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The Piano of Death

The Piano of Death

It has been over two months since I last posted a blog. Moving was disruptive, but now I’m ready to resume my posting routine. I’m going to start easy and take a break from the dire shape of the world with a more whimsical post.

In my wife’s latest novel, Kinship of Clover, she describes a grand piano in the lobby of an assisted living center. Death notices of residents are placed on the piano, accompanied by “framed photos taken decades earlier and a few pathetic paragraphs about long-ago jobs and awards.” Elli labelled this forlorn instrument “the piano of death.”

Elli’s father lived in an independent living/assisted living facility near us for over a decade before his death in January (six months before what would have been his 100th birthday.) There was a grand piano in the lobby, where the death notices appear, and I dubbed it “the piano of death.”

Elli frequently tells friends to watch what they say around her because their words could end up in one of her novels. I knew Elli’s penchant for appropriating such phrases, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when those words appeared in the novel. I don’t mind. In fact, I admit getting a kick out of making a contribution, however small, toward one of her creations. But since a number of residents of the facility buy and read Elli’s books, I wondered how they’d react when they came upon that description during their journey through Kinship of Clover.

Sure enough, one of the residents who had already read the book brought it up at a local reading. He said he immediately recognized the “piano of death” in the lobby of his building. Like many fiction writers, Elli has a fertile imagination, but she’d never dreamed of what he told her next.

In Elli’s book, it is a working piano that occupants sometimes play. But the resident who had already read Elli’s book, told her the piano in the lobby, the real one on which she based the story, has no insides. It can’t be played. It is a hollow sham of a piano. Hosting death notices was its only purpose.

I was shocked when I heard this. Instead of making a snarky remark with my “piano of death” comment, I had provided an accurate description. Once again, reality is stranger than fiction.  Read More 
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Kinship of Clover

My wife’s third novel was published on April 4th. As bestselling author Ann Hood wrote, Elli “has an uncanny knack for examining the big topics of our contemporary world and putting a human face of them.” A knack and an unfailing desire to look at that powerful intersection of politics and characters.

As in her first two novels, Elli weaves together an intriguing cast of characters whose lives, as they entwine, engage the world and traverse life-altering personal moments. There’s the college botany major anguishing over mass plant extinctions, the wheelchair-bound teenager who makes him her first boyfriend, her outspoken old-left grandmother confronting Alzheimer’s, the radical Greens trying to draw the mourning botanist into their circle, and more.

This book is also very different from her last one, On Hurricane Island. Here, no one is whisked away to a secret detention center and subjected to “enhanced interrogation” while a major hurricane storms the prison. The crises in Kinship of Clover won’t make national headlines or give you nightmares, but the events as they unfold have a potent impact upon its very real characters and consume the reader.

Early response has been terrific. The Necessary Fiction review said the book showed “how a political novel in the right hands, can achieve high artistry.” In the Portland Press Herald, the reviewer concluded that Kinship of Clover “is heartbreaking and haunting, with a cast of finely drawn and deeply memorable characters.” (links to left)

In her publication day guest blog for Powell’s City of Books, “Fiction and the Costs of Activism,” Elli described her novels as a “kind of meditation on what can happen in families when adults take action based on strong beliefs, on how the consequences can be catastrophic. Each novel sent me in a different direction spiraling back to similar questions: What lessons do children learn from their parents’ activism? What messages of responsibility and moral obligation are passed down, and at what cost?”

This new book is published at a time of increased resistance to the racism, misogyny and war mongering rampant in our world. So many of us have become hungrier for literature and art and music which help us grapple with the parade of daily assaults on our beliefs and inspire us to fight back.

I should mention that there is nothing didactic about this book. As renowned author Charlie Baxter commented, “Midway through this wonderful novel, you will find a woman dancing in her wheelchair. That scene is one of the many memorable moments in a story about young people organizing for a sustainable future, even as their once-radical elders try to hold on to a gradually disappearing past. This is a book about time and love, politics and family, and it is sharply observant and deeply compassionate.”

I couldn’t have said it better. But that’s not surprising, since only in my dreams could I write like Charlie Baxter.  Read More 
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