Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose

Because I have to read so many subpar college essays, I enjoy an occasional collection to restore my faith in young writers.  I leaned of an interesting collection by Durga Chew-Bose with an even more intriguing title, Too Much and Not the Mood.  I learned of this book on a frequent segment of the PBS News Hour.  I almost ditched Durga while trying to plow through the first essay of 95 pages.  As I read, I kept glancing at the page number while trying to decide thumb up or down.  But as I read, I decided to keep going.  When I began to read the second essay, I was immediately determined to go all the way. 

The first essay, “Heart Museum” turned out to be an interesting stream of consciousness memoir of her life so far.  Durga writes, “I’m certain, if I wanted, I could walk home from West Forty-seventh, across the bridge and back to Brooklyn.  That spiked measure of awe—of oof—feels like a general a general slowing, even though what’s really taking place is nothing short of a general quickening.  The sheer ensconcelled panic of feeling moved.  Infirmed by what switches me on but also awake and unexpectedly cured.  Similar to how sniffing a lemon when I am carsick heals” (11-12).  This essay requires a bit of extra attention, but well worth the thoughts she loaded into my consciousness. 

Further into “Heart Museum,” she writes, “My quick-summoned first life—how everything was enough because I knew so little but felt cramped with certainty—is, I’m afraid, just like writing.  That is to say, what can transpire if writing becomes a reason for living outside the real without prying it open.  How, like first love writing can be foiling, agitated, totally addictive.  Sweet, insistent, jeweled.  Consuming though rarely nourishing.  A new tactility” (19-20).  This passage led me to continue.  Was I becoming accustomed to her style?  

Several of the essays are a bit more conventional and down-right interesting.  In “Since Living Alone, Durga writes, “I learned last summer that if you place a banana and an unripe avocado inside a paper bag, the avocado will—as if spooned to sleep by the crescent-laid banana—ripen overnight.  By morning, that sickly shade of green had turned near-neon and velvety, and I, having done nothing but paired the two fruits, experienced a false sense of accomplishment similar to returning a library book or listening to voice mail” (167).  As an avid eater of bananas—with almost no ability to tell a ripe avocado from all the others—I look forward to my next shopping trip.  

And finally, “Summer Pictures” touched a corner of my memory of summer days.  She writes, “Because going to the movies still feels like playing hooky, or what I imagine playing hooky felt like: the unburdened act of avoiding my many orbits of responsibility.  Of pretending that adulthood is no match for summer’s precedent, set years ago when we were kids and teenagers governed only by the autonomy of no-school, the distance our bikes could take us, an unlit park or basketball court at night, the weekend my crush returned from camp.  Going to the movies is the most public way to experience a secret.  Or, the most secretive way to experience the public” (191).

My “Rule of 50” is not infallible, and in the case of Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose, I am glad I stuck to it.  It is a wonderful collection to stimulate the mind, the memory, and all the while tickling the fancy.  5 stars

--Chiron, 7/11/17

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen

I have always had a fascination with reporters who turn to novel writing.  Pete Dexter, Christopher Morley, and Carl Hiaasen top the list.  I have read eight of his novels, including his most recent, Razor Girl.  Unfortunately, I experienced several episodes of déjà vu during my reading.  So, there might be a hiatus from Hiaasen until I can sweep up the cobwebs.

Andrew Yancy was a talented detective, but a public rampage resulted in an assault and battery charge and led to his demotion to the “Roach Patrol,” i.e. inspector of eating establishments in Florida.  Somehow, Yancy always ends up with three things: a stunning woman in his bed, a mobster chasing him, and his solving of a difficult case--which the reader might think would lead him to reinstatement, but Sheriff Sommers always steps in and berates him for exceeding his authority.  So back to the roach patrol.

This particular adventures involves a group of brothers loosely similar to the “Duck Dynasty Gang” of TV fame, a $200,000 diamond ring, and a continuation of blocking any construction which might interfere with his view of the ocean.  As a teaser, the book opens with a beautiful woman who abandons Andrew for a new life in Norway.  This little teaser will keep you wondering to the end.

While the novel does have some comic moments, I would not—as some reviewers have claimed—count this as “rip roaring funny.”  However, those funny spots do keep me turning a few more pages.  here is one of the funny moments.  Carl writes, “Merry Mansfield told Yancy a version of her life so far-fetched that he bit his lower lip, trying not to laugh. […] ‘You’ve got a charming imagination.  I could listen to you go on all day.’ // ‘What did I say that you don’t believe?’ // ‘Basically every word.’ […] ‘Technically, I’m not a maritime artifacts appraiser,’ Merry admitted.  ‘Also, I didn’t really go to boarding school in Switzerland.  My mom wasn’t a consular attaché in Morocco.  My dad never had a thing with Sigourney Weaver.  I wasn’t the youngest of six sisters, all master equestrians.  I did get married when I was eighteen, except my husband wasn’t  pulped to death in an orange-juice factory.  What really happened, he went to prison for counterfeiting food stamps and I divorced his ass.  No kinds from the marriage, thank God—that parts true.  What else?  Oh yeah, I didn’t lose a three-million dollar bauxite inheritance to Bernie Madoff.  My folks are still alive, and they’re not leaving me a nickel” (134-135).  Really?  Not one of six kids?

Aside from an improbable escape from some mobsters trying to recover the lost diamond ring, the story is a fun read, and certainly worth the effort.  I guess, if I was forced at gunpoint, I would admit it is entertaining.  Hiaasen does have six novels previous to the eight I own, so, I can see myself lingering near the “H” section of novels and having one more go at Andrew Yancy.  However, by the time I come around to one of his earlier novels, I might just discover a whole new world in Florida.  I you are not familiar with Carl Hiaasen, I am sure, you will get more than an ample reward for a pleasant read of Razor Girl.  4 Stars

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

First a disclaimer: I do not understand much of the intricacies of physics, let alone any algebra or math higher than the most basic of mathematics.  But for most of m reading life I have been fascinated with outer space, which is increased every time new pictures from Hubble appear or photos from the far reaches of our tiny blue dot.  My first look at Carl Sagan and his series, Cosmos, is the centerpiece of what I do know.  Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson became a source of amazement and wonder.  Neil has written a marvelous book titled Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.  I actually read this 208 page book in a single sitting. 

Tyson is a most worthy successor to Carl Sagan.  He explains difficult aspects of physics accessible to all readers who share my fascination.  He begins by breaking down the steps of the Big Bang, beginning with one trillionth of a second after the event up to 1,000,000,000 years ago.  My favorite chapter is “Between the Galaxies.”  He writes, “In the grand tally of cosmic constituents, galaxies are what typically counted.  The latest estimates show that the observable universe may contain a hundred billion of them.  Bright and beautiful and packed with stars, galaxies decorate the dark voids of space like cities across a country at night.  But just how voidy is the void of space?  (How empty is the countryside between cities?)  Just because galaxies are in your face, and just because they would have us believe that nothing else matters, the universe may nonetheless contain hard-to-detect things between the galaxies.  Maybe those things are more interesting, or more important to the evolution of the universe, than the galaxies themselves” (62).  This takes me back to the first time I peered through a department store telescope a looked at a blurry smudge that is the Andromeda Galaxy.

I flirted for a while with considering a degree in astronomy or physics, but the reality of my math skills slammed on the breaks.  I have a weird inability to add, divide, multiply, or subtract more than two figures at a time.  A hand calculator is now my necessary companion.

A hot topic in physics today is the mysterious “dark matter.”  It appears as though the largest amount of matter in our universe is not made up of planets, asteroids, and stars, but rather it is composed of this invisible powerful force.  Tyson says it took geniuses like Newton and Einstein to get us to where we are today.  He wonders who will be the next Sheldon Cooper.  Tyson writes, “We don’t know who’s next in the genius sequence, but we’ve now been waiting nearly a century for somebody to tell us why the bulk of all the gravitational force that we’ve measured is in the universe—about eight-five percent of it—arises from substances that do not otherwise interact with ‘our’ matter or energy.  Or maybe the excess gravity doesn’t come from matter and energy at all, but emanates from some other conceptual thing.  In any case, we are essential clueless.  We find ourselves no closer to an answer today than we were when this ‘missing mass’ problem was first fully analyzed in 1937 by the Swiss-American astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky.  He taught at the California Institute of Technology for more than forty years, combining his far ranging insights into the cosmos with a colorful means of expression and an impressive ability to antagonize his colleagues” (77).  I enjoy the popular comedy, ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ immensely, and I wonder if a real Sheldon Cooper might be in school somewhere, and that I will hear of his discoveries in my lifetime.

If you have an interest in all things scientific—as I do—Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will have you gazing up into the night sky and wondering.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/21/17

New and Selected Poems: Volume Two by Mary Oliver

I recently found Mary Oliver’s collection New and Selected Poems: Volume Two.  The connection I have to her poems is ethereal and pleasing in every sense of the word.  If I have a model to follow, it would most certainly be Mary Oliver.  I have talked about her in several reviews, so this one will only include selections from volume two.

“Work, Sometimes.”  “I was sad all day, and why not.  There I was, books piled on both sides of the table, paper stacked up, words falling off my tongue. // The robins had a long time singing, and now it was beginning to rain. // What are we sure of?  Happiness isn’t a town on a map, or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work ongoing.  Which is not likely to be the trifling around with a poem. // Then it began raining hard, and the flowers in the yard were full of lively fragrance. // You have had days like this, no doubt.  And wasn’t it wonderful, finally, to leave the room?  Ah, what a moment! // As for myself, I swung the door open.  And there was the wordless, singing world.  And I ran for my life.” (6).

“Of What Surrounds Me.”  Whatever it is I am saying, I always / need a leaf or a flower, if not an / entire field.  As for the sky, I am so wildly / in love with each day’s inventions, cool blue / or cat gray or full / of the ships of clouds, I simply can’t / say whatever it is I am saying without / a least one skyful.  That leaves water, a / creek or a well, river or ocean, it has to be / there.  For the heart to be there.  For the pen / to be poised.  For the idea to come.”  (32).

“The Faces of Deer.”  When for too long I don’t go deep enough into the woods to see them, they begin to enter my dreams.  Yes, there they are, in the pinewoods of my inner life.  I want to live a life full of modesty and praise.  Each hoof of each animal makes the sign of a heart as it touches then lifts away from the ground.  Unless you believe that heaven is very near, how will you find it?  Their eyes are pools in which one would be content, on any summer afternoon, to swim away through the door of the world.  Then, love and its blessing.  Then: heaven.” (33).

“The Owl Who Comes.”  “The owl who comes / through the dark / to sit / in the black boughs of the apple tree // and stare down / the hook of his beak, / dead silent, / and his eyes, // like two moons / in the distance, / soft and shining / under their heavy lashes-- // like the most beautiful lie-- / is thinking / of nothing / as he watches // and waits to see / what might appear, / briskly, out of the seamless, // deep winter-- / out of the teeming / world below-- / and if I wish the owl luck, / and I do, / what am I wishing for that other / soft life, / climbing through the snow? // What we must do, / I suppose,/is to hope the world keeps its balance; // what we are to do, however, / with our hearts / waiting and watching—truly / I do not know.” (52-53).

Like so many of her poems, I felt a deep connection. Sometime back, I was out for a pre-dawn walk, when two birds flashed across my eyes—only a foot or two away—and I scared the owl, which flew up into a tree, not more than 10 feet away.  I stood there in a staring contest as we sized each other up.  Then she took off and flew away.

Mary Oliver’s collection, New and Selected Poems: Volume Two, will take you places to see things in a new light.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/10/17

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

I am always a tiny bit nervous when I sit down to read a second novel when the first was terrific.  I have been burned more than once in buying the “sophomore jinx” story.  But this time, my fears were quickly washed away by Paula Hawkins and her new novel, Into the Water.  Her first novel, The Girl on the Train, has been published in 40 countries with 20 million copies sold.

Into the Water seems to me a better novel than Girl.  The only flaw was a confusing number of characters which took me quite a while to sort out with the help of several family trees.  Once I had a clear picture of them—at about page 60 and yes, I did violate my rule of 50—the state of affairs became clear.  She also provided a handy set of epilogues for the surviving main characters. 

As the story begins, Nell Abbot, a single-mother has drowned in a river a short time after a teenager has done the same.  Nell leaves behind her teenage daughter in the care of her sister, Julia “Jules” Abbott.  A popular teen, Katie Whitaker preceded Nell in the river.  The twists and turns had me guessing all the way to the end.  A discerning reader needs to get a handle on the list of suspects as early as possible.  Think three or four family trees.

Each chapter shares thoughts and ideas with the reader.  In this instance, Jules, Nel’s Sister, thinks about her own death.  Hawkins writes, “I pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine.  I looked up.  There were the trees and the stone steps, green with moss and treacherous after the rain.  My entire body goosefleshed.  I remembered this: freezing rain beating the tarmac, flashing blue lights vying with lightening to illuminate the river and the sky, clouds of breath in front of panicked faces, and a little boy, ghost-white and shaking, led up the steps to the road by a policewoman.  She was clutching his hand and her eyes were wide and wild, her head twisting this way and that as she called out to someone.  I can still feel what it felt like that night, the terror and the fascination.  I can still hear your words in my head: What would it be like?  Can you imagine?  To watch your mother die?”

Another interesting character is Nickie.  Some see her as a nuisance, the children as a witch.  Hawkins writes, “Nicki had a flat above the grocery shop, just one room really, with a galley kitchen and a bathroom so tiny it barely warranted the name.  Not much to speak of, not much to show for a whole life, but she had a comfortable armchair by the window that looked out on the town, and that’s where she sat and ate even slept sometimes, because she hardly slept at all these days, so there didn’t seem much point in going to bed: 16).

One good thing about some English mysteries is the lack of guns and shooting.  I quickly found myself trying to untie some of those knots with nothing but the same clues, rumors, and innuendo the police and the family.  Into the Water by Paula Hawkins has about as much suspense as anyone could hope for.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/20/17

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín has been a favorite of mine since the inception of Likely Stories in the fall of 2009.  He was born May 30, 1955.  He is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, critic, and poet.  He has won dozens of awards—far too many to list here.  He is currently a professor of the Humanities at Columbia University in New York, and he is a professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester.  In 2017, he was appointed Chancellor of Liverpool University in 2017.  Colm has written elevan novels along with scads of non-fiction (Wikipedia).  Nora Webster is his tenth novel.  He has a dream career for any aspiring creative writer.  Ever since I immersed myself in the works of James Joyce, I have developed a fascination for Irish writers.  Colm Tóibín is at the undisputed head of that list.

Nora Webster is the story of a woman with four children—two young ladies away at school, Fiona and Aine, and two boys still in high school, Conor and Donal.  As the story opens, Nora has been widowed in her early 40s.  Maurice was the love of her life, and despite this devastating event, she organizes her finances to take care of her children through college.  At first, lots of her neighbors come bearing food and offering help to the point she becomes reclusive.  Tóibín writes, “Once more she noted the hectoring tone, as though she were a child, unable to make proper decisions.  She had tried since the funeral to ignore this tone, or tolerate it.  She had tried to understand that it was shorthand for kindness” (12).  

One day, she gets in the car and drives to a seaside vacation village to visit a house she and Maurice owned.  Everyone tells Nora she should not make any rash decisions.  When she enters the house, she realizes it has no value to her without Maurice.  On a spur of the moment, she sells it to a friend, who gives her the fair market price.  No one takes advantage of Nora.  Tóibín writes, “‘Well, there are a lot of people who are very fond of you” (13).  The children are disappointed, but they accept Nora’s decision.

Nora pays a visit to Fiona at school, and they walk to the train.  Colm writes, “As they looked at one another, Nora felt Fiona was hostile, and forced herself to remember how upset she must be, and how lonely she might be too.  She smiled as she said that they would have to go and in return Fiona smiled at her and the boys.  As soon as Nora walked away, however, she felt helpless and regretted not having said something kind or special, or consoling to Fiona before they left her; maybe even something as simple as asking her when she was coming down next, or emphasizing how much they looked forward to seeing her soon.  She wished she had a phone in the house so she could keep in more regular touch with her.  She thought that she might write Fiona a note in the morning thanking her for coming to meet them” (29).  Nora is as empathetic and kind as anyone could be.  

The biggest problem Nora faces is dealing with her oldest son, Donal.  He stutters and slowly bonds with one of Nora’s sisters.  Margaret is fond of the boy, and when he develops a fascination for photography, she builds a darkroom in her home. Tóibín’s Nora Webster is the story of a wise, warm, empathetic, strong woman, who, when forced to take the reins of the family, does so with determination.  This story can be enjoyed by all ages.  5 stars

--Chiron, 6/10/17

Friday, June 9, 2017

Benediction by Kent Haruf

After his stunning novel, Our Souls at Night blew me away, I am on the verge of completing my reading Kent Haruf’s entire collection.  My latest read, Benediction tells the story of the residents of Holt Colorado in a series of vignettes.  The Johnson women—Willa and Alene--and Berta May and her granddaughter, Alice, and the main characters, Dad Lewis, his wife Mary, and their daughter Lorraine, are all interesting, thoughtful, kind, and generous people.  The only missing person is Frank, the son of Dad and Mary.  He disappeared years ago after a conflict with Dad.  Frank contacts them from time to time, but eventually, he disappears for good. 

After the bad news from a doctor, Haruf writes, ‘They drove out from Denver away from the mountains, back onto the high plains: sagebrush and soapweed and blue grama and buffalo grass in the pastures, wheat and corn in the planted fields.  On both sides of the highway were the gravel country roads going out away under the pure blue sky, all the roads straight as the lines ruled in a book, with only a few small isolated towns spread across the flat open country” (3).

After the visit to the doctor, Mary collapsed in her living room and was rushed to the hospital.  They called their daughter, Lorraine, to come and help out.  Haruf writes, “The next day, Lorraine drove into Holt on Highway 34 after the sun had already gone down and the blue street lamps had come on at the corners.  It was all familiar to her.  She turned north off the highway and drove along past the quiet night-lighted houses set back behind the front yards, some of the yards bare of trees or bushes next to vacant lots filled with weeds—tall sunflowers and redroot and pigweed—and then there was Berta May’s house which had been there when she was a child, and then their own white house.  She got out and went up to the porch, a pretty woman in her mid fifties with dark hair.  The air was cool and smelled fresh of the country in the evenings out on the high plains” (15).  I have only been to Colorado twice, but this description recalls all the details of those brief visits.

Haruf describes Willa and Alene.  He writes, “It was her way, Willa’s manner and her character to keep the house clean and in good repair out in the country east of Holy though few people drove by to see it and almost no one ever visited and entered it.  A white house with blue shutters and a blue shingled roof.  The outbuildings were all painted a deep barn red with white trim snd they were in good condition too though they had not been used for thirty years, since her husband had died. // She still drove her car.  Her eyes were failing but not so much nor so fast she was ready to give up driving” (46).  There seems to be a favorite color of Haruf’s, blue, and I will look for this in the last two novels I have.

This story is—like all of Haruf’s novels—spell-binding and comforting in the goodness of these people.  I will be sad to complete my reading of Haruf; however, this is a collection I will go back to someday.  Kent Haruf’s prose is so soft and smooth, I can hear their gentle voices.  Even the weather receives as much attention as larger details, and I found myself immersed in the author’s world.  Benediction is a novel I found hardest to put down.  Mesmerized is a word I do not often use, but it aptly applies here.  5 stars

--Chiron, 6/3/17