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Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Time Of Our Singing

The Time Of Our Singing was written by Richard Powers and follows a biracial family and how their lifes play out over the background of the 2nd World War, the Civil Rights Movement into Reagan's presidency.
The father - a German Jew - and the mother - a black woman from a well-respected and educated Philadelphia family - meet and decide to marry in the late 30s. As they are both musically inclined - the mother having been an aspiring classical singer - they teach sing with their children from an early age on, leading to the two sons developing an astounding classical musical talent. Yet, racial problems lead to an estrangement of the mother from her family and - later - of the daughter from her father. Ultimately it seems as if race trumps family and even love. The three children in various degrees seem to fail in their attempt to deal with their mixed heritage.

The book was an engulfing read even though - and I believe some people might consider this a reason for the quality of the book - the too prominent and frequent descriptions of the families or the two sons singing or performing music. Powers tries to portray music as an all-compassing, all-explaining medium, which might even be true but in a literal description and with this kind of repetitiveness it creates boredom. Less annoying, but also overdone where the detailing of physics in which the father indulges himself in - he is a professor at Columbia. These discussions also lead to a very bizarre and lame meta-physical ending which not only seems unnecessary but also contrary to the logic deployed in the rest of the book.

What made the book intriguing was the children's attempt to deal with their position in the world which does not approve of them. Their heritages seemingly cannot be combined. Powers does a very good job of describing the narrator - the younger brother - and his sentiments, his attempts at dealing with being a black classical pianist who is of German and Jewish heritage and thus not being able to fit in either world.

Yet, some more criticism is valid and obligatory.
1 - The father never appropriately learns English but always falls back on using some German in his everyday speech. This of course is totally unrealistic for someone who has no family but his only English-speaking wife and kids and works and teaches in an American university. Powers also commits the occasional blunder in regard to his attempts to introduce these German phrases. Once for example the father proclaims that someone might be 'burning a path for himself'. The word should be 'blazing' of course but since there is no equivalent saying like this in German there is no reason whatsoever for the character to blunder like this. Either he knows the saying or he does not, there is no wrong translation of a saying that does not exist in the other language.

2 - According to Powers the father can 'never be more to her [the wife] than almost recognizable, a stranger to her blood, the father of her children' making it sound as if a black man would be able to become more but him because of his skin colour cannot. I do not know what skin colour Powers has - and I do not intend to find out - but this whole BS of skin colour in any way inherently influencing who you are is ludicrous.

3 - The older brother is compared with various classical figures in the headlines to some chapters such as Aeneas and Job. I am relatively familiar with both of these and truth to be told I found no resemblance between that brother and either of those figures. Bizarre usage of classical references.

So, do I recommend the book? After all this criticism probably should be a clear-cut no. Yet, it is not, I liked reading it. Admittedly, it probably helps that I read quite fast making it easy for me to race through the musical parts, but the portrayed mindset and decisions made by characters from a biracial background during the 60s were interesting even if I did not agree with most of them.

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