Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: The Complete Stories by Margaret Drabble

My first encounter with Margaret Drabble occurred in a British Women Writer’s class at Rowan University and again in graduate school.  We read a few of her novels as well as several by her sister, A.S. Byatt.  A rift developed between the two sisters, because of biographical elements in their books.  They do not read each other’s novels.  Drabble describes the situation as “normal sibling rivalry,” Byatt says the rift has been exaggerated by gossip.  She claims the sisters have always liked each other (Wikipedia).  Drabble has written 19 novels, and Byatt has authored 11 novels, 5 short story collections, and 7 miscellaneous works of non-fiction.  Working through all these books will eat up a lot of my retirement.  Drabble has also written a number of short stories.  I never knew she wrote short fiction until now.  

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman claims to include her complete short stories.  An introduction to the collection by José Francisco Fernández says, these “are fine examples of well-made stories: neatly constructed, carefully contextualized, focused, unified in tone, elegantly climactic, at times tinged with the seriousness of a moral dilemma” (ix).  I loved these stories, and it is one of those exceedingly rare books that provoked me into a second reading beginning the moment I finished the first read.  Four of the stories are, writes Fernández, “representative cases of the woman who has to divide her time between her duties at home and the demands of a job […] a husband and children” (xii).

The later stories, “The Merry Widow,” “The Dower House at Kellynch: A Somerset Romance,” The Caves of God,” and “Stepping Westward: A Topographical Tale” all describe woman later in their lives when they are free of a husband, family, and work.  As I said, I loved them all, but these four were undoubtedly my favorites—a “best of the best” if you will.  I also credit these four stories as my impetus for an immediate rereading. 

In the first of this “final four,” stories, “Merry Widow,” Drabble writes, “When Philip died, his friends and colleagues assumed that Elsa would cancel the holiday.  Elsa knew this would be their assumption.  But she had no intention of canceling.  She was determined upon the holiday.  During Philip’s unexpectedly sudden last hours, and in the succeeding weeks of funeral and condolence and letters from banks and solicitors, it began to take an increasingly powerful hold upon her imagination.  If she were honest with herself, which she tried to be, she had not been looking forward to the holiday while Philip was alive: it would have been yet another dutifully endured, frustrating, saddening attempt at reviving past pleasures, overshadowed by Philip’s increasing ill-health and ill-temper.  But without Philip, the prospect brightened” (151).  I hope this tidbit will draw you to either--or both--of these exceptionally talented women.

All of the works of these two amazing women writers are interesting and powerful stories.  I have read a few of the novels by each woman, and finishing them off will be a large part of my sunset days.  If you want to lose yourself in reading of the lives of these women in the late 20th and early 21st century, you could not find a better start than Margaret Drabbles A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman.   5 Stars

--Chiron, 8/15/17

The Little French Bistro by Nina George

Last year I read Nina George’s wonderful novel, The Little Paris Bookshop, which was her first novel translated into English.  She had written some 40 books, and was considered an international sensation—except in the US where she was virtually unknown.  Now she has released her second novel, The Little French Bistro.  This novel is quite different from Bookshop, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I can’t wait for another.

Based on Paris Bookshop, I made several assumptions which proved to be false.  First, Nina George is not French; she is German.  I met her at a book reading in Book People in Austin Texas recently and learned she was born in Germany and still lives there with her husband.  Bookshop was not her first novel, but rather somewhere in an oeuvre of over 40 books.  She proved to be gracious and funny as she slipped back and forth among German, French, and English.  After the reading, she signed my books, and hugged every reader who wanted one.

Marianne Messmann is married to Lothar, a man with no sense of romance and a thoroughly unpleasant personality.  They have been married for about forty years, and Marianne has reached a breaking point.  George opens the novel with a chilling scene.  She writes, “It was the first decision she had ever made on her own, the very first time she was able to determine the course of her life. // Marianne decided to die.  Here and now, down below in the waters of the Seine, late on this grey day.  On her trip to Paris. […] The water was cool, black and silky.  The Seine would carry her on a quiet bed of freedom to the sea.  Tears ran down her cheeks; strings of salty tears.  Marianne was smiling and weeping at the same time.  Never before had she felt so light, so free, so happy” (1).  A homeless man rescues her, and she is taken to a hospital to contact her husband.  She then dresses and escapes on a train headed to a remote corner of northwestern France.  All the while on this trip, she plans to reattempt her suicide off the coast of Brittany.

A group of nuns give her a ride to the little fishing village of Kerdruc.  She meets a number of the residents, who welcome her with open hearts.  Each day she resolves to jump into the sea, but she delays a day, then another, and another.  She gets a job working at a bistro then gradually she is absorbed into the community.  Marianne begins to devise an entirely new life for herself.  Then Lothar shows up, and everything is threatened.  I won’t spoil the ending, but it is worth following Marianne to one of three possible conclusions.

Marianne is an empathetic woman.  George writes, “She took a deep breath, carefully picked up the crab and set it down on the polished steel table.  It scrambled around a bit as she searched among the bottles on the sideboard before reaching for the cider vinegar and pouring a few drops into the creature’s mouth.  The clatter of its pincers on the steel surface grew fainter before suddenly ceasing altogether. // ‘This may sound odd, but you can kill humanely too,’ […] ‘Vinegar sends them to sleep, you know.’  She cupped her hands to her cheeks, cocked her head and closed her eyes, then lowered the crab into the boiling water.’  ‘It’s bath time.  See, it doesn’t hurt so much’” (85-86).

Nina George has written a love story like few others in The Little French Bistro.  Kerdruc is a mythical place like no others.  I can only hope another novel will soon appear by this talented, funny, and interesting writer.  5 Stars.


--Chiron, 8/5/17

We Are All Completely besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler has authored six novels and three short story collections.  She has won a Pen/Faulkner award among numerous other prizes.  Fowler has two children, and seven grandchildren.  She lives in Santa Cruz, California.  In We are All Completely Beside Our Selves, she has penned a book at once curious, frightening, sad, and comical.  The is the tale of the Cooke family: the father, Vincent, is a psychiatrist, and his wife, and the children Lowell, Rosemary, and Fern.  The last two were raised together, until Fern was “sent away.” 

The novel is narrated by Rosemary, “sister” to Fern.  She begins the story “in medias res,” so I will do likewise.  Fowler writes, “So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996.  By then, we’d long since dwindled to the family that old home movie foreshadowed—me, my mother, and unseen but evident behind the camera, my father.  In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared.  The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn’t told you that, you might not have known.  By 1996, whole days went by in which I hardly thought of either one. […] I was twenty-two years old, meandering through my fifth year at the University of California, Davis, and still maybe only a junior or maybe a senior, but so thoroughly uninterested in the niceties of units or requirements or degrees that I wouldn’t be graduating anytime soon.  My education, my father liked to point out, was wider than it was deep.  He said this often” (5-6).

Rosemary’s education seems to be a persistent topic for family discussion.  Karen writes, “Mom had a theory I heard through the bedroom wall.  You didn’t need a lot of friends to get through school, she told Dad, but you had to have one.  For a brief period  in the third grade, I pretended that Dae-jung and I were friends.  He didn’t talk, but I was well able to supply both sides of the conversation.  I returned a mitten he’d dropped.  We ate lunch together, or at least we ate at the same table, and in the classroom he’d been given the desk next to mine on the theory that when I talked out of turn, it might help his language acquisition.  The irony was that his English improved due in no small part to my constant yakking at him, but as soon as he could speak, he made other friends.  Our connection was beautiful, but brief” (113).

Fowler has laid a series of less than obvious clues regarding an ending which will offer the reader something between shock and amusement.  How a reader places the clues determines where a reader begins to assemble these clues.  One peculiar item is the lack of a name for the mother.  I usually note names of important characters, and in beginning this review, I realized I had none for her.  I sped through the book from page one to the end, and never saw her referred to as anything except Mom or mother.  Very annoying!  I hereby give her the daughter’s name, Rosemary.

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is a tragic story difficult for animal lovers to read.  The only saving grace is the end of most chimpanzee experiments, and serious curtailing of test on other mammals.  5 star


--Chiron, 7/17/17

The Accomplished Guest by Ann Beattie

First: a confession.  Back in 1986, or thereabouts. I learned of a lecture by Ann Beattie—at the time my number two most favorite writer—at Rutgers-Camden.  I tried to get a ticket, but found it was sold out.  So I devised a plan to see her before the lecture.  I convinced a guard I was a stringer for a local paper in Philly who wanted to snag a few comments before her talk.  I had three of Beattie’s books with me, and after asking a few questions, I took the books out of a bag and asked her to inscribe them.  She graciously signed all three.  I did write a brief article, and I did send it to the paper, but it was never printed.  I resolved to tell her in person if I ever met up with her.  This might be as close as I get.

Ann Beattie has been included in four O. Henry Award collections, John Updike’s Best American Short Stories of the Century and Jennifer Egan’s Best Short Stories of 2014.  She has also captured numerous other awards.  Her latest book, The Accomplished Guest is a collection of short stories with a variety of themes, voices, and situations.

Some of these visitors had interesting experiences getting to their destination.  In “The Indian Uprising,” Beattie wrote, “I took the train.  It wasn’t difficult.  I got a ride with a friend to some branch of the Metro going into Washington and rode into Union Station.  Then I walked forever down the train track to a car someone finally let me on.  I felt like an ant that had walked the length of a caterpillar’s body and ended up at its anus.  I sat across from a mother with a small son whose head she abused any time she got bored looking out the window: swatting it with plush toys; rearranging his curls; inspecting him for nits” (4-5).  One of the most appealing traits of a Beattie story is the attention to details.  Readers can easily place themselves in the train.

In “The Astonished Woodchopper,” Beattie explores those ubiquitous “little white lies” we all tell.  She writes, “John had asked Jen not to tell Bee the details of his surgery, but of course she had—no doubt also cautioning Bee to lie if he asked her directly what she knew.  White lies: as prevalent in this family as white noise on the highway that drifted across the meadow toward their house.  He had wanted a more secluded house; Jen had said she like to be nearer to what she called ‘civilization’—the same environment she now damned as being filled with ‘idiot tourists and Maine-iacs in their tortoise shell SUVs, driving lunatics because they can imagine because they can’t imagine they go belly-up.’  Just the week before, a man had died, not at all protected by his SUV as it rolled” (51). 

These stories have lots of fun and page upon page of humor.  I really think Ann Beattie is an author who deserves much more attention.  The Accomplished Guest is a grand beginning for many years of reading pleasure.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 07/11/14

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