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American Music by Jane Mendelsohn
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American Music

by Jane Mendelsohn

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I absolutely loved these characters (theirs are the stories you want to read forever) and I loved the writing. Jane Mendelsohn writes in short, spare sentences, almost a perfunctory style. Normally this wouldn't be that appealing to me, but in this novel it works so very well. Because woven throughout are phrases and passages of pure grandeur, and that makes for an incredible literary experience that only the best of authors can do well.

It is so hard to describe the wonder that is contained in these pages, but it is magical and sad and supernatural and oh-so-real and filled with love and history and so very much more.

It is the story of the rhythm of our lives through time, how our stories and our songs echo and reverberate from one generation to another and another. We think we are the only ones experiencing what we are going through, but in reality, the song has been sung before, perhaps in a different way and by different people. Still, it is the same song.

"He had seemed ordinary. But then the way he had looked at her in the kitchen had moved something inside her and she had felt seen although she had hidden that from him. She was still very young. Younger than either Pearl or Joe and they had struck her at first as old and sad and only later as experienced. She had traveled. She had been educated. But they had experience. They had sorrow. Maybe it was his sorrow that was looking at her in the kitchen and found hers. A sorrow that lifted when it felt his and soared like a note of music soars." (pg. 107)

American Music soars like very few other books have the power to do.

"A note of music soars, she thought, because it is trying to find its way back." (pg. 107)

You should find your way toward this incredible novel. ( )
  bettyandboo | Apr 2, 2013 |
I thought this was a lovely book. It's impressionistic, but I think Mendelsohn gets across an enormous amount of information about her characters' emotional lives in very few pages. The central story of the physical therapist and the soldier is particularly lyrical and touching. Mendelsohn strikes me as a very sensitive writer, keenly aware of the tiniest changes in the attitudes of the people around her. It gives her writing a great deal of imaginative specificity. ( )
  KatieANYC | Apr 2, 2013 |
American Music starts with Milo, a soldier wounded and deeply traumatized during the war in Iraq. Honor is assigned to him as a physical therapist, but when she touches him both she and Milo experience strong visions of people neither of them knows. The visions are about a bewildering array of people - a saxophone player who is cheating on his wife, a female photographer, and a sultan's concubine to name a few. In the end, of course, all the stories intersect with the stories of Milo and Honor.

I was mostly disappointed by American Music. Despite the title I didn't feel much music in the story. All the jumping around to different people and stories was jarring and I had a hard time keeping track of everyone. I wish that the relationship between Milo and Honor had been more deeply developed. For as much time as the book spends on them I just wasn't convinced about their connection or their seemingly easy acceptance of this strange phenomenon.

Carrington MacDuffie narrates the audio version American Music to which I listened. I normally like her ability to distinguish between the characters in a book, but in this one they all sounded too similar. ( )
  frisbeesage | Sep 1, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Jane Mendelsohn’s new novel American Music opens in New York City, 2005, as a woman rides the subway to work.

With her steady gaze and long coat, her faded satchel and heavy boots, she looks both present and ancient. She looks like some beautiful soldier arrived from history.

The woman exits the subway and walks to a veterans’ hospital, where she provides massage therapy to a soldier who was wounded in Iraq. Her soldier, as she thinks of him, is always ready, lying face down on the table, and he refuses to let her see or touch the front of his body. On this day, she touches him, and they both begin to see things. Visions that are like films from another time, of other lives, leaking into their reality.

Within him, she knew, were only more stories. For a soldier’s body is a work of art that contains his country’s history.

The woman and her soldier—we come to know them as Honor and Milo—first see Joe and Pearl, a young married couple building their life in 1936. Joe, a law student by day and saxophone player by night, is in love with jazz….and, eventually, with Pearl’s cousin Vivian. Honor and Milo do not pretend to understand what they’re experiencing, but they know it is important.

He spoke to her through his body and she felt as though if she could piece together his stories , she could piece together the person.

As they see further into the lives of these people they do not know, Honor and Milo’s relationship deepens and takes on new dimensions. And then they begin to see a new person. A middle-aged woman in 1969, a photographer whose house is broken into by a young woman. This woman’s name is Iris, and, she is, somehow, connected to Joe, Pearl, and Vivian.

And then there’s the young woman in Turkey, 1623. Her name is Parvin, and she is a favored member of the Sultan’s harem…but she is in love with one of his eunuchs.

All of the stories—the lives, really—that Honor and Milo see are stories of imperfect love, but this is not a love story, not really. The couples in American Music are connected, woven together, with the threads of music and history….and there’s not much more I can say without giving away some of the most delightful parts of the book. Mendelsohn has written a quiet, beautifully rendered novel that asks readers to accept unexplainable phenomena and unanswered questions, and that encourages us to embrace life’s mysteries, even those—especially those— that seem impossible.

American Music is like Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets the very best parts of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and for readers who savor language and enjoy surrealism, it doesn’t get much better. 5 out of 5. ( )
  bnbooklady | Jul 12, 2010 |
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To my parents, 
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to Nick
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307272664, Hardcover)

Jane Mendelsohn on American Music

The first moment of inspiration for American Music came in 1996 when I learned the remarkable fact that there was a secret formula for making cymbals. I was in Maine for a reading of my first novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, visiting with a writer friend and her husband. He is a member of the Zildjian family, the same family that has been making cymbals for centuries. I was fascinated by his story on many levels: the idea of a secret formula, the family history dating back to 17th century Turkey, the resonance and romance of music through the ages, and my own fantasy that there might be a secret formula for making symbols too.

I immediately envisioned a story about a woman searching for this formula, desperately, somewhat pointlessly but also movingly, as if it were the secret to life itself. I pictured her trying to work through a loss by realizing the simultaneity of all things, that memories, like symbols, and the sound of cymbals, contain all time. That idea changed over the years, but essentially remained a deep part of the book.

A while later, I heard from a friend who does bodywork about a man who refused to lie on his back. I began imagining a tale about why he wouldn't and started thinking of a character who was a soldier. The two ideas: the secret formula for making cymbals and the soldier with his mysterious reason for not lying on his back simmered in my mind as I started researching.

When I read about the history of cymbals, I was struck that these instruments developed in 17th century Turkey by an Armenian alchemist were so central to American music. I read about jazz and learned that it was the shift to leading the beat with the cymbals instead of the drums that marked the beginning of swing. It interested me that such a quintessentially American art form could be traced so clearly to a moment in time so distant and different from America in the 1930's, which was when swing began. And I was also struck that Istanbul in 1623 was a place of cosmopolitanism, a vibrant melting pot of cultures.

I was at this point in my thinking about the book, and living in New York City, when 9/11 occurred. That I had been writing about Islamic culture and its relation to 20th century America felt uncanny. And when we went to war, the fact that I had been writing about a soldier felt uncomfortable. I put the book away for a while. My daughter was two, and not long after, I had another baby.

But I could not stop thinking about cymbals and about the soldier. I worked on the book in my head while I pushed my daughters on the swings in Washington Square Park, the destruction at ground zero so close but at the same time, in the playground, seemingly very far away.

Eventually, the strands I had been working on came together, found each other in a way, in one larger narrative about families and love stories and the world that goes on while war is happening someplace else. Of course I am still searching for that secret formula.

(Photo © Nick Davis)

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:33:47 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Honor, a physical therapist, and wounded Iraqi veteran Milo begin seeing mysterious images from the past appear to them. As the stories behind the images converge, the source of Honor and Milo's own romantic feelings are exposed in this beautiful mystery and meditation on love.… (more)

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