Saturday, November 15, 2008

La Boheme

One things leads to another. One thought leads to another.

Like Alice jumping down the rabbit hole, when I listen to classical music, I have trouble concentrating on the themes and structure. My thoughts wander off into memories and end up with ideas which may be remote from whatever the composer intended.

This year the Garland Symphony Orchestra builds its series of concerts around the theme, "I love Paris." At the first concert, when the orchestra played "An American in Paris." all I could think about was my first trip there, accompanied by my 13-year-old son, David. Not the romantic way I had fantasized about going there -- but a good trip, anyway.

"Every woman loves Paris," said the music director, Robert Carter Austin, before, at the most recent program, he conducted the orchestra as two singers -- a soprano and a tenor -- as they sang parts from operas. "Manon," "La Traviata," and "La Boheme" are all set in Paris -- a Paris of the past, maybe mostly fantasy.

The last two were written by Italians (Verdi and Puccini) and were sung in ITALIAN. Another example of how nothing is simple. All things are complicated -- and surprising.

Which brngs me to my thoughts on La Boheme. My favorite opera -- memories of hearing that beautiful music "under the stars" at Santa Fe -- and still another example about how "art" can shape how we look at things.

The story is about an impoverished poet who falls in love with a little seamstress living in a Paris garret. This was the "Bohemian" life that gives us what is now an English adjective, bohemian, which has come to represent any young person, poet, or painter "starving" for his art.

The original Bohemians in Paris were refugees who in the 19th Century fled from the oppressive rule of the Hapsburgs in their native Bohemia. Today we know Bohemia as the Czech Republic, a democracy, with its capital, Prague, the beautiful city I've visited last year.

I met real Bohemians more than 50 years ago when I lived in Chicago with my first husband. Cicero, Illinois, was a settlement of immigrants from Bohemia. Instead of "starving artists," they had a reputation of being the most conservative and thriftiest of people.

"The Bohemian Easy-Payment Plan" was simple: pay cash for everything. When a Bohemian bought a new car, he showed up at the dealership with a shoe box containing cash to make that "one easy payment." Buying a house? The same thing: withdraw enough cash from Tallman Savings & Loan and buy a neat little brick bungalow in Cicero.

Maybe the young people who bought those big houses with no money down and a mortgage which goes on forever . . . maybe they should have known about Bohemians. . . . not the poets and dreamers who lived in Paris attics, but those thrifty Cicero Bohemians in their little brick houses, with NO mortgages.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Book Club Notes

Like a lot of women, I belong to a book club. All of us read the same book and meet to discuss it once a month. My group meets at the library on the fourth Thursday of every month.

This is typical. My sister-in-law Mary is in another group that meets in homes in her neighborhood. Before I moved to Texas, I was in a similar group in New Mexico. My friend in Connecticut is in a similar group. All of us also seem to be reading similar books.

Last month my group read "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen. When our group met, I was the only one of twelve who was not enthusiastic about this novel. I felt Ms. Gruen, who had never been to a circus, relied too much on her "research" and did not present a true picture of circus life. The others said that did not matter. "It is a good story, and that is all that is important."

O. K. a good story.

The argument can be made that millions of American women are deluded by romance novels, in which the heroine is always beautiful and where she is always rescued by a handsome hero. In real life there are few heroes to "save" women; most of us have to (1) settle for ordinary men, and (2) take care of ourselves.

An aside: I never was beautiful, and when I was 58 years old, I was rescued from extreme poverty by a wonderful man: short, bald, and 69 years old. For me it was a fairy tale come true -- when I was at an age when I least expected it. I know dozens of women who were not so lucky.

My idea of a good novel is one that tells truths that are more than just "facts." Universal truths.

Fiction can be dangerous is causes readers to believe in ideas or philosphies which are not true. An example: Ann Ryn's "Atlas Shrugged". An economic position that is deplored by anyone who understands economics. Her followers are typical of the C.E.O.'s and Wall Street brokers who lead our country into the present financial chaos.

Then there is John McCain. When asked to name is heroes, the top of his list was Robert Jordan, the FICTIONAL hero of Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls." A man who never existed! The election is over, and now I don't have to worry about a president who might lead us into war through a philosophy of "better to die than admit you might be wrong." That might have lead us into another Iraq War.

The lesson, my children: Read those good stories, but read CRITICALLY. Ask yourself, "Is what this writer is saying really true to REAL life?"