Saturday, May 13, 2017

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I love coming across a new author and a first novel.  According to her website, Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Story Quarterly, Story South, and elsewhere.  In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction.  She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.  She received a DC Commission on the Arts Grant for her forthcoming second novel, Balm.  Dolen teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine.  She is a graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA.  She is a popular guest for Black History and Women's Month programs.  Dolen lives in Washington, DC with her family.  Wench is an absorbing, heart rending story of a group of women slaves in the middle of the 19th century.

I have read a number of African-American novels in my time.  Among these are Beloved (and others) by Toni Morrison, Eva’s Man by Gayle Jones, and of course, the novels of Zora Neale Hurston.  While they all contained horrific accounts of African-Americans, and all were compelling and well-written, none had the lyric beauty of Dolen’s prose.  The novel has a number of pastoral scenes frequently interrupted by the horrors of slavery.

The novel centers around four slaves, Sweet, Lizzie, Reenie, and Mawu.  All are owned by men with a varying degree of concern for their slaves.  Lizzie was the mistress of Drayle, who treated her better than most slave owners, but, nevertheless he was not above slapping or raping her.  She knew early on Drayle’s wife was unable to conceive, and so after Lizzie twice became pregnant, her focus shifted to her son Nate and her daughter Rabbit in hopes of earning their freedom.

Perkins-Valdez writes, “The slaves had been back at Tawawa house for only a short time before Mawu was spotted sweeping her cottage porch as if she’d never left.  As they passed one another, they gave the silent signal to meet at the stables that night: eye contact, a glance in the direction of the stables, and brushed fingertips down the forearm to signal dusk” (34).  These women were resourceful.

As the women became acquainted with Mawu, she told her story.  Dolen writes, “Mamu told them she was telling her story so they would know why she couldn’t go back to Louisiana, why she didn’t feel the same pull they felt toward their children.  She didn’t live in the big house like Lizzie.  Her children did not have special favors like Sweet’s.  She hadn’t had a cabin built for her like Reenie.  She was just a slave like any other – beaten, used, and made to feel no different than a cow or a goat or a chicken” (42).  Later in the novel, Wamu was whipped into unconsciousness because her owner, Tip, heard she was thinking about running away.

Because of her special “relationship” with Drayle, Lizzie was taught to read.  Perkins-Valdez writes, “As Lizzie learned the meaning s of new words and what the letters looked like on the page, it became more difficult to hide the fact she could read.  She wanted to read everything.  She scanned the spines of books along the shelves in Drayle’s library.  She looked over [Mistress] Fran’s shoulder as she cleaned around her, straining to make out the handwriting of Fran’s mother.  She wanted to read to the slaves in the cabins.  There was only one man among them who could read the newspaper, and Lizzie thought she might be able to read as well as he could.  She wanted to show him up, prove that women could learn, have everyone’s eyes hungry for her mouth to open and turn the piece of pulp in her hands into hope” (94-95).  Despite living under the most extremely horrific circumstances, the thirst to learn burned in Lizzie’s heart.

Time and again, when things seemed hopeless, and one of the women said they needed the help of a man, “No. […] Us can do this our own selves” (187).  Near the end of the novel, Lizzie thinks about her daughter.  Dolen writes, “As she leaned against the porch post, she thought of Rabbit and what she would teach her.  This was what she would say: Don’t give in to the white man.  And if you have to give in, don’t give your soul over to him.  Love yourself first.  Fix it so you don’t give him children.  If you ever make it to freedom, remember your mammy who tried to be good to you.  Hold fast to your women friends because they are going to be there when ain’t nobody else there.  If you don’t believe in God, it’s all right.  God believes in you.  Never forget your name.  Keep track of your years and how old you are.  Don’t be afraid to say how you feel.  Learn a craft so you always have something to barter other than your private parts” (287-288).  I find it difficult to imagine a mother having to give her daughter advice like this.  It reminds me of the mothers in Ferguson, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities where woman have to teach their children to fear the police and how to act if stopped.  This passage brought tears to my eyes.

The strength, courage, intelligence, and persistence of these four women was heart-warming, and, sometimes, horrific.  But against overwhelming odds, these woman managed to maintain their dignity and raise children, all the while under the constant threat of the whip.  Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a tremendously inspiring story.  While not sugar-coating the horrors of slavery, it demonstrated how – under incredibly difficult circumstances – they were able to maintain a sense of decency to pass onto their children.  5 stars

--Chiron, 4/30/17

Soul at the White heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates

About a month ago, I began a three-part review of Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates.  Part One dealt with essays by Oates about the “Writing Life.”  We now turn to “Part Two, Classics” which deals with reviews of classic authors Oates selected for inclusion in this magnificent work. 

A review of My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead starts off this section.  Middlemarch is one of my most loved stories of the 19th century.  One of my original ideas for grad school centered on women’s British novels including George Eliot, the Bront√ęs, and Jane Austen.  Mead’s work involves a little known genre, the bibliomemoir.  I have a couple of these in my collection and they are always enjoyable excursions through literary fiction backed up by a non-fiction memoir.  U and I by Nicholson Baker examines the author’s connection to John Updike.  Sharing points of intersection with these works is a real rush.

Oates discusses an author I recently discovered who has captured my imagination.  Georges Simenon, born 1903 and died 1989, has me scrambling to find more of his work.  He has written nearly 400 titles, including seventy-fife showcasing the detective, Inspector Maigret.  Oates points out that his novellas have given birth to the genre.  She writes, “A “simenon” is a sparely constructed novella” by the phenomenal Belgian-born Georges Simenon” (108).  I add to my collection by accidentally stumbling on a book here and there.  I am afraid a thorough search my just bankrupt my book budget.

In “Two American Prose Masters: John Updike, Ralph Ellison” Oates examines the work of my number one favorite author, John Updike.  She describes his work as, “brilliantly condensed, intensely lyric homage to the voice of another American contemporary, J. D. Salinger,” in a story “most anthologized, as it is likely the Updike story most readily accessible to young readers” (117).  In my literature classes, I always compare this story, “A&P” to a wonderful James Joyce story, “Araby.”  Both stories demonstrate a young boys coming of age in difficult situations.  Updike is an outstanding and prolific short story writer, and I cannot recommend him more highly.

In “A Visit with Dorris Lessing” – another of my favorite authors – enlightened me as to the inner workings of Doris’s mind and how she constructed her writings.  She had an interesting life, having been born in Iran, and traveling in Africa and London.  Oates writes, “Doris Lessing is direct, womanly, very charming.  She wears her long, graying black hair drawn into a bun at the back of her head; her face is slender and attractive” (122).  Oates admits she “had been reading and admiring for so long.  Meeting her at last I felt almost faint – certainly unreal – turning transparent myself in the presence of this totally defined, self-confident, gracious woman” (122).  I can honestly report I have felt that same tingling when in the presence of authors I love and admire.

Other works in this section include Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, and “The King of the Weird”: H. P. Lovecraft, whom Oates describes as “The American writer of the 20th century most frequently compared to Poe, in the quality of his art […], its thematic preoccupations […] and its critical and commercial reception during the writer’s truncated lifetime […] is H.P. Lovecraft (74).  Even my students, who are horror fans, appreciate his work.

There is so much more to Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates than I can ever hope to reveal in a brief review.  However, anyone interested in writing, reading, and collecting will find this volume most enjoyable.  Stay tuned for Part Three.

--Chiron, 4/29/2017

Night by Elie Wiesel

Back when I was in high school, I worked at a soda fountain/diner near my home.  I cleaned pots and pans, helped the waitress clear tables, served some customers, and made about fifty-cents an hour.  The couple who owned the place had peculiar accents.  One day, I happened to see some numbers on the arm of the woman, and I asked her what they meant.  She asked me what did I know about the Holocaust, but I only have a few vague and scattered notions of what happened during World War II.  Her husband had a similar number.  Both had been in Auschwitz. 

At the library, I asked for books about the murder of 6 million Jews and another 6 million men, women, and children.  One book struck me, it was This Must Not Happen Again.  The pictures were horrific beyond anything my 15-year-old imagination.  The next year, we read Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his time in Auschwitz, Night.  Some of the knuckleheads in the class, laughed and made jokes, but I knew better. 

Considering the disturbing climate of Zenophobia spreading across the U.S. and the world today, I re-read Wiesel’s book.  I could not stop reading for a minute.  All the old images, together with Jack and Leah’s stories came pouring out like some poison released in my room.

Then my thoughts turned to the title: This Must Not Happen Again, and I realized it has – and is -- happening again today all over the world.  The slaughter of an estimated two million Cambodians under Pol Pot, Darfur, Rwanda, Angola, now Syria, and numerous other ethnic and religious groups all around the planet.

I will not give any excerpts, because this book needs to be digested – preferably in one sitting – to take in the truly disgusting depths to which the human species is capable.  The history of the human race, dating back hundreds of thousands of years, attests to the strategy of turning one group against another by blaming the “others” for all the problems and woes a particular society faces.

In a Preface to my new edition, Wiesel asks, “Why did I write it?  Did I write it so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind?  Was it to leave behind a legacy of words, of memories, to help prevent history from repeating itself?  Or was it simply to preserve a record of the ordeal I endured as an adolescent, at an age when one’s knowledge of death and evil should be limited to what one discovers in literature?” (vii).  Even at a point in my life far removed from the concentration camps and the gas chambers, and crematoria, my stomach turned at Wiesel’s descriptions.

Wiesel concludes the preface, “I believe it Important to emphasize how strongly I feel that books, just like people, have a destiny.  Some invite sorrow, others joy, some both” (xiv).  He continues, “Sometimes I am asked if I know ‘response to Auschwitz’; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response.  […]  The witness has forced himself to testify.  For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow.  He does not want his past to become their future.

Elie Wiesel’s horrific memoir, Night, should be on every thinking-person’s reading list.  We must not allow our neighbors around the corner or around the globe to be subjected to this horror.

--Chiron, 4/23/17

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I dimly remember reading Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter around the time we were reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  At the least my current reading of McCullers reminds me of Harper Lee’s great novel.  Set in the days at the end of 1939, she recaptures all the difficulties at the tail end of the depression.  Inevitably, it also examines the Jim Crow era in the south.  This classic novel should be on everyone’s bookshelf.

According to the back cover, Carson McCullers was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1917.  She graduated from high school at 16, and began to pursue a dream of becoming a concert pianist.  Rheumatic fever cut short those hopes.  While in recovery, she became a voracious reader and decided to become a writer.  Carson wrote a total of nine novels, one of which was made into a play.  She died at the young age of fifty in New York. 

The title of the novels tells all – the southern town is populated by characters who struggle with loneliness throughout their lives.  McCullers begins the novel with the appearance of Singer and Antonapoulos.  She writes, “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.  Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work.  The two friends were very different.  The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek.  In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging loose behind.  When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater.  His face was round and oily, with half closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid smile.  The other mute was tall.  His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression.  He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed” (3).  These two men carry a thread through the entire novel, and they affect a variety of characters in an almost exclusively positive way.

Mick Kelly a 16-year-old high school student, began to develop a strange attraction to the tall Mr. Singer.  She secretly followed him to work in the morning, and she waited for him after his work day ended.  She thought of him constantly.  Singer welcomed her into his apartment, where they played chess, listened to the radio, and talked about their lives.  Singer held up his end of the conversation with a silver pencil.  Everyone liked Mick and Singer, and several other people visited Singer for the same purposes.  Even an African-American Doctor had been partially abandoned by his children.  In one scene, he sits in a rocking chair in his empty house as his children try and move him into retirement.

As any reader can imagine, all of the characters spend vast amounts of time reflecting on their lives, fretting about their future, or the impending war.  I frequently found myself deeply involved with these characters.  I wanted to sympathize, to advise, to help them.  Carson McCuller’s splendid novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, is anything but dull and depressing.  It is, however, a story which drew me into this town, the local bar, the doctor’s office, the apartment where Singer and Mick lived, and the quiet lives most of these characters experienced.  Be prepared.  The ending is startling.  5 stars

--Chiron, 4/22/17

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Book on the Book Shelf Henry Petroski

Quite a few years ago, I learned of a book about pencils.  I thought it was silly, so I passed it by without a second thought—that is until now.  The author of The Pencil has now written a book about bookshelves.  Boring you say?  I wondered about that, too, but from the first page I was trapped.  Henry Petroski is the author of The Book on the Book Shelf.  It turns out he also authored a staggeringly long paean to the humble pencil.  Need I mention a copy of The Pencil arrived while I was writing this review? 

The Book on the Book Shelf is an interesting look at the evolution of book shelves from Alexandria all the way to modern libraries with all sorts of digital tools and equipment to keep track of, sort, and shelve tens of thousands of books.  I must admit I was incredulous that such a book existed, or would be widely read, yet, I secretly yearned to find out what it is all about.  This may not seem exciting, but the first page put me on a thrilling ride through history.  I have said this before about trees, and I gleefully repeat myself, I will never again look at my bookshelves as mere furniture.  As Petroski writes, “One evening, while reading in my study, I looked up from my book and saw my bookshelves in a new and different light.  Instead of being just places on which to store books, the shelves themselves intrigued me as artifacts in their own right” (ix).  This is the first sentence of the preface, and I immediately closed the book, and looked at my shelves.  I realized each had a story to tell, and each held remembrances of all the decades we had spent together.

Petroski tells us “over 50,000 books are published each year in America alone” (5).  I wish I didn’t know this fact.  Now I will never catch up!  Every time I visit friends or family, I find time to slip away and examine their shelves.  I believe a lot can be learned by examining a library.  One time, to my horror, I visited a “friend-of-a-friend’s house and could not find a single book—except for some cookbooks in the kitchen.  I was stunned!  How awful that must be to live without books.  I believe it was Cicero who wrote, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”  Petroski writes, “The bookshelf, like the book, has become an integral part of civilization as we know it, its presence in a home practically defining what it means to be civilized, educated, and refined.  Indeed, the presence of bookshelves greatly influences our behavior” (4).  I must admit I take on a reverential calm when I am among my books or merely walking down the hall.

Petroski has chapters on scrolls and manuscripts, printing and binding, and of course stories of the medieval monks bent over an illuminated manuscript.  He explains how books became chained to the library tables.  He also includes dozens of intriguing drawings of medieval scholars reading at desks with a variety of solutions to storing books in the background. 

I think Henry Petroski has tapped a much ignored vein, which, once let loose, will start a renewed interest in bookshelves as much more than mere furniture.  The Book on the Book Shelf belongs in every library along with Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, Sears Subject Headings, and an O.E.D.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 3/30/17

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders has received enormous praise for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.  I try to be wary of over-hyping, but when one of my several trusted friends spoke so highly of it, I decided to read it.  At first, I felt as if it was another “gimmick” novel, but it turned out to be a “gimmick” I have never seen.  The first, obvious peculiarity I notice was the structure, but then I became intrigued.  The “Bardo” is a Tibetan word for the time after death and before the soul is “taken away.”

According to Wikipedia, Saunders is an American writer of short stories, essays, novellas, and children’s books.  His writing has appeared in The New Yorker as well as other magazines.  He was born December 2, 1958 in Amarillo, TX, and he has won a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as several other awards.  He lists his influences as Kurt Vonnegut, Pynchon, Flannery O’Conner, John Updike, and Steinbeck.  He is a professor at Syracuse University.

The story begins casually enough with a man who marries a woman much younger than himself.  On the day after his wedding, he goes to his office, and while seated at his desk, Saunders writes, “A beam from the ceiling came down, hitting me just here, as I sat at my desk.  And so while our [honeymoon] must be deferred, while I recovered.  Per the advice of my physician, I took to my-- // A sort of sick box was judged to be—hans vollman // Efficacious.  roger bevins iii // Efficacious, yes,  Thank you, friend.  hans vollman // Always a pleasure.  roger bevins iii” // There I lay, in my sick-box, feeling foolish, in the parlor, the very parlor through which we had recently (gleefully, guiltily, her hand in mine) passed en route to her bedroom.  Then the physician returned, and his assistant carried my sick-box to his sick-cart, and I saw that—I saw that our plan must be indefinitely delayed” (5).  As I am sure you are aware, hans is dead, as is roger blevins iii.  The names appear on the page as if they are scripts for a film.  The names of hans, roger, and all the inhabitants of the Bardo are all in lower case with about an 8 point font.  The rest of the novel involves conversations of more than forty deceased characters.

When willie appears in the Bardo, the other souls try to reconnect him with his father who pays daily visits his tomb.  They believe that a connection to Lincoln can save Willie for a life in the Bardo, so he won’t be "taken away. "

Most of the conversation takes place among, hans, bevins, and the reverend everly thomas.  There are some characters who provide a tiny dab of humor.  The barons use a stream of obscenities each time they talk, and thankfully, only the first and last letter of each word appears with a dash between them.  Another character, actually corrects the grammar of the deceased. 

Interspersed with the conversations of the deceased are the italicized thoughts of Abraham Lincoln as he agonizes over the way the Civil War is being conducted, as well as the death of his son willie.

The novel has 108 chapters, some with only a single line of text.  Occasionally, Saunders places what appear to be newspaper, magazine articles, and quotes from works of history regarding Willie’s death and Lincoln’s presidency.  This 343-page novel can be read in a single sitting.

This interesting novel, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is a novel that will keep you in your chair to find out what happens next!  5 stars.

--Chiron, 4/2/17

Soul at the White Heat by Joyce Carol Oates (Part One)

When I first began collecting Joyce Carol Oates back in the 70s, I had no idea how difficult a task it might be.  She averages about 5 books a year, but some have slipped past me leaving a hole like a missing tooth.  Her latest work is one that made move it to the top of my TBR pile.  Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life encapsulates all the things I love about her work.  The title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem.  Of the thirty-three essays in this amazing collection, fifteen are by Oates and the remaining represent many of the writers I most admire: for example, John Updike, Doris Lessing, J.M. Coetzee, Julian Barnes, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, and Margaret Drabble to name a few. 

The first four essays are by Oates and deal with “The Writing Life.”  The first asks the question, “Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living?”  This has haunted me for decades.  When I finish a book, my first order of duty is searching for my next read.  I have numerous piles from which to choose from, but sometimes, I feel as though I need to take a break from reading.  That break rarely lasts longer than a few hours, while my mind wanders among the shelves searching for the next read.  This obsession never dies, although the flames do flicker a bit.  Joyce quotes numerous authors as far back as the ancient Greeks right up to Updike.  Swimming through this essay alone, visiting authors like Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and many others too numerous to count, compensates ten-fold for the purchase of the book.  In he next essay, she provides her “Five Motives for Writing.”  It is as if she has hacked my brain and reminded me of why I love to write.  “Commemoration,” “Bearing Witness,” “Self-Expression,” “Propaganda, or moralizing,” and “Aesthetic Object,” are all reasons I write, even though I never planned that out.  They seem to me natural reasons for writing.  What could possibly be a better validation for an aspiring writing from such a source.  She finishes this section with “Anatomy of a Story,” and “The Writing Room.”  Once again, she has described – with only a few minor alterations, my writing place.

Joyce writes, “There is surely some subtle connection between the vistas we face, and the writing we accomplish, as a dream takes its mood and imagery from our waking life” (46).  She continues, “[My] writing room replicates to a degree, the old, lost vistas of my childhood.  What it contains is less significant to me than what overlooks though obviously there are precious things here.  […]  Like all writers, I have made my writing room a sanctuary of the soul” (46).  Joyce admits, “I love my study and am unhappy to leave it for long” (47).  Need I say exactly the same thing about my library, my desk, my teetering piles of novels.  This is what have drawn me to Oates since I first read her back in the 60s.

This review is only “Part One” of what I have to say about this marvelous, enchanting, thought provoking guide to the writing life.  To me, Oates is the premier woman of letters alive today.  In “Part Two,” I will talk about some of the other essays she has written, and “Part Three” will look at some of the reviews Oates has written.  Stay tuned—if you have the patience to wait—or, if you are like me, rush out and add this to your library.  Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates is a book every writer should own.  I cannot recommend more it more highly.  Part One merits—5 Stars.

--Chiron, 4/2/17