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

The Life Group by Maura Jortner

I am grateful and appreciative of friends who offer me books to read for Likely Stories.  Sometimes they are simply poorly written.  Others are in genres I do not care to read.  I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  If only I had Harry Potter’s “Cloak of Invisibility,” I could avoid those generous souls.  In the case of Maura Jortner’s The Life Group, I faced a different dilemma.  The novel was labeled YA – Young Adult, but this did not present a problem.  I read and enjoyed The Book Thief, The Giver as well as a number of other YA titles.  The problem arose as I reached the last 40 or so pages.

The story is clearly set in Waco, with several landmarks mentioned along with “Brazos University” and Lake Waco.  Rachel is a high school student, and her sister, Leah, has disappeared after visiting a radical Christian church.  Rachel is determined to find her sister, even though a month or so after her disappearance, the police have found no clues to Leah’s whereabouts.  An odd pastor of the odd church connects Leah with an older man, who seems pious and anxious to help Rachel.  They drive around the city, and try to question friends who may know something.  One clique of young women only say “It’s God’s plan.”

Interspersed among the pages of Rachel’s adventures, is a YouTube video counting views which increase by the hundreds.  By the end of the novel, these pieces of the puzzle amount to nearly 2 million views.  Jortner slowly builds suspense to a completely surprising ending.  Near the end, Tim is driving Rachel to “Salvation Day Church.  Jortner writes, “As we travel to Salvation Day Church, I gaze out the window and watch the world go by. ‘Leah,’ I whisper quit enough so Tim can’t hear, ‘where are you? Are you going to hurt yourself?’  My chest feels heavy.  A great longing for my sister—stupid and annoying as she is—has balled itself up and lodged under my sternum.  A sudden thought grips me: this is why they call it a heavy heart.  I glanced at my phone one more time, hoping to see a text or notification, but it remains stubbornly blank.  I toss it down harder than I meant to, but it lands in my open purse.  It bounces once, then stays put” (185).  This is the beginning of the end of the story, the ramping of the suspense, and the appearance of my problem with the novel.

 The last pages are as suspenseful as any novel I have recently read.  I could not wait to find out what happened to Leah.  But to get to the climax, I had to work my way around obstacles.  Now, I am far from a prude, but the sudden explosion of obscenities—both spoken and thought by Rachel took me aback.  I counted more than 40 examples, not including a few in the early pages before I started counting.  I am not entirely convinced these added anything to the story line.  However, I did question a couple of friends who are now parenting teens, and they assured me this is how this generation speaks.  They don’t like it, they discourage the use of this word—especially around the house, but there is no complete escape for them.  I have also listened as I pass groups of students around my campus, and I have heard the word more than a few times.



So, I will recommend Maura Jortner’s exciting and suspenseful novel, The Life Group with a caution to readers that the word flies fast and furious.  4 stars


--Chiron, 3/15/17

The Pleasing Hour by Lily King

Lily King’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour, is the third of her four novels I have had the distinct pleasure of reading.  King grew up in Massachusetts and received a B.A. in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an M.A. in creative writing from Syracuse University.  She has taught at a number of schools and colleges.  Lily has also racked up a number of regional awards as well as a MacDowell Fellowship and a Whiting Award. 

Rosie anguishes over her sister Sarah’s inability to conceive a child.  Rosie seems a bit shy, but she hatches a plan to help her sister, whom she dearly loves.  She doesn’t date, but she selects an equally shy young man, and after a few dates, Rosie convinces him to sleep with her.  Two weeks later she finds she is pregnant.  She tells Sarah and her husband she wants them to keep and raise the baby.  Rosie lies to her boyfriend and convinces him the baby is not his.  She goes through counseling and insists on giving the baby to her sister.  After the birth, the baby is taken away from Rosie after holding him briefly, but she has only has a fleeting moment of regret.  As the narrator, Rosie barely mentions the baby.  Then Rosie abruptly answers an ad for a jeune fille – an au paire – in a small town, Plaire, France, and she abandons her plan to attend college.  She neither speaks nor reads French.  With the help of the children Rosie cares for, she slowly learns to speak and read and do the shopping for the family.

The Pleasing Hour is an apt title for this novel.  Numerous times I would read a passage, put the book aside, and turn the page over again in my mind.  These passages were “pleasing” in more ways than one.  Rosie had no friends, but Nicole, the mother of the family, makes a call, and a jeune fille , who worked for a friend, called Rosie and offered to take her out on the town,  King writes, “The metro stop was unmarked. a sudden flight of stairs descended beneath the sidewalk.  A monthly pass came with the job, and I had used mine twice.  I slid the orange ticket through the meter in the turnstile and hurried down the hallway marked Gare d’Austerlitz.  There was only one line at this stop, so the passageways were small and without vendors or musicians, though the walls were plastered with the same enormous advertisements: on the left was a poster for an Italian movie, one large breast held in a man’s hand, and on the right a yogurt ad.  They were repeated for the entire walk to the rails.  Spoon, lip, smirk, litter, wind corridor, wrist nipple, wind, sign, trench coat, slouch.  I let English flood inside me as I rounded the corner” (50).  This brings back memories of my first time in the Paris Metro.

Rosie also spends a chapter describing each of the children she handles, as well as Nicole and Marc, the parents.  As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Rosie is nursing a crush on Marc.  Nicole seems withdrawn from Marc, who works long hours in a hospital.  The family decides to take a vacation to Spain, and they invite Rosie to come along.  At first Rosie seems reluctant, and she deliberately leaves her passport at home.  As they approached the airport, she announces the missing document, but Marc turns around, goes home, and gets her passport.  Lily King’s novel, The Pleasing Hour is definitely a wonderful way to arm chair travel.  4-1/2 Stars


--Chiron, 3/16/17

Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov

One thing I find hardest to do is blast a novel by a well-known, widely-admired, great writer.  So I struggle to write this review of Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov.  I read this novel long before I started keeping track of my reading with this journal more than 10 years ago.  Perhaps I notice the things which bothered me more now that I have experience writing these reviews.  Reading with a possible public review in mind certainly has affected these writings.

Nabokov is well-known for his meticulous pursuit of the correct word in a sentence.  I have heard tell he sometimes spent hours trying to find a precise word to fill a blank in a sentence, of a chapter, of a novel.  I admit to sometimes searching for a particular word, but I never spent more than a few minutes – sometimes with the help of a dictionary and a thesaurus. 

When I began re-reading Bend Sinister, I was immediately struck by his diction.  In the first chapter, he wrote, “An oblong puddle in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see nether sky.  Surrounded.  I note, by a diffuse tentacled black dampness where some dull dun leaves have stuck.  Drowned, I should say, before the puddle had shrunk to its present size” (1).  Can readers spot the two “made-up words”?  Can you spot words that seem just a bit pretentious?  Not to forget to mention some rather strange syntax?

Now, I pride myself on a higher than usual vocabulary, but on the other hand I have long fought the fight against obfuscation in my diction.  I suspect the latter was a reaction to the legalese I suffered through for about 15 years.  I might also blame my admiration for Hemingway, that is, his diction not his misogyny.  I even find this paragraph a bit pretentious.  What is a reader/writer to do?

Well, I have decided.  I am going to tell the world I believe the emperor has no clothes or, rather, the emperor has too many dictionary pages stuck to his crown. 

Here is part of another paragraph my reading notes labeled as poetic.  Nabokov wrote, “November trees, poplars, I imagine, two of them growing straight out of the asphalt: all of them in the cold bright sun, bright richly furrowed bark and an intricate sweep of numberless burnished bare twigs, old gold—because getting more of the falsely mellow sun in the higher air.  Their immobility is in contrast with the spasmodic ruffling of the inset reflection—for the visible emotion of a tree is the mass of its leaves, and there remain hardly more than thirty-seven or so here and there on one side of the tree.  They just flicker a little, of a neutral tint, but burnished by the sun to the same ikontinct…” (2).  “Ikontinct” is not in my OED or my Random House Dictionary of well-over twenty-four hundred pages.  It is amazing how a single word can spoil otherwise wonderful poetic phrasing. 

Okay, so now I must choose: slog through hundreds of pages with who knows how many unidentifiable words, or revert with a measure of pretension of my own to that old Latin phrase: Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus.  Look it up if you wish.  2 stars.


--Chiron, 3/5/17

Forty-Nine Poems by W. H. Davies

I have often told a tale of finding a book, which delights me to no end.  On a recent trip to Tampa, Florida, I found a wonderful bookshop – The Old Tampa Bay Bookstore.  The first day I spent all my time in the fiction section, and as I left that day, I saw a large section devoted to poetry.  I had to come back the next day, and my decision was rewarded with a little treasure by a poet I which never crossed my “Bookdar.”  Forty-Nine Poems by W.H. Davies, selected and illustrated by Jacynth Parsons took me back to my elementary school days.

According to Wikipedia, William Henry Davies was born on July 3, 1871.  He was a Welsh poet and writer.  He spent a significant amount of time as a tramp or a hobo in England and the U.S.  W.H. Davies, as he was known, became one of the most popular poets of his time.  He wrote a number of volumes of poetry as well as an autobiography.  He died September 26, 1940 in Nailsworth, U.K.

The first thing that attracted me to the book were the wonderful color illustrations by Jacynth Parsons.  He began his career as an illustrator at the age of 16.  He died in 1992 at the age of 81.  His work reminds me of a book of poems we read in about the fifth grade.  His illustrations are soft, gentle, and filled with little creatures and people inside trees and clouds.  Most are in black and white, but the hand tinted drawings are even more enchanting than the others.

Here is a sample, “My Love Could Walk.”  Davies wrote, “My love could walk in richer hues / Than any bird of paradise, / And no one envy her her dress: Since in her looks the world would see / A robin’s love and friendliness. // And she could be the lily fair, / More richlt dressed than all her kind, / And no one envy her her gain, / Since in her looks the world would see / A daisy that was sweet and plain. // Oh, she could sit like any queen / That’s nailed by diamonds to a throne, / Her splendor envied by not one: / Since in her looks the world would see / A queen that’s more than half a nun” (7).

Here is another with the moon emerging from the clouds as a woman floating above the trees.  He writes in “The Moon,” “Thy beauty haunts me, heart and soul, / Oh thou fair Moon, so close and bright; / Thy beauty makes me like the child, / That cries aloud to own thy light: / The little child that lifts each arm, / To press thee to her bosom warm. // Though there are birds that sing this night / With thy white beams across their throats, / Let my deep silence speak for me / More than for them their sweetest notes: / Who worships thee till music fails / Is greater than thy nightingales” (29).

This slim volume will entertain on a beautiful Texas spring morning.  While some of his work might be hard to find, several are available.  Forty-Nine Poems by W.H. Davies would be more than well-worth the effort.  5 stars.


--Chiron, 2/22/17