Broken Music by Sting (2003)

The Police were one of my very favorite bands for a long time, and part of the reason I got into the independent/underground music which had a huge effect on my life. I had a big crush on Sting as a teenager (me and 83 million others!). I can’t disagree with the accusations that he’s pretentious, arrogant, etc. (which leads to funny song titles like Allen Clapp’s “Why Sting is Such an Idiot” and Atom and His Package’s “Sting Cannot Possibly Be the Same Guy Who Was in The Police;” I wish they had quotable lyrics too…), but I still think he has moments of brilliance as a songwriter and I love his powerful furry voice. So all that helped me slog through this not-very-good book. Sting’s another candidate for the Wonderful Adjective Cellar, but the most irritating stylistic tic is the verb tenses: some past, some present, and a heck of a lot of that bizarre future perfect (“In the interim I will have become famous,” but speaking from a past POV set as the present) which infects bad memoirs. How did that start? Is there a master switch somewhere where we can turn it off?

A few interesting perspectives and anecdotes, especially about the Copeland brothers (Miles, shown in all his shrewd, cost-cutting glory, didn’t take to Sting at all initially and couldn’t get his name right–“that guy, whatsisname, Smig?”), and a good evocation of the sheer persistence, hard work, and raw ambition that led to the success of the Police. Three very experienced musicians, flexible enough to adapt to the changes that were sweeping through the industry, and willing to do whatever it took–no wonder they thrived when most other bands fell apart. “…The backbone of our legend will be that we would play anywhere, travel any distance, sleep anywhere there was a bed, give 100 percent and never complain.” Our music biz friend Geoff told us years ago that that appetite for touring, and the willingness to keep it up for years, was the main ingredient in “making it.” Best story in the book is about his meeting with Miles Davis:

The great man fixes me with his eye.

“Sting, huh?”

“Yes sir,” I reply.

“Sting,” he says again, savoring the word in his mouth like a gob of spit, “you got the biggest fuckin’ head in the world.” His voice is no more than a malevolent whisper.

I’m not a little shaken by this, to say the least. “What exactly do you mean, er, Miles?”

“Saw ya in a fuckin’ movie, man, and your head filled the whole fuckin’ screen.”

Barks and Purrs by Colette (1905), translated by Maire Kelly (1913)

Link to book

My second post-process for Distributed Proofreaders. Although nowadays this depiction of dog and cat personalities is trite, it probably was novel at the time. “Please, no stories told from the dog’s point of view” was already a staple of submission guidelines in the 80s, but it can’t have originated much before the late 19th century, can it? Black Beauty was 1877. (If I had oodles of time, surveying literature from an animal POV would be a lot of fun, if it hasn’t already been done…) Anyway, Colette’s poetic language is delightful, if sometimes a little excessive. (In a few spots the translation’s not quite spot-on, but not too many). “The Storm” is particularly evocative and “The Caller” has some funny bits:


… Do they leave you in the room all alone?


It happens so now and then.


And you don’t bark? I cry as soon as I’m left alone. I’m bored, afraid, feel sick, and chew up the cushions.

My mother used to talk about how Colette’s husband Willy repressed her, forced her to write for money, then put it out under his own name, etc., etc.–I don’t know how accurate that is, but it feels very strange that in this book written by a woman, the man is shown “scratching paper” (writing) and must not be disturbed, while the woman does housewifely stuff.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2001) ***SPOILERS***

So many people raved about this book (and at work, we’ve had to request it though ILL enough times) that I ordered it for the library. Enchanting, absorbing, touching–right up until the end, at which point I threw the book from me and burst into angry tears. Yes, I prefer happy endings. Real life is crammed full of horrible things that can’t be prevented–why create more in fiction? But I can deal with sad, even tragic endings as long as there is some kind of redemption or transcendence, something I can feel good about. Of course I saw the sad ending coming–it made the theme of the fragility and beauty of life stronger, there was no other plausible outcome, and Patchett made it clear that the new life the terrorists and hostages evolved into was just a dream. But did she have to kill so many people we grew to love? Realistically, yes, and even that could be handled in a way I would not object to so much. It’s the suddenness of the ending, and the way that we’re then excluded from the main character’s heads–we’ve seen their thought processes and felt their emotions all through the book (very effectively–Patchett’s a brilliant writer), and then we only see a little bit of what the survivors do. Gen and Roxanne are getting married, but WHY? I can rationalize the cut-off as part of the tragedy–the sudden, shattering end of the idyll is too much to absorb–but it just feels very dissatisfying. It’s a sign of how deeply the book got to me that it could make me so angry and sad.

Every single guest and terrorist is transported by the beauty of Roxanne Coss’ voice, even those who’ve never particularly enjoyed music or even been exposed to it. Does that require some suspension of disbelief? I’m not sure. That they’re hearing it live makes a big difference–it’s not just the sound, it’s the performance, the group psychology, the whole experience. One of the greatest pleasures I get from reading is finding new topics of interest, curiosity, and research. I’ve never liked opera at all, but now I’ll check out a few CDs and who knows, maybe I’ll change my mind.

Eragon by Christopher Paolini, 2003.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. The youth of the author, who was 15 when he started writing, intrigued me (see tangent on The Young Visiters), but didn’t raise my hopes. It was this terrific 3-way interview with Philip Pullman and Tamora Pierce that did. Pullman is a (mostly) fantastic writer, and I liked Pierce’s “Protector of the Small” series–not brilliant, but decent writing and enjoyable stories. Paolini held his own in the interview. Plus, I like good fantasy, I like dragons (one of the main characters is a female dragon named Saphira), and several people recommended it to me.

I gave up at 100 pages and it was a struggle to get that far. I checked out the last 25 pages in case some dramatic improvement had take place–but no. Paolini probably could be a good writer some day–as Jonathan said, a novel Proust wrote at 15 might not be so hot–but right now he could use “Cousin Len’s Wonderful Adjective Cellar” from Jack Finney’s story, which sucks up excess adjectives & adverbs. When I hit stuff like “Dark eyebrows rested above his intense brown eyes,” I’m jolted out of the “vivid and continuous dream” good fiction is supposed to engender (John Gardner’s phrase). Hearing Paolini’s sentences in my head felt like chewing gravel; he’s presumably aiming for a brawny Beowulfian pattern (“It struck her steed…[she] landed lightly, then glanced back for her guards”), but to me the result is self-concious and clunky. Nor did the scenarios in the first hundred pages seem particularly original: McCaffrey-style dragons in a world with Star Wars politics and Tolkien races. But again, he’s only 19 now, and to have the stylistic control and awareness to make the choices he did here (even if the result didn’t work for me) is remarakable. I guess my “bad fantasy” buttons were just pushed–purple prose combined with multi-volume stories…

Mr. Apology and Other Essays by Alec Wilkinson, 2003.

Mmm…essays…I’ve loved Wilkinson’s writing since I came across Midnights in the mid-80s. Even as a young writer he had an amazing gift for vivid description and acute character portrayals, and he’s gotten stronger with age: able to play with form, to write about very personal experiences without being self-congratulatory or maudlin, to explore fringe areas of human behavior and make them more accessible. (He didn’t win me over with the hockey stories, but that’s a tough sell…) What fascinated me most about the book, though, was actually the author photo on the back flap. Wilkinson’s incredibly good-looking, and I remember his photo on the jacket of Midnights as a harbinger of the “as long as they look sexy, we’ll sign them” publishing trend. I’d read a couple of the essays before I turned to the back flap, looking for the brooding, dark-haired man I remembered–and he’s gray! OK, how can that be a surprise–but it makes me realize that twenty years have in fact passed since he was the hot young thing. And just as Jonathan is more handsome than ever to me now and 23-year-olds look like babies, the late-forties(?) Wilkinson with his short graying hair is far more good-looking now. But that’s not what kept drawing me back to the photo. I couldn’t help staring at it because the way he’s looking off to one side, with a purely joyous, spontaneous grin, makes my eyes want to follow his and see what he’s seeing. The Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile never particularly drew me, but I think I understand better now why people find her mysteriously fascinating.

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian, 1972.

About half-way through the second Aubrey-Maturin novel, the thought of fourteen more in the series made my heart sink. The jargon and indirect exposition (like the relationship between Jack Aubrey and Diana Villiers, initially cloaked in an allusive fog) put me off. But then the characterization grabbed me again and although I want a breather, I’ll probably go on to number 3. The difficulties of supervising people, especially those who manage others, the politics of advancement, and the ups and downs of friendship are all particularly well-handled. Maturin and Aubrey are very different, each admirable in their own way; one of the most striking aspects of the book is the clarity with which the two see each other, strengths and flaws, and yet how invisible the nature of each is to himself. As reader one can identify with both and yet find both exasperating. Particularly funny: Stephen Maturin bringing his glass beehive complete with 60,000 bees on board the Lively.

[Aubrey] went below, noticed the smell of midshipmen in the fore-cabin, walked through the after-cabin, and found himself in total darkness.

‘Close the door,’ cried Stephen, swarming past him and clapping it to.

‘What’s amiss?’ asked Jack, whose mind had moved so deep into naval life that he had forgotten the bees, as he might have forgotten even a vivid nightmare.

‘They are remarkably adaptable–perhaps the most adaptable of all social insects,’ said Stephen, from another part of the cabin. ‘We find them from Norway to the burning wastes of the Sahara; but they have not grown quite used to their surroundings yet.’

‘Oh God,’ said Jack, scrabbling for the handle. ‘Are they all out?’

‘Not all,’ said Stephen. ‘And learning from Killick that you expected guests, I conceived you might prefer them away. There is so much ignorant predjudice against bees in a dining room.’ … ‘Urge them to mount on your finger, Jack, and carry them back to their hive.’

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Managing Your Time by Jeff Davidson, 1995.

For me, self-help books have always been like potato chips–can’t read just one, not really nourishing, the initial deliciousness doesn’t last, etc. I’ll take it as a sign of growth that this is the first one I’ve read this year (not the first I’ve skimmed, but that doesn’t count)–and it’s better than most. The primary goal I got out of it is to try to leave work ON TIME more often. Many of my co-workers leave at 5 on the dot and theoretically it would be fine for me to do so; but 5:15 is early for me. There’s so much to do, and when I’m at work I want to stay there… (when I’m at home I want to stay at home!) But I know I would be less stressed if I didn’t give myself so much more to do than could possibly fit into a workday–and that’s the point that Davidson makes: “Time ‘speeds up’ and you seem to have less when …you work in front of a clock to meet an unrealistic time frame; …you jam-pack your calendar with activities and appointments.” He also recommends getting enough sleep, which I’m sold on as a goal. I’d probably put this in the top 10 of time management books I’ve read. I’m still looking for the one with the magic formula, though. That’s why I keep reaching for the next potato chip…

Enslaved by Ducks by Bob Tarte, 2003.

Similar in flavor to Jim Mullen’s It Takes a Village Idiot–long-suffering, neurotic guy is won over by his wife to rural living/raising animals while retaining his snarky “only a hopeless fool would do this” attitude. Quite funny, and strangely touching. Tarte talks about his depression and how medication sort of helps, but it’s the bizarre, time-consuming routines imposed by the constant parade of needy, nutty animals that do the most to keep him happy. I really love animals, but reading this book reminded me why I would never consider owning a parrot. It also made me thankful not to have a whole menagerie to put up with and cry over. We used to own pet rabbits, and it was nostalgic to read about brothers Bertie and Rollo, who fight when together, but:

If Rollo lay against the right side of his cage, Bertie would press his body against the left, letting fur and flesh mingle through the wires. As long as they didn’t share a common space, they were inseparable.

When we had rabbits, we ended up with two bonded pairs of rabbits. When the male of one pair and the female of the other died, Eiffel and Ruffin, the survivors, had exactly the same relationship as Bertie and Rollo. I strung chicken wire inside the hutch, creating two triangular cages, and they clearly enjoyed living together yet separately. Like people who need to each keep their own apartment?

The Tartes devote their lives to making their pets happy–no effort is too great–and they adopt abandoned or injured animals. But the book does reveal a side of pet ownership that I sympathize with but which bothers me: the desire to collect, to sample, the drive to get a new type of animal the next time around, to try them all. And it’s exactly that which motivates the buying and selling of pets, and has a lot of unfortunate side effects. The monkey side of human beings coming out…

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, 2002.

Many people have told me how good this novel is, but the clincher was my memory of the elderly beekeeper, a dignified, reserved man, who told me that it made him cry. Yes, it is a very, very good book, although not one of my favorites ever. It didn’t grab me as hard as some books can–too feminine? too Southern? too predictable? I don’t know. Maybe it’s my own mother issues, since the major theme is maternal loss and betrayal. And the magic of bees…that is well-done, though I preferred Beeing: Life, Motherhood, and 180,000 Honeybees by Rosanne Thomas. Too bad the illustration on the cover looks more like a wasp. I hate it when people call wasps bees. Even if I do understand, as an adult, how easy it is to make that mistake and how most people just don’t really care–it buzzes, it’s yellow and black, it’s a “bee”–it still drives me crazy because I feel that the poor bees are getting a bad rep!

“You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside…. You don’t have to put your hand on Mary’s heart to get strength and consolation and resuce, and all the other things we need to get through life,” she said. “You can place it right here on your own heart. Your own heart.

Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet, by Eleanor Cameron, 1956.

I own all the sequels to Wonderful Flight and will probably give them away to my friend after reading them again. They just don’t hold up that well, alas. Horatio Q. Peabody, the meddling, egotistical young man who stows away aboard Chuck and David’s spaceship, is a funny character, but otherwise the story is not very interesting (aside from the briefly-mentioned, ominous “hole in space”–I hope it shows up again in the later books). There’s the same strange feeling that Mr. Bass and his Basidium counterpart, Great Ta, somehow know and control everything that happens. But now that I think of it, it does make David and Chuck’s experiences similar to those of a child–that feeling that grown-ups are omniscient and omnipotent.