Review: ‘Paris in the Present Tense’ by Mark Helprin

Paris in the Present TenseParis in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With great love, there is often great loss. Musician, composer and teacher Jules Lacour has, at age seventy-four, experienced both and will continue to do so as long as he can draw breath and hear music. As Helprin’s “In Sunlight and in Shadow” is a love song to New York City,” “Paris in the Present Tense” is a love song to the City of Lights (la Ville Lumière).

Like “In Sunlight and in Shadow,” this novel is non-linear, atmospheric, and a sprawling immersion into the location as viewed by the protagonist, in this case, a man who not only hears music in everyday sights and sounds, but who believes the listener is experiencing the Divine:

“The world had courage, faith, beauty, and love, and it had music, which, although not merely an abstraction, was equal to the greatest abstractions and principles – its power to lift, clarify, and carry the soul forever unmatched.”

Physically fit from daily runs and swims that give him more stamina and a more athletic physique than men half his age, Lacour is pragmatic about health and has a laser-focus on the need to raise money to save his terminally ill grandson. Yet he has a complex past that haunts him to great distraction, an unusual and somewhat chaotic approach to his music students, and the romantic’s ability to fall deeply in love with a woman at a moment’s notice. He owes allegiance to his past and to the here and now and must learn how to juggle memories and defining moments.

This complex character provides more focus and a tighter plot to this novel than what we saw in “In Sunlight and in Shadow” as well as a more satisfying conclusion. The story is beautifully told with shimmering prose that is almost music.

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Review: ‘White Tears’ by Hari Kunzru

White Tears pays homage to the blues, the blues that grew out of pain and a mix of organic musical styles that was sung by down and out African American men and women in the 1800s and ultimately recorded by hundreds of performers on 78 records during the early 1900s–Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and others whose names are long lost to most current day audiences even though the influences of the blues run through the heart of American music itself. It has been said that Robert Johnson achieved success as a singer by following an old conjure procedure of selling his soul to a black rider at the crossroads. Whether you believe the legend or not, the music known as the blues carried the souls of its performers as they cried out the cruel injustices of their lives.

Hari Kunzru tells the story of two white students in their twenties who love the blues, though that love may be more of an affectation or an obsession than anything true. Carter is rich. Seth is poor. The music draws them together and they create a music studio dedicated to analog sound and music out of the past. Seth, who’s a bit of a geek without firm boundaries about who he really is, records sounds and music off the streets, and one day he captures the voice of a bluesman he never sees singing a song that will define the two young men’s lives. They run the words through their sophisticated equipment and end up with a recording that sounds like an old 78 record that might have been rescued or stolen from a southern barn or back porch. They put the recording on the Internet and announce that it’s real rather than mocked up. They name the singer Charlie Shaw.

The sound is a sensation.  But then they hear from collectors and other aficionados that Charlie Shaw was a real person who really did record a song that began with the words “Believe I buy a graveyard of my own.” A collector says he heard it years ago. Another collector turns heaven and earth to find the original, and maybe he does. The boys are spooked, to say the least: how can their faked record of a modern-day street singer suddenly be a real song by a person whose name they made up? If Charlie Shaw is real, Carter and Seth have stolen his soul.

At this point, readers will have been experiencing an immersion in the blues, well told through Hunzru’s deep understanding of the music and his very well crafted prose. While the novel remains compelling, it becomes somewhat fractured after Carter is–for unknown reasons–beaten senseless in “the wrong part of town,” and as he evolves into a hospitalized man in a vegetative state, his rich family decides that Seth was just a follower who lived off Carter’s money and really didn’t contribute anything to their business partnership. Denied access to Carter and the studio, Seth drifts, begins to think maybe the past or the blues or the real Charlie Shaw is after him. The novel fractures from the atmospheric realism that was following a plot into some lengthy slice-of-life sequences in which past, present, future–and bluesy reality–meander aimlessly rather than directly serving to storyline.

Yet, new incidents occur (mostly bad and/or unfair to Seth), magical realism or real depending on the moods of the moment and the novel shifts into a thriller chasing down a ghost story. The protagonist for three quarters of the novel is primarily Seth.  But Kunzru changes the point of view throughout the last several chapters in a chilling way. These chapters are powerfully written but, on balance, the strong ending of White Tears seems based more on shifting genres in mid stream and word-smithing trickery rather than the natural unfolding of a story. The message–white boys appropriating black music and making it their own–is a strong theme throughout the book. It’s not a bad theme. The story suffers, however, because of the author’s need to preach a cultural appropriation sermon rather than let his message speak for itself through the characters words and actions.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to discount the power of the book, the author’s technical mastery of his language, or the journey through the blues. Yes, this book is the blues, and those who love the music will probably read the book from beginning to end, seeing its flaws as little more than the scratchy static on an old 78 record.


Review: ‘The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto’

The Magic Strings of Frankie PrestoThe Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mitch Albom’s words and the songs they play in “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” comprise a “Pure Perfect Fifth,” a term related to an ancient system of musical tuning that has been linked to alchemy and the transformation of souls. Narrated by Music himself, this tale about an orphan from Villareal, Spain who becomes the best guitar player in existence is the quintessence of a well-told tale accompanied by the music of the spheres and the wisdom of many players.

Frankie’s mentor, known as El Maestro, reveres composer and guitarist Francisco Tárrega, teaches the classics, demands constant practice, and tells his young student to respect his left hand by keeping the nails trimmed so that the sensitive fingertips feel the pain of every note. They begin with Tárrega’s “Lágrima” (teardrop), and that song becomes a fitting leitmotiv throughout the novel.

Frankie can play it all, from the free strokes and rest strokes of Spanish guitar, to every standard rock and roll chord progression, to the worried notes of the twelve-bar blues. Though Frankie Presto plays a guitar with magic strings, his life is almost pure blues, pure “Lágrima.”

He is forever haunted by the violent unknowns of his childhood, people who suddenly go missing, the comings and goings of fame and not fame, his lover Aurora’s long absences, injuries and penances, and the on-going conflict between a beautiful voice that makes him rich and a guitar technique that nourishes his soul. Once, when he told El Maestro he wanted to be perfect as both a singer and a guitar player, Le Maestro said that both was the same as neither.

Frankie is forever running and forever searching. Through it all, his music leads him while he feels the pain of every note. Near the beginning of Albom’s novel, we learn that Frankie is dead, that we are standing around before the funeral talking with Music about Frankie’s life through a Chroma-filled remembrance that includes all his sharps and flats and rests. His story is filled with mystery, too, the unexpected riffs that come out of nowhere like the here-and-gone notes of a jam session, moments that fall together that had seemed separate, and a hidden continuity Frankie doesn’t know about until late in life. The unexpected arises again and again in different keys from the walking base line that drives the story measure by exceptional measure. And he wonders, is this gig destined synchronicity or perfectly orchestrated manipulation. He will have to decide that before the plays his last song.

By the end of the novel, with the help of an all-wise narrator and the testimonies of those who knew him in ages past, Frankie knows everything about himself and his magic strings, why things happened as they did, and the blessings of music as his song resolves into a coda of joy with a lasting counterpoint of “Lágrima.”


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Now is a good time to listen to the blues

Used to be, a lot of folks sang the blues, listened to them, too, because they spoke soul to soul about the troubles they were seeing and would see again the following day and possibly always.

Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey

I grew up listening to the blues, they’ve always spoken to me, and even though I don’t hear them as much now as I once did, I listened to them a lot while I was writing my last two books because those books were about troubles and bearing heavy loads and making things right. I hear Ma Rainey singing in my dreams, whether it’s “See See Rider” or “Boll Weevil” and really those songs are lullabies.

The Presidential election has created a great upheaval, folks shouting and fearful, yelling at friends, becoming argumentative, thinking all is lost no matter which candidate they voted for. There’s not a lot of comfort out there when things are so polarized you have to keep silent unless you agree 100% with what an other person says.

Good people voted for both candidates, but most folks don’t see it that way. Those who like Candidate A say you’re evil if you voted for Candidate B. Those who like Candidate B say you’re evil if you like Candidate A. I think we have to keep working toward consensus on the important issues, focusing on programs rather than fiery labels, and focusing on respect rather than assuming the worst in everyone else.

I swear to goodness, people need the blues so they’ll feel somebody out there knows how they feel, whether it’s the Mother of the Blues (Ma Rainey) or one of a hundred other people who converted their feelings into music that resonated with everyone who needed a lift up or a reminder they aren’t alone.

As it is, a fair number of people have retreated into their quiet living rooms or their like-thinking groups of family and friends. Perhaps that’s a reasonable start. But it isn’t a reasonable end. “Us vs. Them” is a poor way to live. There’s no respect in it,  no giving others the benefit of the doubt,  no chance for agreement.

The blues make a man or a woman human rather than the shouting member of a mob or the defeated person who cannot cope or consent to live the best they can no matter what life throws at them. We need more humanness today, more time to come to terms with whatever sorrows we hold, whatever troubles we’ve seen, more compassion for those we don’t understand, and a chance to keep doing right and honorable things without expecting a gold medal for it, and a way of thinking that leads us to assume those around us are good and trustworthy without their having to wear slogan-covered tee shirts or safety pins or a shrill and self-righteous cynicism on their sleeves.

My prescription: Go to YouTube or iTunes or Amazon and find some blues and settle down for the night with nothing but the music–and possibly a Mason jar of moonshine–and let put the world on hold. Let the blues run through you like a sweet hot knife through willing warm butter. You won’t need to call me in the morning because you’ll be all right with the world–come what may.






NaNoWriMo – Try writing with a ‘theme song’

Did you sign up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)?

Good for you.

If you participated last year, as I did, then you’ve probably gotten a few e-mails from program director Lindsey Grant with links and advice. Here’s a crucial reminder from a recent note: Warn your friends, family, neighbors, and pets about the upcoming challenge. The more people who  know what you’re working on, the more accountable you’ll feel and the likelier you are to hit the 50,000-word goal.

Now is the time to write at flank speed. If you weren’t in the Navy, flank speed means “fast.” Others will remind you to either shoot your inner editor or lock him or her in a closet this month. You can’t write at flank speed if you’re cutting, pasting, backspacing, using the thesaurus, or playing Angry Birds while you try to think of the perfect word.

All good.

While writing my recently released contemporary fantasy novel Sarabande during last year’s NaNo, I also used a theme song. Actually, it was a theme album.

Some people go to sleep every night listening to a DVD with a selection of restful music, an appropriate radio station, or a white noise machine. The music, or the surf or waterfall on the white noise machine, quickly become associated with sleep. The sound works somewhat hypnotically…sleep…sleep.

I picked a CD with Native American flute music by Mary Youngblood. I knew it would work because I’d used it before. I also knew it wouldn’t make me sleepy. Whenever I sat down for my NaNo writing, I put on my headphones and started the music. It was a jumpstart, and it automatically got me thinking of my characters and plot.

For best results, try not to listen to your writing music when you’re not writing. That might dilute its impact during NaNo when you need at least 1,667 words a day to reach that 50,000-word goal.

I’ve written three novels using theme song music. Sarabande was the second time out for Mary Youngblood’s Beneath the Raven Moon. While writing The Sun Singer, I used a new-age instrumental album called Nivana Road by Deuter. In my case, the music had a double connection. First, it became hypnotic and associated with writing. Second, Sarabande has Native American themes and The Sun Singer has new age themes.

You may not find music that mirrors what you’re writing about. If you do, it’s a bonus. If you don’t, I’m guessing that after listening for a couple of flank-speed, NaNo sessions, you’ll soon find those word counts a bit easier to reach because you will be in the zone with your work—thanks to the theme song.