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” (  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