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

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler


A few years ago, a friend urged me to read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All besides Our Selves.  This story told of animal rescue people who plan to release a number of caged chimpanzees used in experimentation.  As much as I liked Besides Ourselves, this Fowler novel adds to my admiration of Fowler, while adding to my collection of books with a book club theme.  The Jane Austen Book Club pre-dates the first Fowler I read, and it is a worthy addition to my collection. 

A “Prologue” lists the members and adds a thumbnail description of their interests and background.  Here are main characters.  Fowler writes, “Each of us has a private Austen. // Jocelyn’s Austen wrote wonderful novels about love and courtship, but never married.  The book club was Jocelyn’s idea, and she handpicked the members.  […]  Bernadette’s Austen was a comic genius.  Her characters, her dialogue remained genuinely funny, […] Prudie had once seen Bernadette in the supermarket in her bedroom slippers; she was the youngest at twenty-eight. […]  //  Jocelyn met Sylvia when they were both eleven years old; they were in their early fifties now.  Sylvia’s Austen was a daughter, a sister, and an aunt, […] who wrote her books in a busy sitting room” (1-2).  Corinne, Sylvia’s daughter, was the fifth member.

Bernadette suggested, “I think we should all be women, [   ] The dynamic changes with men.  They pontificate rather than communicate.  They talk more than their share’” […] “Besides, men don’t do book clubs, […] They see reading as a solitary pleasure.  When they read at all” (3).  Lastly, the sixth member was Grigg.  Fowler writes, “None of us knew who Grigg’s Austen was” (4-5).  I really enjoyed watching these six people reveal their innermost feelings about Jane Austen and each other.  Incidentally, our club has several male members who admirably participate.

My only regrets about this book is the limited number of members—my club averages about 10-16 per meeting, but the novel only accounts for six meetings.  In an epigram, Fowler quotes Austen’s great novel, Emma, “Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.”  My love of Jane Austen is second only to the Brontës.  I feel the urge for an Austen survey in the near future.

In one interesting discussion, the group creates “A partial list of things not found in the books of Jane Austen: locked-room murders; punishing kisses; girls dressed up as boys (and rarely the reverse); spies, serial killers; cloaks of invisibility; Jungian archetypes, and most regrettably, doppelgängers; and cats” (43). 

Allegra weighs in with a criticism of Austen.  Fowler writes, “Alegra was trying hard not to express any of Corinne’s opinions, but every time she spoke, Corinne’s words came out.  Corinne was in no mood to praise a writer like Austen, who wrote so much about love when the world was full of other things, ‘Everything in Austen is on the surface,’ Corinne said.  ‘She’s not a writer who uses images.  Image is the way to bring the unsaid into the text.  With Austen, everything is said’” (74).

I found the discussions of this club fascinating.  I also see many of my friends in our club sharing the same thoughts.  I am happiest when not everyone agrees to love, like, or hate a particular book.  Sharing this small corner of the 18th and 19th centuries is what I love most about literature.  If you haven’t read Austen in a while—or at all—she is certainly worth the time and effort for many wonderful stories.  Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club is an enchanting place to begin or revisit the world of Jane Austen.

--Chiron, 5/6/18

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway


I am fortunate to coordinate a Book Club made up of a number of erudite and voracious readers.  I come away from every meeting with some new insights, some new authors, and an all-around fun evening.  This past month I was introduced to Steven Galloway, a Canadian novelist and a former professor at the University of British Columbia.  He has won several awards for The Cellist of Sarajevo

This novel, a bit over 230 pages, is packed with an intensity I relish in a good read.  The novel is set at the height of the War in Sarajevo.  The city is in ruins, and mortar shells rain down and snipers seem to be around every corner.  The novel opens with, “It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort.  A target expanded in size, brought into focus by time and velocity.  There was a moment before impact that was the last instant of things as they were.  Then the visible world exploded. // In 1945, an Italian musicologists found four bars of a sonata’s base line in the rubble of the firebombed Dresden Music Library.  He believed these were the work of the 17th century Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni and spent the next 12 years reconstructing a larger piece from the charred manuscript fragment” (xv).  According to this introduction, scholars are divided over the authenticity of the piece.  We know it today as “Albinoni’s Adagio,” music of sublime and moving beauty.

Four main characters weave tales of the terrible destruction of Sarajevo.  Kenan, a man trying to keep his family and friends with enough water; Dragan, a soldier directing the defense of the city; Arrow is a young woman who has been recruited as a sniper; and a musician known only as “The cellist.”  When a surprise mortar attack kills 22 people lined up for bread, the Cellist begins playing the Adagio for twenty-two days—one for each of the 22 people who died.  Arrow is assigned to protect the cellist.  Galloway writes, ‘[Arrow] reaches down and picks up a small piece of glass.  Glass is disappearing from the city.  […]  One pane at a time the windows through which people see the world are vanishing. // This is how she now believes life happens.  One small thing at a time.  A series of inconsequential junctions, any or none of which can lead to salvation or disaster” (82).

Arrow is an excellent sniper.  After a while, she has an existential crisis about killing.  She decides to quit and try to escape the city.  Dragan reminds her she is a soldier, and he commands her to follow his orders to shoot as ordered.  She prefers finding her own targets, but Dragan insists. 

Kenan lives in his apartment with his wife Amila, and he must travel every day for water.  Galloway writes, “Another day has just begun.  Light streams its way into the apartment, where it finds Kenan in his kitchen, his hand reaching for the plastic jug containing his family’s final quarter-liter of water.  His movement is slow and stiff.  […]  Like him, [Amila’s] middle age has somehow escaped her.  She’s barely thirty-seven but looks well over fifty.  Her hair is thin and her skin hangs loose off her flesh, suggesting a former woman, who, Kenan knows, never was” (13).

Steven Galloway’s taught novel is hard to put down.  The tension is on every page.  The Cellist of Sarajevo is a story you will not soon forget.

--Chiron, 4/15/18  

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren


A few years ago, I heard of a book, which seemed interesting.  The Wild Trees by Richard Preston turned out to be much more than interesting.  It changed forever my opinion of the giant redwoods inhabiting the Pacific North West.  I have recently received a book from a friend, which repeats my experience with the trees.  Lab Girl by Hope Jahren does for soil what Preston did for forests of giant sequoias, although Hope sprinkles some personal and professional obstacles she was forced to overcome.

Jahren writes, “For several billion years, the whole of the Earth’s land surface was completely barren.  Even after life had richly populated the oceans, there is no clear evidence for any life on land.  While herds of trilobites wallowed on the ocean floor preyed upon by […] a segmented marine insect the size of a Labrador retriever—there was nothing on land.  Sponges, mollusks, snails, corals, and exotic crinoids maneuvered through nearshore and deep-water environments” (177).  “The first jawed and jawless fishes appeared and radiated into the bony forms we know today. // Sixty million more years passed before there was life on land that constituted, and more than a few single cells stuck together within the cracks of a rock. […]  Once the first plant did somehow make its way onto land, however, it took only a few million years for all of the continents to turn green, first with wetlands and then with forests” (177).  Crinoids are primitive creatures that live in shallow waters to as far as 9,000 meters below the surface.

Hope’s constant search for more interesting examples of soil took her to many remote places.  She writes, “The place where we work in the Artic is more than 1,000 miles away from the nearest tree, but it wasn’t always like that.  Canada and Siberia are loaded with the remains of what were lush deciduous conifer forests that sprawled north of the Arctic Circle for tens of millions of years, starting about 50 million years ago.  Tree-dwelling rodents climbed the branches of these forests and looked down upon huge tortoises and alligator-like reptiles.  All these animals are now extinct, but together they formed an ecosystem more reminiscent of Alice’s Wonderland than of anything that can be found today” (195).

As a dedicated and curious scientist, Hope naturally becomes aware of all the creatures around her.  She writes, “There is a wasp that cannot reproduce outside the flower of a fig; this same fig flower cannot be fertilized without the help of a wasp.  When the female wasp lays her eggs inside the fig flower, she also deposits the pollen that coated her when she hatched within a different fig flower.  These two organisms—the wasp and the fig—have enjoyed this arrangement for almost 90 million years, evolving together through the extinction of the dinosaurs and across multiple ice ages” (203).


The author has an interesting epigram from Helen Keller: “The more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.”  Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is an interesting excursion into an area of science I know little about.  Her story of soil all around us, will make an interesting companion to The Wild Trees.

--Chiron, 6/9/2018

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy


My better half and I love about two thirds of each other’s books, and we avoid each other’s thirds.  This causes friendly disagreements over choices.  Now, we have what some might call a healthy library, so there is more than a lifetime of reading for each of us.  A case in point is Pat Conroy’s memoir, The Water is Wide.  Hardly a week goes by when I don’t find one of her favorites finds its way into my TBR pile, and I must confess to some squirreling away of my favorites in hers.  Then my book club choose this Conroy for our book club.  I was trapped, I had to give in and read this book.  Now, deciding which authors to read or to avoid is a complicated process for me. 

Conroy is a best-selling author, and he is noted for his novels set in his native South Carolina.  River is an autobiographical story of his first year of teaching.  He chooses an island off the coast of South Carolina, Yamacraw Island.  Conroy’s description of the horrific lack of education turned my stomach.  Conroy recites the abysmal list of the failure of the school board to take care of students merely because they were black.  Conroy wrote, “‘Six children who could not recite the alphabet.  Eighteen children who did not know the President.  Eighteen children who did not know what country they lived in…’  I slammed twenty-three of these strange facts down their throats, hoping they would gag and choke on the knowledge.  My voice grew tremulous and enraged, and it suddenly felt as if I were shouting from within a box with madmen surrounding me, ignoring me, and taunting me with their silence.  My lips trembled convulsively as my speech turned into a harangue and the great secret I had nursed in my soul thundered into the open room” (266).  Disgust at the treatment of these children is not powerful enough; shame is not powerful enough to brand this pitifully racist schoolboard consisting of seven whites and two African-American women.  The placement of these two women was gerrymandering of a sort. 

Not only were these children neglected and dismissed as “unteachable,” Yamacraw Island faced another catastrophe.  Conroy writes, “Then a villain appeared.  It was an industrial factory situated on a knoll above the Savannah River many miles away from Yamacraw.  The villain spewed its excrement into the river, infected the creeks, and as silently as the pull of the tides, the filth crept to the shores of Yamacraw.  As every good inspector knows, the unfortunate consumer who lets an infected oyster slide down his throat is flirting with hepatitis” (5). 

Conroy confesses to a period he was racist himself.  While he was in high school, a teacher invited a group of students, including Conroy, to his home.  The students teased the professor for being a n****r-lover.  The professor “spat out a devastating reply” then “he played ‘We Shall Overcome’ by Pete Seger.  I remember that moment with crystal clarity and I comprehended it as a turning point in my life: a moment terrible in its illumination of a toad in my soul, an ugliness so pervasive that it seemed my insides were vomit”  Of course, it still took a while for Conroy to completely abandon his prejudices, he continues, “the journey at least had a beginning, a point of embarkation” (94-95).  The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy is a story we must never forget.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 3/23/18