Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill opened for business in 1983.  Their founding philosophy still holds true.  Their edict is “to publish quality fiction and non-fiction by undiscovered young writers, and to keep our books in print, reaching new fans for many years to come” (Algonquin.com/about-us).  A recent novel, The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church, clearly demonstrates the adherence to these goals.

This debut novel is a sweeping tale of love, science, secrecy, and women’s evolving roles.  Meridian Wallace studies birds at the University of Chicago, where she meets Alden Whetstone, a brilliant and complicated physicist.  He opens her eyes to the wonders of science and the connection between her birds and physics.  As Meridian is about to go off to graduate school, Alden is called to a top secret government project, later known as “The Manhattan Project.”  Later they marry and she moves to New Mexico and puts her graduate studies aside.

The amazing thing about the story is the role women were forced into during the 40s and 50s.  Meri, as she is known, lives at a boarding house, and a boarder offers her some dating advice.  Church writes, “‘You can’t just talk about any old thing, Meri.  Knowing you, you’ll end up lecturing him about the compositions of eagles’ nests or the migration patterns of some obscure bird species.’ // “‘What’s wrong with that?  He’s in my biology class.’ // “‘You have to flatter them,’ […] ‘Pick a topic they know, something they like talking about’” (13).  Later on, as Meri yearns to formalize her bird studies by attending graduate school, Alden quashes her plans.  She has little in common with the other wives in New Mexico, all of whom seem interested only in diapers, recipes. and keeping their husbands happy.  Alden was about 20 years older than Meri, who exhibits some childish traits.  On the train to New Mexico, Meri describes the compartment.  “My sleeping compartment was a girl’s dream of a doll house with clever miniature soaps, a single rose in a slender vase, and turn-down service” (52).  Meri’s mother writes to her, “I didn’t teach you enough about how couples get along or about the necessary compromises wives must make” (129).  When Alden suggests they consider having a baby, Church writes, “‘A baby would be fulfilling, give you a purpose,’ […] ‘A child might just be the answer you need Meri’” (138).  She resists. 

As the 50s close and the 60s cultural revolutions take hold, Meri is increasingly lonely.  All she has to herself are her notebooks on the crows she studies and some sketches.  The one day, she meets a young geologist, Clay, and they begin an affair.  This strains their marriage, Meri begins thoughts of leaving Alden.  Then Clay wants Meri to run away with him, but she feels tied to Alden and refuses.

This bare bones summary leaves out lots of interesting details of the three main characters, some of which provides quite a surprising ending.  Each chapter cleverly introduces a bird species as the title, which neatly shows interesting aspects of Meri, Alden, Clay, and several others.  Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, offers an interesting and detailed look at the way women evolved over the last 60 years to become the interesting and independent women of today.  5 stars.


--Chiron, 12/22/16

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Faithful by Lydia Davis

Anne Hoffman is an author I admired back in the 80s, who has resurfaced on my radar.  Her latest novel, Faithful, has brought Anne Hoffman right back up into my reading life.  She was born in 1952, and she currently lives in Boston.  She is most well-known for Practical Magic, an Oprah Book Club Selection and is a best-selling author of over 30 works of fiction.  I read a couple of her novels around the millennium, but my usual vacuuming of the book lists has inexplicably passed by her.  She is most often noted for her magic realism, a sub-genre I really enjoy.

Faithful tells the story of two young women, BFFs as they say these days, who, while on a car ride, encounter a patch of ice which sends the care into a tailspin.  At first, the women are excited, but when the sliding stops, Helene Boyd is dead, and Shelby Richmond is seriously injured.  The two were a slightly odd pair.  Helene was the popular girl, the beautiful woman every man in their high school desired.  Shelby was slightly marginalized, but when Helene took her on as a friend, things changed for both young ladies.  Shelby suffers from survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and she cuts herself, and she is dangerously close to suicide.  A young man, Ben, befriends Shelby despite the fact she wants nothing and nobody, as she sinks further and further into depression.  At first, Shelby will not even talk to him. 

Finally, she slowly relents.  Hoffman writes, “Whenever she talks about high school, Shelby takes out her house key and digs it into the palm of her hand until she bleeds.  No miracle.  That’s Helene’s business.  Shelby’s blood is strictly a penance.  It’s for real. // ‘I don’t think you should do that,’ Ben said to her when he realized what she was doing, drawing her own blood while she sat beside him. // ‘You think?’ she goaded him.  ‘That’s a surprise.  Did you know we used to think you were a werewolf?’ // Shelby guessed he’d stalk away, insulted, and maybe that’s what she wanted to happen.  Her aloneness, after all, is all she has.  Instead Ben said, ‘I’m just worried about you,’ // ‘Don’t be,’ Shelby warned him. // ‘I wouldn’t mind being a werewolf,’ he said, which only made Shelby feel guiltier about all those years they’d made fun of him” (8-9).

Shelby begins writing postcards to her future self, and then begins receiving others.  Hoffman writes, “She thinks about the anonymous postcards that she keeps in her childhood jewelry box.  Every day she waits even though sometimes there are months in between their arrivals.  When she sees one in the mailbox she feels a thrumming inside her.  She’s always excited to read them, no matter the message.  Be something, with a hive of bees made of gold ink and a girl who’s been stung running into a dark wood.  Feel something.  A heart held in the palm of a hand.  Inside the heart are words written in red ink: Faith, sorrow, shame, hope.  Someone is watching over her.  Someone knows what she needs” (28-29).  Then she begins hearing voices.

This suspenseful novel will have you turning pages faster than you might ever have done.  Alice Hoffman is a wonderful writer, and her latest novel, Faithful, might just be a author you have been waiting to cross your desk.  I, for one, am going to revisit those couple of novels of hers I own.  Stay tuned.  5 stars.


--Chiron, 12/11/16

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis, recently awarded the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction, is as interesting and eclectic a writer as I have rarely encountered.  Her latest collection, Can’t and Won’t, will wrinkle your brow, bring a smile to your face, and set the reader to thinking about the world and its wide variety of inhabitants.

Davis was born in 1947 to parents who were both of a literary bent.  She married the writer, Paul Auster, but they divorced, and she then married Alan Cote.  She has two children.  Lydia is most known for her short stories of extreme brevity, referred to as “flash fiction.”  Some of her stories consist of a single line, sometimes even as few as 3-4 words.  Despite their size, each of these stories contains a nugget of pure gold, some even have streaks of platinum.  Here is an example of one of those nuggets titled “The Dog Hair.”  She writes, “The dog is gone.  We miss him.  When the doorbell rings, no one barks.  We still find his white hairs here and there around the house and on our clothes.  We pick them up.  We should throw them away.  But they are all we have left of him.  We don’t throw them away.  We have a wild hope -- if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again” (4).  The sadness and the memories of a beloved pet are all packed into 88 words.

Here is another slightly shorter story, “Circular Story”:  “On Wednesday mornings early there is always a racket out there on the road.  It wakes me up and I always wonder what it is.  It is always the trash collection truck picking up the trash.  The truck comes every Wednesday morning early.  It always wakes me up.  I always wonder what it is” (5).  Whatever will she do if they change the route and it passes by her home after lunch?

Here is a pair of funny little tales.  “Contingency (vs. Necessity).  “He could be our dog. // But he is not our dog. // So he barks at us” (18), and “Contingency (vs. Necessity) 2: On Vacation”: “He could be my husband. // But he is not my husband. // He is her husband. // And so he takes her picture (not mine) as she stands in her flowered beach outfit in front of the old fortress” (20).  Some of these stories have a definite poetic flair.

Another of my favorites is “The Bad Novel.” Davis writes, “This dull, difficult novel I have brought with me on my trip – I keep trying to read it.  I have gone back to it so many times, each time dreading it and each time finding it no better than the last time, that by now it has become something of an old friend.  My old friend the bad novel” (23).  I have experienced this quite a few times, but unfortunately for me, I do not have the patience for more than three strikes.  Finally, the title story, “Can’t and Won’t.  “I was recently denied a writing prize, because, they said, I was too lazy.  What they mean by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contract them to can’t and won’t.  (46).

The most recent collection by Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t has dozens more of these fun and entertaining little nibblettes.  She also includes a number of her dreams and fragments of the story of Madame Bovary, which she recently translated.  This is one of my favorite novels of the 19th century.  I am seriously close to reading this new translation of a classic novel.  5 stars.


--Chiron, 12/11/16

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

The next installment in my exploration of the works of Elizabeth Taylor -- the British writer, not the lovely American actress – is A Game of Hide and Seek.  Kingsley Amis. Antonio Fraser, Hillary Mantel – among others -- tout her works as among the best of the 20th century.  The more of her works I read, the more I side with these opinions.  It is a curious story of a two teenagers who form a deep and innocent bond.  However, their paths take them in different directions, and it becomes anything but a children’s summer diversion.

This novel reminds me of 19th century novelists, such as Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell.  The narrative is understated with detailed probes into the psyche of Harriet.  In the “Introduction” by Caleb Crain, he wrote, “Perhaps A Game of Hide and Seek should be understood in the spirit of a Brontë novel, as representing a world in which love is more easily distinguished by the shadows it throws than by any light it may cast” (xi). 

I found myself enchanted from the first page.  Taylor wrote, “Sometimes in the long summer’s evenings, which are so marked a part of our youth, Harriet and Vesey played hide-and-seek with the younger children, running across the tufted meadows, their shoes yellow with the pollen of butter cups.  They could not run fast across those uneven fields; nor did they wish to, since to find the hiding children was to lose their time together, to run faster was to run away from one another.  The jog-trot was a game devised from shyness and uncertainty.  Neither dared to assume the other wished to pause, and inexperience barred them both from testing this” (3).  I am fast becoming an avid admirer of this wonderful writer; however, collecting her 12 novels, 8 short story collections, and a children’s book, will be a daunting task – I only own two novels and a short story collection.  That is what retirement will be all about to my mind.

Here is an example of Harriet’s musings.  Taylor wrote, “After their walk in the woods, Harriet faced the day’s page uncertainly.  There was either far too much space or only one hundredth part enough.  Time had expanded and contracted abnormally.  That morning and all her childhood seemed the same distance away.  ‘I cannot put down what happened this evening,’ she wrote mysteriously.  ‘Nor is there any need, for I shall remember all my life.’  And, although she was so mysterious, she was right.  Much of those diaries would puzzle her when she turned their pages in middle age, old age; many allusions would be meaningless; week after week would seem to have been wiped away: but that one entry, so proudly cryptic, would always evoke the evening in the woods, the shadows, the layers of leaves shutting out the sky, the bronze mosses at the foot of the trees, the floating sound their voices had, and that explosive, echoing cry of the cuckoo.  She would remember writing the words in the little candlelit bedroom” (26-27).

To give Vesey his due, Taylor adds, “He needed Harriet for his own reasons, to give him confidence and peace.  In the shelter of her love, he hoped to have a second chance, to turn his personality away from what he most hated in himself, to try to find dignity before it was too late.  Playing the fool bored him.  With the failure of school behind him, he hoped to shake off the tedious habit” (30).

Some of Taylor’s works are available from the The New York Review of Books.  try Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek, and find the wonderful world of her imagination, and then help revive interest in this amazing writer.  5 stars.


--Chiron, 12/11/16

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Hiroshima by John Hersey

I discovered The Saturday Review of Literature in the early seventies, after reading an article about Norman Cousins, the then editor.  About a decade later, the magazine ceased publication.  The second thing which struck me was a blurb on John Hersey’s Hiroshima: “Everyone able to read should read it.”  The early seventies were the days of antiwar rallies, and calls to ban nuclear weapons.  Of course I had heard of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all the justifications for using the atomic bomb in 1945 as a way to end World War II quickly and save many millions of military and civilian lives.  John Hersey’s work really opened my eyes to the horrors of nuclear weapons.

The original history was updated about four decades later to show the long term effects of the bomb.  Hersey tells the story through the memoirs of six civilians who were in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 at 8:15 AM when the bomb exploded.  The curious thing is the completely random steps these individuals had taken which took them out of the direct effects of the blast.

Hersey wrote, “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next guess.  At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fuijii was settling down to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, […]; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, […]; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen […]; and the Revernd Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from the town in fair of the massive B-29 [bomber] raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer” (3-4).  These six individuals lived to describe the aftermath of the explosion. 

At first, they all thought a bomb had hit close to their location, but when they emerged from the wreckage, the amount of destruction was beyond imagination.  As time passed and those who had lived through the terror, did not want to refer to themselves as “survivors” in fear of causing some slight insult to the victims.  Instead, they referred to themselves as “hibakusha” or literally, “explosion-affected persons” (92).  The “hibakusha” struggled for years to hold together what remained off their families, friends, and their own lives.  For example, it wasn’t until 1951 that Mrs. Nakamura was able to move into a new house.  Dr. Sasaki spent the next five years removing ugly keloid scars from residents of the city.  Of course, as long term effects of the explosion began to surface, the full extent of the horrors of nuclear war emerged.

Yet today, we live on the brink of nuclear annihilation.  Nations struggle to build nuclear weapons.  Some call for using these weapons to further religious, political, or economic interests.  As is the case in so many examples of war, some have forgotten the lessons of history.  The Saturday Review was correct: “Everyone able to read [John Hersey’s book] should read it.  5 stars.


--Chiron, 12/6/16

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Andrew's Brain by E. L. Doctorow

I still mourn the death of E. L. Doctorow some 16 months ago.  I figured the best medicine was a doss of his wonderful novels.  What I most admire about Doctorow is the wide variety of subjects he tackles.  In this work, the title character, Andrew, is a cognitive scientist teaching at a university.  As far as I know Andrew’s Brain is his fifteenth, and most likely, his last work.  It is also one of his most engrossing and interesting novels.

From the first page, I had an unusual sense of bewilderment.  The lack of quote marks and “he saids” got me thinking, searching my brain to untangle the mystery.  As I tunneled further into the book, I thought he was talking to a therapist, then, I thought, maybe he chats with himself, and finally, was he talking to his own brain?  Andrew was fond of “thought experiments” much like Einstein, Galileo, and Newton.  This indicates to me Andrew is something of a genius.  Early in the first chapter, he poses a thought experiment which disturbed his students.  Doctorow wrote, “I asked this question: How can I think about my brain when it’s my brain doing the thinking?  So is this brain pretending to be me thinking about it?”  (34).  Andrew “then picked up [his] books and walked out of the room” (35).  This stopped me as though I had run into a brick wall.  I read the passage again and spent the next 30 minutes trapped in a Möbius loop of understanding.  Excellent stretching and strengthening for my brain muscle!

Another interesting experiment is about a quarter of the way through the novel.  Doctorow wrote, “I was just thinking.  Suppose there was a computer network more powerful than anything we could imagine. // What’s this? // never mind a network, just one awesome computer, say.  And because it was what it was, suppose it had the power to record and store the acts and thoughts and feelings of every living person on earth once around per millisecond of time.  I mean, as if all of existence was data for this computer – as if it was a storehouse of all the deeds ever done, the thoughts ever though, the feelings ever felt.  And since the human brain contains memories, this computer would record these as well, and so be going back in time through the past even as it went forward with the present” (44-45).  I am not sure if I should make myself an aluminum hat or worry about the NSA – or both!

Andrew falls in love with a young woman, Briony.  She takes him to meet her parents.  Andrew describes the event to whoever is listening.  He writes, “Sounds as if you were having a good time. // Well, I saw how Briony loved her parents’ routine, laughing and clapping for something she must have seen a hundred times.  Watching her lifted me into a comparable state of happiness.  As if it had arced brain to brain.  This was a pure, unreflective, unselfconscious emotion.  It had taken me by surprise and was almost too much to bear – happiness.  I felt it as something expressed from my heart and squeezing out my eyes.  And I think as we all laughed and applauded at the end of the soft-shoe number I may have sobbed with joy.  And I was made fearless in the in that feeling, it was not tainted by anxiety” (77). 

Maybe this is how true love can be identified – two brains arcing across each other, flooding the brain with joy and happiness, while relieving stress and anxiety.  Andrew’s Brain, by E.L. Doctorow is one of the best novels I have read in 2016.  Not familiar with Doctorow?  No problem.  Of ten of his fifteen novels, only one slid from 5 stars to four.  This novel is decidedly 5 stars.


--Chiron, 11/23/16

The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins

Mary Oliver is on the verge of overtaking Billy Collins as my favorite poet.  His latest collection, The Rain in Portugal disappointed me ever so slightly.  While the poems are all good – with most, great – I sensed, in some of the poems -- a loss of the subtle humor that first drew me to Collins.  On my second and third readings, I chalked it up to a mood change or some other event.  Many authors and readers go through phases over the years.  When I was young, I read almost no poetry, but all the science fiction I could find at the Kensington Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.  Now, I am reading more and more poetry, and I cannot remember the last science fiction novel I have read.

In one of my favorites in this collection, “Thanksgiving,” Collins writes, “The thing about the huge platter / of sliced celery, broccoli florets, / and baby tomatoes you had arranged / to look like a turkey with its tail fanned out / was that all our guests were so intimidated / by the perfection of the design / no one dared disturb the symmetry / by removing so much as the nub of a carrot. // And the other thing about all that / was that it took only a few minutes / for the outline of the turkey to disappear / once the guests were encouraged to dig in, / so that no one would have guessed / that this platter of scattered vegetables ever bore / the slightest resemblance to a turkey / or any other two- or four-legged animal. // It reminded me of the sand mandalas / so carefully designed by Tibetan monks / and then just as carefully destroyed / by lines scored across the diameter of the circle, / the variously colored sand then swept / into a pile and carried in a vessel / to the nearest moving water and poured in-- / a reminder of the impermanence of art and life. // Only, in the case of the vegetable turkey / such a reminder was never intended. / Or if it was, I was too bust slicing up / even more vivid lessons in impermanence / to notice.  I mean the real turkey minus its head / and colorful feathers, and the ham / minus the pig minus its corkscrew tail / and minus the snout once happily slathered in mud.” (77-78).  While we do have a touch of Buddhism in this poem, which I greatly admire, there is only the merest mote of humor.

From another poem that intrigued me, “Genuflection,” Collins muses an Irish custom of greeting “the first magpie one encounters in the course of a day” (75) a bird “out of usual clime” (75).  He writes, “but why wouldn’t every bird merit a greeting? / a nod or at least a blink to clear the eyes-- / a wave to the geese overhead, / maybe an inquiry of a nervous chickadee / a salute in the dark to the hoot of an owl. / And as for the great blue heron, / as motionless in profile by the shore / as a drawing on papyrus by a Delphic priest, / will anything serve short of a genuflection? // As a boy, I worked on that move, / gliding in a black cassock and white surplice / inside the border of the altar rail / then stopped to descend, / one knee touching the cool marble floor / palms pressed together in prayer, / right thumb crossed over left, and never the other way around.” (75-76).

 This brings back memories of my days as an altar boy.  However, I certainly have no intention of even thinking about giving up on Billy Collins, especially on the strength of a single new collection, The Rain in Portugal.  Rather, I want to follow this trail, if it is a trail, and I am sure I will learn something new from this great poet.  4-1/2 stars.


--Chiron, 11/13/16

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver

I try to avoid repeating author’s too closely together for Likely Stories.  This becomes particularly difficult when one of my favorite authors pops up.  However, in the case of Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver, I decided to break the rule.  These essays are almost poems in themselves, and I have discovered another side to the poet.  Nature is much more than a theme for most of her poems, rather it is closely held and dynamic aspect of her work.  I said the when I reviewed Swan, I considered her a poetry soul mate.  Upstream has reinforced that belief.

I freely admit Emerson is not a favorite of mine, but Oliver has turned my head in a less-than-12-page essay.  She writes, “The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute but to the extravagant and the possible.  Answers are no part of it; rather, it is the opinions, the rhapsodic persuasions, the engrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self-quarrels, his own predicament.  This is the crux of Emerson, who does not advance straight ahead but wanders to all sides of an issue; who delivers suggestions with a kindly gesture – who opens doors and tells us to look at things for ourselves.  The one thing he is adamant about is that we should look – we must look – for that is the liquor of life, that brooding upon issues, that attention to thought even as we weed the garden or milk the cow” (69) [Italics by author]

Mary Oliver closes section one of the book with a peak into her writing process.  She writes, “It is six A.M., and I am working.  I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc.  It is as it must be.  The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard.  The poem gets written.  I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame.  Neither do I have guilt.  My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot.  My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive.  If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.  Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all. // There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.  And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything.  The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it to neither power nor time” (30).

I adopt this passage, this essay, as my anthem, as my creed, as my goal.

Another favorite of mine is “Swoon.”  She discovers a nesting spider, and with fascination I can only admire, she spins a lovely story.  Mary writes, “This is the moment in an essay when the news culminates and, subtly or bluntly, the moral appears.  It is a music to be played with the lightest fingers.  All the questions that the spider’s curious life made me ask, I know I can find answered in some book of knowledge, of which there are many.  But the palace of knowledge is different from the palace of discovery, in which I am truly, a Copernicus.  The world is not what I thought, but different, and more!  I have seen it with my own eyes! // Bur a spider?  Even that? // Even That” (125) [Italics by author]

I haven’t commented as much as usual in this review, because I want to dangle a few bites of Mary Oliver’s splendid collection of essays, Upstream: Selected Essays, and let each reader take the bait and swim along with her.  5 stars


--Chiron, 11/13/16

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet

I am guilty again of judging a book by its cover, but I will not apologize for this occasional slip – especially when the novel offers a dramatic and heart-wrenching story of abandoned women.  The Guineveres by Sarah Domet tells the story of four young girls – all named Guinevere -- abandoned by their families at a convent.  The structure of the novel is also interesting.  One of the Guineveres narrates, and Domet has interspersed brief lives of sometimes obscure saints, which prefigure some crises facing one or more of the young ladies.  Each Guinevere also takes a turn narrating her own story in a chapter titled with her name and “Revival.”  At first, I thought I was headed into a tragedy, but when I realized the story describes the courage, empathy, and friendship of the four girls, I knew I would not regret the choice of this debut novel.  Domet has a Ph.D. in literature and writing from the University of Cincinnati, and she has also written a non-fiction book on writing.

The girls were nicknamed Gwen, Ginny, Win, and the narrator, Vere.  I was afraid my cynicism would take over, as I predicted the story would be another horrific tale of abuse, but it was not.  The nuns who supervised the girls did so with tenderness and strict discipline, and only the most egregious transgressions would merit a stay in the “Penance Room” – a time-out space for teens.  The usual punishment ranged from loss of dessert at dinner up to service hours in the hospital and loss of recreational periods.

Having spent a year at a boarding school in upstate New York, I could empathize with the disappointment the girls felt when days after weeks after years went by with no contact with their families.  I only suffered a few days without mail.  Domet writes, “‘It doesn’t look like anything has arrived this week, dear.’  She patted the top of Ginny’s head.  ‘I’m sorry.’ // ‘For me?’ I asked.  I already knew the answer, and Sister Fran didn’t even pretend. // ‘Not this time,’ she said.  ‘Perhaps you should write another letter,’ she suggested, then placed her arm warmly around my shoulder.  ‘Better to give than receive.  That’s an excellent policy to remember, don’t you think?  Something therapeutic in letter writing, like baring one’s soul.  The benefit is yours just by writing it’ (127).  My mother saved every letter I wrote that winter, and she recently turned them over to me.  What a window into that year!

The girls frequently tried to hold onto the fragile memories of the life they lost.  Domet writes, “I began to imagine a story about my father’s new life in a different city: a wife and a kid, a small house just like ours.  I wondered if he looked in one his new kid like he used to look in on me at night when he thought I was asleep.  I’d keep my eyes closed, playing possum, because if I did, he’d stand there for a while, and I could feel the weight of his shadow above me.  If he found me awake, he’d simply shut the door, his footsteps fading down the hallway” (141).

 The nuns in this story recall some fond – and some not so fond – moments in my elementary school days.  Years later, I found out my fifth grade teacher was 16 years old, when she arrived to teach me and about 50 of my classmates.  Sister Fran always had an aphorism handy for the Guineveres.  In this chapter, the old tried and true “Your body is a temple” appears.  Domet writes, “‘God has loaned you these bodies, girls, like a book in the library.  Do you write in the book you borrow?  No.  Do you place the book face-down and break the spine?  I think not.  You’re gentle with the book you borrow – you treat it better than you’d treat your own because you know it is not yours.  We must not grow too fond of the book, for we know we must return it.  But, still, this doesn’t prevent you from using the book, reading it so to speak, as long as you do so with care” (241).  I could not help myself from silently answering, “Yes, Sister Michael Mary,” recalling those 5th grade days.

Sarah Domet’s first novel, The Guineveres, is a sure winner.  This novel can take you back to your grade school experiences – minus the paddle and the pathos you also might have experienced.  5 stars.


--Chiron, 11/4/16

Bloodstories: A Cycle of 28 Poems by Jenuine Poetess

Jenuine Poetess is the pre-eminent feminist poet in Waco.  According to the biography at the end of the book, she has had a wide-ranging and diverse career as a poet, ranging from California, to Italy, and now Texas.  She founded the Waco Poets Society in 2013 as well as a grassroots writing circle project with chapters in Los Angeles, Texas, and Lebanon.  The biography continues, Jenuine’s poetry is “Rooted in the conviction that creative health is a matter of justice, [she] organizes arts programming in her community and ponders ways to disrupt the homeostasis.  She is the founder and midwife of truths at www.unsilent.org, because courage is contagious and there is medicine in your ‘me too.”  Her website is www.jenuineartworks.com.  She is a fantastic poet, and her collection Bloodstories will set your mind to thinking deep thoughts.

Here is a sample of her work, and my favorite in this collection.  She writes in the poem, [nourish], “I need poetry / because someone is erasing history // I need your stories / our stories / Earth stories and bloodstories / Sea stories and bone stories / carved on our teeth and our cells // I need Great Grandmother stories / and Medicine Man stories // I need the stories of the Wind / and those of the trees / before thee too / are cut down / and disappeared / right before our eye // I need them in my ears / in my chest / I need to swallow them whole / to be tasted over my lifetime // I need to stitch them / into the pockets of my soul / so wherever I travel / I carry them / a part of me // engrave them onto the sky / spell them up out with stars / dig them up out of their graves / whisper them into the rocks // they are trying to unmake history / unraveling the fabric of knowledge / they are unteaching our children / with howllowed out imposters / pretending and whitewashing // look under the carpet / they have swept / all the stories there / locked the door / swallowed the key // I need us-stories / the sustenance of / thriving // I need poetry because / someone / is erasing Truth” (33-34).

Another shorter poem, [flow] reads, “so many bloodstories / they won’t stop / flowing / there is no gauze / no wrap / no salve / to clot the blood // only ink / bleeding into my page / entire lifetimes / within each drop” (30).  Another interesting poem [in service of the word] use the title of a book by Natalie Goldberg in the second line.  Jenuine writes, “we are / writing down the bones / taking dictation / of their verse / the muse is in our marrow / this poetry / hold us up / gives us our form / our matter / moves us to dancing / holds our grief / like rings on a tree / cycles round and ripe / cut them open / and you will find / all our stories spilling out / the deep red blood of / our throbbing / our thriving” (28).

I have been through this collection slowly over several weeks, and after each reading, the ideas and emotions took shape.  As I continued on, I felt those emotions and took them as my own.  As a disclaimer, Jenuine is a friend of mine, and I will admit to a swell of hesitation when signed my copy of the book.  It is hard to read the work of a friend, and harder still to criticize it.  However, these poems are powerful, they are full of emotion, but they are also filled with love for life.  And as one critic wrote, “This poet sings with a timeless, soulful lyricism.  Bloodstories: A Cycle of 28 Poems by Jenuine Poetess is available through Yellow Chair Press in Waco, TX.  5 stars


--Chiron, 10/26/16

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Dating back to graduate school, I have admired Julian Barnes for his quirky novels.  In most of his works, he does not use anything resembling the conventional structure of the novel.  However, as a Booker Prize winner, he has the sort of position which allows him to be as unconventional as he wishes.  His latest novel, The Noise of Time, is certainly no exception. 

This interesting historical account of the career of Dmitri Shostakovich has some flavor of historical fiction, but at the end of the novel, he has profusely thanked Elizabeth Wilson, who “supplied [him] with material I would never have come across, corrected many misapprehensions, and read the typescript” (201).  He continues this adulation with, “this is my book not hers; and if you haven’t liked mine, then read hers” (201).  Thanks for the offer Dmitri Dmitrievich, but I liked your book a lot.

I have been fascinated by Russian history for decades, and I also have a fondness for Russian music – particularly Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich.  When I learned of the relationship between Dmitri and Josef Stalin, I was perplexed.  I always thought music was a bridge over any troubled waters on the planet.  The composers refusal to join the Communist Party caused him much trouble.  At one point in his life, he so feared the Russian secret police, he slept in his clothes with a small handbag on the floor.  He did not want to be dragged away in his pajamas.

Eventually, Stalin died, and Nikita Khrushchev became the First Secretary of the Party.  While Stalin abhorred Dmitri’s talent, and the official party line was that Dimitri’s music was “Muddle and Muck.”  Most of his work was banned for years.  When Nikita took over, he was rehabilitated after joining the party.  He refused as best he could, but the pressure was intense.  Many of his fellow composers and musicians turned their backs on him for giving it to Khrushchev 

Barnes spent a lot of time on Dmitri’s introspection.  In 1949 when the pressure under Stalin was at its greatest, Shostakovich mused, “If music is tragic, those with asses’ ears accuse it of being cynical.  But when a composer is bitter, or in despair, or pessimistic, that still means he believes in something. // What could be put up against the noise of time?  Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music.  Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history” (135).  Wow.  This requires some serious thought to digest this – especially for a non musician.

Towards the end of his life, Shostakovich feared his memories.  Barnes writes, “he could not stop hearing; and worst of all, he could not stop remembering.  He so wished that the memory could be disengaged at will, like putting a car into neutral.  That was what chauffeurs used to do, either at the top of a hill, or when they had reached maximum speed; they would coast to save petrol” (182-183).

What troubled me the most was the politicization of music.  Music should join people together not drive them apart.  Music should soothe, refresh, invigorate, and raise ones sensibilities.  It should not be a political tool manipulated for the accumulation of power.  Music has power of its own, and that should be the end.  Julian Barnes’ 21st book, The Noise of Time is an absorbing and thought-provoking exploration of the clash between art and power.  Whether you are a composer, a musician, or merely a listener like me, this novel should move you to a better place.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/26/16

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Ah!  A bookshop in Paris, France, a love story, and a most unusual librarian – what could possibly be better?  I did not need to read any of the impressive blurbs on the dust jacket to purchase Nina George’s wonderful novel, The Little Paris Bookshop.  She was born in 1973 in Bielefeld, Germany and is a prize-winning and bestselling author and freelance journalist since 1992, who has published 26 books, including novels, mysteries, and non-fiction.  Bookshop is apparently her first work translated into English.

I was hardly 20 pages into the novel, when it occurred to me I was reading another excellent novel comparable to Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which is on the list of my favorite novels and holds a firm spot on our desert island shelf.

Monsieur Perdu calls himself a sort of apothecary.  He has a peculiar talent for assessing what troubles his customers, and he “prescribes” books for them to read.  Chapter three begins thusly, “‘No,’ Monsieur Perdu said again the following morning.  ‘I’d’ rather not sell you this book.’ // Gently he pried Night from the lady’s hand.  Of the many novels on his book barge – the vessel moored on the Seine that he had named Literary Apothecary – she had inexplicably chosen the notorious bestseller by Maximilian ‘Max’ Jordan, the earmuff wearer from the tird floor in Rue Montagnard, [his apartment building]. // The customer looked at the bookseller, taken aback. // ‘Why not?’ // ‘Max Jordan doesn’t suit you.’ // ‘Max Jrodan doesn’t suit me?’ // ‘That’s right.  He’s not your type.’ // ‘My type.  Okay, Excuse me, but maybe I should point out to you that I’ve come to your book barge for a book.  Not a husband, mon cher Monsieur.’ // ‘With all due respect, what you read is more important in the long term than the man you marry, ma chère Madame.’ // She looked at him through eyes like slits. // ‘Give me the book, take my money, and we can both pretend it’s a nice day.’ // ‘It is a nice day, and tomorrow is the start of summer, but you’re not going to get this book.  Not from me.  May I suggest a few others?’” (11-12).  I fear, if I were ever to open a bookstore, this would be my fate.  I remember a long-closed bookstore in downtown Philadelphia, whose proprietor, might ban a shopper for refusing to buy a book he deemed essential to any library.

On page 13, George begins the first of numerous literary references, the first being The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  Perdu is obsessed with finding the author of a novel, Southern Lights.  Nina writes, “So Monsieur Perdu kept on searching. // For two decades he had been analyzing the rhythms of the language, the choice of words and the cadence of sentences, comparing the style and the subject matter with other authors’.  Perdu had narrowed it down to eleven possible names: seven women and four men. // He would have loved to thank one of them, for Sanary’s Southern Lights was the only thing that pierced him without hurting.  Reading Southern Lights was a homeopathic dose of happiness.  It was the only balm that could ease Perdu’s pain – a gentle, cold stream over the scorched earth of his soul” (32).

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George is a delightful story with many moments of humor and a heart wrenching love story.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/16/16

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

Richard Russo has penned another novel which adds to the ten excellent books in his portfolio.  His latest, Everybody’s Fool, is a sequel to Nobody’s Fool.  For this novel he returns to the town Old Bath in upstate New York.  Lots of familiar characters have aged since then – some gracefully, others not so much – and of course, the competition with the nearby town of Schuyler Springs continues, even though Old Bath is lagging further and further behind.  Sully, Miss Beryl, the English teacher, Clive, Carl, Rub, Clarice, and Bootsie are all welcome parts of his eleventh novel.

Russo is a novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, and teacher.  He was born in Johnstown, NY in 1949.  Nobody’s Fool has made its way to the big screen starring Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, and Jessica Tandy, which garnered two Oscar nominations and a half-dozen other awards.  I suspect Everybody’s Fool might follow that same path considering a glowing review from The Houston Chronicle.  My favorite of his novels is Straight Man, and I would surely love to see that come to film.

One of the more interesting characters is Sully.  He served, and was wounded, in World War II.  Russo writes, “…he hadn’t been sure then and still wasn’t now, even after the VA diagnosis.  Had he gotten off easy?  During the war he’d somehow managed to be standing in the exact right place while more talented men and better soldiers happened to be standing in the exact wrong one.  Often, that was right next to Sully.  For a while there on Omaha Beach there’d been a new, utterly lethal lottery every few seconds.  Through diligence and judgment and skill you could improve your odds of survival, but not by much.  All the way to Berlin, the calculus of pure dumb luck had ruled, Sully its undeniable beneficiary. // But that had been war.  When the shooting finally stopped and the world returned to something like sanity and he again had the leisure to reflect, things felt different” (58).  The boom which followed the end of the war never quite made it to Old Bath.  Corrupt contractors, con men, and criminals all contributed to the towns decline.

One of the more interesting characters is Chief of Police Raymer.  He has recently lost his wife to cancer, and he wallows in self-pity all the while obsessing over a garage door remote he found in his wife’s car.  Despite threats from the Mayor, he jeopardizes his job by trying to locate the matching garage.  He is convinced his wife planned on leaving him.  Russo writes, “Raymer recognized Rub Squeers, Sully’s sidekick, sitting in the small patch of shade […].  Something about his posture suggested that he was weeping.  Could he be?  Was he, too remembering a loved one buried nearby?  Was he too, yearning for a new life, a new line of work?  Maybe he’d like to swap jobs, Raymer thought, because digging graves, compared with law enforcement, would be both peaceful and rewarding.  The dead were past being troubled by the world’s injustice.  Nor did they resist order.  You could lay them out on a grid by the thousands without a single complaint.  Try that on the living and see where it got you” (67).  I do not want to give the impression this novel is morbid.  Plenty of humorous moments occur, along with some suspense, while Raymer tries to track down an ex-convict bent on revenge with a hit list.

I read Nobody’s Fool in the 90s, and found Everybody’s Fool even better.  I think it might be interesting to re-read these two novels one after the other for a more complete picture of Richard Russo’s outstanding talent as a novelist.  5 Stars.

--Chiron, 10/9/16

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The English Teacher by Lily King




A sub genre I thoroughly enjoy consists of novels about English teachers and professors.  I stumbled on a copy of The English Teacher by Lily King, after reading her latest novel, Euphoria.  This is her second novel, and as I write this, I am awaiting delivery of her first. 

Vida Avery is a single mother with a son, Peter, who is about 14.  She teaches at a school located in a mansion previously owned by her grandfather.  When the story opens, she has been at the school for awhile, and the headmaster admires her, but many of her students think she is too hard.  Vida has a dark secret she has shared with no one.  She begins dating, and accepts a proposal of marriage on an impulse.  The marriage is a failure almost from the start.  She begins drinking, and her colleagues begin to notice.  Her husband pleads with her to open up, but she refuses.  He begins to lose patience, and the couple starts a series of heated arguments.

Ever the English teacher, she spins a life for some waste collectors she has never seen.  King writes, “The got behind a garbage truck.  Vida lit a cigarette as the two men in back leapt from the runner, separated to opposite sides of the street, hurled bags three at a time up and over the truck’s backside, and hopped back on just as the truck jerked ahead.  White steam streamed from their nostrils.  They wore no gloves and drank no coffee and yet they seemed warm and full of energy.  They’d probably been up since three, and soon they would be done.  They’d go to a diner for lunch – Reubens, French fries, a few beers.  Then they’d sleep – at a room apartment on Water Street, their muscles tired, their bellies full, their minds thoughtless as cows.  The truck stopped again, and the man on the left, having caught Vida’s covetous eye, grinned at her.  She glanced quickly away in what felt like fright.  The truck veered off then, but the acknowledgement made her uneasy for several more blocks, as if a character in a book has addressed her by name” (38).  All these seemingly innocuous scenes connect to clues as to her past.

The faculty are a curious set of characters.  They seem to go about their business, like whispers in the background.  Only one of the male teachers shows any interest in Vida.  King writes, “They had, every one of them, misunderstood her entire life.  She had never yearned to marry as these people apparently thought she had.  Brick Howells was hardly the only person to have attempted the fix up.  How many times had she accepted a dinner invitation from one of them, only to find in their living room some recently devastated fellow wiping his palms on his slacks?  You have so much to offer, she was often told, as if she had a tray of cigarettes and candy perpetually strapped to her waist.  But these setups had stopped a few years back.  Vida realized now, from their relieved, astonished expressions, that they had all given up” (60-61).

An interesting aspect of the story is Vida’s use of works of literature she was teaching as thickly veiled connections to her secret.  One day, she fails to show up for school, and Peter finds her face down in a field.  He manages to drag her to her car, put her in the back seat, and drives off with or without even a learner’s permit.  He drives to California to see Vida’s sister.  This suspenseful novel is riveting without being horrifying, and only at the end does the story explode.

--Chiron, 8/31/16