Playlist 2010

Songs are stories, too, even when there are no words. Thanks to my friends for all the great music and for all the sweet dances.

You Belong to Me, Kate Rusby
Ohe, Paris, Charles Trénet
Un Gamin De Paris, Yves Montand
Coin De Rue, Charles Trénet
Rue Lepic, Yves Montand
La Vie En Rose, Louis Armstrong
Rhode Island, Nightingale
Mill Towns, David Francey
Flowers Of Saskatchewan, David Francey
Far End Of Summer, David Francey
Tis the Last Rose of Summer, Jacqueline Schwab
Tenting on the Old Camp Ground, Jacqueline Schwab
Fisher's Hornpipe, Saratoga Hornpipe, Good for the Tongue, Cincinnati Hornpipe, Jacqueline Schwab
The Tulip Tune/Tie Down The Tent, Night Watch
Lads Of Laois/Bird In The Bush/Gerry Commane's, Night Watch
Flatworld, Elvie Miller & Naomi Morse
Brae Reel / Rare / Old B, Elvie Miller & Naomi Morse
Clog à Ti-Jules / Bedeau de l'Enfer / Flurry Flurry, Elvie Miller & Naomi Morse
Gentle Annie, Kate & Anna McGarrigle
La Rivière, Nicholas Williams
Sourgrass And Granite / Muriel's Waltz, Nicholas Williams
The Introduction (Carolan's Cottage), Daron Douglas And Karen Axelrod
Michael and All Angels, Foxfire
Portsmouth, Foxfire
The Tenth of December, Foxfire
Bring Me A Boat, Kate Rusby
Leaving Kintail, Cathal McConnell

The Professional, by Robert B. Parker

Published in 2009, this is one of Parker’s last books. Spenser is offered a job by attorney Elizabeth Shaw who was referred to the detective by Rita Fiore. Shaw represents four women, all wives of much older and very rich men, who are being blackmailed by the same man, a charming gigolo named Gary Eisenhower. Much of the humor and (for me) interest comes from the negotiations between the women—these and others encountered later—and Spenser as they weigh how much to trust him.

One of the recurrent complaints I’ve heard about the Spenser books points out how annoying many readers find his loved one, Susan Silverman. As I’ve mentioned before, one of Parker’s strengths was his ability to grow and improve long after his popularity made such effort unnecessary. Here, Susan refrains from telling Spenser what kind of many he is, perhaps her drippiest manifestation and much overdone in earlier books. Instead, she actually contributes her psychological insight and professional network to help Spenser with the case.

Another common complaint about the later Spenser books denounces the increasingly terse prose. While I agree that his style has morphed (some would say degenerated) until they consist almost entirely of dialogue, perhaps influenced by the translation of many into films, I still find these books very funny. For me, they continue to have plenty of thought-provoking content. And in this book, Spenser’s friend Hawk plays a substantial role, always a good thing.

A notable exception to the mostly-dialogue style is a brief passage late in the book where Spenser, ruminating about the case, looks at the office building across the street and remembers a woman who once worked for an advertising agency there. One of the joys of reading a long series such as the Spenser series, is watching the person change over a lifetime and recognising these brief references to earlier stories. As he continues to muse, Spenser reflects that the advertising agency was now gone. “Maybe the whole building was gone, replaced by a new one. It was hard to remember.”

These brief sentences choked me up, bringing home with a sharp pain the letting go that is part of aging. While I’m not sure how old Spenser is meant to be at this time, since he’s still active enough to take down a bully, I do know how the world draws in as we age, figuratively and literally. I’m reminded of my mother for whom the diameter of the streets she was willing to travel grew smaller and smaller until she no longer wanted to leave the building. As we near death, we are focused inward. The passions of the past seem empty. We forget or don’t pay attention to changes in the world outside our room. They aren’t important anymore. In fact, not much is important anymore, only the kindness of strangers and the affection of friends and family.

As we approach the shortest day of the year, aging and death are on my mind. Much as they are part of the natural cycle, they bring sadness. I will miss Parker’s books and the good that he did in the world.

The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds

I often turn to John Clare’s poetry when I am restless and need grounding. I love his close observation and evocative descriptions of a bumbarrel’s nest in a “close sheltered hedge”, of evening crows and starnels that “darken down the sky”, and snow that turns hedges to “one white sweep of curving hills”. So I eagerly sought out this fictional-but-based-on-true-events account of his stay at High Beach, a mental institution run by Matthew Allen, and Clare’s descent into madness.

The novel, which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, may start and end with Clare, but his experiences constitute only a fraction of the book. Instead, we jump from character to character: Matthew Allen, his wife, his two daughters, his son, various inmates and employees, a visiting Alfred Tennyson. There is some lovely writing, especially in sections capturing the thoughts and perceptions of the mad, such as this passage:

The wind separated into thumps, into wing beats. An angel. An angel there in front of her. Tears fell like petals from her face. It stopped in front of her. Settling, its wings made a chittering sound. It paced back and forth, a strange, soft, curving walk that was almost like dancing It reached out with its beautiful hands to steady itself in the mortal world, touching leaves, touching branches, and left stains of brightness where it touched. Slowly, unbearably, it turned its face to look at her.

Foulds’s great achievement is to imagine each person’s view of the world—no matter how cockeyed—so thoroughly and to describe it with such precise detail that the reader cannot help sharing it, however briefly. And therein lies the problem. The point of view skips from one character to another, often within the same scene where it may stay for only a paragraph or two. In one scene, we flit from one head to another seven times in four pages. Perhaps this disorienting mish-mash is meant to replicate the experience of the inmates, but none seems confused in this way. Each is fixated on a particular idea, though Clare does take on different identities—in one scene thinking himself a boxer named Jack Randall—but he stays with that identity rather than bouncing from one to another.

In Andrew Motion’s review in The Guardian, he says that Foulds “frames questions about the nature of selfhood” in this book. True, each character is fiercely individual and as isolated as the planets each spinning in its own orbit in Allen’s orrery. Yet by not staying with any one character, the author gives us only fragments of their perception of themselves and their place in the world, not enough to understand it in depth and no time to see it grow or change. Each character is given a code, a particular obsession which becomes shorthand for that character. However, a character must be more than a one-dimensional cipher to hold the reader’s interest.

I cannot tell who the main character is. Seven or eight share equal real estate, from the doctor’s teenaged daughter Hannah to Alfred Tennyson, who is staying nearby while his melancholic brother is being treated while struggling with his own grief over the death of Arthur Hallam, to Matthew Allen with his Victorian optimism to Clare himself. Phantom antagonists are set up—one of the workers abuses the inmates; the doctor won’t allow Clare out to visit the gypsies—but these are not the conflicts driving the book. The only conflicts are against the real-world restrictions on the unreasonable desires of the characters, inmates or not.

I love poetry. I love literary fiction. I love much experimental fiction. However, if an author wants to dispense with the basics of the novel (a main character, an antagonist, conflict, plot, character growth, resolution), for me, there must be something more than lovely images and deeply imagined moments to compensate.

The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

Why are we so intrigued by Lisbeth Salander? I'm not quite sure why some things—books, YouTube videos, tv shows, celebrities—go viral and others, perhaps more deserving, do not, though I understand there are several books on the subject out now. There's no doubt that Larsson's Millennium trilogy has captured the attention of readers and spots on best-seller lists. Certainly these Swedish mysteries featuring crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist are action-packed, with plenty of twists and turns. And my sympathy couldn't be greater for Blomkvist's battles against the forces that degrade women in modern society. There are also plenty of interesting minor characters. In the first book, I was initially most interested in Henrik Vanger with his collection of pressed flowers and the way he was held captive by the past. I was also interested in editor Erika Berger. But once Salander came on the scene, it was all over. Wanting to find out what happens to her is what keeps me reading.

As each book unfolds, we learn a bit more about her background and what effect those early traumas may have had on her. Staying away from any spoilers, I'll just say that she is a damaged young woman, whose determined self-isolation and prodigious intellectual gifts at first made me consider Asperger's Syndrome, but she doesn't quite fit the profile. She possesses the strong moral courage of my favorite heroes, be they in fairy tales, westerns or crime fiction. However, she doesn't have the self-deprecating nonchalance of many of those heroes; her intensity burns too strongly for that. Her moral code is absolute and her courage sometimes verges on recklessness.

She fascinates me because she is such a bundle of contradictions. Tiny, skinny to the point of appearing anorexic, her physical courage is stunning. Her response to any attack on herself or those few people about whom she cares may be immediate or planned out for maximum punishment. Perhaps readers get a vicarious thrill when her violent response seems out of proportion to the crime, at least according to our social rules. It is hard not to cheer when she buries an axe in someone who has been abusing powerless women. She does act out my fantasies of revenge for all the ways that men demean and abuse women.

Mystery writer Kathleen Ernst said characters that are compelling have three characteristics: spunk, vulnerability, and a strong need or desire for something. Salander of course is not spunky or sassy, but when faced with the onslaught of forces attacking her, she surely has the inner strength and fierce survival instinct to validate Ernst's formula. My reaction to Salander is also in line with writer Maureen Stack Sappéy's belief that readers become interested in characters because we envy and admire (or hate) certain traits that they possess. I admire Salander's computer skills and her puzzle-solving brain. I admire her self-reliance, even if it seems too extreme to be considered psychologically healthy. Larssen himself said in an interview that “she is a sociopath with psychopathic traits, and does not function like ordinary people.”

But most of all, what most keeps me reading—and I'm a little embarrassed to say this—is my maternal protectiveness. I feel as though she is my wayward, hard-headed daughter. I worry from one page to the next about what trouble she will next bring down on herself, what past trauma will soak up her resolve, what depths of resourcefulness and courage she will have to find to survive.

I'm not unacquainted with wayward, hard-headed children (not to mention having been one myself, under my demure veneer), though none of us, thankfully, were quite like Lisbeth Salander. Spunky or not, I can't help caring about her and devouring the pages as fast as I can to see what will happen to her.