on April 20, 2009
Arthur Phillips gave an interview to Amazon for this book and that interview found its way to my Kindle via the Amazon Storefront. In it, Phillips discusses his passion for the iPod and his feelings about music - how each song revives a memory, a moment, a relationship; how a record can make you feel as insecure as the rainy day after 9th grade when you heard it, or a song can make you shake in longing for the person who shares the memory of that song with you. Phillips was right, and as soon as he said this book took that approach and crafted a story about/around/inspired by it, I knew I had to read it.
Phillips gives his readers an honest, voyeuristic, captivating journey through the past, present, and future of Julian and the ones important to him. Phillips uses songs to shift through time and space fluidly from memory to memory, telling stories not in a chronological order but as randomly as the songs on his iPod appear that trigger the memories.
Julian finds a new musician, Cait, and follows her career from a lowly dive bar to an international tour. Along the way, he begins finding his attraction to her spread deeper and more thoughtfully, as he connects her lyrics to the moments in his life past and present. Cait's music and persona help him cope with his past regrets, deal with his present aimlessness, and his longing for...he doesn't quite know what, maybe just his longing to be longing over something.
Julian writes/draws out some feedback for Cait at a show and it gets around to her; from then on til the end, the relationship becomes something torn between friendship, romance, mentorship, mutual therapists, and philosophers. The two never come face to face, but they spend the book dancing around the courtship of one another and finding ways to tease along the desires they both sustain for each other.
"The Song is You" took me on a journey I wasn't expecting. I found myself longing to get to the end, then pulling back and hoping it wouldn't come. I expected a trip down memory lane with music and memories intertwined, as the interview suggested, but this novel became so much more than just that. It weaves and flows with suspense, tension, and anguish, like a great mystery or thriller.
Take your time and enjoy "The Song is You." It's the novel you'll treat like a favorite album; you'll be enjoying it over and over again when your ears (and in this case, your eyes) just can't tolerate anything less.
on May 12, 2009
I have mixed feelings about The Song Is You. I just finished and I don't really feel wowed nor satisfied. The story line is in one aspect frustrating, but in another very creepy - the stalking gets a little uncomfortable, though I think what Phillips is trying to achieve is for the reader to be undecided as to whether or not it's uncomfortable. For me, it was just creepy, so I couldn't really get on board with it. My main complaint, however, is that the whole book is given away in the prologue. Therefore, this story which should be suspenseful, isn't in the least.
However, though I'm not crazy about the story, I really love some of the prose and descriptions, though in some places it's too much. (A 250 page books feels like 500 sometimes, not really in a good way.) The 3rd omniscient works well here, and I enjoy the characters, who are all well-developed. My favorite passage is one description of Cait, from page 30:
"He especially loved how she handled the songs originally sung by men, how she sang the lyric straight (singer wants a girl) and then gleefully, evilly put it over as a blood-red lipstick-lesbian tune, or reversed the pronouns (singer wants a boy) and then she cold vary it, do it as a neurotic girl or raging girl or seductive girl or funny girl. The best, though, was when she kept a man's lyric the same but then somehow turned its meaning around, kept it in his words but put the whole thing in quotation marks, as if she were singing what a man had once sung to her and now she was only recalling it."
Overall, if you love music you may be interested in this, but be warned it's not really a love story. The end drops off too abruptly, and we never find out what happens to half the characters. I needed about 50 more pages at the end and 50 less at the beginning.
on May 12, 2009
I absolutely loved this novel. I rarely write reviews here, but I wanted to for this book in the hope that if you're on the fence about buying this book, this review may be the slight nudge you need to buy it, read it, and love it like I did. And if you love music (of any kind), you would simply be remiss if you don't read this book.
The book begins with the premise that art - especially, music - can inspire nostalgia about people, events, places of the past. But, more specifically, music has the unique power to recall what exactly you were feeling while experiencing those events, people, places. Slowly, the book evolves into a comment on the muse / artist relationship. But as this idea is explored, the reader soon discovers the idea is that the novel is not just about the inspiration behind art - specifically, music - but also how art can assuage pain and hurt of even the saddest, most awful memories. The muse and artist relationship is symbiotic, complementary - but extraordinarily complicated.
What's truly great about this novel, though, is Phillips' writing. From the very first page, you trust him. He's funny, he's passionate, he's affecting. And he renders his characters and their relationships to each other in such real, faithful terms. Even at the times where the plot of the novel and the examination of the characters' thoughts - especially Julian's - begin to strain believability, he gently guides you back to a place where you have no trouble accepting that these are real, extraordinarily sane characters.
If I have one complaint about the novel at all, it's that the writing is a bit dense at the beginning. It takes a few pages to get a handle on Phillips' style, but by about page 45 - with the telling of the hilarious "Incident" anecdote - you know you're in for a treat. And, like I did, you'll probably finish the next 200 pages in about two sittings.
If it's not clear by now, I can't recommend this book more highly. Please, please do yourself a favor and read it.
on April 30, 2009
I am not sure what attracted me to this book at first, but one reviewer mentioned it was about a guy with his ipod. That is an extremely simple and ignorant way of looking at this novel.
I will not go into recapping the story except to say middle aged Julian has had a very emotional roller coaster of a life when he stumbles in a little club and hears the Irish swan song calls of Cait O'Dwyer, a young and rising musician on the scene.
What ensues is a journey through and with Julian's life and his search to find something "real" to hold onto, hence, his Greatful Dead-like following of Ms. O'Dwyer.
Love of music from Julian's father, especially jazz, truly links the two generations together and like father, like son, music seems to be the only constant true love.
Arthur Phillip's writing might be some of the best this reader has ever read. I found myself re-reading paragraphs due to my astonishment of his use of language and words. He is a remarkable writer and because of the writing I will be looking into his previous book Prague.
on September 26, 2009
I was intrigued by the premise of The Song Is You, the latest offering by Arthur Phillips, the bestselling author of Prague: the power of music, its ability to invoke emotion and bring to mind memories, both the good and the not so good.
Julian Donahue is a 40-something director of commercials in Manhattan. Julian inherited his love for music from his father, who lost his leg in the Korean War. Before his deployment, he attended a Billie Holiday concert at the Galaxy Theater, where he met his future wife. The concert was recorded and released on vinyl, and Julian's father can clearly be heard calling out to Miss Holiday to sing "I Cover the Waterfront." After he loses his leg, it's Julian's mother who pursues Julian's despondent father into marriage.
Flashing forward 50 years, Julian fills his iPod with the tunes that chronicle his life-music that recalls for him the important memories of his life: his past loves, the day he met his wife-to-be, the day his son was born.
The story picks up shortly after the tragic death of his three-year-old son, victim of a virus diagnosed too late. Separated from his wife, the depressed Julian finds little solace in work and no escape in the casual sex in which he indulged during the early years of his marriage, prior to the birth of his son.
Then one night at a club, he sees Cait O'Dwyer, an Irish singer in an emerging rock band soon to release their first CD. Initially, he views her with his director's eye and leaves, for the bartender to give to her, a series of cartoons with captions on several coasters, ideas on how she can improve her stage presence.
Thereafter he becomes known to Cait and her band mates as Cartoon Man, and the two trade text messages and email, never meeting. Julian quickly becomes Cait's muse, as evidenced by lyrics written to him that appear on her Web site; yet he comes to fear his growing obsession as that of an adolescent.
Arthur Phillips is a writer of no small amount of talent, and he comes with solid credentials. Winner of the New York Times Notable Book (Prague) and the Los Angeles Times Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, The Washington Post calls him one of the best writers in America. The Song Is You is ambitious, the plot elaborate but, in places, unconvincing.
Phillips tries to paint Julian as a sympathetic character. The reader is expected to admire him for giving up his philandering ways, to become a better husband, after the birth of his son.
The plot features events that are as unlikely as faster-than-light travel. Cait writes and posts to her Web site lyrics that invite Julian to help himself to the key to her apartment, which she has left for him under the mat. He subsequently lets himself in when he knows she is not home.
Julian eventually follows Cait to Europe, where her band tours several cities, and her star is on the rise. Their cat and mouse game ends on the final night of the tour with Julian waiting for Cait, naked in her bed, while Cait waits for Julian in his bed.
While some readers may view Julianfs fixation on Cait, more than half his age, as the great love of his life, it is what it is: the midlife crisis of a mostly unlikeable protagonist who plunges headlong into stalking the object of his obsession.
Phillips' writerly talent is evident. His narrative is sharp, his dialogue witty. Yet the characters, with the exception of his brother Aidan, fall flat. His estranged wife, Rachel, is weak; her insistent love for Julian, despite the pain he has caused her, will leave many readers rolling their eyes in disbelief.
Despite Phillips' credentials, I found this, his fourth novel, a disappointment.
J. Conrad Guest for The Smoking Poet
In this rather opaque novel, Julian Donahue, a divorced, forty-something producer of television commercials, is representative of many of the post-1980s generation in their insistence that music be present 24/7 whether via a Walkman, iPod player, etc. Julian sees and understands life as inextricably connected to music, whether it be his now defunct marriage, the loss of his young son, etc. From this perspective, music is hardly simply entertainment; in this novel, for Julian, music is psychologically restorative.
Julian's loss of enthusiasm for life suddenly takes an upturn when he happens into a small NYC nightclub and witnesses the beguiling, twenty-something Cait O'Dwyer with her rock band singing with off-the-charts sensuality and meaningfulness. He refuses to be a stereotypical, adoring fan, but communicates with her through ten drawings he does on bar coasters given to her by the bartender. He plays her demo CD endlessly, while she responds with a new song: "Bleaker and Obliquer," which obviously refers to him. And so starts a distant relationship where communication is via such forms as email, phone, clandestine notes, lyrics, and the like, except for actual face-to-face meetings. Both anticipate a "right" time to meet, but the tentativeness of their connection seems to continually find a way to undermine that possibility.
It is an intriguing novel, especially the character Cait, but Julian's introspective doubts and the constant circling of each other are quite drawn out. The writing is impressive and insightful, but word choices and phraseology can make the book somewhat difficult. It is mildly disappointing that Julian and Cait, both quite smart, cannot get past inadequate communications. Music is not a substitute for life and interacting with real persons.
- Music lovers will adore the idea of a constant soundtrack, music representing major moments in your life, and being drawn to someone based on a musical connection.
- Phillips is a really great writer- super informative, I know. His ability to describe emotions, people, and scenes is unique and poetic.
- The details about Julian's past are released throughout the novel. Frustrating at times, but also strategic. The reader learns to trust Phillips and the rate at which he informs us.
- I really loved Julian's brother Aiden, a genius who just can't seem to get his stuff together after a humiliating stint on Jeopardy. In fact, there's something to love (or hate) about all of the characters- they all play an important role in Julian's and realization of what he wants for the future. And don't be frustrated by Cait- she's a bit of a pain but she's crucial for Julian's fate.
- This idea of the ability to make changes and to refocus the direction of your life is such a huge theme that we can all relate to. Also this idea of admitting when you're wrong and doing what it takes to change your life.
- The ending. I won't spoil anything, but I was a little nervous about where the novel would end up and was pleased with the result.
- It took me a bit to really get into it; for future readers I suggest carving out some time to get through the first fifty or so pages (I read it sporadically over the course of a few days, which was a mistake- it took me longer to become invested).
- To extend the above comment, I think part of the problem was the pacing. There are parts that read at a steady clip, but also a few here and there that drag a bit.
I'll definitely be adding his other work to my wish list.
on October 17, 2009
Just as with his first novel, Prague, the appeal of this book is Arthur Phillips' broad ranging mind (he's a former Jeopardy champion) and keen insight into human nature. In this work, he applies a somewhat biological reductionist approach to portraying romantic obsession ("all of this vain heartbreak that we cling to as important or tragic would one day be revealed... for what it is: just behavior"). While this could easily stifle any notion of romance, the story is brought to life with a compelling story line: a middle-aged man obsesses over a beautiful young singer, and anonymously becomes her muse by offering the detached advice which she so craves but can't otherwise find from her adoring fans.
Disappointingly, this page-turner, while not unraveling as badly as Prague, ultimately falls flat at the end. While the author craftily builds a narrative line leading to the Julian's (the main character) ultimate reconciliation, the clean ending seems almost tacked on, Hollywood-style, as an afterthought to tie up loose ends in a way that contradicts Phillips' remarkable gift for articulating complexity. To Phillips' credit, the finale eschews sensationalism in favor of a useful moral, but somehow the build is insufficient to make the transformation in Julian appear genuine; it's as if the outcome is chosen because there are simply no other options left. Interestingly, one of Phillips' most remarkable salvaged marriage vs. new start arguments comes less than halfway through the book (far too soon), as Julian's wife muses, "life could be better when reassembled from damaged, familiar shapes, rather than frittered away endlessly looking for something new."
The other major flaw is that while Phillips does a remarkable job of making this work accessible, the dialogue between characters is unrealistic- it's as if *every* character is part Arthur Phillips, wordy & overly cerebral.
These flaws do not mean this book isn't worth reading. As a treatise on obsession and pop culture, this may not have the broad appeal of High Fidelity, but this is more than compensated for by depth of insight. For example, he describes the delicate art of authenticity in projecting emotion on stage ("sing only what you can feel, or less") as it applies to a delicate equilibrium a gifted singer strives to maintain ("Two months ago, she was raw and unblended; tonight she was reasonably effective; someday very soon she would be in danger of marbling over into a slick cast impression of herself"). Throughout this work, Philips tries to put a finger on things we might think can't be measured- and succeeds brilliantly.
I've only read two of Phillips' works and have been disappointed twice, as if by a brilliant chess player with a less than brilliant end game. But, I have reason to hope he'll yet write a novel which does justice to his remarkable talent.
on January 26, 2012
I am a recent convert to Arhtur Phillips's books, first to The Tragedy of Arthur and now to this wonderful book. I really liked "Arthur" but this was even better, a prefectly constructed love story for the IPod generation. I can understand why some people don't like his writing style, which can seem a little "over the top" at first, but as a writer myself, I marvel at his construction of these marvelous sentences and extended metaphors. Some of them I went back and read a second time they were so good and I rarely do that!
I come from the Beatles generation and have little love for the kind of music Cait sings here, but it doesn't really matter since all you get here are her beautiful lyrics which transcend the kind of screaming that Phillips describes. He moves the two potential lovers around like chess pieces and the reader is inside the heads of both of them, pushing them together, but understanding why fate seems to be against them. I stayed up and read the whole thing in one night and want to read it again!
But the end brings me to my only complaint: the stuff that publishers crammed into the end. I read this on Kindle and one of the problems with the reader, compared to a book, is you never know how much of the book is left to read, which you have with a printed book. The percent information at the bottomn left corner is your only guide. But when I read the last page of the book, it said I was only at 75 percent! The rest of the book was excerpts from his other books. Not sure what can be done about this. Can the percent be set to reach 100 when the book actually ends rather than at the end of all the advertising?
Arthur Phillips The Song Is You has a very interesting concept. Julian Donahue is a television commercial director in his mid 40's who lives in Brooklyn. He has recently separated from his wife Rachel who has gone in a downward spiral after the death of their two year old son Carlton from an undiagnosed virus. She fools around on Julian, but he has been a philanderer for most of their marriage. His world is shaped by his father who lost his leg in Korea. His father worshipped Billie Holiday and was lucky enough to see her in New York before he shipped off. He requested the song "I Cover The Waterfront" and Ms. Holiday sang it for the young GI. A year later while he is in Japan recovering he gets a copy of an album from a French woman he met at the show. It is of the concert and his father's voice appears on the record. His father married the French woman who became Julian's mother, but died when he was six. Julian became mad at his father one day and burned the Holliday album. He spend the rest of his time trying to find the out of print album until one day he gets it on cd. Julian's father's life was shaped by music and so is Julian's. His iPod is the soundtrack to his life both past & present. One winter night he stumbles into a bar The Rat and discovers an up and coming Irish singer Cait O'Dwyer. He becomes enraptured by her and her music's effect on him. He ends up leaving coasters with cartoons on them giving Cait advice on how she should conduct her career. What starts is a relationship via e-mail, phone and Julian stalking Cait. The stalking is borderline criminal, but Cait wants and needs it from Julian. This is where Mr. Phillips shines in the novel, creating a cat and mouse game of their "romance". Julian searching for the perfect moment when they should meet and Cait struggling with her feelings of love and need for her Cartoon Man. The book spends all this time building up the tension and then never really pays it off. I appreciate the fact that Cait and Julian never do end up consummating their relationship, but the way it ends was a major let down after such a great lead up.