A good reviewer should always disclose any biases up front. Get ready for a deluge of biases.
Because I had the good fortune to be born into a situation where free lodging in France was always available and because I hooked up with a global company that loves to piss away money on international conferences that accomplish absolutely nothing, I’ve done a lot of traveling in my nearly thirty-two years of existence. I’ve been to twenty-seven countries and five continents, and while I might like to visit Australia someday, I have no intention of literally freezing my tits off in Antarctica.
I’ve interacted with a variety of cultures, from Algerian to Argentinian, from Moroccan to Mexican. There were certain places where I felt comfortable and other places where I was quite aware that I was a hopelessly out-of-place American chick. But of all the cultures I have encountered, I have never felt more lost, alienated and disconnected than when I have traveled to locations in the American South. I imagine hell to be a Waffle House filled with NASCAR-decorated bubbas armed with shotguns eating buckets of lard before moseying out to their gun-rack-equipped pickup trucks where they turn on the radio to play country music or listen to hellfire-spouting preachers.
Churches, churches everywhere. Bugs, bugs, everywhere. I’ve been to Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, Atlanta and environs, and on one particularly painful vacation in my teens, my dad, in his ongoing effort to imbue his daughter with social consciousness, took me on the route taken by the Freedom Riders, from D. C. to New Orleans. I appreciated the wonders excessive humidity did for my skin, but sweating like a pig for two weeks wasn’t my idea of a good time. I didn’t feel safe until we got to the French Quarter, a place I will always cherish as an oasis of sanity in the Bible Belt, the city where I later celebrated my twenty-first birthday by proudly displaying my tits from the balconies of Bourbon Street.
I still have the beads somewhere.
Given my general aversion to Southern culture and my firm belief that states of the old Confederacy are about a century behind the rest of human civilization, I wasn’t exactly thrilled when Robert Morrow gave me a book as a thank-you present for doing the interview (such a gentleman!), a book about two girls growing up in the South. I accepted it gracefully, but I would have been much more open to flowers, chocolate or a request for mutual gratification.
Fortunately, I had an international relocation to provide me with plenty of excuses to avoid opening Sleeping with Patty Hearst. Finally faced with a long, intercontinental flight, I shoved the book into my carry-on in case I ran out of nails to polish. I think I opened the book somewhere over Greenland, saying to myself, “Well, you haven’t had a personal growth experience in a while,” and plunged in with the enthusiasm of a swimmer anticipating icy waters.
Sleeping with Patty Hearst is a coming-of-age story about two half-sisters growing up in the South. Had the book turned out to be only that, I would have read about five pages and gone back to my nails. Fortunately the girls figured out that they wanted to get the hell out of the South seven pages into the novel, so I felt comfortable forging ahead.
I’m glad I did! Sleeping with Patty Hearst is a great book, and what makes it a great book is that it is a well-written story of those agonizing choices between becoming oneself or giving into the expectations of others. Regardless of where you grow up, you are subject to the expectations of your culture of birth. While I had more freedom of choice growing up in San Francisco, I’m reasonably sure that had I chosen to become a right-wing Christian nut that my parents would have happily sent me into exile. We always become who we are in the context of a conflict between parental and cultural expectations and the person we are inside. Sleeping with Patty Hearst deals with the complexity of that core issue, particularly with the challenge of mustering up what Scotland’s Admiral Fallow called “the courage to turn your back on the way you were raised.”
The expectations of Southern culture in the 1970’s were unimaginably contradictory and burdensome, particularly for young women: either you became an obedient Christian wife or you schemed to get a man through your feminine wiles. The elder half-sister, Connie, is more determined to break free of those expectations than the younger Lily, who narrates the tale. Connie goes underground in what passes for an alternative community in The South, eventually falling into an intimate relationship with another woman. While this was a fairly radical act for the time and place, I’m not really sure that Connie is gay; her affair seems more an act of rejection of cultural norms than self-discovery. Connie’s whole persona is about rejection, and she remains suspicious of anyone trying to mess with her through the entire book.
Lily, on the other hand, is a follower. When Connie is still living at home, Lily is all in favor of heading out to California and leaving the grits on the stove. Once Connie makes her limited escape, Lily is left at home with her mother Lorraine, a woman who allowed herself to get knocked up couple of times and spends most of her life chain-smoking, telling herself and others that she’s not white trash and trying to land a man of suitable status and income. Lily “rebels” against Lorraine by having a clandestine affair with Lorraine’s boyfriend. A series of events lead her into a marriage with the preacher’s son that you know isn’t going to work in a million years, but Lily makes several game attempts to play the good Christian wife before admitting defeat.
What I appreciate about both of the sisters that I’d never appreciated before is that the indoctrination of expectations in The South, being much stronger and more tied to tradition, has a way of seeping into your soul and negating the natural choices you would otherwise make. While I would often find myself becoming impatient with Lily’s half-assed attempts at becoming a person, I also found myself empathizing with her struggle. The poor choices she makes are forgivable; they result from a combinations of extreme naïveté and, ironically, a more hopeful view of life than her nihilistic sister. Both sisters feel like real human beings you feel you can reach out and touch; they have presence and life, unlike the caricatures who fill most books and movies these days.
This leads me to my main point: Sleeping with Patty Hearst is a great book because it’s extraordinarily well-written. Mary Lambeth Moore’s prose flows naturally, like a good long chat with a friend. Her refusal to resolve ambiguity is deeply appreciated, and the story is full of the surprises and points of tension that make reading enjoyable. While I still have no plans to relocate to The South in this lifetime, Sleeping with Patty Hearst reminded me that we are all on the same journey of self-discovery, even those people who live below the Mason-Dixon line.
But I sure wish they’d hurry up and get on with it!
–Paris, France, June 2, 2013
I used to be an ardent admirer of Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian fame. Sigh. Such a fine songwriter! The Boy with the Arab Strap was one of my favorite albums of all time and I didn’t miss Isobel or the alt-Stuart when they decided to split. I loved The Life Pursuit, too!
Then Stu got a spread in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and started to believe he was as great as they said he was and became yet another pretentious musician with a pretentious fan base (who insist on describing Belle & Sebastian’s music as “art,” the kiss of death for any band).
Anyway, Murdoch’s demise left me a-yearning for something from Bonny Scotland, which led me to stumble upon Admiral Fallow. This is a more folk-influenced band with delightfully intense Scottish accents who have been playing second fiddle to bands like Belle & Sebastian for a few years. I downloaded a copy of their latest release, Tree Bursts in Snow, and I am here to make my official pronouncement about its worth.
Definitely worth it and then some!
Singer-songwriter Louis Abbott is front man and songwriter for the band, and he sings his lyrics with passion and precision. While I certainly would have appreciated a digital booklet (and the lyrics deserve one), I had no problem following and the words and the subtext.
And the band is so very, very good! The precision never turns sterile, the arrangements are often complex but never interfere with the stories in the songs and the diversity of sound is remarkable for the genre. The strings are particularly moving and lovely in the song “Burn,” and the simple guitar pluck-accordion-clarinet-bass-drum arrangement of “Oh, Oscar” creates a moving musical picture.
Tree Bursts in Snow opens with the lovely voice of Sarah Hayes on the semi-title track, “Tree Bursts.” Sarah and Louis alternate passages in a superb build that moves from soft to full band to pure acoustic sounds and harmonies. The song is a courageous opener, for they’re singing about things that most of the people in our vampire-and-tits obsessed world would like to avoid. Louis Abbott described the work like this:
“The title refers to the sound and the image of an artillery shell exploding into a cluster of snow-drenched trees.…I’m also astounded by the sheer volume of gun related violent crimes throughout the world but in particular in the U.S. The lyric from ‘Tree Bursts’ was inspired by the idea of the effect that losing friends through violence, in particular during times of war or conflict has on young men and women. They are ‘the leaves that fall louder than backfire, all orange and Halloween red.'” (Source-Wikipedia, “Admiral Fallow”).
The second song is the explosive driver, “The Paper Trench,” which would be a kick to dance to in an open floor pub somewhere deep in the back streets of Glasgow. Not a band to back off, they treat us to another energetic piece, “Guest of the Government,” a song with pointed and insightful lyrics about the waste of life and energy we know as drug abuse. The powerful catchiness of this song has made it impossible for me to get it out of my head for weeks, so now it’s your turn:
Sarah and Louis come together again on the “Beetle in the Box,” a piece grounded in a steady dance beat and spare arrangement that allows you to appreciate the vocal duet . “Old Fools” is a more reflective piano-based number that gives us a bit of a breather before the fabulous sing-along folk-anthem, “Isn’t This World Enough?” The line “All those living in splendor and in sunshine/Isn’t this world enough?” should be tattooed on every forearm attached to a person obsessed with first-world problems. “Brother” features toe-tapping beats and a rising and falling melodic line that beautifully carries the story of human disconnection.
“The Way You Were Raised” is my absolute favorite. I love the way its insistent rhythm, piano touches and dreamy flute mingle to create a soundscape with just the right amount of space to for Louis to relate the tale of his violent journey of self-discovery. In this song, the journey is an escape— the escape from the expectations and traditions of masculine pride and combative challenge:
‘What was that?’ as the stuff that I spout leaves my lips
There, a crack from behind from some cat with a death wish
And the twitch takes the trail south to my heels
To the homeless steel toe capped edge
And though hopped up on black juice with red eyes and fists
The sight of my future bout rids me of red mist . . .
Strength in numbers and width like two bears on a mouse
I give a thought to the organ that beats in my mouth
And say balls to a hurricane
I’ll toast to my health
Everyday it’s the battering of bones
It’s the saving of face
It’s the courage to turn your back on the way you were raised
All of us—even me with my delightfully tolerant and open-minded parents—have been shaped by the way we were raised. We get our all-important definition of “normal” through that experience: the cherished traditions, the do’s and don’ts, the shoulds and shouldn’ts. Forging an identity separate from parental and traditional expectations is necessary to initiate the process of individuation, the path to becoming one’s true self. It takes courage to do that because we are all conditioned to seek approval from those who guide us, our peers and our families. “The Way You Were Raised” deals solely with the heavy expectations heaped upon men, but the concept is universal: we all have to face the choice of exercising the courage to be ourselves or go along to get along.
Tree Bursts in Snow is a strong, passionate, exciting and soul-level delightful work that should be celebrated by all. Let’s hope Louis avoids The Murdoch Trap and maintains his artistic integrity so we can hear more from this wonderful band in the near future.