Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Back in late March 2020 I was on a kick to think of books that would be good to read during the pandemic, specifically under the shelter-in-place conditions. A Gentleman in Moscow immediately came to mind, reviewed earlier, as did Bocaccio’s The Decameron, which I don’t own, so won’t review, but read parts of in college. Then I remembered Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, a favorite novel of mine that has only dimmed a bit in favorite-ness because I have liked so few of Patchett’s other novels.

The book is set in an unnamed South American country in that country’s Vice President’s mansion where a large group of international businessmen and government officials and their wives has gathered to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa. Terrorists crawl through the ducting of the building to take the group hostage, on the knowledge that the country’s president would be in attendance, but they are disappointed. Still, they make do with the Vice President and a famous female opera singer, Roxane Coss, the ne plus ultra soprano and drop dead favorite of Hosokawa who has been hired to sing for the party.

The plot is a wonderfully sparse tragic-comedy frame for some very memorable characters. The Vice President became a favorite of mine. Extremely short in stature (and thus chosen as the VP for the slightly less short President), the Vice President is a humble man, devoted to his family, courageous in an everyman sort of way, and, as it turns out, a fantastic host. The way he cares for the building under his charge is particularly charming to me; he is continually setting down ashtrays under lit cigarettes and coasters under sweaty glasses or cleaning up messes from the carpet and develops domestic skills he never knew he had, since either his wife or his servants had always handled those things. He doesn’t come off as OCD so much as responsible and respectful and as a great steward of beauty. Since the President skipped the party in order to stay home and watch his “tele nova”–the south of the border version of a soap opera–it’s clear that the shorter man would have been by far the better President. Humility, devotion, courage, cleanliness, respect, responsibility and an appreciation of beauty–what this American wouldn’t give for a President with those qualities!

Mr. Hosokawa also has these qualities. He is an aficionado and great appreciator of music, especially opera, but is very humble about the fact that he neither plays an instrument nor sings. He also speaks only Japanese and has a translator, Gen, who speaks at least seven languages including Russian. Hosokawa is also very humble about his lack of language skills and relies heavily on Gen, though as his relationship with Roxane Coss grows, he begins to be able to communicate with her non-verbally and with a very abbreviated English vocabulary.

When I read about Gen the translator, it is as if bracingly fresh air comes off of the pages. He is so smart and organized and facile with language that it even makes this reader feel smarter and more energetic. He as the translator and the Vice President as the host with the most act as bridges between all of the other characters, whether hostage or terrorist. He also exhibits the aforementioned wonderful qualities of character, but as he begins to fall in love with one of the teenage girl terrorists, we realize he must be several years if not more than a decade younger than Hosokawa even though he is so accomplished.

The terrorists are less well-developed, but they are not stereotypes and several are given interesting personalities. General Benjamin, with his painful and ugly skin condition, realizes what a mess he has gotten himself into and it is obvious he has a decent, if not good and large, heart. Carmen, Gen’s love interest, is a sponge for knowledge, a perfect mentee for Gen. Beatriz is lazy and insolent and much more of a tomboy suited for the teen terrorist role.

There are a lot of great details that tickle me because I organize houses for a living and am a clean freak. For example, the terrorists put their boots on the beautifully hand-embroidered bedcovers. This gives me an anxiety I have to chuckle about, but it is right up there with the topiary animals in The Shining (not in my library but I loved it) on the anxiety scale.

Roxane Coss, since she is a valuable hostage, is not released with the rest of the women near the beginning of the ordeal. The fact that the women are all wives and girlfriends and none are businesswomen or government officials themselves is bizarre given the book was written in 2001. It can’t be just that the book takes place in mucho macho South America, because the gathering is international. So it was just a choice on Patchett’s part in order to make Roxane Cost the sole female hostage. Patchett based the story on the 1996-1997 hostage crisis in Lima, Peru and so wrote it before the September 11 terrorist events that happened the year the book was actually published.

I’m a sucker for magic realism done well, as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose Love in the Time of Cholera is another good shelter-in-place read, and OMG, Haruki Murakami, brilliant to the max although in my opinion he needs to move on already. ¬†Patchett is known for this technique, although she goes nowhere near as far with the magical as either Marquez or Murakami do. I find that in Bel Canto there is just a perfect sprinkling of magic to make the reading incredibly pleasurable. It’s like a beautiful dream, and even General Benjamin’s shingles don’t mar the beauty.

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

The first time I read A Gentleman in Moscow was for a real book club. I absolutely adored it on my first read, and I had been very attentive, knowing that I would be discussing it with some very smart women in a few short weeks. I had really enjoyed Amor Towles first novel, Rules of Civility, although it had a somewhat chilly tone, and found A Gentleman in Moscow to be a much warmer and even more satisfying a read. Continue reading “A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles”

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson, I learned from reading the back flap of my cherished First Edition of The Orphan Master’s Son, is a professor and lives in San Francisco. I got chills–genius is always so close and yet so far, right? I feel a stupid sort of pride in the fact that the author of such a great book lives in my neck of the woods.

I originally read this book right after it came out. I had just joined a book club and it was the very first book I read with that club; unfortunately it and maybe a couple of others were the only few books I thoroughly enjoyed over three years in the club (which in part led to the formation of the SBC). I reread The Orphan Master’s son last week and it was every bit as good as I remembered with the added oomph being that I now know so much more about North Korea (thanks, Donald Trump) than I did in 2011, and that made it all the more impressive and intriguing. Continue reading “The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson”

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Who could imagine a novel about a pair of contract killers could be heartwarming and sometimes sweet? The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt is all that and also extremely funny. From the title to the last line, it is original and entertaining. It makes me want to read everything else DeWitt has written but that desire is tinged with fear that nothing else will be quite as good. Continue reading “The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt”

An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin

Steve Martin’s novel, An Object of Beauty, is itself an object of beauty. It’s got a super sexy dust cover, thick and creamy, with slick raised lettering that looks like it was cut out from a modern masterpiece. There are nicely reproduced photos scattered throughout the book of paintings and sculptures that are mentioned in the text, which is so fun for the reader to be able to instantly see the art the characters are referencing. Continue reading “An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin”

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

I got a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as soon as it hit the bookstore. My favorite bookstore at the time was a satellite of Berkeley’s famous Cody’s, located in the Opera Plaza on the corner of Van Ness and McAllister in San Francisco. It was the same bookstore where if you put a dollar in a glass jar you were allowed to look at Madonna’s Sex book for a minute, and there was a line for that privilege, which seems awfully quaint now, with the internet and everything. It was 1992. Continue reading “The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt”

1984 by George Orwell

The 80s are back and I can hardly believe it. There is a female editor (again, post Tina) at Vanity Fair, ridiculous volume in clothing, and a familiar new wave sound on the Sirius XMU channel, and they are giving me flashbacks. I never thought I’d worry about shoulder pads and nuclear war again, but here we are. Big Brother is one thing, but the return of Big Hair would be a real tragedy.

The news of the day, with themes of surveillance, white nationalism and American exceptionalism make it a perfect time to revisit George Orwell’s 1984. I sure hope they are still reading it in high school, although from the sound of the Parkland student speeches and youthful activism of the moment, maybe they don’t need to. 1984 made me quake in my jelly sandals in the 80s;¬† I’m glad to see the kids of 2018 have the courage to speak truth to power. Continue reading “1984 by George Orwell”

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Sellout is one of the most entertaining and original books I’ve read in a long time. it came into my library via a book club I belonged to and was definitely one of the highlights during my few years of membership in that club. (I didn’t get thrown out of the club, but being childless and not inclined to participate in a potluck, I eased myself out of that club and into this one. In the Selfish Book Club I can now enjoy my books from a reclining position as God and nature intended.) Continue reading “The Sellout by Paul Beatty”

Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins

After my recent reread of Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction, I was apprehensive about rereading Jitterbug Perfume. I remembered it as a life changing book that I first encountered at the age of 24 when it was recommended to me by a man twice my age who, wearing a sweatshirt with Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice on the back, also introduced me to wine and food pairing (Chateau d’Yquem with magic mushrooms). He had a gorgeous Georgia drawl and a gold dragon ringed around his right index finger. He was most definitely a righteous representative of Robbins’ work. Continue reading “Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins”

Another Roadside Attraction, Tom Robbins

I was really looking forward to rereading the four Tom Robbins novels I’ve treasured since 1988 (Another Roadside Attraction, 1971; Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, 1976; Still Life with Woodpecker, 1980; Jitterbug Perfume, 1984). I was never a fan of his later books, which started to seem stale and formulaic to me and so took the magic out of his loopy, genius metaphors and fantastic mix of myth, science, philosophy and magic. So when I started reading my battered paperback copy of Another Roadside Attraction, I was afraid I might have outgrown Robbins, or maybe that the late 1960s-early 1970s hallucinatory hijinks may not have aged well, or that post reading Ulysses and present North Korea/Trump shenanigans might have swiped any patience I have left for linguistic, idealistic antics.
Continue reading “Another Roadside Attraction, Tom Robbins”