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

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier is a writer I urgently recommend to my readers.  Pick up any of her novels, and help raise her reputation to a well-deserved higher level.  Her eighth and most recent work, At the Edge of the Orchard, brings me up to date on her works.  Tracy has talent to take the reader to times and places with detail and depth of characterization I greatly admire.  Her best known work, The Girl with the Pearl Earring was my introduction to her, and I was smitten from the first line.

Orchard begins in the spring of 1838.  James and his wife, Sadie Goodenough, have left Connecticut to strike out on their own into the western U.S.  James loves, and is obsessed with, apples.  His family grew wonderful fruit, and he got some seeds and saplings from an itinerant apple salesman, John Chapman, also known as the legendary, Johnny Appleseed.  Unfortunately, James selected a swampy stretch of ground, and the work to clear and drain enough lend to plant trees proved daunting.  Sadie wants him to plant something that will quickly produce a cash crop.  Tracy writes, “What made the fight between sweet and sour different this time was not that James was tired; he was always tired.  It wore a man down, carving out a life from the Black Swamp.  It was not that Sadie was hung over; she was often hung over.  The difference was that John Chapman had been with them the night before.  Pf all the Goodenoughs, only Sadie stayed up and listened to him talk late into the night, occasionally throwing pine cones into the fire to make it flare.  The spark in his eyes and belly and God knows where else had leapt over to her like a flame finding its true path from one curled wood shaving to another.  She was always happier, sassier, and surer of herself after John Chapman visited” (3).  This second paragraph of the novel provides an English Professor with a bounty of images and ideas of a story spun out from this innocuous beginning.

The family grew quickly with the arrival of 10 children – not all of whom survived into adult hood.  The youngest, and James’ favorite of Sadie and Robert, became the focal point of the family.  Fed up with her addiction to Applejack, a strong alcoholic beverage, James and some of the children abandon Sadie and take the wagon home from a local gathering.  Chevalier writes, “My family was gone.  I could feel it.  I was all alone.  That made me stop in the middle of the road and jest stand there.  A wagon was comin towards me and a man was shoutin at me to get out of the way, but I couldnt move.  Tears was running down me on the inside and the outside. // Ma. // I turned around and there was Robert.  Of all my family I was glad it was him that found me, cause I loved him best even when he made me feel the worst.  Robert was the Goodenough with the most future in him, the one the swamp wouldn’t get. // He held out his hand and said, I come to fetch you. // I was still cryin and I let him take my hand and lead me away like I was a child” (65).

Tracy Chevalier has added to her wonderful collection of novels with At the Edge of the Orchard.  Try this story – or The Girl with a Pearl Earring – and travel the rough and tumble years of the western expansion of the young United States.  5 stars

--Chiron, 8/21/16

Dimestore by Lee Smith

I have never read any of Lee Smith’s novels, but I have a read a few minor things written by her.  I am not sure why this is, but when I received an advanced readers copy of her memoir, Dimestore, -- her first work of non-fiction -- I decided to discover what I was missing.  And I was missing a lot!  She is a clever, smooth, and interesting writer, and this memoir became so much more than a story of her growing up and becoming a writer.  The first part of the book covers that, but the later chapters examine the writer in herself and how a reader can apply that to her daily writings.

According to the dust jacket, Lee – who lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina -- began to write stories at the age of nine and sold them for a nickel each.  As an adult she has 17 works of fiction and has won numerous awards, including “an Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Her novel The Last Girls was a New York Times best seller and won the Southern Book Critics Circle Award.  She talked a lot about this book, and I think I will get a copy of that novel next.

Lee talks about her early desire to be a writer, and the autobiographical nature of one of her characters.  She writes, “Although I Don’t usually write autobiographical fiction, the main character in one of my short stories sounds suspiciously like the girl I used to be: ‘More than anything else in the world, I wanted to be a writer.  I didn’t want to learn to write, of course.  I just wanted to be a writer, and I often picture myself poised at the foggy edge of a cliff someplace in the south of France, wearing a cape, drawing furiously on a long cigarette, hollow-cheeked and haunted.  I had been romantically dedicated to the grand idea of “being a writer” ever since I could remember” (63).  Lee was lucky to have discovered her passion so early and had the grit and the talent to carry through to success.

Lee tells a story about meeting an elderly woman who loved to write, and, as Smith found out, she had stumbled on a truly talented writer.  One day, they went for a walk in rural Virginia.  She writes, “‘Here honey,’ she said, leaning over to pick up a buck eye as we walked back beneath the sunset sky.  ‘Put this in your pocket.  It’s good luck.  And get your head out of them clouds, honey.  Pay attention.’  We went back to sit on her porch, talking to everybody that came by.  We had potato chips and Moon Pies for dinner. // I’ve been trying to pay attention ever since, realizing that writing is not about fame, or even publication.  It is not about exalted language, abstract themes, or the escapades of glamorous people.  It is about our own real world and our own real lives and understanding what happens to us day by day, it is about playing with children and listening to old people” (91).

This pleasant memoir is as enjoyable as a memoir can be.  If you are interested in all the ins and outs for the art and craft of writing, Lee Smith’s Dimestore, is a great place to begin your own journey.  We all have stories we share all the time.  Get yourself a pencil or a pen or a computer, sit down, and write.  5 stars

--Chiron, 8/1/16

Joseph Roth: The Complete Stories by Joseph Roth

I discovered Joseph Roth via a friend from long ago and far away.  This friend urged me to read Joseph Roth’s magnificent novel of the Napoleonic wars, The Radetzky March.  From the first line, I was mesmerized and read it straight through on a long spring day and night.  I found a few other works by Roth, and while I found them all interesting and enjoyable, none quite reached the soaring heights of Radetzky.  I recently came across The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth, and I have found the seeds and the imagination which led to his masterpiece.

Joseph Roth was born in Galicia and he died at the young age of 44 in Paris on May 27, 1939.  He served in the Austro-Hungarian army for a couple of years.  In 1918, he returned to Vienna where he began writing for left-wing papers.  In 1920 he moved to Berlin, and in 1923 began a distinguished career with the Frankfurter Zeitung.  When WWII broke out he moved to the south of France.  At his death, an invitation from the American PEN Club – which had brought many writers to the states – was found among his papers.  His themes of the simple man, Judaism, Austria-Hungary, and alcohol dominate his fiction.  Some of his stories and novellas are considered by some critics to reach “literary perfection.”  I cannot disagree.

The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth contains a selection of short stories – some undated, some incomplete – and three novellas.  The stories were translated by Michael Hofmann, who also contributed an Introduction.  In the Intro, he discussed the stories and added some background to Roth’s life.  Joseph Brodsky stated in a blurb, “There is a poem on every page of Joseph Roth.”  I never looked at his works that way, but as I traveled through the stories, I began to see what Brodsky meant.  Roth does have an impressive way with words.  I am going to have to try harder to acquire more of Roth’s works.

My favorite from the collection is a story from 1916, “The Honor Student.”  Roth writes, “Anton, the son of the postman Andreas Wanzl, was the oddest child you ever saw.  His thin, pale little face, with its sharply etched features, emphasized by a grave beak of a nose, was surmounted by an extremely sparse tuft of white blond hair.  A lofty brow lorded it over a practically nonexistent pair of eyebrows, below which two pale blue deep-set eyes peered earnestly and precociously into the world.  A certain stubbornness showed in the narrow, bloodless lips, clamped tight.  A fine, regular chin brought the ensemble to an unexpectedly imposing finale.  The head was perched on a scrawny neck; the whole body was thin and frail.  Altogether incongruous on such a frame were the powerful read hands that looked as though they had been glued on at the delicate wrists.  Anton Wanzl was always neatly dressed and in clean clothes” (17).  His style of detailed descriptions of his characters reminds me of Chekhov -- the preeminent master of the short story in my opinion.

He also has a talent for locale of his stories.  In a brief story, “The Grand House Opposite,” he writes: “I found a small hotel that was only different from any of those I had patronized hitherto by virtue of the fact that it was in a wealthy suburb.  My neighbors were rich people fallen on hard times, unwilling to leave the proximity of money because they evidently believed that, that way, when their fortunes finally changed, they would have less time and trouble.  In the same way, a dog one has put out will stay close to the door by which it was made to leave.  Opposite my small, narrow window was a large broad mansion.  Its brown gate was shut, and in the middle of it was a golden knob that caught and intensified and reflected the light” (134-35).

Start with Roth’s The Radetzky March, and then move to The Collected Stories and you will find a wonderful world in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

--Chiron, 8/8/16

Zero K by Don DeLillo

Although not an avid fan of Don DeLillo, I have read a few of his novels without the urge to read all his works.  I have ranged from red hot, Underworld to luke-cold, Libra.  When I saw his latest novel, Zero K, the jacket prompted me to buy it.  I am glad I did.  While not as sweeping as Underworld, I found the premise and the prose most intriguing.

Don DeLillo is an American novelist, playwright, and essayist.  He was born in the Bronx, NY in 1936.  Significantly to me, his influences are listed as Thomas Pynchon, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Vladimir, Nabokov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and last, but certainly neither least nor last, James Joyce.  This is powerhouse-central for my reading satisfaction.  I haven’t reviewed some of these authors, because I last read most of them before the beginning of “Likely Stories.”  I think I will dig some up for a much needed second reading.

Zero K tells the story of Ross Lockhart and his second wife, Artis, and his son Jeffrey from his first marriage to Madeline.  Ross has amassed a huge fortune, but Artis is dying of cancer.  He becomes involved as an investor to a program known as the “Convergence.”  This organization, hidden deep underground somewhere in central Asia, has developed a process for preserving a body in deep freeze -- hence “zero K” for zero degrees Kelvin, or absolute zero.  When Jeffrey learns of this plan he is, at first intrigued, but when He learns his father will join Artis even though he is not ill, he becomes horrified.  To make matters worse, Artis and Ross ask Jeffrey to “go with them,” even though he is perfectly healthy. 

DeLillo’s prose has an urgency to it, as he slowly unveils secrets about the organization.  Jeffrey has had some personal difficulties lately, and he is also looking for a “new world.”  Much of the novel involves discussions and speculation about time, death, re-birth, and immortality.  I also sensed that Jeffrey might have some degree of autism.

Jeffrey, the narrator, wanders around the complex with a wrist monitor, which restricts his access to a highly limited degree.  He attends lectures for family members about to die.  Few of these people have names, but Jeffrey wants to give each a name.  DeLillo writes, “Artis has spoken about being artificially herself.  Was this the character, the half fiction who would soon be transformed. or reduced, or intensified, becoming pure self, suspended in ice?  I didn’t want to think about it.  I wanted to think about a name for the woman [speaker]. // She spoke, with pauses, about the nature of time.  What happens to the idea of continuum – past present, future – in the cryonic chamber?  Will you understand days, years and minutes?  Will this faculty diminish and die?  How human are you without your sense of time?  More human than ever?  Or do you become fetal, an unborn thing? // She looked at Miklos Szabo, the Old World professor, and I imagined him in a three-piece suit, someone from the 1930s, a renowned philosopher having an illicit romance with a woman named Magda. // ‘Time is too difficult,’ he said” (67-68). 

With the ever growing number of states allowing a patient to make the decision to end his or her life, this topic has been on my mind whenever I see a friend or family member kept alive with machines.  Don DiLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, is an excellent story to spark a discussion about end of life.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/12/16