Monday, July 30, 2018

The Heart Goes First by Margaret Atwood


Margaret Atwood is one of my all-time favorite authors.  I once drove from Philadelphia to Boston for an opportunity to meet her, hear her speak, and gather some treasured inscriptions.  The line for signings was long, but I waited until the end to get as many of her books signed as I could.  At last, I made it to her desk, and she signed every one of my copies.  She was kind, gracious, and quite funny.  It was a day I will not soon forget.  The Heart Goes Last is another of her dystopian novels.

The first novel of hers I read was The Handmaid’s Tale.  It blew me away, and it was an early example of a novel I read and immediately started over from page 1.  When the newest film of the movie came out, I quickly forgot about an older version with Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway.  I recently watched the new first and second seasons, and I hope the promised third will be out soon.  If you have not read the Handmaid’s Tale, do so as soon as possible.  This is a story that could easily be transformed into fact. 

Stan and Charmaine have both lost their jobs.  The city is ravaged with chaos.  They are now living in their car.  The tension between the couple is intense.  They are also not getting along.  To make matters worse, they must constantly be on the alert for roving bands of criminals.  Atwood writes, “Sleeping in the car is cramped.  Being a third-hand Honda, it’s no palace to begin with.  If it was a van they’d have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money.  Stan says they’re lucky to have any car at all, which is true, but that luckiness doesn’t make the car any bigger. // Charmaine thinks Stan ought to sleep in the back because he needs more space—it would only be fair, he’s larger—but he has to be in the front in order to drive them away fast in an emergency.  He doesn’t trust Charmaine’s ability to function under those circumstances: he says she’d be too busy screaming to drive.  So Charmaine can have the more spacious back, though even so she has to curl up like a snail because she can’t exactly stretch out” (3).

Stan has a brother, Conor, who is something of a misfit.  He has been known to use drugs, and he was constantly getting into scrapes, for which he must turn to Stan to bail him out.  As they near “The Positron Project,” they are recruited for a walled community where they will be safe, given housing, clothing, food, in short, everything they could want.  Conor tells his brother about this scheme, and he desperately tries to convince Stan Positron is a dangerous cult.  They do not take Conor’s advice.  Stan does not trust his brother, and he and Charmaine sign up for housing.

At first, everything seems as advertised, but there are some sinister and evil doings in Consilience, the town in which Stan and Charmaine now live.  As the couple immerse themselves into the cult, things become darker and darker.  But they soon discover there is no way out.  Then, Stan finds out there is an exit, but Stan trusts no one.  He believes it is a test, and becoming part of the plot could end in their deaths.  Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is another addition to the swarm of dystopian novels worthy of this Booker Prize winning novelist.  This suspenseful story is another feather in Atwood’s impressive oeuvre.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 7/17/18

The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and their Muses) by Terri-Lynne DeFino


Novels involving writers, books, libraries, and bookstores have long fascinated me.  In The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writes (and  Their Muses), Terri-Lynne DeFino has blended much of this literary lore into an interesting and fun read.  According to the jacket, DeFino was born and raised in New Jersey, but she moved to Connecticut where she lives with her husband and her cats.  She wrote a series of genre romance novels, and this is her first literary novel.

Cecibel is a young woman who survived a horrible auto crash, which left one side of her face seriously disfigured.  She is self-conscious about her wound, and she tries to hide it with a “Veronica Lake hair style.”  She works in the Bar Harbor Retirement Home.  Cornelius Traegar was a wealthy writer, and he developed the idea of the Bar Harbor home.  Only those with a background of writing, editing, and other literary pursuits are eligible.  When Cornelius dies, he leaves his exquisite private suite to his friend, Alfonse Carducci.  Alfonse pursued, and is pursued by many women, including several women now residing at Bar Harbor.  Cecibel admires Alfonse and she develops a crush on him.  Olivia is a well-known novelist who resides at Bar Harbor, where she self-medicates with marijuana to relieve a seriously painful condition.  This novel has some wonderfully funny passages.

Dr. Kintz watches over his patients who could, at times, be cantankerous.  DeFino writes, “‘If you insist on calling me Olivia,’ Mrs. Peppernell said evenly, ‘I shall call you Richard.  Or Dick, if that is your preference.’ // ‘Would it make you happy to call me Richard?” // ‘It would make me happy if you would use the title I earned with sixty-two years of marriage.  And it would make me even happier if you would stop speaking in the royal ’we.’  Now go away, Dick.  I am finished being monitored for today’” // ‘Good day.’  He bowed his head.  If he glanced Cecibel’s way, she didn’t know.  She turned her face to the wall before he could.  […]  Poor Dr. Kintz.  Only a week in the Pen and he still had no idea what he was in for.  Those who left made sure not to tell.  Those who stayed knew better. // ‘Fetch my medicine, will you dear?’” (2).  The “Pen” is the nickname the residents adopted.

When Alfonse arrives, he locks himself in the magnificent suite left to him.  Mrs. Peppernell is his fist visitor.  DeFino writes, “‘You have to open your door sooner or later, Alfie.  You know better than to hope I’ll just go away’ […] Laboring to the door, he took deep, even breaths.  He rested his hand on the knob.  Shoulders as straight he could get them, he opened the door.  ‘Livy.’  Her name gushed out of him in a breath he hope she heard as the joy it was, and not his failing lungs.  ‘You gorgeous creature.  Come in, come in.’ // Old.  So old.  Weren’t they all?  But Alfonse saw her still that menace with the red hair and whipcrack blue eyes, transposed over the frail frame.  He recalled curves and softness and a willingness to let him explore every lovely inch” (10).

Of course, his friends all wondered if Alfonse had one last great story in his waning days.  Terri-Lynne DeFino’s Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And their Muses) is as charming and fun a read as anyone could want.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 7/12/18

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris


David Sedaris is a frequent guest on the late-night TV show circuits.  He has a sister, Amy, who is also a writer and a comedian.  Comedy-wise, I have preferred Amy over her brother, but David’s latest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, has made me take a second look at his work.  David was born in 1956 in Johnson City, NY.  He attended Western Carolina University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Besides Squirrel, he has written a half dozen or so books of humor.  I found his latest work to be rather evenly funny, with only a very few duds.  The book opens with “The Cat and the Baboon.” David writes, “The cat had a party to attend, and went to the baboon to get herself groomed. // ‘What kind of party?’ the baboon asked, and she massaged the cat’s neck in order to relax her, the way she did with all her customers.  ‘Hope it’s not that harvest dance down on the riverbank.  My sister went last year and she said she’d never seen such rowdiness.  Said a fight brock out between two possums, and one gal, the wife of one or the other, got pushed into a stump and knocked out four teeth.  And they pretty ones too, none of this yellowness you find on most things that eat trash.’ // The cat shuddered.  ‘No,’ she said.  ‘This is just a little get-together, a few friends.  That type of thing.’ // ‘Will there be food?’ the baboon asked. // ‘Something,’ the cat sighed.  ‘I just don’t know what’ (3-4).  Not every one’s cup of tea, but funny nonetheless.

The title story of the collection is one of my favorites, “The Squirrel and the Chipmunk.”  He writes, ‘The squirrel and the chipmunk had been dating for two weeks when they ran out of things to talk about.  Acorns parasites, the inevitable approach of autumn: these subjects had been covered within their first hour, and so breathlessly their faces had flushed.  Twice they held long conversations about dogs, each declaring an across-the-board hatred of them and speculating on what life might be like were someone to put a bowl of food in front of them two times a day.  ‘They’re spoiled rotten is what it comes down to,’ the chipmunk had said, and the squirrel had placed his paw over hers, saying, ‘That’s it exactly.  Finally, someone who really gets it’” (16).

And finally, the crown piece of this selection, “The Mouse and the Snake.”  Sedaris writes, “Plenty of animals had pets, but few were more devoted than the mouse, who owned a baby corn snake—‘A rescue snake,’ she’d be quick to inform you.”  [   ]  ‘I’m sorry to barge in on you this way,’ the toad said, ‘but a few of my babies has taken off and I’m just about at my wit’s end.’  She blew her nose into her open palm, the wiped the snotty hand against her thigh.  ‘They’s girls as wells as boys.  Nine in all, and wasn’t a one of them old enough to fend for themselves.’ // […] ‘Well,’ the mouse said, ‘if you were that concerned for the safety of your children, you probably should have kept an eye on them’” (43,45).

I will leave the last one without a spoiler alert, so you can solve the mystery for Mrs. Toad.  This slim volume has plenty of humor, however a few might be rated “For Mature Audiences,”  I think after reading “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” I should reevaluate David Sedaris comedy writings.  4 Stars

Chiron, 7/12/18

Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Back in my high school days, I wanted to read a novel by Australian author, Shirley Hazzard titled The Transit of Venus.  I was in a period of reading a great deal about astronomy, and this seemed like a natural connection.  When I found out Hazzard’s novel hat nothing to do with astronomy, I ditched her novel.  But my curiosity lived on and on.  In a recent trip to an independent bookstore, I found I found a copy; I was finally able to cure my longing for this work.  I am glad I persisted.

According to the author’s note in the paperback, Shirley was born in Australia.  She has written eight books, five works of fiction, and three works of non-fiction.  Many of her stories have been published in The New Yorker, and she has received, among other recognitions, a First Prize in the O. Henry Short Story award competition.  She died in 2016.

The Transit of Venus is the story of two sisters, Grace and Caro who decide to leave Australia and make their way to the UK.  The sisters are immediately on the hunt for husbands.  Grace marries and lives an exemplary life as a faithful and dedicated wife.  Caro seems unable to make up her mind and has a few affairs.  She meets Ted Tice, who immediately falls in love with Caro.  Hazzard wrote, “An hour had already passed, of this day they were to spend together.  Ted Tice was glad of each additional mile, which would at least, at last, have to be retraced.  Every red and noticeable farm house, every church or sharp right turn was a guarantee of his time with her.  He said, ‘Are you thinking how tame it is, all this?’.  He meant the floral English summer, but could not have been understood otherwise.  In fact, he was not bold enough to touch her, but made his gesture to her head.  ‘What are you thinking?’ // Caro had been watching out the window, and turned the same look of general, landscaped curiosity on him.  This man was no more to her than a callow ginger presence in a cable-stitch cardigan.  The country bus lurched over an unsprung road.  The girl thought that one would read that he and she were flung against each other’ and how that was impossible.  We can only be flung against each other of we want to be” (26).  Caro seems bored with this young man, but he will do until something better comes along.

In another scene, Hazzard wrote, “Grace with a satchel and pale jiggling ringlets, Caro tilted to a loaded briefcase.  At school both were clever, which was attributed to the maturing effects of their tragedy—just as they had lagged, obtuseness would have been ascribed to the arresting trauma.  They sought each other in the playground and were known to be aberrant, a pair” (39). 

The girls’ mother, Dora, was a difficult woman, and part of their desire to leave for the UK was an attempt to get away from her.  Hazzard wrote, “Dora was twenty-two and had dark sloping eyes and, despite an addiction to boiled sweets, perfect little teeth.  Caro wondered when Dora would be old enough for tranquility.  Old people were serene.  You simply had to be serene, for instance, at seventy.  Even Dora must be, if they could only wait” (41).

This interesting story won Shirley Hazzard a National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.  The Transit of Venus reminds me of some of George Eliot’s fiction especially The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 7/2/18

Friday, June 29, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles




Count Alexander Rostow was a nobleman in the waning days of Tsar Nicolas II and the Romanov family.  Alexander was in Paris with his sister when the revolution began.  He immediately returned home.  In 1922 he was hauled before “The Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.”  The Count expected to be shot, but some high party officials recognized him as “among the heroes of the prerevolutionary cause.  Thus, it is the opinion of this committee that you should be returned to the hotel of which you are so fond.  But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.” (5).  Despite this ominous beginning, about a third of the novel is full of humor, jokes, literary references, and lots of pleasant dining with gallons of wine and meetings some with old friends. 

Alexander was escorted from the trial venue to the hotel and his room.  Towles writes, “On the third floor, the count walked down the red-carpeted hallway toward his suite—an interconnected bedroom, bath, dining room, and grand salon with eight-foot windows overlooking the lindens of Theatre Square.  And there the rudeness of the day awaited” (10).  The Count was given a room in the attic of the hotel.  Towles continues, “Among the furnishings destined for his new quarters, the Count chose two high-back chairs, his grandmother’s oriental coffee table, and a favorite set of porcelain plates” (11).  He hardly had room for a picture of his sister, a leather case, and a few odds and ends.

While dining one day, a young girl in a lemon yellow dress began staring at the Count, and slowly she befriends Alexander.  The two become close friends, and they enjoy games and discussions.  Nina raises the subject of what is a princess.  Towles writes, “‘I would be ever so grateful, […] if you would share with me some of the rules of being a princess.’  ‘The Rules? […] But, Nina,’ the Count said with a smile, ‘being a princess is not a game.’ Nina stared at the Count with an expression of patience.  ‘I am certain that you know what I mean.  Those things that are expected of a princess” (49). 

On one of their adventures, Nina and Alexander sneak into the balcony during a conference to listen to a meeting of a trade union.  Towles writes, “Here indeed, was a formidable sentence—one that was on intimate terms with the comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.  For its apparent purpose was to catalogue without fear or hesitation every single virtue of the Union including but not limited to its unwavering shoulders, its undaunted steps, the clanging of its hammers in summer, the shoveling of its coal in the winter, and the hopeful sound of its whistles in the night.  But in the concluding phrases of this impressive sentence, at the very culmination as it were, was the observation that through their tireless efforts, Railway Workers of Russia ‘facilitate communication and trade across the provinces’” (68).  Someone is in dire need of an English teacher.

Amor Towles fantastic and absorbing novel, A Gentleman in Moscow is hard to lay aside.  You will not soon forget this story.  10 Stars

--Chiron, 6/23/18

The Circle by Dave Eggers


This frightening and eerie  Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle, involves a vast and powerful corporation.  The novel has echoes of Jonathan Swift, Margaret Atwood, and George Orwell, with a shadow of Dante’s Inferno.
mirror to our current world, makes me shiver.

Mae Holland has graduated from college, and her first job turns out to be deadly boring.  Her college roommate offers Mae an opportunity to work for an exciting and progressive company, known as “The Circle.”  Her first day on the job seems like a dream come true.  As days pass, she finds herself overloaded with connections she is required to maintain for thousands of people also connected to The Circle. 

At first, she breezes through her first contacts with customers, but then the work begins to grow more than she can handle.  One day, Gina stops by her office.  Eggers writes, “‘this would be a good time to set up all your socials.  You got time?’  ‘Sure,’ Mae said, though she had no time at all. // ‘I take it last week was too busy for you to set up your company social account?  And I don’t think you imported your old profile?’  Mae cursed herself.  ‘I’m sorry.  I’ve been pretty overwhelmed so far.’ / Gina frowned.  […] Gina tilted her head and cleared her throat theatrically.  […]  ‘We actually see your profile, and the activities on it, as integral to your participation here’” (95).  Mae is then shown a dizzying array of computer screens which create numerous obligations for interacting with thousands of other “Circlers”—as they are known—all around the world.  Gina opens a “Zinger” account for Mae, and she suddenly has over 10,000 co-workers she must constantly monitor and establish interactions.

At another company meeting, one of the engineers demonstrates a miniature camera, which can be hidden.  He shows a few camera views—all ultra-high definition and audio as well.  Eggers writes, “Now there were twelve live images of white-topped mountains, ice-blue valleys, ridges topped with deep green conifers. // [This] ‘can give me access to any of the cameras he wants.  It’s just like friending someone, but now with access to all their live feeds.  Forget cable.  Forget five hundred channels.  If you have one thousand friends, and they have ten cameras each, you now have ten thousand options for live footage.  If you have five thousand friends, you have fifty thousand options.  And soon you’ll be able to connect to millions of cameras around the world.  […] ‘Imagine the implications!’’  Yes, imagine in deed!

The speaker goes on to say that the plan is for millions of these tiny cameras covering the entire world available to everyone’” (65).  If you thought Facebook destroys privacy, think again.  This is only the beginning.

One day, a mysterious man meets Mae on her way back to the office.  He introduces himself as Kaldan and asks her to demonstrate what she does.  He has a badge admitting him to the company, so she obliges him.  Eggers writes, “Mae paused.  Everything and everyone else she’d experienced at The Circle hewed to a logical model, a rhythm, but Kaldan was the anomaly.  His rhythm was different, atonal and strange, but not unpleasant.  His face was so open, his eyes liquid, gentle, unassuming, and he spoke so softly that any possibility of threat seemed remote. // […] And so he watcher Mae answer requests. // […] He was close to her, far too close if he was a normal person with everyday ideas of personal space, but it was abundantly clear he was not this kind of person, a normal kind of person” (94).  Then he leaves.  Attempting to develop some theories about what goes on in this “corporate utopia,” heightens the suspense of this novel.

Dave Eggers suspense filled novel, The Circle, will keep you on the edge all the way to the end.  5 stars

--Chiron, 6/15/18

Spectral Waves by Madeline Defrees

Madeleine DeFrees’s eighth poetry collection—an author who has never crossed my radar—is a happy accident.  According to the author’s biography, she has won numerous awards, including the Academy of American Poets Lenore Marshall Prize and the Washington State Book Award.  She has also published short stories, essays, journalism feature stories, and two poetry chap books and two memoirs.  She has also taught at Pacific University Low-residency M.F.A. Program.  I will soon be digging into more of her work.

This collection of poetry contains works that use words and phrases to weave interesting and thought-provoking poems of elegant beauty.  Here is one example: “Mythology of Spider Silk.”  “Skein upon skein of thread in rainbow colors-- / silk of silver and gold as well-- / heaped beside the peasant girl whose claim to rival / Athena’s skill as a weaver will soon / be tested.  Beside each loom, the raw stuff / that will prove who is the better / at her craft. // The signal given, shuttles fly.  Athena’s / fabric, as expected, dazzles the eye. / Arachne’s, finished at the same moment, no less / impressive.  The goddess, in a jealous / fury, slits Arachne’s web / from top to bottom, then beats the maiden / about the head with a shuttle. // Disgraced and angry, / Arachne hangs herself.  At that, a slight regret / steals into Athena’s heart.  She / lifts the body from the noose, sprinkles the corpse / with magic liquid.  As if from sleep, / Arachne stirs, comes back to life as a spider, her / skill at spinning, preserved” (22).  Greek mythology is one of my favorite topics for literature of any genre.

Another of these cleverly woven poems is “Astronomy.”  “This bird-woman flew to my kitchen wall, high / above the sink—a bibelot made of / coconut shell from Mexico—woman I call / my Aztec Sun.  Sun-yellow / frames her painted cheeks, and six / symmetrical rays surround them, each: red / yellow, and green. // Eyebrows fallen parentheses, / lips a small star, it’s clear that she’s / missing her starfish brother.  Fossils show: 300 / million years before dinosaurs, Blood Star / plunged to the ocean floor. / Aztec remembers.  Replays the scene / evenings when sun sets red in the west” (60).

Numerous poems in this collection deal with nature—reminiscent of Mary Oliver--a poetry topic I love to spend hours pouring over.  Here is an example of one of her bird poems, “To a Crow Outside My Bay Window.”  “When have I ever welcomed you to my gutters, / stuck on the one wrong note / Poe’s ‘Raven’ returned forevermore?  Litany and / response, my every invocation / draws down the repeated guttural cry / your mate doubles from a telephone wire / high overhead. // When I stomp my foot, clap / my hands, rattle venetian blinds, you flap away, / but there’s no mistake: you’re / on a round-trip with no plans to brake anywhere / but over my eaves, morning and noon / all summer.  Am I expected to ask you in, / terrific newcomer mimic? // You do have a language / mostly scold, a memory better than mine / for bold aggression.  Smartest of birds, your / fossils revealed in deposits 12 million years / old in Colorado, what chance do I have / with an omen?  Go back to your nest!  My / nuisance, nemesis, shadow at my window” (68).

Is there anything sweeter than stumbling on an unknown poet and discovering a whole new world of enchantment?  Spectral Waves by Madeline DeFrees is an instance of such a happy accident.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 6/14/18