Book Reviews

To Be Sung Underwater

This novel by Tom McNeal is about Judith, a young woman who, when her parents divorce, moves from Vermont to a small college town in Nebraska where her father is a professor. It is also about Willy, a young man she “abandoned, and yet never quite left behind.”

The story is about two worlds: the surface and what lies beneath the surface; the present and the past; the world Judith finds herself in when she reaches a mid-life crisis, and the world she longs for.

Judith lives in Los Angeles with her husband of twenty years. She edits movies.  The turning point or “swerve” in her life begins when her husband buys a new bedroom set for their daughter Camille and places the old set out by the pool.  To Judy, this bedroom set not just any furniture.  It is a birds-eye maple bedroom set that has family history and a special significance to her.

Judith rents a storage unit and secretly reconstructs it to look like the room she had when she was a teen.  She escapes her reality of editing movies and the façade of her marriage by thinking back to the simple joys of her high school years.  She finds herself drawn to the storage unit, again and again losing track of all time while she naps peacefully on her birds-eye maple bed.

We quickly realize that Judith’s life in Los Angeles is superficial.  Her musings about the high plains of Nebraska have the depth of simplicity.  Her memories reveal who Judith really is beneath the surface.  Those memories involve Willy, a young carpenter who ushered her into womanhood on the birds-eye maple bed and helped her appreciate the beauty of a sunset and his dream of a little acreage where he would one day create a small lake.

Judith’s transformation into an alternate world is so complete that she creates a new identity and hires a detective to find three friends from her past.  Of course, one of them is Willy, the boy she left in Nebraska.

Tom McNeal, author of award-winning “Goodnight, Nebraska,” spent part of every summer in Nebraska, at a farm where his mother was raised.  To those of us familiar with the area, we recognize Rufus Sage as Chadron and are pleasantly startled to read references to Hemingford, Highway 385, Herman the Germans and other local places.  I was not surprised, however, to realize that what matters most happens in small communities in America’s heartland, and not on either coast.

I wondered about the title of the book, but then I thought about when I was a kid, taking a bath, and I let my head rest on the bottom of the tub, ears completely covered, nose above the waterline.   I remember singing and listening to how different the tune sounded underwater. I remember how the words and music were clear and pure and limited to the voice inside my own head.  Those two worlds–  life on the surface and life beneath the surface—still mesmerize me and those same worlds are captured eloquently and reflectively by Tom McNeal.

Immerse yourself. This book is “to be sung underwater.”

~ Deb Carpenter-Nolting…

The Upright Piano Player

What does a title reveal about the contents of the book? What director subliminal message does it give?  I asked myself these questions as I read “The Upright Piano Player” by David Abbott.  Even though music plays a role throughout the novel, the upright piano is mentioned only once or twice, a hold from the narrator’s childhood.
As I pondered more, I noticed the title’s interesting wordplay. Is the player of the piano an upright character?  Does the pianist play an upright piano?  Or, perhaps, is the reference to both?
Henry Cage, a man who has defined himself by practicalities, work, and uprightness, is now retiring.  Over the years, his work ethic has cost him his family.  Alone now, he sits at his upright piano but doesn’t know which tune to play.  The chorus of his life seems to be filled with melancholy and random events that are often violent. Cage is often in the wrong place at the wrong time and the reader wonders if he had changed the signature, whether this might have made a difference in the outcome of those events.
Part One, much as a first verse, sets the tone for the book.  It is so painfully sad I almost didn’t turn the page to begin the second.  But I kept reading because of the depth of Cage’s character and the complexity of the plot.  And when I finished the story, I knew I would read the book again.
Like a haunting melody, this story waits for a second encounter.  I kept putting off that next reading of “The Upright Piano Player” because I wasn’t sure I wanted to experience the emotions another time, but I knew I had to.  I had to find the mention of the piano and I had to make the connections between the music and the characters.
You see, I think the author is making comparisons between life and an old upright piano.  Some of the keys, like life experiences, are white; some are black. There are harmonious chords and discordant combinations.  Each song has a beginning and each song has an ending.  If the upright piano also happens to be a player piano, then whatever roll the Master inserts is the song that plays, regardless of the body whose hands are poised over the keys. Whether the music is chosen for us or we choose the song, it must be played.
Just as songs must be played, stories must be written, and books must be read.  It is our obligation as readers to bear witness to the message.  Perhaps our role is to join the choir and acknowledge that life is often unfair. But perhaps we are simply to gather around the piano and, even as we question the choice of the upright piano player, merely listen to the heart-wrenching beauty of those bittersweet tunes.
~ Deb Carpenter-Nolting
The Coffins of Little Hope : Book Review

Abracadabra. Now you see it, now you don’t.  These are the words of illusion, and the illusion of words.  The illusion of the written word is thematic in “The Coffins of Little Hope” by Nebraska author Timothy Schaffert.

One of the ways written words manifests themselves is through eighty-three-year-old S Myles, one of the small town’s “death merchants.” S Myles, better known as Essie, narrates the story.  She also writes obituaries for the “The County Paragraph,” her hometown newspaper. In fact, she has written about the deaths of her townspeople since she dropped out of eighth grade to work for her father, who published the town’s paper.  Essie’s son was the next publisher, until his death in a tragic car accident.  Her grandson, Doc, whose dream was to open a magic store, inherited the paper and now tries to keep both the paper and the town alive.

One of the ways Doc has resuscitated the “Paragraph” is by secretly publishing books in a popular series. The “County Paragraph” has been using its press to print a portion of the Miranda and Desiree novels since the 9th book.  Now they are printing the 11th and final book, “The Coffins of Little Hope.” The entire town knows about the book and is in on the deception.  Like magicians holding the secret to a trick, the narrator tells us, “none of us breathed a word to anyone.”

Written words are not the only illusion in Schaffert’s novel.  The “now you see it, now you don’t” magic permeates this book and crosses over into reality in a number of ways, where art imitates life or life imitates the art of illusion. Disappearance by death is the strongest theme, but other disappearances are also prevalent.

One example is an integral story within the story, that of Daisy and Elvis and Lenore. When Daisy’s boyfriend Elvis leaves her without saying goodbye, Daisy reports that her daughter Lenore is missing. There seems to be very little evidence of an actual child, but the town plays a part in backing Daisy’s story, and profits by keeping the news or possibly the illusion alive.  The “County Paragraph” runs articles about the missing Lenore on a regular basis and little businesses spring up to cater to the “Lenorians.” The narrator tells us, “On this girl we pinned all hopes of our dying town’s salvation.”  She goes on to say that the disappearance of Lenore “enlivened the town yet ruined its soul.”

The narrator’s occupation, that of writing obituaries, also links the themes of disappearance and the words of illusion. Her words are meant to immortalize the dead and keep that person forever young, but sometimes the words distract the reader from reality. Only when the subject is dead does that person really come alive in Essie’s well-crafted obituaries.

Schaffert uses stories within the story to the same effect that a magician uses distractions, to disguise what is really happening and trick people into seeing something else. This is an effective way to provoke thought and discussion and test the gullibility or the faith of audience members.  Schaffert does this with his readers.  When readers look past the smoke and mirrors, they realize the underlying message of the book is the disappearance of small towns, and the extent to which our rural communities go to survive or to appear to be alive.

Like a side-show magic act, words lure an audience to watch a small town disappear before their eyes. No matter how hard townspeople try, especially using the written word, to resurrect what once was, the spirit and the physical are separated.  The assistant is not in the part of the box that is visible.  Only a shell of what once was remains. The coffin offers little hope of life after death. The small town is hurtling towards the end, and even though we who live in a rural community still feel vital and very much alive, Schaffert wants us to wonder what comes after those elusive words, “abracadabra.”  Will they be “Now you see it, now you don’t.”?…