Monday, March 5, 2018

Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent

One of my favorite reads of 2017 was Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf.  This tender story is of a widower and a widow who develop a close bond.  I never expected to come across a similar story of a man in his 90s and a woman about half his age.  Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent proved to be every bit as tender, as the two dealt with their own losses.  Edward lost his wife, and Isabel suffers from a traumatic divorce.  This touching story is true.  Vincent is an investigative journalist who writes for The New York Post.  She is a Canadian citizen graduated from the University of Toronto, and she has authored several books.  Edward happens to quite a good chef.

Isabel meets with a long-time friend, Valerie, and she opens up to her friend that her 90+ year-old father is slowing wasting away.  His wife has recently died, and Edward is inconsolable.  Valerie asks Isabel—now living in New York—if she would mind checking up on him from time to time.  Edward has decided he would rather die than spend his remaining years alone.  Vincent writes, “I don’t know if the temptation of a good meal did it for me, or if I was just as lonely that even the prospect of spending time with a depressed nonagenarian seemed appealing” (4).  Isabel agrees, and the wheels of this beautiful story begin to turn.

At first, Isabel felt a bit nervous.  She writes, “In the beginning I would invariably arrive at Edward’s apartment with a bottle of wine.  ‘No need to bring anything, baby,’ he said, although I often ignored the advice, finding it difficult to show up for dinner empty-handed. // And there was no need to knock on the door or ring the doorbell, Edward told me.  He always knew when I was coming because the doorman would call up to his apartment when I walked through the front doors of his building” (5).  She writes, “I could never have imagined that meeting Edward would change my life” (4).

Each chapter begins with a menu for the evening.  At first the meals tended slightly away from simple.  For example, the first mean included “Grilled Sirloin Steak, Sauce Bourguignonne, New Potatoes, Chocolate Soufflé, Malbec” (5).

Naturally, the conversation revolves around the personal events in their lives.  Edward explains, “‘I’m a man who loves women, for all the obscure reasons as well as the obvious ones’, Edward wrote to me in a letter shortly after we met.  ‘Their femininity, their charm, desirability, delicacy, warmth, beauty, tenderness and on and on—a list too long to record.  But I have only been in love with one woman all my mature life” (29).  “I wouldn’t have lived this long without her” (29).  Edward met Paula in a Greenwich Village theater in 1940.

Later, the dinners become more elaborate.  “Chicken Paillard, Sauce aux Champignons, Pomme de Terre Souffles, Baked Acorn Squash, Vanilla Ice cream, Bourbon/Pastis Cocktail, Chardonnay” (54).  I love dining out with my wife, and these kinds of memorable meals are—on occasion—menus we try at home.  More often, however, we try restaurants all over Texas, and especially when we travel.

Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent is a truly moving story of two lonely people developing a close and wonderful bond.  Read this novel and see if you can increase the romance in your life.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/23/18

Back on the Fire by Gary Snyder

A few years ago, I met Gary Snyder at an event at Baylor.  I had read some of his poetry, and I was in awe of all those I read.  A friend passed along a copy of his volume of essays, Back on the Fire.  He has authored numerous collections of poetry and prose.  He won the Pulitzer prize in 1975 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992 and 2005.  He has also won the prestigious Bollingen Poetry Prize among other prizes.  He has lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada since 1970.  Many of the essays in this collection from 2007 are quite relevant today. 

The first deals with “Migration/Immigration.”  He writes, “There are those who argue that since the majority of the North American population is descended from immigrants it would be somehow wrong to change past policies and try to slow immigration down or even bring it to a halt.  This backward-looking position fails to see that, although people do move to new places, they can be expected in time to become members of that place and to think in terms of the welfare of the place itself.  People who have moved do no remain immigrants, with ‘Old Country’ nostalgia, forever—when our loyalties are to the land we live on, the debate changes” (17).  If only we could have a real, honest, humanitarian debate.

Preserving the environment is important to Snyder.  He writes, “We may speak of ‘public land’ or ‘private land,’ but the truth is we are in the presence of an ancient mystery—life itself—and the great life-communities within which all beings thrive and die.  The pines were contemporary with the dinosaurs; the sequoias were a dominant forest that swept across the north Pacific rim and into much of Asia, long ago.  Oakes are in several genus found on every continent except Antarctica.  Indeed, ‘distinguished strangers from another world.’  They are all amazing.  We live in a lovely and mysterious realm” (37).

Of course, Snyder must weigh in on poetry.  He writes, “People are always asking ‘what’s the use of poetry?’  The mystery of language, the poetic imagination, and the mind of compassion are roughly one and the same, and through poetry perhaps they can keep guiding the world toward occasional moments of peace, gratitude, and delight.  One hesitates to ask for more” (60).  What a lovely way to explain poetry!

 During an interview, Snyder explained poetry this way, “The act of making something, bringing elements together and creating a new thing with craft and wit hidden in it, is a great pleasure.  It’s not the only sort of pleasure, but it is challenging and satisfying, and not unlike other sorts of creating and building.  In Greek ‘poema’ means ‘makings.’  It doesn’t change with the years, or with the centuries.” (99).  My large collection of poetry—dating back almost 8,000 years—can attest to the truth of Gary Snyder’s words.

Gary Snyder is an interesting, gentle, soft-spoken lover of nature and all its wonders.  He advocates for the environment and mourns the loss of species, habitats, flowers, and trees.  His slim volume of essays, Back on Fire, is an interesting look at the world we inhabit.  He is not pedantic, but he rather gently gathers words and phrases to support the importance of this tiny blue dot.  5 Stars.

--Chiron, 2/20/18

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I admit to a lack of interest in Neil Gaiman, but my book club chose Norse Mythology for last February's meeting.  It turns out I enjoyed this collection of Norse Sagas, despite a few anachronisms, which seemed forced in some of the tales.  A section of my graduate studies immersed me in the world of Beowulf.  Their battles and drinking mead and general carousing gave me many months of fascination.

According to the informative “Introduction, “The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them.  As best as we can tell, the gods of Asgard came from Germany, spread into Scandinavia, and then out into the parts of the world dominated by the Vikings—into Orkney and Scotland, Ireland and the North of England—where the invaders left places named for Thor or Odin.  In English, the gods have left their names in our days of the week.  You can find Tyr, the one-handed (Odin’s son), Odin, Thor, and Frigg, the queen of the gods, in respectively, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday” (12-13). 

Favorite chapter is “The Mead of Poets.”  He asks, “Do you wonder where poetry comes from?  Where we get the songs we sing and the tales we tell?  Do you ever ask yourself how it is that some people can dream great, wise, beautiful dreams and pass those dreams on to the world, to be sung and retold as long as the sun rises and sets, as long as the moon will wax and wane?  Have you ever wondered why some people make beautiful songs and poems and tales, and some of us do not?” (127).  Then the story continues, “It is a long story, and it does no credit to anyone: there is murder in it, and trickery, lies and foolishness, seduction and pursuit.  Listen! // It began not long after the dawn of time, in a war between the gods: the Aesir fought the Vanir.  The Aesir were warlike gods of battle and conquest; the Vanir were softer, brother and sister gods and goddesses who made the soil fertile and the plants grow, but none the less powerful for that” (127).

Odin desired a secret stash of mead held by Suttung.  The tale continues, “Gunnlod, the daughter of Suttung, stood in the cavern in front of a locked door, behind which were the vats called Son and Bodn and the kettle Odrerir.  She held a sharp sword in her hands, and she sang to herself as she stood. // ‘Well met, brave maiden!’ said Odin. // Gunnlod stared at him.  ‘I do not know who you are,’ she said.  ‘Name yourself stranger, and tell me why I should let you live.  I am Gunnlod, guardian of this place’” (146). 

Gaiman refers to these people as “Vikings,” but my OED first lists the term in the early years of the 19th century.  They knew their ancestors as Norsemen.  Another item was the reference to “seconds” as passage of time (168), and a reference to “The world moved beneath him.  The wind blew about him.  He went even faster, so fast that the air itself boomed with the sound of his passing” (192).  I think this may end in an epic battle among the gods, which far exceeds the comic book heroes in my eyes!

Despite these minor annoyances, Neil Gaiman’s volume of Norse sagas proved highly entertaining.  Find a bottle of mead at your local beverage outlet and trace the journeys and adventures of these most interesting figures.  (4-1/2 Stars).

--Chiron, 2/17/18

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

The Scandinavian literature keeps pouring in, and I am grateful for it.  I have read nearly all Fredrick Backman’s work, including his latest novel, Beartown, and I am happy to add it to my collection. 

This is a peculiar story.  Normally, I dislike novels and sports, but ice hockey is a favorite pastime, so I slid into my hockey days.  This story tells of a small town with little to be proud of—except their hockey team—rated as the second best any where.  Backman writes, “Beartown isn’t close to anything.  Even on a map the place looks unnatural.  ‘As if a drunk giant tried to urinate in the snow,’ some might say.  ‘As if nature and man were fighting a tug-of-war for space,’ more high-minded souls might suggest.  Either way, the town is losing.  It has been a very long time since it won at anything.  More jobs disappear each year, and with them the people, and the forest devours one or two more abandoned houses each season.  Back in the days when there were still things to boast about, the city council erected a sign beside the road at the entrance to the town with the sort of slogan that was popular at the time: ‘Beartown—Leaves You Wanting More!’  The wind and snow took a few years to wipe out the word ‘More.’  (3).

But some of the wealthier residents have pitched in and built up anew program.  And the upcoming game of the Junior league, is filled with talent and determination.  The boys live, eat, and drink their sport.  Backman writes, “Hockey is never satisfied being part of your life, it wants to be all of it” (16).  They also have hopes of attracting a hockey academy on the strength of these youngsters.  As in the U.S., these young boys are the super stars of the game, and they know they can get away with everything.  Sune is a long-time successful coach, but the council wants a younger person to take over the junior team.  David is a retired NHL player with an unusual approach to coaching hockey.  His future depends on how well the team plays in the championship match at the end the season.

Benji is a young player who idolizes Kevin, the superstar of the team.  Backman writes, [Benji] “cycles away from home before his mom wakes up, leaves his bike at the edge of the forest, and walks the last few miles to Adri’s kennels.  He sits in the yard patting the dogs, until his other two sisters, Katia and Gaby, also show up.  They kiss their little brother on the top of his head, then their elder sister comes out and slaps him hard on the back of his neck with her open hand and asks if it’s true he called his teacher ‘sweet cheeks.’  He never lies to Adri.  She slaps him on the back of the neck again, then kisses him just as hard and whispers that she loves him and that she’ll never let anything bad happen to him, but that she’ll kill him if she ever hears he’s spoken to a teacher like that again. // The four of them eat breakfast surrounded by dogs, without saying anything much.  They do this once a year, a quiet act of remembrance, always early in the morning so their mother doesn’t find out about it.  She’s never forgiven her husband” (112).  A rather intense scene, poignant with a dash of humor.

Fredrick Backman’s latest novel, Beartown, is exciting but it also examines a family driven to succeed for a wide variety of reasons.  5 stars!

--Chiron, 2/9/18

The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro

Laurie Gwen Shapiro is an award-winning documentary film make and journalist.  The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica is her first full-length work of non-fiction.  Several friends had recommended it to me, and I did not know it was non-fiction until I read the dust jacket.  I do not usually read much non-fiction, but the inside flap intrigued me.

The story revolves around Commander Richard Byrd’s 1928 expedition to Antarctica.  Shapiro opens the story, “With his back against the sunset, a seventeen-year-old boy lingered on the docks along the Hudson River.  By his calculations, it was a ten-minute swim from where he stood to the ship. // The new high school graduate waited, his soft grey eyes fixed on the City of New York, moored and heavily guarded on the Hoboken piers.  The sun went down at six forty-five this day—August 24, 1928—but still he fought back his adrenaline.  He wanted true darkness before carrying out his plan.  At noon the next day, the ship would leave New York Harbor and sail nine thousand miles to the frozen continent of Antarctica, the last frontier on Earth left to explore.  He intended to be aboard” (1). 

While the exhaustive catalogue of thousands upon thousands of tons of provisions piled up—including more than 100 dogs--I was wracked with a mild case of boredom.  I was most bothered by some of the personal details of Billy Gawronski’s senior prom.  However, as I delved into this exciting and suspenseful story, all was forgiven and forgotten.  As a reward, 36 interesting photos accompany the text.  Apparently, stowing away on a ship was pastime which drew a lot of adventurous people to try and join the expedition.

Billy was an adventurer and thrill-seeker of the first order.  He was discovered and returned to shore several times.  His father owned an upholstery shop, and diligently tried to bring his son into the family business.  As a young boy, he went on a sea voyage, and refused to take off his sailing suit.  When asked what he wanted to do with his life, his mother replied, “He wants to be a sailor.” 

Billy also had a heroic side.  When a part of Byrd’s plane fell into a crevasse, “while others held his legs, he slipped into the crack and, dangling ‘got hold of the pedestal, and the airplane sections, and pulled them out” (127).  When a shipmate “fell into the Ross Sea.  Bennie yelled out he could not swim. […] within seconds, Billy dove into the 28-degree water,” and saved the man’s life.  He was so determined to become a member of the expedition, Billy was willing to accept even the worst job on the ship—the stokehold—and he spent months shoveling coal into one of the ships. 

In 1943, Billy was given his first command as one of the youngest captains in World War II.  He closed his career with three decades in the Merchant Marines.  Ironically, as a sailor, he visited every continent except for Antarctica.  Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s The Stowaway, is a suspense filled and compelling story of determination, pluck, and grit to achieve his life-long dream.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 1/30/18

Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright

My interest in Buddhism dates back a couple of decades before my graduate studies, which included a wide-ranging look at Buddhist imagery in James Joyce.  I find much of Robert Wright’s survey in Why Buddhism is True stimulating and endlessly fascinating.  Of additional interest is the fact that Wright is also a psychologist.

In the “Note to Readers,” he concisely separates several areas of inquiry into five neat packages.  He first says, “I’m not talking about the ‘Supernatural’ or more exactly metaphysical parts of Buddhism—reincarnation, for example, but rather the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy”; second, “there’s no one Buddhism, but rather various Buddhist traditions, which differ on all kinds of doctrines”; third “I’m not getting into super-fine-grained parts of Buddhist psychology and philosophy;” fourth, “‘true’ is a tricky word;” and fifth and finally, “Asserting the validity of core Buddhist ideas doesn’t necessarily say anything, one way or the other, about spiritual or philosophical traditions” (xi-xii).  This two-page note shows this marriage of Buddhism and psychology is precisely the book I have been searching for a long time.

I have so many annotations and marginalia it will be difficult to sort out some of the core ideas Wright addresses.  Here is a timely example.  Robert writes, Technologies of distraction have made attention deficits more common.  And there’s something about the modern environment—something technological or cultural, or political or all of the above—that seems conducive to harsh judgment and ready rage.  Just look at the tribalism—the discord and even open conflict along religious, ethnic, national, and ideological lines.  More and more, it seems groups of people define their identity in terms of sharp opposition to other groups of people” (18).

Wright attended a week-long meditation camp to sharpen his core ideas of meditation.  He writes, “focusing on your breath isn’t just to focus on your breath.  It’s to stabilize your mind, to free it of its normal preoccupations so you can observe things that are happening in a clear, unhurried, less reactive way” (20).  By “things that are happening,” he means feelings inside your mind, such as sadness, anxiety, joy and so forth. 

Wright talks about feelings extensively.  He asks the reader, “Have you ever been visited by the fear that something you said to someone had offended her?  And has this person ever been someone you weren’t going to see for a while?  And has it been the case that you didn’t know her very well, it would have been awkward to call her or to send an email to make sure you hadn’t offended or to clarify that no offense was meant?  That feeling itself […] is perfectly natural” (34).  Shortly after reading this chapter, I bumped into an old friend I had not seen for decades.  As we talked over coffee, I toyed with the idea of apologizing for an unfortunate remark long ago.  I decided to mention the incident, but she had entirely forgotten all about it.  She said with a laugh, “We ere kids!  It is inconsequential.  Forget about it.”  The relief I experienced was wonderful.

Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True is a marriage of Buddhism and Psychology for an amazing journey into mind, memory, and all the associated joys and sorrows we all experience.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 1/27/18

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Knots by Gunnhild Øyehaug

Once again, I am the recipient of a new Scandinavian author, Gunnhild Øyehaug.  According to the dust jacket, she is an award-winning poet, essayist, and novelist.  Her first novel, Wait, Blank, was made into an acclaimed film.  She has also worked as a co-editor of two literary journals.  She lives in Bergen, where she teaches creative writing.  Her collection of short stories, Knots, was first published in 2004.  This “radical collection rangers from the surreal to the oddly mundane.  It prods the discomfort of mental, sexual, and familial bonds.”  For example, one story is of a mother who delivers a male child, but all attempts to cut the cord fail.  The two live the remainder of their lives bound together.  Then his mother’s ghost appears off and on to comfort him.  Bizarre?  Yep, but it is also oddly compelling

Some of the stories are brief—as little as 3 pages on a small format book.  In “Grandma Is Sleeping,” Bragg writes, ‘She got both glaucoma and cataracts early on in life, but she always managed, continued to crochet runners with tiny patterns, weave tapestries of small birds in a tangle of branches, colorful tulips twisting out of the soil and around each other, to the delight of her seven children and her seven children’s spouses and her seven children’s nineteen children.  But today it bothers her.  Today she stands at the kitchen window and looks up at the mountains and wishes she could distinguish where the mountains finish and the sky begins” (57).  She is expecting her family for a large dinner she has prepared.  As the family arrives, she does not answer the door.

In a story of a single page, “The Deer at the Edge of the Forest,” Gunnhild writes, The seed stood at the edge of the forest and was miserable.  He felt like there was no point in anything, like he might as well give up.  I walk around here, day in and day ouy, the deer thought, and there’s no one who sees me.  Am I invisible, or what?  He didn’t think so.  I walk around here and could change people’s lives if only they could see me, but no one sees me.  Here I am, a hart, and no one cares.  The whole point is that I am supposed to be difficult to see, I know that, I am supposed to roam around the forest and not be seen.  But it is the very premise of my life that is now making me miserable.  I want to be seen.  So here I am at the edge of the forest.  I am open to being seen, to being shot.  If someone doesn’t see me soon, I am going to do something drastic, I mean it.  Right now it feels like I’m trapped in deerness.  Oh, I would love to change everything, be someone else, something completely different.  Oh, imagine if I could be a roe deer, an elk” (88).  Several of the longer stories—seven pages—are also appealing.  My favorites are “It’s Snowing” and “Two by Two.”  One short piece was a play with only the thoughts of a woman about her life.

I am not entirely sure why I am attracting all these Scandinavian stories and novels, but I am certainly glad to add these authors to my collection of world literature.  Gunnhild Øyehaug’s collection of stories, Knots, are thought-provoking, and at times funny, serious, sad, and mysterious.  Only a story or two might be uncomfortable, but teasing out of the imagery and description, offers quite a few thoughts on ordinary events, ordinary people, and that should get your mind whirring.  5 stars
 --Chiron, 1/15/18