Monday, January 16, 2017

Felicity by Mary Oliver

It seems as though every time I go to a bookstore, I stumble upon a new poetry collection by Mary Oliver.  No discussions this time.  Rather I am going to offer as many poems as I can squeeze into three minutes from Felicity by Mary Oliver.

Walking to Indian River – “I’m ready for spring, but it hasn’t arrived. / Not yet. / Still I take my walk, looking for any / early enhancements. / It’s mostly attitude.  I’m certain / I’ll see something. / I start down the path, peering in / all directions. / The mangroves, as always, are standing in their / beloved water, / their new leaves very small and tender / and pale. / And, look! the way the rising sun / strikes them, / they could be flowers / opening!” (5).

Moments – There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled. / Like, telling someone you love them. / Or giving your money away, all of it. // Your heart is beating, isn’t it? / You’re not in chains, are you? // There is nothing more pathetic than caution / when headlong might save a life, / even, possibly, your own.” (9)

Nothing Is Too Small Not to Be Wondered About – “The cricket doesn’t wonder / if there’s a heaven / or, if there is, if there’s room for him. // It’s fall.  Romance is over.  Still, he sings. / If he can, he enters a house / through the tiniest crack under the door. / Then the house grows colder. // He sings slower and slower. / Then, nothing. // This must mean something, I don’t know what. / But certainly it doesn’t mean / he hasn’t been an excellent cricket / all his life” (27).

That Little Beast – “That pretty little beast, a poem, / has a mind of its own. / Sometimes I want it to crave apples / but it wants red meat. / Sometimes I want to walk peacefully / on the shore / and it wants to take off all its clothes / and dive in. // Sometimes I want to sum up and give thanks, / putting things in order / and it starts dancing around the room / on its four furry legs, laughing / and calling me outrageous. // But sometimes, when I’m thinking about you, / and no doubt smiling / it sits down quietly, one paw under its chin, / and just listens.” (57-58).

Not Anyone Who Says – “Not anyone who says, ‘I’m going to be / careful and smart in matters of love,” / who says, ‘I’m going to choose slowly,’ / but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all / but were, as it were, chosen / by something invisible / and powerful and uncontrollable / and beautiful and possibly even / unsuitable -- / only those know what I’s talking about / in this talking about love.” (65).

I Don’t Want to Lose – “I don’t want to lose a single thread / from the intricate brocade of this happiness. / I want to remember everything. / Which is why I am lying awake, sleepy / but not sleepy enough to give it up. / Just now, a moment from years ago: / the early morning light, the deft, sweet / gesture of your hand / reaching for me.”  (73).


Thank you Mary Oliver for touching my heart on nearly every page of Felicity.  5 stars

--Chiron, 1/16/17

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan represents all the good things I love about literary fiction.  Precise and effective prose, interesting characters, plots that will not let go, and a wonderful resource for building a vocabulary.  His latest novel, Nutshell, has an even more unusual character/narrator than I have come to expect.  At first, I believed this was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  The characters, Trudy and Claude, plot the murder of John, Claude’s brother and Trudy’s husband.  But McEwan has led us down that path with a sudden 180 degree twist.

The narrator is the fetus of Trudy and John.  Now, this is not unique.  Lawrence Sterne in his 18th century novel, Tristram Shandy, relates the life of the title character from the womb.  Take that idea and mix in an articulate narrator, and McEwan has given us a thoroughly modern twist on Sterne.


Yulia Tymoshenko
Trudy is at dinner with Claude, and she refuses a third glass of wine.  McEwan writes, “But, no, she restrains herself for love of me.  And I love her – how could I not?  The mother I have yet to meet, whom I know only from the inside.  Not enough!  I long for her external self.  Surfaces are everything.  I know her hair is ‘straw fair,’ that it tumbles in ‘coins of wild curls’ to her ‘shoulders the white of apple flesh,’ because my father has read aloud to her his poem about it in my presence.  Claude too has referred to her hair, in less inventive terms.  When she’s in the mood, she’ll make tight braids to wind around her head, in the style, my father says of Yulia Tymoshenko.  I also know that my mother’s eyes are green, that her nose is a ‘pearly button,’ that she wishes she had more of one, that separately both men adore it as it is and have tried to reassure her.  She’s been told many times that she’s beautiful, but she remains skeptical, which confers on her an innocent power over men, so my father told her one afternoon in the library.  She replied that if this were true, it was a power she’d never looked for and didn’t want.  This was an unusual conversation for them, and I listened intently” (7-8).  Curiously enough, I found myself listening intently to the conversations between John and Trudy and Claude and Trudy, as if I were an eavesdropping intruder, to piece together how the novel might turn out.

Trudy listens to pod casts to pass the time, and in one passage – too long for a complete sample – the lecturer discusses the state of the world – “in existential crises” – “new forms of brilliant weaponry” – “global corporations to dodge taxes” – ‘China, too big to need friends or counsel” – “Muslim-majority countries plagued by religious puritanism” – “The Middle East, fast breeder for a possible world war” (24-25).  And lastly, “the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran.  Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by an inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every new handgun” (25). 

This is the power of fiction.  Holding up the reader to his or her country for debate – hopefully before it is too late.  The Nutshell by Ian McEwan shows us one of those writers I voraciously pursue to get every drop of the message, every turn of phrase, and every new word.  5 stars

--Jim, 1/16/17

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

At the urging of several friends, I began Elizabeth Stroudt’s novel, Olive Kitteridge.  I barely made it to page 20 before I invoked the rule of 50.  This was 2011, and about 4 years later, I came across Kitteridge as a movie starring Frances McDormand, an actor I greatly admire.  So, I decided to have another go at Olive, and I loved it.  Now my book club has pressed upon me My Name is Lucy Barton.  This time, I was determined to get through to the end.

Lucy Barton was admitted to the hospital for an appendectomy, but side effects lengthened her stay to almost nine weeks.  Her husband occasionally visited, but it wasn’t until her mother arrived to stay at her bedside that things really began to percolate.  Lucy had come from a poor family in Amgash, Illinois.  The other children teased her unmercifully about her clothes, her family, and her body odor.  Lucy spends most of her time in the hospital musing over her life.  At first, I thought this would be boring, but it did take an interesting turn.

Lucy describes her childhood, “Until I was eleven years old, we lived in a garage.  The garage belonged to my great-uncle who lived in the house next door, and in the garage there was only a trickle of cold water from the makeshift sink.  Insulation nailed against the wall held a stuffing like pink cotton candy, but it was fiberglass and could cut us, we were told.  I was puzzled by that, and would stare at it often, such a pretty pink thing I could not touch; and I was puzzled to think it was called ‘glass’; odd to think now how much time it seemed to take up in my head, the puzzle of the pretty pink and dangerous fiberglass we lived right next to every minute” (22). 

Strout writes about Lucy’s thoughts of her sister, “How Vicky managed, to this day I don’t know.  We were not as close as you might expect; we were equally friendless and equally scorned, and we eyed each other with the same suspicion with which we eyed the rest of the world.  There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: It was not that bad.  Perhaps it was not.  But there are times, too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived.  This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true.  But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are completely free from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are.  So much of life seems speculation” (14).  

This dysfunctional family communicates poorly, and it seems to have parents unable to express any but the most obscure grains of affection.  Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton is an interesting journey of introspection for Lucy.  This time I am glad I ignored the “Rule of Fifty.”  4-1/2 Stars


--Jim, 1/16/17

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

I have never been a fan of adaptations and classic plays and operas reset into modern times.  One particularly egregious example, which infuriated me, was a Mozart opera set in a bowling alley.  Another noted example is Hamlet played with no background, no props and all the actors dressed in black with black turtlenecks.  However, lately, I have enjoyed some of the products of the Hogarth Shakespeare Press.  Hogarth, founded in 1917 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, went out of business in 1946.  In 2010, the press was revived by Random House under the Crown Printing label, with the stated purpose of issuing modern adaptations.  This novel was commissioned by Random House as part of its Hogarth series of re-telling of Shakespeare plays.  Other authors participating in the series include Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler, Jeanette Winterson, and Tracy Chevalier, among others.  I have read Taming of the Shrew as Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  The latest addition to this series is Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood.  She retells Shakespeare’s Tempest cleverly set in a prison.  Tastes change as time passes.

Felix is a renowned theater director at the Makeshiweg Theater Festival.  He is planning a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest.  Tony covets Felix position, and objects to the new version, and he plots to bring down Felix and place himself in Felix’s job.

Felix bitterly accepts the loss of his job, and he plots revenge on Tony.  Felix stays secluded, but he answers an ad for someone to teach literacy in a local prison.  Felix applies for the job – no one else did – and he agrees to take on teaching in a prison, provided he can have complete artistic control, and he must beallowed to work ubder the name of Mr. Duke.  At first, the prison administration is skeptical, but after he puts on several productions, they see the change in the prisoners, and encourage him to continue.

Twelve years later, Felix still seethes at Tony’s duplicity.  He learns that the Minister of Justice and the head of the prison system are scheming to do away with Felix and the literacy program.  He sees an opportunity to exact revenge, help some of the inmates, and have some fun at the same time.  Felix is also haunted by the death of his daughter, Miranda, at age three.  As he plunges into the production, he becomes more and more like Prospero.  He even imagines his daughter is speaking to him.  She wants to play Miranda, but that spot has been cast for Anne-Mariel, a professional actor and friend of Felix.

While the premise of the story edges on the preposterous, it is all done in great fun.  Some smuggled grapes – laced with narcotics – some fancy electrical equipment brought in under the excuse of sticking to a real theater experience, and with the help of Anne-Marie as Miranda, Felix pulls off the event.  He saves the program, and he helps the inmates in various ways.

I have not included any excerpts in this review, because the language of Shakespeare, the rap versions of the Bard’s lines, and the near hallucinations of Felix of his deceased daughter, all meld into one terrific story.  Margaret Atwood has assembled an interesting and fun version of The Tempest.  Several other plays have been adapted, and I can’t wait until I discover where my newly-found tastes will take me.  5 stars. 

--Chiron, 1/11/17

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Days of Abandonment by Elsa Ferrante

I have been a fan of women's literature for many years.  One such author has eluded me until a recent article discussed the Italian writer, Elena Ferrante.  My first actual encounter with Ferrante’s works occurred after a trip to the marvelous independent bookstore, Inkwood Books of Haddonfield, N.J.  I asked the clerk about Ferrante, and she suggested the “Neopolitan Quartet” of novels, which was sold out, but she did have a copy of the Days of Abandonment.  Across the street from the shop was a coffee bistro, so went for a coffee and a scan of the novel.  About an hour later, I was hooked, and I accepted the fact this was a powerful novel I could not let pass by again.

William Congreve wrote, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned.  Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned” (Congreve, The Mourning Bride, III, viii).  Days of Abandonment tells the story of a woman abandoned by her husband, who then takes up with a young woman half the wife’s age.  The novel begins, “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.  He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarrelling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator.  He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice.  He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.  He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere.  Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink”   This is nothing more than the tiniest of spark which will turn into a conflagration of immense power.

Warning this is an adult novel on the basis of a single chapter when Olga vented all her rage, jealousy, and fury, in a scene of a rather explicit and volcanic nature.  A reader will know when it starts, so it is easy to skip.  This novel is the most incisive and detailed account of the agony a woman undergoes when she is abandoned by her partner.  The prose is mesmerizing and gripping.  I could barely put it down for a moment.  Here is a scene when Olga decides to seek revenge on her husband.  “He again brought his lips to mine, but I didn’t like the odor of his saliva.  I don’t even know if it really was unpleasant, only it seemed to me different from mario’s.  He tried to put his tongue in my mouth, I opened my lips a little, touched his tongue with mine.  It was slightly rough, alive, it felt animal, an enormous tongue such as I had seen, disgusted, at the butcher, there was nothing seductively human about it.  Did Carla have my tastes, my odors?  Or had mine always been repellant to Mario, as now Carrano’s seemed, and only in her, after years, had he found the essences right for him” (80-81).  You can now skip to page 88 and the beginning of Chapter 18.

Is this really Ferrante?
In a blurb on the cover, a reviewer for The Guardian wrote, “Ferrante’s novels are tactile and sensual, visceral and dizzying.”  Not for the faint of heart, this novel is a masterpiece of the inner workings of the mind of a woman.  5 stars.


--Chiron, 12/31/16

Monday, January 2, 2017

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

About a year and a half ago, I reviewed the splendid and tender novel, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf.  While on a reconnaissance mission to new and independent books stores in Florida, I came across four of his six novels.  The owner of the shop happened to be there and we talked about some authors she liked, and when she mentioned Haruf, I swept up the four missing works.  We will be spending a lot of time with the novels of the departed Kent Haruf over the next year. 

I began with Plainsong, which now comes to you highly recommended.  Haruf provided an epitaph to the novel with this definition, “Plainsong—the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; and simple and unadorned melody or air.”  Plainsong is a perfect title for a perfect novel.

The story revolves around history teacher Tom Guthrie and his two young sons, Ike and Bobby; Victoria Robideaux, a teenager thrown out of her home by her mother; Maggie Jones is a colleague of Tom’s, and she decides to help Victoria; two bachelor ranchers, Raymond and Harold, who take Victoria into their home, and Ella, Tom’s wife, who suffers some psychological problems; and finally, the town of Holt itself.  All these characters live quiet lives trying to survive, while trying to bring others along with them.

Ella is living separately from Tom and the boys.  She decides to move to Denver to live with her sister.  Tom brings the boys for a visit with Ella before she leaves.  Haruf writes, [Ike and Bobby] climbed out of the pickup and walked one after the other up the sidewalk and knocked on the door and stood waiting without turning to look back at him, and then she opened the front door.  She had changed clothes since the afternoon and now she was wearing a handsome blue dress.  [Tom] thought she looked slim and pretty framed in the doorway.  She let them in and closed the door, and afterwards he drove up Chicago Avenue past the little houses set back from the street in their narrow lots, the lawns in front of them all brown with winter and the evening lights turned on inside the houses and people sitting down to dinner in the kitchens or watching the news on television in the front rooms, while in some of the houses some of the people too, he knew well, were already starting to argue in the back bedrooms” (118-119).

Ike and Bobby visit an elderly woman to collect the weekly newspaper money.  She intimidated the boys a bit, but they were polite.  On one such visit, Haruf wrote, “She shuffled into the next room and came back carrying a flat and ragged cardboard box, and set it on the table and removed the lid, then she showed them photographs that had been much-handled in the long afternoons and evenings of her solitary life, photpgraphs that had been lifted out and examined and returned to the black picture book album, the album itself of an old shape and style.  They were all of her son, Albert.  That’s him, she told them.  Her tobacco-stained finger pointed at one of the photographs.  That’s my son.  He died in the war.  In the Pacific” (149-150).  I once ran errands for an elderly woman who was bed ridden.  She chain-smoked as dug in her purse for a quarter.

This story won’t make you cry.  It is the “comfort food” of reading.  Like the epithet, steady good people live their lives trying to help one another any way they can.  I can’t help being reminded of Thoreau’s note that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”  I had a tough time putting this novel down when the door bell rang, or when I was called to dinner.  It is a quiet read for quiet times.  Plainsong by Kent Haruf is a novel you won’t soon forget.  5 stars.


--Chiron, 1/2/17

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill opened for business in 1983.  Their founding philosophy still holds true.  Their edict is “to publish quality fiction and non-fiction by undiscovered young writers, and to keep our books in print, reaching new fans for many years to come” (Algonquin.com/about-us).  A recent novel, The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church, clearly demonstrates the adherence to these goals.

This debut novel is a sweeping tale of love, science, secrecy, and women’s evolving roles.  Meridian Wallace studies birds at the University of Chicago, where she meets Alden Whetstone, a brilliant and complicated physicist.  He opens her eyes to the wonders of science and the connection between her birds and physics.  As Meridian is about to go off to graduate school, Alden is called to a top secret government project, later known as “The Manhattan Project.”  Later they marry and she moves to New Mexico and puts her graduate studies aside.

The amazing thing about the story is the role women were forced into during the 40s and 50s.  Meri, as she is known, lives at a boarding house, and a boarder offers her some dating advice.  Church writes, “‘You can’t just talk about any old thing, Meri.  Knowing you, you’ll end up lecturing him about the compositions of eagles’ nests or the migration patterns of some obscure bird species.’ // “‘What’s wrong with that?  He’s in my biology class.’ // “‘You have to flatter them,’ […] ‘Pick a topic they know, something they like talking about’” (13).  Later on, as Meri yearns to formalize her bird studies by attending graduate school, Alden quashes her plans.  She has little in common with the other wives in New Mexico, all of whom seem interested only in diapers, recipes. and keeping their husbands happy.  Alden was about 20 years older than Meri, who exhibits some childish traits.  On the train to New Mexico, Meri describes the compartment.  “My sleeping compartment was a girl’s dream of a doll house with clever miniature soaps, a single rose in a slender vase, and turn-down service” (52).  Meri’s mother writes to her, “I didn’t teach you enough about how couples get along or about the necessary compromises wives must make” (129).  When Alden suggests they consider having a baby, Church writes, “‘A baby would be fulfilling, give you a purpose,’ […] ‘A child might just be the answer you need Meri’” (138).  She resists. 

As the 50s close and the 60s cultural revolutions take hold, Meri is increasingly lonely.  All she has to herself are her notebooks on the crows she studies and some sketches.  The one day, she meets a young geologist, Clay, and they begin an affair.  This strains their marriage, Meri begins thoughts of leaving Alden.  Then Clay wants Meri to run away with him, but she feels tied to Alden and refuses.

This bare bones summary leaves out lots of interesting details of the three main characters, some of which provides quite a surprising ending.  Each chapter cleverly introduces a bird species as the title, which neatly shows interesting aspects of Meri, Alden, Clay, and several others.  Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, offers an interesting and detailed look at the way women evolved over the last 60 years to become the interesting and independent women of today.  5 stars.


--Chiron, 12/22/16