Friday, June 29, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles




Count Alexander Rostow was a nobleman in the waning days of Tsar Nicolas II and the Romanov family.  Alexander was in Paris with his sister when the revolution began.  He immediately returned home.  In 1922 he was hauled before “The Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.”  The Count expected to be shot, but some high party officials recognized him as “among the heroes of the prerevolutionary cause.  Thus, it is the opinion of this committee that you should be returned to the hotel of which you are so fond.  But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.” (5).  Despite this ominous beginning, about a third of the novel is full of humor, jokes, literary references, and lots of pleasant dining with gallons of wine and meetings some with old friends. 

Alexander was escorted from the trial venue to the hotel and his room.  Towles writes, “On the third floor, the count walked down the red-carpeted hallway toward his suite—an interconnected bedroom, bath, dining room, and grand salon with eight-foot windows overlooking the lindens of Theatre Square.  And there the rudeness of the day awaited” (10).  The Count was given a room in the attic of the hotel.  Towles continues, “Among the furnishings destined for his new quarters, the Count chose two high-back chairs, his grandmother’s oriental coffee table, and a favorite set of porcelain plates” (11).  He hardly had room for a picture of his sister, a leather case, and a few odds and ends.

While dining one day, a young girl in a lemon yellow dress began staring at the Count, and slowly she befriends Alexander.  The two become close friends, and they enjoy games and discussions.  Nina raises the subject of what is a princess.  Towles writes, “‘I would be ever so grateful, […] if you would share with me some of the rules of being a princess.’  ‘The Rules? […] But, Nina,’ the Count said with a smile, ‘being a princess is not a game.’ Nina stared at the Count with an expression of patience.  ‘I am certain that you know what I mean.  Those things that are expected of a princess” (49). 

On one of their adventures, Nina and Alexander sneak into the balcony during a conference to listen to a meeting of a trade union.  Towles writes, “Here indeed, was a formidable sentence—one that was on intimate terms with the comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.  For its apparent purpose was to catalogue without fear or hesitation every single virtue of the Union including but not limited to its unwavering shoulders, its undaunted steps, the clanging of its hammers in summer, the shoveling of its coal in the winter, and the hopeful sound of its whistles in the night.  But in the concluding phrases of this impressive sentence, at the very culmination as it were, was the observation that through their tireless efforts, Railway Workers of Russia ‘facilitate communication and trade across the provinces’” (68).  Someone is in dire need of an English teacher.

Amor Towles fantastic and absorbing novel, A Gentleman in Moscow is hard to lay aside.  You will not soon forget this story.  10 Stars

--Chiron, 6/23/18

The Circle by Dave Eggers


This frightening and eerie  Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle, involves a vast and powerful corporation.  The novel has echoes of Jonathan Swift, Margaret Atwood, and George Orwell, with a shadow of Dante’s Inferno.
mirror to our current world, makes me shiver.

Mae Holland has graduated from college, and her first job turns out to be deadly boring.  Her college roommate offers Mae an opportunity to work for an exciting and progressive company, known as “The Circle.”  Her first day on the job seems like a dream come true.  As days pass, she finds herself overloaded with connections she is required to maintain for thousands of people also connected to The Circle. 

At first, she breezes through her first contacts with customers, but then the work begins to grow more than she can handle.  One day, Gina stops by her office.  Eggers writes, “‘this would be a good time to set up all your socials.  You got time?’  ‘Sure,’ Mae said, though she had no time at all. // ‘I take it last week was too busy for you to set up your company social account?  And I don’t think you imported your old profile?’  Mae cursed herself.  ‘I’m sorry.  I’ve been pretty overwhelmed so far.’ / Gina frowned.  […] Gina tilted her head and cleared her throat theatrically.  […]  ‘We actually see your profile, and the activities on it, as integral to your participation here’” (95).  Mae is then shown a dizzying array of computer screens which create numerous obligations for interacting with thousands of other “Circlers”—as they are known—all around the world.  Gina opens a “Zinger” account for Mae, and she suddenly has over 10,000 co-workers she must constantly monitor and establish interactions.

At another company meeting, one of the engineers demonstrates a miniature camera, which can be hidden.  He shows a few camera views—all ultra-high definition and audio as well.  Eggers writes, “Now there were twelve live images of white-topped mountains, ice-blue valleys, ridges topped with deep green conifers. // [This] ‘can give me access to any of the cameras he wants.  It’s just like friending someone, but now with access to all their live feeds.  Forget cable.  Forget five hundred channels.  If you have one thousand friends, and they have ten cameras each, you now have ten thousand options for live footage.  If you have five thousand friends, you have fifty thousand options.  And soon you’ll be able to connect to millions of cameras around the world.  […] ‘Imagine the implications!’’  Yes, imagine in deed!

The speaker goes on to say that the plan is for millions of these tiny cameras covering the entire world available to everyone’” (65).  If you thought Facebook destroys privacy, think again.  This is only the beginning.

One day, a mysterious man meets Mae on her way back to the office.  He introduces himself as Kaldan and asks her to demonstrate what she does.  He has a badge admitting him to the company, so she obliges him.  Eggers writes, “Mae paused.  Everything and everyone else she’d experienced at The Circle hewed to a logical model, a rhythm, but Kaldan was the anomaly.  His rhythm was different, atonal and strange, but not unpleasant.  His face was so open, his eyes liquid, gentle, unassuming, and he spoke so softly that any possibility of threat seemed remote. // […] And so he watcher Mae answer requests. // […] He was close to her, far too close if he was a normal person with everyday ideas of personal space, but it was abundantly clear he was not this kind of person, a normal kind of person” (94).  Then he leaves.  Attempting to develop some theories about what goes on in this “corporate utopia,” heightens the suspense of this novel.

Dave Eggers suspense filled novel, The Circle, will keep you on the edge all the way to the end.  5 stars

--Chiron, 6/15/18

Spectral Waves by Madeline Defrees

Madeleine DeFrees’s eighth poetry collection—an author who has never crossed my radar—is a happy accident.  According to the author’s biography, she has won numerous awards, including the Academy of American Poets Lenore Marshall Prize and the Washington State Book Award.  She has also published short stories, essays, journalism feature stories, and two poetry chap books and two memoirs.  She has also taught at Pacific University Low-residency M.F.A. Program.  I will soon be digging into more of her work.

This collection of poetry contains works that use words and phrases to weave interesting and thought-provoking poems of elegant beauty.  Here is one example: “Mythology of Spider Silk.”  “Skein upon skein of thread in rainbow colors-- / silk of silver and gold as well-- / heaped beside the peasant girl whose claim to rival / Athena’s skill as a weaver will soon / be tested.  Beside each loom, the raw stuff / that will prove who is the better / at her craft. // The signal given, shuttles fly.  Athena’s / fabric, as expected, dazzles the eye. / Arachne’s, finished at the same moment, no less / impressive.  The goddess, in a jealous / fury, slits Arachne’s web / from top to bottom, then beats the maiden / about the head with a shuttle. // Disgraced and angry, / Arachne hangs herself.  At that, a slight regret / steals into Athena’s heart.  She / lifts the body from the noose, sprinkles the corpse / with magic liquid.  As if from sleep, / Arachne stirs, comes back to life as a spider, her / skill at spinning, preserved” (22).  Greek mythology is one of my favorite topics for literature of any genre.

Another of these cleverly woven poems is “Astronomy.”  “This bird-woman flew to my kitchen wall, high / above the sink—a bibelot made of / coconut shell from Mexico—woman I call / my Aztec Sun.  Sun-yellow / frames her painted cheeks, and six / symmetrical rays surround them, each: red / yellow, and green. // Eyebrows fallen parentheses, / lips a small star, it’s clear that she’s / missing her starfish brother.  Fossils show: 300 / million years before dinosaurs, Blood Star / plunged to the ocean floor. / Aztec remembers.  Replays the scene / evenings when sun sets red in the west” (60).

Numerous poems in this collection deal with nature—reminiscent of Mary Oliver--a poetry topic I love to spend hours pouring over.  Here is an example of one of her bird poems, “To a Crow Outside My Bay Window.”  “When have I ever welcomed you to my gutters, / stuck on the one wrong note / Poe’s ‘Raven’ returned forevermore?  Litany and / response, my every invocation / draws down the repeated guttural cry / your mate doubles from a telephone wire / high overhead. // When I stomp my foot, clap / my hands, rattle venetian blinds, you flap away, / but there’s no mistake: you’re / on a round-trip with no plans to brake anywhere / but over my eaves, morning and noon / all summer.  Am I expected to ask you in, / terrific newcomer mimic? // You do have a language / mostly scold, a memory better than mine / for bold aggression.  Smartest of birds, your / fossils revealed in deposits 12 million years / old in Colorado, what chance do I have / with an omen?  Go back to your nest!  My / nuisance, nemesis, shadow at my window” (68).

Is there anything sweeter than stumbling on an unknown poet and discovering a whole new world of enchantment?  Spectral Waves by Madeline DeFrees is an instance of such a happy accident.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 6/14/18

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan


Best-selling author, Ian McEwan has a knack for stories that slowly build for the reader right up until the precipice.  According to WikiPedia, Ian Russell McEwan (born 21 June 1948 14 days after my birthday) is an English novelist and screenwriter.  In 2008, The London Times featured him on their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945" and The Daily Telegraph ranked him number 19 in their list of the "100 most powerful people in British culture."  In 1998, he won The Booker Prize for Amsterdam.  This 1997 novel, Enduring Love is among a few of his early works I have eagerly devoured. 

Joe and Clarissa have what seems to be an ideal marriage.  Clarissa is a therapist, who is dedicated to her profession.  Joe has a doctorate in physics, but his research interests have withered.  He is now a successful freelance writer.  Clarissa has been away for some time, and when she returns from her latest job, they want to rekindle their relationship with a romantic picnic.  McEwan writes, “The beginning is simple to mark.  We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind.  I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand, and Clarissa was passing me the bottle—a 1987 Dauman Gassac,  This was the moment, this was the pin prick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout.  We turned to look across the field and saw the danger.  Next thing, I was running toward it.  The transformation was absolute: I don’t recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me.  What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from out happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak.  There was the shout again, and a child’s cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows.  I ran faster.  And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me” (1). 

This opening paragraph displays the real power of McEwan as a writer.  His attention to details, the split-second reaction, all led Joe to a nightmare of unusual proportions.  In two appendices, McEwan spells out a peculiar affliction known as “de Clerambault’s Syndrome.  Joe becomes a victim, when one of the men, who attempted to rescue a child in the out-of-control balloon, directs his obsession to Joey.  Unfortunately, no one has seen Jed, he has no police record, and the stress is damaging Joe and Clarissa’s marriage.

I was amused by some of the stories Joe heard from his students, and similar stories from Clarissas’s patient.  McEwan writes, “The student [Clarissa] supervised yesterday, a raw girl from Lancaster, phoned her in tears and shouted incoherently.  When Clarissa calmed her down, the girl accused her of setting her impossible reading tasks and of sending her up blind alleys of research.  The Romantic poetry seminar went badly because two students appointed to give discussion papers had prepared nothing and the rest of the kids had not bothered with the reading” (85).  Joe has a similar experience with one of his students. 

Ian McEwan is a masterful story teller with deep and interesting examinations of the mind.  No one believes Joe, and he begins researching the syndrome.  The marriage begins to shred.  The climax of Enduring Love is unforgettable.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/13/18

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford


Richard Ford has a knack for creating characters who are down and out and only hanging on by a shoe string.  In fact, the main character of Let Me Be Frank with You is a case in point.  This collection of four lengthy stories is a mixed bag at best.  The first two I consider to be superb, but the second two, not so much.  Had I read these stories in reverse order, they would have made a quick trip to “Rule of 50” oblivion.

Ford has garnered some praise, but notable prizes have escaped him.  I will say that I have enjoyed Fords novels much more than his shorter works.  Frank Bascombe is the center of these pieces.  He frequently uses these characters to string the rest of a collection together.  I confess I have a certain soft spot for Frank. 

The first story in the collection, “I’m Here,” tells about a house Frank owned and which he sold to Arnie Urquhart, who in turn sold it a few months before a big hurricane hit the New Jersey shore.  This storm wiped out most of the shore properties.  The man Arnie sold the house to wants his money back, and he enlists Frank’s help to show the error of his fantasy.  Frank muses about this situation, which is a frequent pastime of his.  Ford writes, “Back in the bonanza days of the now-popped realty bubble, I sold Arnie not just a house, but my house.  In Sea-Clift.  A tall, glass-and-redwood, architect-design beach palace, flush up against what seemed to be a benign and glimmering sea.  Anybody’s dream of a second home.  I saw to it Arnie coughed up a pretty penny.  Sally and I had decided to move inland.  I was ready to take down my shingle.  It was eight years ago, this fall—two weeks before Christmas, like now” (9).  Soft spot!

The second story—the best of this collection—is “Everything Could Be Worse.”  One day, “as I pulled into my driveway on Wilson Lane, I saw a woman I didn’t know standing on my front stoop.  She was facing the door, having possibly just rung the bell and put herself into the poised posture (we’ve all done it) of someone who has every right to be where she is when a stranger opens the door—and if not every right, at least enough not to elicit full-blown hostility. // The woman was black and was wearing a bright red Yuletide winter coat, black, shiny boots, and carried a larger black boat of a purse, appropriate to her age—which from the back seemed mid-fifties.  She was also wearing a Christmas-y green-knit tam-o’-shanter pulled down like a cloche, something a young woman wouldn’t wear” (65).  Ford seems moderately fond of hyphens, parenthesis, and asterisks.

I do not mean to say I dislike this collection, but the unevenness of the last two stories, together with a smarmy attitude, dims my admiration just a bit.  I imagine him throwing sarcastic remarks over his shoulder to unsuspecting followers.  Frank has a sideline in recording books for the blind.  Ford writes, “This fall, I’ve been reading Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (30 minutes is all they or I can stand), and in many ways it’s a book made for hearing in the dark, in a chill and tenebrous season.  Naipaul, despite apparently having a drastic and unlikeable personality, is as adept as they get at throwing down the gauntlet and calling BS on the world” (67).  Richard Ford, in Let Me Be Frank with You, shows he is a good writer, and despite my slight misgivings, he remains a favorite.  4-1/2 Stars.

--Chiron, 6/7/18

House of Names by Colm Tóibín


I am a long-time admirer of the Ancient Greeks and the Trojan War.  In Colm Tóibín’s novel, House of Names, he has retold the events in the aftermath of the war.  The basic background of the story revolves around Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the gods.  Her mother, Clytemnestra, vows vengeance when her husband returns from the war.  Her son, Orestes, is kidnapped as a hostage.  Achilles has a cameo role.  According to the dust jacket, Tóibín has written eight novels before House, and he has garnered quite a few awards.  He was also three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  He lives in Dublin and New York.

The story is told in segments by the main characters.  Clytemnestra speaks first.  “When he was alive, he said and the men around him believed that the gods followed their fates and cared about them.  But I will say now that they did not, they do not.  Our appeal to the gods is the same as the appeal star makes in the sky above us before it falls, it is a sound we cannot hear, a sound to which, even if we did hear it, we would be fully indifferent” (7).  She continues, “It struck me for a second that this was what the gods did with us—they distracted us with mock conflicts, with the shout of life, they distracted us also with images of harmony, beauty, love, as they watched distantly, dispassionately, waiting for the moment when it ended, when exhaustion set in.  They stood back as we stood back.  And when it ended, they shrugged.  They no longer cared” (22).  She was resolved, “I would trust no one, I thought.  I would trust no one.  That was the most useful thing to hold to hold in my hand” (39). 

When young Orestes was captured and taken away, he began to worry.  Tóibín writes, “Over the days that followed, although he walked between [the guards] most of the time, the guards did not threaten him or speak to him roughly.  Mostly they said very little.  A few times when he asked about his father and his mother, they simply did not reply.  But he heard them talking at night, and he learned that great numbers of the men tied to each other and forced to march were the soldiers who had returned with his father.  Others were slaves whom his father had captured” (78).  When they arrived at a barn occupied by numerous other young children, Orestes meets Leander and the two begin plotting escape.

Orestes and Leander manage to return home along with many slaves.  These homeless people caused a problem in the city.  Aegisthus began an affair with Clytemnestra.  He began to assert his authority over the queen.  Orestes listened to the debate about the foreigners.  “Aegisthus interjected to say that some of these slaves were dangerous and they should only be released in twos and threes, having been carefully vetted.  He believed…that the slaves who were roaming would have to be forcibly removed to this new territory as they would not go willingly. // Some of them even had hope [   ] they would be sent back to their country of origin, which could not happen since their land had been had been resettled by soldiers who had fought in the wars against them” (269).  History has a nasty way of repeating itself.  House of Names by Colm Tóibín demonstrates the revolving door of history and the repetition of evil it brings upon the world.

--Chiron, 5/31/18

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble


Margaret Drabble is one of the most renowned novelists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  I have read many of her novels, and to my surprise, I recently discovered she had also written a number of short stories.  I reviewed those stories last year, and I was thrilled at the opportunity to see an entirely different side of her as a writer.  Her latest novel, The Dark Flood Rises, tells the story of a woman who decides to explore lots of places in England she never visited.

At first, I was afraid this might be depressing, but it turned out to be anything but.  Fran Stubbs is twice divorced.  Her second ex-husband recently passed away, and her first husband Claude, is seriously ill.  She cooks several meals a week for him, and they revisit a lot of the old times they had.  Fran also has a number of women friends, and they do a lot of things together.  The “Envoi,” at the close of the novel, is something of a pleasant ending.

As is the case in many of the literary fiction novels I love so much is the detailed vocabulary, the references to most of the American and English novels I admire, as well as lots of introspection illuminated by an omniscient narrator. Here is a sample of her thoughts.  Drabble writes, “Her new-old friend Teresa, who is grievously ill, wouldn’t be censorious, as she is never censorious about anyone. // I am the captain of my fate, I am the master of my soul. A Roman, by a Roman, valiantly vanquished” (2-3).  A few pages later, she writes, “England is now her last love.  She wants to see it all before she dies.  She won’t be able to do that, but she’ll do her best” (5).  “Fran doesn’t meddle with her children’s lives” (11).

Fran’s favorite places to stay while on her excursions are a chain motel.  Drabble writes, “There is something robust and cheering about the sight of the Premier Inn Full English Breakfast and those who are devouring it.  It is even better than the bright red dinner.  Fran doesn’t go for the Full English herself, but requests a soft-boiled egg with toast.  She would quite like to go over to the side table to make her own toast, but the not-so-young young woman labelled Cynthia, Cynthia with her chalk-white face and her raven-black hair, is so helpful and eager to please that Fran surrenders and allows herself to be waited on.  All around Fran, younger people in their thirties and forties and fifties tuck into friend eggs and bacon and beans and hash browns and mushrooms and fried tomatoes and fried bread, all wielding their cutlery with an air of gusto.  Condiments flow, the red and the brown and the mustard-coloured, and loud piped music resounds.  Both Claude and Hamish would have hated the piped music, but Fran doesn’t mind it at all” (21).

 Fran is a strong, empathetic, hard-working woman.  Drabble writes, “Fran is fond of her flat in Tarrant Towers, although it is a bad address, a bad postcode, and the lifts often break down.  But the view is glorious, the great view over London.  She likes to watch the cloudscapes assemble from afar, the great galleons of cumulus sailing her way on the approaching storm” (31).  Margaret Drabble’s latest novel is a story of a woman in control of her life, with a job she loves, in a world of her own devising.  5 stars

--Chiron, 5/21/18