Category Archives: Reading with my mother

About books that I read to my mother

The mystery that is music

A comment on Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul

Last month my dad and I led a book-club discussion of Frank Conroy’s 1993 novel Body and Soul, the coming-of-age story of a musical prodigy. This is a sprawling novel with a Dickensian cast of characters. Conroy begins with a poverty-stricken child whose circumstances seem to doom him to failure. But kind benefactors, hard work, and innate musical genius change his fortune, and he becomes a world-renowned concert pianist and composer.

About the novel

Poverty stricken and neglected by his mother, Claude Rawlings lives in a basement in 1940s New York. From the beginning of his life he perceives the world in musical terms: As a young child he peers out the basement window and feels the “ever-changing rhythms and tempos of legs and feet moving across his field of vision.” The narrator comments that “much of his thinking, especially when he was alone, went on without words, went on beneath the level of language.”

Claude is rescued by a series of benefactors who teach him about music – and about life. As a child he is too self-absorbed to give back to those who befriend him, but in adulthood he learns to value those who have given him insight into life and those who patiently guided him toward the mystery that is music.

Conroy’s in-depth discussions of Claude’s apprehension of musical harmony, tonality, and structure are impressive. The author says that he “had to go back and re-educate” himself on the theory of music, particularly the atonal music Claude masters as a young man. The author uses these discussions to show us that Claude is not like most people – he understands the language of music much better than he understands the nature of relationships or things of the body.

About the author

The book is semi-autobiographical. Conroy was born in 1936 in New York City. His father was mentally ill and institutionalized. His mother was distant and cold. He escaped from the loneliness of his childhood by reading and teaching himself to play the piano. Unlike Claude, he did not have a benefactor who provided him music lessons. In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Conroy said that Body and Soul is in part a fantasy whereby he invents a father and
a music teacher – two things he never had. Despite early neglect, Conroy became a successful writer, jazz musician, and teacher.

In 1967, at the age of 31, Conroy published his critically acclaimed autobiography Stop-Time, in which he recounted his miserable childhood. In 1993, he became director of the famous
Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and published the novel Body and Soul. Expectations were high, reviews mixed. Some critics said the book was too much like his autobiography; others seemed to feel it was not enough like the autobiography. To some Claude was a flat character, the narrator’s comments were intrusive, and the book was poorly written.

Conroy seemed to think of himself as a teacher more than a writer, and at that he was very successful. He died in 2005 of colon cancer.

What I learned

When I lived in New Mexico, particularly years that I was alone for the holidays, my parents
sent me a Christmas package that always included a book. This was one of those books, and I enjoyed reading it. When we chose it as a book-club selection, I was worried that I wouldn’t
enjoy it quite as much the second time around. Sometimes when I reread a book I loved I’m disappointed. But I enjoyed this book even more at second reading. On first reading Body and Soul I skipped over the discussions of music theory and focused on the plot. This time, I thought more about the music.

I have the experience of starting college as a piano performance major. It took a few years to realize that I was more interested in listening to music than playing it, more interested in writing about music than performing it. My favorite music class was music history, where I learned about the organization of music during different periods. But I was an abysmal failure at music theory, especially the contemplation of harmony and tone, and in the end, I decided to study literature instead of music.

Body and Soul taught me that I’m still pretty much a failure at theory. This time, though, I didn’t skip over the discussions of theory, because I saw them as integral to the story. In presenting the evolution of musical genius, Conroy seems to be showing the reader that there really exists a “music of the spheres” – a kind of fusion of metaphysics and mathematics that can thrill the composer, the performer, and the audience.

Another thing Conroy shows is that it takes a lot of luck – and even more hard work – to realize your potential, even if you are a genius. Pages and pages of text are devoted to Claude’s single-minded, sometimes ecstatic pursuit of musical perfection.

Claude’s relationship with music is his primary relationship. His personal relationships with other people are self-centered and romanticized. One critic points out that Claude takes but never gives back. It is as if his stunted childhood makes adult relationships difficult; music alone saves him. This book underscores the concept of mystery – there are aspects of music and of human relationships that remain mystery, even for those souls who do hear the music of the spheres.

Seeing Walter at every turn

I read A Week in Winter, by Maeve Binchy, aloud to my mother. During most of the reading – which I don’t do with much intensity or drama, meaning I tend to drone – my mom seemed to sleep. But she woke periodically to join me in speculating about What Would Happen Next. Binchy tells the story of the first week of operation of Stone House, an inn in the remote town of Stoneybridge on the Atlantic coast of Ireland. Each chapter summarizes the life of one character present during the week, beginning with the innkeeper, Mrs. Chicky Starr.

Chicky’s is a modern-day “seduced-and-abandoned” story. She’s a local girl swept off her feet by a charming American visitor, Walter Starr. Walter takes her to New York and subsequently abandons her. But unlike the heroines of melodrama, Chicky rescues herself by working in a boarding house, eventually earning the money to come home and invest in an old house and transform it into an inn. She invents the myth of Walter, leading her family and friends to believe that she had a wonderful married life with him until his untimely, and completely fabricated, death.

I guess my mom and I have seen too many Lifetime movies. As we progressed through the story, we expected a dramatic reunification with Walter. We were certain that he would show up at the inn and spill the beans about Chicky’s duplicity. But Binchy is much more realistic than that. She shows us that secrets, even big ones, don’t have to stand in the way of success. And she reminds us that people leave our lives, whether we like it or not, never to return.

Instead of Walter, we encountered the ordinary but interesting people present at the inn during opening week. Some characters’ lives overlap, in both consequential and inconsequential ways, but each character is developed in a separate chapter, where we learn the character’s personal history, how the character comes to the inn, and what happens in the character’s life during that week in winter. Almost all the characters, even staff members Rigger and Orla, begin their trip to the inn reluctantly. They all have problems and secrets that prevent them from living life to its fullest. The week at the inn helps put some of those problems to rest; it changes some, but not all, lives. Binchy is careful to be true to life in that some people are unhappy when they arrive and they are still unhappy when they leave the seaside retreat.

My favorite story is of Winnie the potential bride and her future mother-in-law Lillian. The source of their rivalry, Teddy, pushes them together by bowing out of the vacation with Winnie and sending his mother in his place. Lillian insists on referring to Winnie as her “old friend” and talks as if Winnie is a matron of her own age. The ways the two women seek to get out of spending a week together at the remote seaside inn, their attitudes as they go into battle over Teddy, and the way in which they come to a truce are funny and endearing.

When we read this story, I asked my mother repeatedly which were her favorite characters. They continued to be the cat named Gloria and Walter, probably because I speculated about him often, expecting to see him at every turn in the story.

To be honest, my mom didn’t perk up until, in a story about Freda the librarian, Freda fields a request for a Zane Grey novel. My mom asked me if I remembered Jane Withersteen (the main character in Riders of the Purple Sage), and she pointed out to me that on a top shelf in the basement I could find her childhood collection of Zane Grey westerns. She also mentioned the fact that Owen Wister’s The Virginian sits on that very same shelf. She had a fall the day after we finished A Week in Winter and I will visit a nursing facility to read the next books with her. Let’s hope she has a roommate who likes westerns.

Reading with my mother

Before the onset of dementia, my mother liked to play music, play bridge, and read. For 50 years she taught piano lessons every afternoon during the week, always approaching music with patience and kindness. She was a crackerjack bridge player, but her favorite pastime was reading. Here’s what my mother taught me about reading:

If you can get to a public library, you can go anywhere in the world.

Our mother introduced her three daughters to the library early, and I spent many Saturdays riding my bike to the East Marietta Shopping Center, where there was a library branch, loading up my basket with books, stopping at the drugstore for a tuna sandwich and a cherry Coke, then riding home to read for the rest of the weekend. Now parents would never let their kids disappear for a day unsupervised, but that was the 50’s and 60’s and we felt safe roaming our neighborhood. The library opened up the whole world to me, and to this day my parents and I frequent our local public library for learning and entertainment. I can download books from the library on my book reader and my phone, taking the world with me wherever I go.

You can find something funny in (almost) every book.

We weren’t allowed to watch TV on weeknights. To this day I do not understand any nostalgic references to 60’s TV unless the shows aired on Friday or Saturday night. But reading was never forbidden, and we learned to enjoy reading by example. We were encouraged to read, and often one or the other parent would read children’s classics from Treasure Island to Anne of Green Gables with us, or to us.

My mother wasn’t big on telling stories like my dad was, but she did read out loud to us. Once she discovered the stories of Flannery O’Connor, and she loved them so much she read them out loud to us at the dinner table – not the most appetizing fare, but I did learn that there is humor in the bizarre and grotesque. From the surly young adult’s accusation that the farm wife was a “wart hog from hell” to the grandmother’s annoying back-seat behavior that led to death by serial killer, we learned that there’s humor in even the darkest story.

Romance can happen at any age and in any place.

Later in life, probably when dementia was just beginning to set in, my mother developed obsessions with certain books. She would buy multiple copies and send them to her friends and family. I remember two in particular: Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice and Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice.

One of my mother’s friends wondered why in the world she received A Town Like Alice from my mom. This novel tells the story of an unlikely WWII romance between two prisoners of the Japanese in Malaya. The British heroine Jean assumes that her Australian friend Joe has been killed, but after the war she learns otherwise and seeks him out, eventually finding him in the Australian Outback. I suspect that my mom identified with the time – She was a college student during WWII. She also loved the independent, entrepreneurial spirit of the protagonist and the love story between two strong-minded people.

Boring is not always bad.

Winter Solstice is the kind of book I never would have finished as a young person. It is domestic in nature, centering on the lives of a group of people who gather for a winter holiday in snowy Scotland. In Winter Solstice everything seems to happen in real time – slowly that is – and there’s not a lot of action. The book is about the complex relationships that exist in ordinary lives. Reviewer Ann L. Bruns comments that “it embodies the most fundamental of issues: old age, loss of loved ones, parents and children, and emotional isolation.” My mother sent me (and all her friends) this book one Christmas when I was home alone. It was a fitting read for a quiet holiday. From that experience I learned that “boring” is a matter of perspective.

Reading out loud builds a bond.

At the true onset of dementia, my mother quit reading anything new, except People Magazine, which presents brief stories in tiny, easy-to-negotiate paragraphs. She couldn’t find her copy of Winter Solstice and my dad went on a mad hunt for it. He finally found it, but she is not able to concentrate on an activity like reading, so it lies under her bed, a comforting reminder of past good reads.

I recently decided to try reading aloud to her. The first short Christmas novel I read didn’t go over well – it involved death of a child and it made my mom cry. Remembering her fixation on Winter Solstice, I picked another exploration of small-town domestic life in Ireland, A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy. Because of her People reading skills, my mother knew that Binchy had recently died, so the initial reception to this idea was tearful, but I convinced her to give it a try. Each chapter in the book tells the story of a particular character, so I can read a chapter and then stop. Just as an experiment, I quiz her about the previous chapter, and she is very good at remembering characters and their names – She even remembers the name of the cat (Gloria)! I’m finding the book fun to read, and I really enjoy discussing the chapters with her. We speculate on what will happen next, why the cat is named Gloria, and other deep subjects. I’ll report on our read-aloud progress with this and other read-aloud book in future blog posts.