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'The Song Reader'

The songs that get stuck in our heads can be annoying, but they also can be revealing and may even help us decide our future - or dredge up buried secrets.

That's the premise of Lisa Tucker's debut novel, "The Song Reader."

Tucker visited The Saturday Early Show to discuss her novel about two sisters, Mary Beth and Leeann, growing up alone in small-town Missouri in the 1980s, after their mother dies and their father disappears.

The elder sister, Mary Beth, prints up business cards and offers her services as a professional song reader - the one and only person in the world, she says, who has this gift. She gives her clients an analysis of the sound tracks of their minds, much the way a palm reader searches for meaning in the lines of a person's hand.

Mary Beth takes this process quite seriously, listening repeatedly on the record player to the songs that clients bring her, and meticulously keeping file cards on each client in a big green container. Based on her interpretation of the songs, Mary Beth can help people make sense of their lives and make life-altering decisions: to marry, to divorce, to quit the job they loathe. Everyone in town, even skeptics, become believers.

Then Mary Beth's song-reading uncovers a scandal in one client's life, and the outcome couldn't be worse. What she discovers divides the town and turns her supporters against her. The fallout is so bad that she gives up song reading and withdraws into a world of her own. Her teenage sister Leeann must take care of her, while trying to come to terms with her own family's past.

This is a novel about what makes a family, about what happens when the bond of sisterhood is tested, and about the search for forgiveness.

This book is getting great word-of-mouth, and one reason is the fascinating premise that everyone can relate to. Tucker says song reading is not something that people actually do out there in the world, as far as she knows; it's something she made up. If you'd like to try it, here is Tucker's step-by-step guide:

Write down the part of the song you keep hearing, even if it's just a phrase or a few words. Don't worry if you don't know the exact lyrics. You will need the title, so if you don't remember it, ask a friend or put the lyrics into a search engine on the Internet.

Find out when you first heard the song. If you own the album or CD, pull it out and look at the date. What you're trying to do is link the period when the song entered your mind to all the other things that were going on in your life. Some people find the songs that haunt them are from times in their lives that they're still trying to understand.

Get a copy of the song and listen to it. Song reading is not just about the lyrics, but about the music, so this step cannot be skipped. While you listen, keep track of what the music is doing on the lines you are haunted by. Is it becoming melancholy? More upbeat? Is the feeling in the music different from the way it's been in your mind? How do you feel now while listening to it?

Get the complete lyrics to the song. If you've misremembered something, it could be important, but often even more important are the lyrics you seem to have "forgotten" completely. The part of a song that haunts us can be a message from our brains to lead us to the part that we really need to think about.

Put it all together. Examine the lyrics line by line, word by word. Most songs have a theme, but what's important here is: What's this song about to you? If you get stuck, you might want to imagine different possibilities for what the song could mean to someone else. The main thing is to allow yourself to take the process seriously. Even if it's a simple song, even if it's a song you'd be embarrassed to admit you'd ever listened to, much less liked, it can be full of meaning.

Read an excerpt from Chapter One:

My sister Mary Beth was a song reader. Song reading was her term for it and she invented the art as far as I know. It was kind of like palm reading, she said, but instead of using hands, she used music to read people's lives. Their music. The songs that were important to them from as far back as they could remember. The ones they turned up loud on their car radios and found themselves driving a little faster to. The ones they sang in the shower and loved the sound of their own voice singing. And of course, the songs that always made them cry on that one line no one else even thought was sad.

Her customers adored her. They took her advice-to marry, to break it off with the lowlife jerk, to take the new job, to confront their supervisor with how unfair he was-and raved about how much better off they were. They said she was gifted. They swore she could see right into their hearts.

From the beginning, my sister took it so seriously. She'd been doing readings less than a month when she had those cards printed up. Each one said in bold black letters:

Mary Beth Norris
Song Reader/ Life Healer
Let me help you make sense of the music in your head.
[Family problems a specialty.]
Leave a message at 372-1891. Payment negotiable.

She had to work double shifts at the restaurant to pay for the cards and the answering machine, but she said it was just part of her responsibilities now. "I have a calling in life," she told me, "and I've got to act like it."
I wish I'd saved one of those cards, but I wasn't there the night she buried them at the bottom of the garbage can. It was after Ben left, and after I discovered she'd lied to me about my father. It was when the trouble with Holly Kramer was just beginning, and I still thought-like most of the town-that her talent was undeniable.

Some people even claimed she had to be psychic. After all, no one else knew that Rose was in trouble except Mary Beth; no one even suspected that Rose would take Clyde's car on that sun-blind Saturday morning and drive it right over the sidewalk and through the glass wall of his News and Tobacco Mart except my sister, who told Rose two months before that she'd better stop seeing Clyde. From the song chart, Mary Beth knew Clyde had to be bad news. She shook her head when Rose got stuck on "Lucille" for five weeks and warned her a life can't hold this much sadness for long. When Rose started humming "Hungry Heart," Mary Beth knew the lid was about to blow off Rose and Clyde's relationship. But she didn't tell Rose I told you so when we went with Rose's mother to bail her out of jail. She wasn't that way with her advice, not at all.

My sister kept file cards on her customers, "song charts" neatly alphabetized in a large green Rubbermaid box in the corner of our kitchen. On Saturdays she would meet with new customers in the little room downstairs our landlady Agnes had donated to the cause-as long as Mary Beth kept the room clean and didn't disturb Agnes's husband's sketches and charcoal pencils still sitting on the desk exactly as he left them when he died eighteen years before. Sometimes she gave advice at these first meetings, but usually she waited until she'd kept the chart for at least a few weeks before she gave them a reading.

They were instructed to call twice each week, on Sunday and Wednesday, and leave a short message telling her the songs and the particularly important lines they had hummed for the last few days. She had to rewind the cassette on the Phonemate back to the beginning to fit all the messages that would come in. I helped her update the charts. (It was a lot of work, especially when they reported country and western songs, which I hated.) I wrote down the titles and lines exactly as they said, even if they got it wrong, for what's important, Mary Beth said, is how they hear the words. But if they were off on the lines, we would make a little star on their chart since Mary Beth said they might be hearing them wrong for a reason. We also made an "S" if they'd sung the lines on the machine, and a "C" if they'd sounded like they were crying or struggling not to.

Mary Beth was proud of this organized system. It allowed her to just glance at an entry and know quite a bit. For example, one of the entries on Dorothea Lanigan's chart was the last two lines of "Yesterday." Dorothea had changed only a word and a tense, but Mary Beth had nodded when she looked at the chart later that night and said, "Well, that's that."
Even I thought this one was obvious. After all, the song was about lost love, wasn't it? "It's too bad Dorothea and Wayne are splitting," I said. "She must be miserable."

Mary Beth looked up at me from the floor where she was sitting surrounded by charts and burst out in a laugh. "Leeann, they are going to be engaged by the end of the month. You mark my words." And of course, it turned out to be true. They had their wedding the next summer. Mary Beth was the maid of honor, since Dorothea said it was all thanks to her.

It was a gift, everybody said so. Sometimes I wished I had the gift too, but I knew I didn't; I'd tried and failed too many times with my friends to believe otherwise. I asked them about their music and I gave them my theories, but I was always way off, and Mary Beth finally told me I was dangerous. "You can't mess around with something like this. What if somebody believes you?"

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