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, because courage is contagious and there is medicine in your ‘me too.”  Her website is  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