Book Review: How can I keep from singing?

Published 3:32 pm Tuesday, May 25, 2010

In the introductory comments to her book, Womansong: Balance & Harmony in a Feminine Key (Cantando Press, 2010, 194 pp), local writer Gwen Suesse says, As the pages go by, I hope you will find yourself humming along, your song reflecting your inner music effortlessly and with joy.

The song I found myself humming, and that I like to think Ms. Suesse heard as her susurrational muse, was the magnificent How Can I Keep From Singing? Dating to the late 1860s, this traditional Christian hymn is one of those that offers encouragement when tumult and strife, sadness and loss introduce discord into our lives.

In this case, perhaps dis-chord is the more appropriate term as musical elements serve not only to organize the chapters, but also to clarify her musings. Not coincidentally, music has long been an inspiration for Ms. Suesse, a music major. She admits to having pored over the Harvard Dictionary of Music as she began to realize how many life situations can be described in musical terms. Those terms become her chapter titles: Cantus Firmus, Counterpoint, Leitmotifs. However, a true daughter of her generation, she also references pop culture icons Janis Joplin, Neil Diamond, and Ike Turner.

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Suesse has written this book with this generation in mind, those women who remember the transition from Ladys room to Womens room, but she offers insights to a much broader range of females from young to old, single to married, mother-woman to childless. If you have tried to balance a career and a life, if you have worked to achieve a harmonious relationship with another, if you have worried about becoming your mother (or not becoming your mother!), if you have ever questioned your own self worth, you will benefit from this read.

Using her own experiences as a sounding board, Ms. Suesse offers up situations and issues that resonate with her readers lives. Far from Inspiration Lite, Womansong counters the contemporary cultural notion that we must try to do it all, have it all, and be everything to everyone. Instead, it is a realistic look at the challenges involved in being a perfect partner / mother/ employee/ and in being true to oneself.

Written clearly in the authors voice, some pieces unfold in a self-reflective manner, a conversational call-and-response. Others reflect the voice of the artist, the musical director who always calls forth the best. Still others are teacherly, gently encouraging her readers: We must learn to love the questions.

Whatever the voice, in every essay, we find the voice of a reader. Suesses own inspirations range from Buddhist to Biblical, from Rabbi to Ram. She quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson and C. S. Lewis as easily as she quotes Maurice Sendak. Her bibliographical entries demonstrate a well-versed acquaintance with writers who address topics such as relationships, communication skills, creative living, loss, cultural backgrounds those issues that have always involved women.

Ms. Suesse has balanced the musical metaphors with an appealing visual element, using the calligraphy of Rene?e Locks to emphasize significant quotes and to provide beautifully colored artistic renditions throughout the book.

Still humming, I recall the words from the first verse of that hymn, Above earths lamentation, I catch the sweet, tho far off hymn that hails a new creation, and with a sense of gratitude for and congratulations to Gwen Suesse, How can I keep from singing?

The book is available at Lanier Library, 72 Chestnut St. Tryon. Library hours are Tuesday and Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Wednesday and Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon. 1 to 4 p.m.