“I was not happy as a child, although from time to time I was content. I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.” The Ocean At the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, p13
“Based on the average life expectancy of a Soviet woman, she could expect to live for another forty-eight years, but the Soviet Union had died, and she hadn’t, and the appendices [of the medical reference book] couldn’t explain this discrepancy of data, when the subject outlasted its experiment. Only one entry supplied an adequate definition, and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly. ‘Life: a constellation of vital phenomena— organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.’” A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, pp183-184

First Impressions

Title of book: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Reason for reading: I saw this book on the “New and Noteworthy” shelf at B&N a few months ago and, first of all, felt drawn by the title. It seemed like such a mouthful. I wonder sometimes how an author chooses a title, which is essentially a couple of words to sum up thousands of hours of labor and creativity. When I read the description for the story it seemed so different from what I usually read (I can’t remember the last eastern European book I read, unless it’s “Anna Karenina,” which is one of my least favorite books of all time). But in its strangeness there was an allure, so I added it to my list and went from there.

First impressions: The cover is a picture of bare, leafless trees, with a gray background, and an overlay of tiny golden stars. The title is written almost spider-like, and I imagine it as the lines drawn between stars to make a constellation shape where none before appeared.

Previous reads by this author: None.

Hardcover, paperback, or ebook: Hardcover.

GoodReads rating: 4.16 average

First sentences: On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones. While the girl dressed, Akhmed, who hadn’t slept at all, paced outside the bedroom door, watching the sky brighten on the other side of the window glass; the rising sun had never before made him feel late. When she emerged from the bedroom, looking older than her eight years, he took her suitcase and she followed him out the front door. He had led the girl to the middle of the street before he raised his eyes to what had been her house. “Havaa, we should go,” he said, but neither moved.


Review of “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett

In Italian, “Bel Canto” means “Beautiful Singing.” It has been used to describe opera’s golden age, in a period between the mid-1700s and early 19th century. It was a time when beautiful voices sang beautiful things, and wasn’t fully appreciated until it was gone. “Bel Canto” can also mean “Beautiful Song,” which is exactly how this book read for me.

A group of affluents are invited to attend a dinner party in the vice-presidential mansion of an unnamed South American country, in honor of a visiting foreign businessman. The evening’s entertainment is a world famous opera singer, and after her performance all the lights suddenly go out. When the power is restored the guests find themselves hostages of a terrorist group that had entered through the air-conditioning vents. What follows is an organization of the guests and terrorists alike into a microcosm of society, where relationships that would never have been possible before suddenly blossom and priorities are rearranged.

The guests have come from all corners of the earth, creating a sort of Babel with many different languages— Italian, English, French, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, and Quechua. Everyone is able to communicate, however, through the efforts of Gen, the translator for the Japanese businessman whose birthday was the event that had gathered everyone together in the first place. There is a beautiful contrast between Gen, who struggles to maintain communication and remove barriers between languages, and the shared language of the music the terrorists could not silence. All the occupants of the house, terrorists and hostages alike, are united in their appreciation for the arias and performances the diva continues to sing, like a caged bird. When she sings everyone finds they don’t need to talk to understand each other, they only need to listen.

As time passes, the hostages and terrorists create a relationship that is interwoven and complicated, and becomes taken for granted. The time spent all together under the roof of the mansion becomes their “bel canto.” It is a beautiful song, made beautiful by the love shared between all the occupants, and beautiful because they realize it can’t possibly last.

There were several times when a song would be named, and I would find it to play on my phone while I read the passage it appeared in. I feel like it helped me participate more in the story, by hearing what they were hearing, and the songs stirred emotions that we’re haunting and beautiful at the same time.

This was a privilege to have read, and a gorgeous piece of fiction.

I gave it five out of five stars.

“'If we put a gun to her head she would sing all day.'
‘Try it first with a bird,’ General Benjamin said gently to Alfredo. ‘Like our soprano, they have no capacity to understand authority. The bird doesn’t know enough to be afraid and the person holding the gun will only end up looking like a lunatic’” Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, p165
“A daughter was a battle between fathers and boys in which the fathers fought valiantly and always lost.” Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, p121
“The young terrorists waiting in the air-conditioning vents were simple people and they believed simple things. When a girl in their village had a pretty voice, one of the old women would say she had swallowed a bird, and this was what they tried to say to themselves as they looked at the pile of hairpins resting on the pistachio chiffon of her gown: she has swallowed a bird. But they knew it wasn’t true. In all their ignorance, in all their unworldliness, they knew there had never been such a bird.” Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, pp23-24
“In the steady river of approaching boys, one crouched down beside her and picked up her hand. He held it lightly, hardly more than rested her palm against his own, so that she could have taken it back from him at any minute, but she did not. Roxane Coss knew the longer he held her hand, the more he would love her, and if he loved her he was more likely to try and protect her from the others, from himself.” Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, p24

First Impressions

Title of book: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Reason for reading: I have had this book on my “to read” list for (hastily checks Goodreads) almost two and a half years (it’s the second-longest neglected book on my to-read, after “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup, which has become a personal vendetta against book companies and I refuse to read it online or otherwise until I find it in a bookstore. I saw it once in the bargain bin at B&N, didn’t buy it, went back the next day, and never saw it again. Lesson learned. Very long aside note over.). I loved my first encounter with Patchett— the lyrical and haunting “State of Wonder” that was recommended by my grandmother— and was intrigued by the description of “Bel Canto” and immediately added it to my list…. And have been procrastinating for some silly reason or another since then. At the library today I took pity on my “neglected” books on the list and got the first five I could find (with the exception of “Q&A”: see above). Yes, I realize it is neurotic and somewhat sad to attribute emotions to inanimate objects like books and think they’d be offended by the length of time they’ve spent being passed over for newer books, but I also talk to my cats regularly and have never tried to convince anyone I was anywhere near “normal.”

First impressions: The cover is in my favorite color— blue— and the title is written on a music bar like notes from a song. Very simple, unassuming, and beautiful.

Previous reads by this author:  State of Wonder

Hardcover, paperback, or ebook: Hardcover.

GoodReads rating: 3.90 average

First sentences: When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would remember a kiss. They did not see a kiss, that would have been impossible. The darkness that came on them was startling and complete. Not only was everyone there certain of a kiss, they claimed they could identify the type of kiss: it was strong and passionate, and it took her by surprise.

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