they continue to eke out a living with their medium-sized fame. Nestor never gets over Maria (which I'm sure his wife, Delores, LOVES) and eventually dies in a car crash, Cesar gets uglier, sicker, and fatter, but no less lothario-like, and eventually he kicks the bucket, too. El fin.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

No me gustó este libro. (nb: I do not speak Spanish, and therefore am likely making errors in my silly attempts to sneak it in. Google translate isn't perfect, y'all! ;) I really resented being pulled into Señor Hijuelos's machismo parade, and honestly, that was a big part of why it took me so long to finish it. I've disliked books on these lists before, but this one felt degrading and misogynistic, and I didn't care about any of the characters. I think I also came to expect a certain level of misogyny and degradation of women in the older books, and gave them just a TEENSY "well, you're a product of your time" pass, but this book was written in the 1980's, so it has No Excuse. Also, I didn't think the writing was all that great! It won a Pulitzer and I am frankly baffled by that. Maybe someone hid all the other books written that year from the judges like Easter eggs and they just threw up their hands and said, OK OK we pick The Mambo One!

Maybe I'm being a bit harsh, but I also feel like the other books I have disliked are ones I had strong reactions to, and often ones I felt I didn't fully comprehend. Here, I comprehended the world Hijuelos created, I just didn't like it at all and didn't give a whit what happened in it. (No more rhyming now, I mean it!)

In any case, here are the rest of my pensamientos on el libro (my spanglish es MUY BUeno, no?)

Maybe we need better nets to catch those z's.
Both Cesar and Nestor go through periods where they can't sleep, but for different reasons, and this is sometimes accompanied by joy, sometimes by sadness. I liked the idea that you can have different types of sleeplessness:
  • After Nestor meets Maria: "Although he couldn't sleep that night, his was a joyful insomnia that buoyed his spirits, so that he felt like leaning out the window and shouting out to the world."
  • Later, when Nestor is pining: "He'd only begin falling asleep after the sun had started to rise."
Lately I've had a lot of trouble sleeping (which is weird, because I have the Apnea! usually I have trouble waking UP!) and some nights it's a thoughtful insomnia, while other nights it's a scary or unwanted sleeplessness. What kind of insomnia do you have, reader? (Perhaps you sleep a perfect sleep. Lucky you!)

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
While I mostly hated Cesar, I liked this line from when he becomes the superintendent of his building after he's stopped playing mambo music:
  • "He liked the happy-looking row of electrical meters and the fact that they ticked off in 3/2 time, claves time, that the multiple rows of pipes with their valves whistled, water whirring through them. He liked the crunching noises when faucets were turned on, the conga-drum pounding of the washroom dryer: the thunder of the coal-bin walls." I thought it was cute that what Cesar enjoyed about this drab basement office was the musicality of its atmosphere. Sometimes I like to harmonize off of electronic devices in my house (the vacuum, a fan, the microwave). Music (and perhaps more importantly rhythm) is all around us!
I have always loved the spectacle of museums, and most especially the idea that something other than the traditional visits would take place there. In one of my favorite books, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the main character and her brother end up staying in the museum after hours and secretly living there. I have always thought that was The Coolest Thing. I got to spend the night twice in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia (once as a 6th grader, and once again with 6th graders from my Breakthrough program) and sleep near the simple machines and the life-sized anatomical heart, and they were two of my favorite nights ever.

At one point after Cesar has stopped playing official gigs, he goes to play with some friends:
  • "One of his favorite jam sessions took place when Benny the conga player invited him over to the Museum of Natural History, where he worked, in his reincarnated life, as a guard. Around nine one night, when it was really dead, Cesar showed up with a few other musicians and they ended up playing in a small office just off the Great Hall of Dinosaurs, Benny playing the drums and a fellow named Rafael strumming a guitar and Cesar singing and blowing the trumpet, this music echoing and humming through the bones of those prehistoric creatures — the Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex and Brontosaurus and woolly mammoth, breathing heavy in the vastness of that room and click-clacking onto the marble floors melodies caught in their great hooked jaws and in the curve of their gargantuan spinal columns." This was probably my favorite line in the book. It reminded me of when I went to a concert at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, and it took place in a concert hall directly underneath the hall of the dinosaurs. The Emerson String Quartet played several Shostakovich string quartets (including my favorite - #8) and it was one of my all-time favorite concerts. 
Cuba then, Cuba now
I found it intriguing that I was reading this novel precisely when President Obama visited Cuba. I don't really have anything deep or meaningful to say here, just that it seemed amusingly appropriate.

here are a few lines I liked about Cuba:
"And he remembered standing in front of the Arab’s shop with his younger brother, el pobre Nestor, and finding among the lard, rice, sugar, coffee, the endless strands of sausages, near the dresses and Communion gowns and coils of rope, wire, spades, and axes, the shelf of silk-skirted dolls, a guitar. And who taught him that? A lanky insect-looking mulatto named Pucho, who lived in a forest of crates and palm fronds. He’d find him in his yard, sitting on the hood of an abandoned car, singing with such a tremor in his voice that he made the hens run in circles under his feet."

Cuba is not on my list of places to travel, predominantly because I don't like the idea of traveling to places we have contentious relations with as a country, but I loved the bright colors of these photos I found.

"It was nothing like what the brothers had known in Cuba, a modest house made of pine timbers facing a field ringed by fruit trees and rhapsodic with bird-song in the late-afternoon sun, a sky bursting with bands of red, yellow, pink, and silver light and burning treetops, and orange-tinged black birds."

I Love Lucy
The book opens with Eugenio, Nestor's son, running into the house to wake up Cesar to tell him that his father is on TV again, well after Nestor has passed away. Here is the description of Eugenio watching the brief cameo of the brothers on 'I Love Lucy':
  • "My father was now newly alive and could take off his hat and sit down on the couch in Ricky's living room, resting his black instrument case on his lap. He could play the trumpet, move his head, blink his eyes, nod, walk across the room, and say "Thank you" when offered a cup of coffee." Now that my grandmother has passed, I really miss hearing her voice, and seeing her face. I have a few pictures and several letters, but I often think how nice it would be to have a video of her, a place where she could come alive again, even just for a few moments. 
Let's NOT talk about sex, baby.
Here are some of my favorite notes from the margins of my copy:
  • 'gross, grosser, grossest'
  • 'gag me'
  • 'barf'
  • 'ick'
  • 'uggggggggggg'
  • 'I don't think there's a woman in this world who likes it 'every which way'.'
I really despised the sex in this book. I stopped to think about it for a little while, because there has obviously been plenty of sex in the other books on my list, but I think what I really disliked was that here the sex was so male-centric, so defined by the Needs and Urges and Desires of the man, and so completely devoid of any kind of meaningful connection or feelings on the part of the woman. I honestly couldn't tell if Hijuelos was being hyperbolic in Cesar and Nestor's sexual voracity, but I started skim-reading sections that involved things like 'engorgement' and 'member'. It also just felt so graphic novel-esque. Trust me, Oscar, no one wants to read the word MEMBER that many times. 

Here's Cesar in a nutshell: "So I was led around by my penis, so what?" Cool coo coo coo cool.

Suzuki - it's not just a motorcycle.
Here's what Cesar's first mentor says he's looking for in a bandmember: "What I'm interested in is a man who can really feel the music, instead of someone who can only play the charts."

I liked this line because it reminded me of when my sisters and I first learned to play the violin. In the Suzuki method, you don't learn to read music right away - first you listen to the pieces on cassette tape (I guess MAYBE now they use MP3s or something newfangled, but we had the classic cassettes) and then you learn how to mimic the pieces, and then LAter on you learn to read the music. Some people take issue with this, and think it's harder to learn to read music later on, but I credit this as the reason we can all play with such vigor and feeling and emotion.
Thanks, Shinichi! And thanks, Uncle Chris, for my cello, and Grandma for the lessons, and Mom, for driving us back and forth to Blair!

Sometimes footnotes are helpful and informative.
Sometimes footnotes are funny and ironical and go on tangents.
Sometimes footnotes are stupid and useless and you wish they weren't there.
Can you guess which sometimes Mr. Hijuelos's footnotes fall into?
Delores, on reading
Delores was one of the ONLY female characters who was remotely developed in the book, and she was obviously my favorite because she loves reading. Here are some of my favorite lines: 
  • "She liked to read because it took her mind off her loneliness, gave her feelings of both solitude and companionship."
  • "At her sister's urging, she'd go out on dates. Some of them were Americans and some of them were Romeos just up from Cuba or Puerto Rico, friendly, garrulous fellows who seemed more like children than like men. She liked a few of the American boys, but would have nothing to do with them romantically. She always had the feeling that she was 'saving' herself, for what or for whom she did not know. She'd sometimes feel saddened by her increasing indifference to romance but would tell herself, ' I'll know a good man when I see him.'" OK, so this one wasn't about reading. But this is how I feel, Delores! I'll know a good man when I see him! 
  • "She would leave her children with her sister, Ana Maria, who loved them, and then go sneaking into the big libraries of the university and sit thumbing through their books. She pretended that she was enrolled in the college and she would nod and say hello to her fellow students." I thought this was adorable. 
Palabras que aprendí (cool new words I've added to my vocabulary):
claves - one of a pair of hardwood sticks used to make a hollow sound when struck together

killer-diller - a musician that really plays all out; typically a horn player, from the big band era

duenna - an older woman acting as a governess and companion in charge of girls, especially in a Spanish family; a chaperone

gallego - a person from Galicia, Spain

voluptuary - a person devoted to luxury and sensual pleasure (AKA CESAR #gagbarfpuke)

Hermosas frases (some stunning sentences):
  • "They played in towns without modern plumbing or electricity where people hardly knew the name of Hitler, in countryside so dark that the stars were a veil of light and where the thready luminescence of spirits moved through the streets and over walls at night and where the arrival of Julian's orchestra was greeted like the Second Coming of Christ, with children and dogs and crowds of teenagers following behind it, clapping and whistling wherever they went."
  • "Julian was a good orchestra leader and good man. Cesar would have thought of Julian as a 'second father' if the word 'father' did not make him want to punch a wall." heh. heh.
  • "Sometimes there were three or four of them down in his apartment or in his basement workroom, drinking until their faces peeled off and all that was left was shadows."
Well, dear readers, that about sums it up! It's snowy and brisk here in NH (I think the seasons got their signals crossed) but I don't mind because I don't like summer anyway! Summer summer, stay away, come again some never day! 

Sending you a little imaginary mambo music (but no members to go with it, thank you very much) and thoughts of sunshine for spring! Onwards to 'Pretty Singing'! Join me (and Jessica) if you dare!