Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Witches by Stacy Schiff

I have always been fascinated by the roots of the “Puritan Ethic,” which still haunts America in the 21st century.  I read what I could – mostly fiction – to find out what actually happened.  The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, as well as a miscellaneous stories and a brief history were all I could manage.  What I really craved was a detailed description of events, characters, and the long-lasting repercussions of one of the most infamous tragedies in American History.  A couple of years ago, I thoroughly enjoyed the biography Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, so when I saw she had written the book I had long awaited, I was excited.  Unfortunately, this history is a pale imitation of the story of “The Queen of the Nile.”

Stacy Schiff was born in Adams, Massachusetts in 1961.  She graduated from Philips Academy in Andover, and earned a BA from Williams College in 1982.  She worked as a senior editor at Simon & Schuster until 1990.  Her articles have appeared in many major literary journals.  In 2000, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her biography, Vera, who was the wife and muse of Vladimir Nabokov.  She was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer for her biography, Saint-Exupéry.  Schiff resides in New York City, serves as a trustee of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and she is a guest columnist at The New York Times.

My main problem with the book involves the structure.  She begins with a six page “Cast of Characters.  This daunting list greatly impeded my reading, as I found it annoying to constantly have to go back and forth to figure out who was whom.  Many of these individuals had hardly more than a scant mention.  She then provides a detailed list of the incidents labeled as witchcraft.  She clearly has catalogued the detail I craved.  She then tells the story of 1692 – about a 9-month period when the accusations began, individuals arrested, imprisoned, hung, and one unfortunate individual who was “pressed” to death.

And then I arrived at the last two chapters.  These pages saved the book for me.  Several times I toyed with the idea of invoking my rule of 50 – even when I was well beyond 50 of the 400 plus pages – but I resisted.  I felt I was missing something.  I was missing the ending.  Schiff neatly ties up the main characters, their real motivations – land grabbing, power grabbing, and personal vendetta, along with a slew of children who had childish reactions to parental authority.  Schiff suggest at least some of these children were prompted by adults for revenge over long standing disputes.

The amazing part is the lack of records kept by the normally attentive Puritans.  Most were rambling, fragmentary, and many were destroyed in order to erase the memory of the events.  Apologies were few and far between – some not coming until well into the 18th century.  I did learn a lot from the book, and I am sure an expert on late 17th century Salem, would get much more than I did.

What fascinated me, however, was the horrible damage wreaked by the intermingling of religion and government.  Most of the judges were Puritans.  They lost nothing to the Taliban or ISIS in their zealotry to save the colonies from the work of the Devil.  No one bothered to explore the reality or mythology of the prince of hell.  So it is no wonder the judges – assuming the devil was behind all the evil in the town – did not bother to verify any of the claims of children as young as ten years old.  The searching of suspect’s bodies for moles, warts, or birthmarks as evidence of witchcraft was nothing less than flabbergasting.

While I was mostly disappointed in Schiff’s latest novel, The Witches, Vera is next on my radar.  I am not going to give up on her.  3 stars

--Chiron, 3/8/16

July, July by Tim O'Brien

Most of my anthologies, and the three textbooks I use for my creative writing class, include “The Things They Carried” by Tim O'Brien.  Consequently, I have read that story numerous times.  While I admired it, it never rose anywhere near any of my favorite stories.  When I heard O'Brien was scheduled to give a talk on “Things,” at Baylor University, I decided to attend and see if I could gain any insights into the story.  His topic was the difference between “true” and “truth” in fiction.  His talk was enthralling, and I decided to read a later work, his 2002 novel, July, July.

William Timothy “Tim” O’Brien was born in Minnesota in 1946.  He teaches at Texas State University at San Marcos.  He was drafted upon his graduation from college, and served in Viet Nam from 1969-1970.  His unit was part of the platoon led by Lt. Calley of the Mi Lai massacre.  O’Brien’s unit arrived at Mi Lai a year later, bewildered at the hostility of the people.  He did not know about the massacre.  “The Things They Carried” explores the boundaries between what was “true” – based on facts, and “truth” – the verisimilitude of events.  This has become and important element of his style.

July, July relates the story of about 20 people who gather to celebrate their 31st reunion from college.  An odd number, since the gathering was supposed to be the 30th reunion the year before, but the planner had forgotten, and she opted for a 31st celebration. 

I was a bit daunted by the large cast of characters, especially since some occasionally went by nicknames, and I did not have enough information on peripheral family members to construct a tree.  That were lots of college romances revived and lots of peculiar life styles.  For example, one woman was married to two men.  Both men knew of the other, and accepted the eccentricity of a powerful and independent woman.  She alternated weeks at the two houses.  She also managed to revive an old crush, which still lingered after three decades.  But as the story unfolded, I began to have a feel for the group, almost as if I was attending a reunion of my own.  The major characters, I had a firm grasp of their identities and peculiarities.  And, as in any reunion, the minor characters had escaped my memory.

Early in the reunion, O’Brien begins one of a dozen interesting descriptions of the class members.  He writes, “David tapped out a cigarette, slipped it between her lips, struck a match, and watched her lean in toward the flame.  Lovely woman, he thought.  Steel eyes.  Silver-blonde hair, cut short.  Trim, No hips.  No sign of any extra eight pounds.  They’d remained friends over the years, sharing lunches, sometimes sharing a bed, and David found it impossible to believe that they would not somehow end up living together and getting old together, and finally occupying the same patch of earth.  Anything else seemed mad.  Worse than mad.  Plain evil” (12).

As a graduate of an all-male high school and college, I never had this type of reunion experience catching up with old friends.  Mine are scattered to the winds, and only an occasional query on Facebook recalls the old days.

Reading July, July in light of his lecture and my experience with “Things,” I have come to a better understanding of this talented and funny writer.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/21/16

The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

One of the benefits of a book club – my club members remind us of this benefit all the time – is discovering novels, writers, non-fiction, and poetry, we might never have considered.  If I tried to list all the books I have read, only because a fellow member recommended them, I would drown in the tsunami of books that followed some of these writers.  The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak is the latest addition to this ever growing flood. 

Elif has won awards, she is a bestseller, and – more importantly – the most widely-read author in Turkey.  She is also a champion of women’s rights and freedom of expression.  No small tasks in today’s Turkey.  Apprentice is her seventh novel, and you know what that means to my voracious collecting habits.  She has been translated into more than 40 languages, and she currently divides her time between Istanbul and London.  You will hear about Shafak from me again. 

When I first started to read this novel, my mind instantly flashed back to Jose Saramago’s wonderful tale, The Elephant’s Journey.  Saramago based his novel on an historical event that occurred in the 16th century.  King João III of Portugal has decided to present his cousin, Archduke Maximilian of Vienna, an elephant, Solomon, as a wedding present.  The mahout, Subhro, who cares for the beast in a broken down corner of the king’s zoo, guides the elephant and a troop of workers and soldiers, on a trek across Europe during the Reformation and amid various conflicts.

Shafak’s tale is of a magnificent white elephant, named Chota, sent from India to Istanbul and the sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  A twelve-year-old boy, Jahan, befriends Chota and becomes his mahout.  His life changes when he meets the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Mihrimah, and together they are spellbound by the elephant and each other.  Jahan begins his education in the palace, and comes to the notice of Mimar Sinan, the empire’s chief architect.  Mimar Sinan, an historical figure, built some of the most spectacular buildings in the empire, many of which still stand.  Jahan becomes one of Sinan’s four apprentices.  Even in this close group, danger lurks.

The novel opens with these lines, “Of all the people God created and Sheitan led astray, only a few have discovered the Centre of the Universe – where there is no good and no evil, no past and no future, no ‘I’ and no ‘thou,’ no war and no reason for war, just an endless sea of calm.  What they found there was so beautiful that they lost the ability to speak. // There were six of us: the master, the apprentices and the white elephant.  We built everything together.  Mosques, bridges, madrasas, caravanserais, alms houses, aqueducts” (1-2).

The novel is a story of creativity and artistic freedom, science vs. ignorance.  The novel overflows with interesting characters from Gypsies, to heretics, prostitutes, Sufis, royalty, and common laborers – including Muslims, Christians, and Jews – and not to forget the treachery, revenge, jealousy, murder, and myriad palace intrigues.

When I first opened this 416-page work, I hoped I would be able to finish in time for our club meeting.  I sat down on a Thursday afternoon and quickly read 75 pages.  By Sunday afternoon, I barely had 40 left – it really and truly was that good.  The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak is a tale as splendid as the mosques, palaces, and other buildings Jahan and Mimar designed and built together.  A must read!  5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/21/16

Nelle Harper Lee -- April 26, 1926 – February 19, 2016

On February 19, 2016, Nelle Harper Lee died in her home town of Monroeville Alabama.  She was 89.  She wrote a single published novel in 1960, and it became an instant best seller.  It was followed by one of the great American films starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout.  Robert Duvall, in his first feature length role, following a string of TV appearances, played Boo Radley.  Lee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.  Her novel is considered standard reading for high school students all over the country.  I read it for the first time as a sophomore in high school.  Recently, a second novel, actually a first draft of Mockingbird, which had been rejected by the publisher, found its way into print amid much controversy.

Nelle – her grandmother’s name spelled backwards – was born on April 28, 1926.  She was the youngest of four children of Frances Coleman Lee and Amasa Coleman Lee.  Her mother was a homemaker, and A.C. Lee, as he was known, was a newspaper editor and proprietor, and practiced law.  He also served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938.  All of her siblings preceded her in death.

She attended Monroe County High School, where she developed a love of English literature.  She then attended the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery for a year.  She then transferred to the University of Alabama where she studied law while writing for the university newspaper.  After a few years, she left college without a degree. 

In 1949, she moved to New York City, where she worked as an airline reservationist.  She began writing a series of short stories.  In 1956, she found an agent.  Shortly thereafter, she received a check from some friends for a year’s wages with the following note, "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.  Merry Christmas."

In 1957 she delivered the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman to the prestigious Philadelphia publisher J.B. Lippincott.  Her editor found the “spark of a true writer in every line,” however, she felt the novel – a series of anecdotes -- was unfit for publication.  After several re-writes, To Kill a Mockingbird was born.  As her fame grew, she began to withdraw from the public eye and became a recluse.  Her neighbors in Monroeville were secretive about her habits and whereabouts.  She was awarded several honorary degrees, but she declined to talk at those events.  In 2007, Nelle was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In a 1964 interview, Lee said, “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird.  I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.  Public encouragement.  I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.”  Thank you, Nelle, for many, many years of pleasurable reading.  We will never forget you, Atticus, Scout, Calpurnia, Dill, Boo, and Tom Robinson.

--Chiron, 2/21/16

Uganda Be Kidding Me by Chelsea Handler

One of my guilty pleasures was the Chelsea Handler Show.  The humor was rough, and she held nothing back in expressing her views on politics, religion, sports, or a myriad of other targets of her caustic wit.  Her books are largely autobiographical, and she doesn’t even spare her own family.  Her recent book, Uganda Be Kidding Me hilariously describes her trip to East Africa.  I laughed so hard, my face hurt.

Here is Chelsea’s description of the beginning of their flight to Africa.  She writes, “I was asleep before the plane even took off.  I had told the pilot I was pregnant and suffering from severe motion sickness, and after he agreed to let me turn mu chair into a bed, I ordered one more Bloody Mary, popped a Xanax, and woke up in Dubai. // I like to sleep as much as possible.  I like to sleep on planes primarily to avoid technology.  My grasp of electronics is commensurate to my grasp of the moon; I’m unclear as to how either arrived at its current status.  Nor do I have the attention span or wherewithal to make heads or tails of why I’m so far behind the general populace in accepting the theory of space and time, and its relevance to my own life.  On a side note: I find most astronauts to be class A narcissists” (13).  I have serious doubts about the levels of her alcohol and drug consumption.  I cannot imagine she would be able to function as she does if it were all true.

Chelsea does have her serious side, but she can’t resist even a slight jab at the end.  In this part, she writes about her arrival in Africa.  “For someone who’s never been more than moderately interested in animals, the place was surreal and, to be honest, borderline amazing.  We were transported from a tiny nugget airport by an open-aired jeep to an outdoor lodge, where we were served iced green teas on a tented deck that overlooked a view of the reserve and exposed granite that the river had carved through.  Right before our eyes was this majestic landscape filled with brooks, boulders the size of planets, and hippos wading into watering holes while wild elephants called to each other.  It was like being on the set of Jurassic Park but with room service” (17).

Chelsea Handler’s Uganda Be Kidding Me is not for everyone, but certainly for her legions of fans, among whom I count myself.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/11/16