Saturday, November 4, 2017

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

Ordinarily, I do not care for modern versions of Shakespeare -- Hamlet in 20th century New York, or Victorian England, and so on.  When I read Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn’s version of King Lear, I was a bit apprehensive.  Lear is my favorite Shakespearean tragedy, and I did not want to even think about what it might be like.  Edward St. Aubyn is an English author and journalist.  He has authored eight novels.  In 2006, he was nominated for a Booker Prize.  That seems like a more than adequate background for Dunbar.

My reading hardly took me to the tenth page when a number of references to the “Crazy Old King” came to my attention.  As I read, I continued to mark these little nuggets.  Only a few items were manipulated beyond the casual reader’s notice.  Fortunately for one character, he did not suffer the fate of Gloucester at the hands of the evil Duke of Cornwall.  No spoiler alerts here -- all the fun is in matching the characters in the two stories.

Here are some of those quotes.  Who do you think they represent? “‘You can’t cling to the trappings of power, without the power itself.  It’s just,’” he paused, trying to avoid the word, but eventually letting it fall on him from the plaster above, “‘decadent.’” (3).  Try this easy one, “Oh, God, let me not go mad” (5).  Or, “‘he turned his daughters into his mother!’”

Her is an interesting passage. St. Aubyn writes, “‘Grilled fish,’ said Garry, chuckling. ‘That always gets me’. // ‘He wouldn’t have been allowed one of your delicious sauces,’ said Peter, ‘because he was on a diet.  That was a quotation from something he said to a waiter in Los Angeles, when he was having lunch with Gore Vidal.’ // ‘So, it’s a bit of history, then,’ said Garry. // ‘I’ll let you in on a little secret, Garry: everything is history.  By the time you notice it, it’s already happened.  That famous imposter, “the present,” disappears in the cognitive gap.  Mind the gap!’ cried Peter, like a stationmaster warning passengers as train doors open” (33).

Dunbar is in a remote asylum with some henchmen trying to find and kill him.  He learns of the plot, and manages to escape. St. Auybn writes, “He would get everything back and, with his power restored, he would punish his wicked daughters and leave the empire to Florence.  He had always known that he was supposed to love his children equally, but couldn’t disguise that it was Florence who charmed and delighted him.  She had inherited her mother’s beauty as well as her disarming sympathy.  Just by listening to him, she could make the knots he tied himself in spontaneously loosen and unravel.  She didn’t exercise this effect self-consciously; it was a natural phenomenon, like ice melting at a certain temperature.  Apart from her virtues, he loved Florence simply because she was Catherine’s daughter, and Catherine was the great love of his life, a love, or at least an image of love, immortalized by death, sealed off from decay and habituation, from the mundane forces that turn admiration into tolerance, and tolerance into irritation.  He could see now, in this moment of lucidity, that after Catherine was killed in the car accident, he had clung to Florence in a way that may have contributed to her desire for independence and her decision to have nothing more to do with his business” (37).  Something of a major turning of the tables there, but this thought process of Dunbar’s nicely fits in with Lear’s madness, and his moments of lucidity.

All in all, Edward St. Aubyn’s version of King Lear – set in the 21st century – is a worthy descendent of the Bard of Avon.  If you have even a high school memory of Lear, Regan, Goneril, Cordelia, Edgar, Edmund, Gloucester, Kent, Albany and Cornwall, this can be a most enjoyable read in a mere 244 pages.  5 stars!

--Chiron, 11/1/17

Monsters, Zombies + Addicts by Gwedoluyn Zepeda

A friend passed along an interesting collection of poems by Gwendolyn Zepeda, which she had inscribed.  I had never heard of Zepeda, but I enjoyed her collection Monsters, Zombies & Addicts.  Her poems are sometimes funny, and unless you frequently find yourself hiding under the bed, you might enjoy these as well.  I love a collection which forces me to choose a “favorite” as an example to my audience, and this one fills the bill.  According to the cover, Gwendolyn Zepeda has author of a poetry collection Falling in Love with Fellow Prisoners.  The title intrigues.  She has also written several novels, and she is currently the Bayou City’s first Poet Laureate. 

In “It’s Friday Night,” she writes, “The ghosts who routinely arrive at one AM when you’re awake alone at night and your mind is overwrought from its concerns. // Sometimes they start in the corners of your eyes, in the corners of the windows // Othertimes they lurk in the low-res photos online of women who allegedly wait for you because they know you’re alone” (19).  This narrative poem is a good example of this genre.  She has written a number of these, and I liked them a great deal.  She also offers some odes.  In “no Title,” she writes, “The bravest thing is / daring to think / That the devils won’t follow you anymore. / Those omens were wrong and / the unsaid prophecy untrue. / To think that you might not be // a dog in a yard / a dumb drooling and flea bit, / blocked by fences that / no one else can see.”  (20).

In “Dream Dictionary,” she struck me in a wonderful way.  She writes, “They say the symbols of your dream must be particular to you. / They say only you can know their meanings. / And, so I meditate. // The kittens that cry sound like They do, but then / tug at my womb like everything. // The woman that left (like She did) looked mean but when / breathed, smelled like freedom. // The monsters that made me scream in the dream, I / realize now, had your faces. // I’m screaming at your faces, but I can’t run away.”  (25).

Here is a short poem about pain.  “A Fall.”  I felt my foot hit wrong on the stair / my weight pitch too far forward of center / Corrected course but not enough. / A little too late. / I felt my writs wrench, gripping / the banister, / Ankle bone ground on the edge. / Hip took the weight of far too much of me. / Carpet burns everywhere. / Carpet burns everything. / I heard my own scream / like a scared, angry goat.  I bleated.  I called out the / pain, the rage, the regret / of my miscalculation” (56).

“Flirt” is another fun piece.  “You say I flirt too, much. You / call me flirt.  Wide eyes, / moving lashes. Flashing smiles / were how I got taught to be / polite.  My memories pretty / women and my targets / stubborn men. / See what you want. / Say what you wish / If I wanted you, my ears / would sound like roaring / trains of lions.  My tongue would / taste like a metal of a pencil’s end, /or blood.  My feet would ride / a wave to you, then bed. // I can’t say how it’d look to you; I can’t say how it’d look to you, I’ve never seen me flirt.) (65). 

This nice and neat collection of poems is just the thing for cool autumn nights.  Gwendolyn Zepeda has offered some interesting poems to give us a new perspective on life.  4 Stars.

--Chiron, 10/28/29

4321 by Paul Auster

4321 is one of the greatest novels I have ever read.  It is a story of a man from Russia who escaped with jewels and money sown into the lining of his coat.  He ends up on Ellis Island, and meets a fellow traveler who warns him his alphabet soup of a Yiddish/Russian name would get him nowhere.  When he finally sits before the examiner, he says in Yiddish, “Ikh hob Fargessen” (I’ve forgotten)!  The clerk entered his name as Ichabod Ferguson.  Ichabod fathers four sons, who, in turn create offspring of their own.  Archie Ferguson, grandson of Ichabod, becomes the focus of the story.

Now, before you quickly run to the nearest book store or fire up Amazon “One-click-Ordering,” a few words of advice.  First, make lots of family trees to keep the main characters straight.  Second, have a good dictionary at hand, and third, readers might want to familiarize themselves with the latest theories of the Multiverse.  Also, readers play close attention to Chapter 2.2.  This is a complex novel to say the least.  4321 is what I call a “puzzle novel”. 

Despite all this, I was amazed at how I could gobble up dozens of pages at a sitting.  While it did take nearly a month – stacks of essays and other tasks – robbed me of many hours of reading.  I needed to become accustomed to his style of long sentences – some running to a page or more – I was mesmerized from the first line.  I spent lots of time figuring out the odd chapter numbers, not to forget the odd title, but it was worth every single minute.  I have already worked out a plan for a second read this summer.

I have many, many passages noted for this review, so choosing among them will be tough.  Especially since Archie, a year or two ahead of me, had many shared experiences, fears, joys, and sorrows.  Here is one brief passage in chapter 1.1, “The best things in the world were vanilla ice cream and jumping up and down on his parents’ bed.  The worst things in the world were stomach aches and fevers” (31).  Archie also invented an imaginary brother.

Archie’s Aunt Mildred was a college professor, and she carefully guided him along a reading life path.  She sent him dozens of recommendations and books for him to read.  The list was magnificent, and although he rarely saw his Aunt Mildred, they did keep in touch and always talked about what Archie was reading.  In one of his letters home, Auster writes, “‘I’ve read three books since I’ve been here,’ he wrote in the last letter, which was dated August 9th, ‘and I thought they were all terrific.  Two of them were sent to me by my Aunt Mildred, and a little one by Franz Kafka called The Metamorphosis and a bigger one by J.D. Salinger called The Catcher in the Rye.  The other was fiven to me by my cousin Francie’s husband Gary—Candide by Voltaire.  The Kafka book is by far the weirdest and most difficult to read, but I loved it.  A man wakes up one morning and discovers that he’s been turned into an enormous insect!  It sounds like science fiction or a horror story, but it isn’t.  It’s about the man’s soul.  The Catcher in the Rye is about a high school boy wandering around New York.  Nothing much happens in it, but the way Holden talks (he’s the hero) is very realistic and true, and you can’t help liking him and wishing he could be your friend.  Candide is an old book from the 18th century, but it is wild and funny, and I laughed out loud on almost every page” (179).

When I reached about a hundred pages to the end, I frequently cried, and I slowed down my reading to only a couple of pages – at the most! – because I did not want it to end.  But when I did finish, I knew it would never end.  Paul Auster, 4321, and Archie Fergusun will be with me for a long time -- as long as I can manage reading.  10 Stars.

--Chiron, 10/28/2917

Skylight by Jose Saramago

José Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010.  A seven-inch-square notice in a local paper was my only introduction to this fantastic Portuguese writer.  I have read too many of his books since then to list them now.  However, my first read was All the Names a peculiar story of a man who works as a lowly clerk in the Central Registry of an unnamed city.  His daily routine involved issuing certificates of birth, marriage, and death.  Senhor José, the clerk, methodically picks out six—and only six--cards which require updating.  One day, he accidentally pulls seven cards, and this sends him on an interesting and suspenseful journey.  The story is mesmerizing and so full of marvelous detail, I found it difficult to put down.

My latest excursion into the mind of Saramago is a novel titled Skylight.  The jacket informed me that it was his first novel, which he had send to a publisher in the early 50s.  The publisher did not think much of it, so he threw it on a shelf and forgot about it.  Forty some years later, the publisher was moving an office, found the manuscript, and immediately contacted Saramago with an offer of publication.  “Thank you, but no,” he said as he gathered the leaves and left the building.  This publication, finally brought Skylight to the attention of the reading public.

Skylight is set in the 1940s Lisbon.  The tenants in a shabby apartment building are struggling to survive.  Among the interesting characters is Silvestre, a cobbler, and his wife Mariana.  They decide to take in a lodger, Dona Lidia, a former “Lady of the Night,” to earn some extra money. 

The language of this novel is languid and resembles a saraband, a slow-moving Spanish dance.  Saramago writes, “Time slipped slowly by.  The tick-tock of the clock kept nudging the silence, trying to shoo it away, but the silence resisted with its dense, heavy mass, in which all sounds drowned.  Both fought unremittingly on, the ticking clock with the obstinacy of despair and the certain knowledge of death, while the silence had on its side disdainful eternity” (24).  […]  The dialogue between the clock and the silence was again interrupted.  From outside came the rumble of tires over the uneven surface of the street” (25).  […]  The doorbell rings, and Dona Lidia wakens.  José continues, “Slowly, painfully, as if her body were refusing to move, she got up and turned on the light.  The dining room, where she was sitting, was quite large, and the bulb that lit it was so feeble that it could only just manage to keep the darkness at bay, leaving shadows lurking in the corners.  The bare walls, the hard, unwelcoming stiff-backed chairs, the table unpolished and unadorned by flowers, the stark, drab furniture—and alone in the midst of all that coldness sat tall, thin Justina, in her black dress and with her deep, dark, silent eyes” (25).

Quite a few characters populate this novel, and I began creating family trees for each set.  I found these to be most helpful, especially since all of the characters are in some state of motion and interaction with other tenants,

This novel has a solid connection to Gothic tales.  The hard-working, good people who live in the apartment live a seemingly drab existence, but they are interesting people, and they deserve more readers.  Skylight by José Saramago is a long-neglected novel, which, I believe, would make a fine introduction to this inventive and absorbing writer.  5 Stars.

--Chiron, 7/22/17

The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood

I have admired Ann Hood for quite a few years – way back to the early 80s.  For some reason, she fell out of my radar.  But I resumed my love for her work with The Obituary Writer and now, her latest novel, The Book That Matters Most.  I really enjoy novels set in libraries and bookstores or stories which revolve around a book club.  This novel has all that and suspense, as well.

Ava and Jim have recently separated, Ava is naturally angry and distraught.  They have a daughter, Maggie, who is on a year-long adventure to Florence, Italy to study art.  Her father financed the entire trip.  Ava teaches French at a local college.  Cate is a friend of Ava’s, and she has promised Ava a seat in her book club as soon as one opens.  A seat becomes available, and Ava joins the club.

Ava recalls Ted, a former partner.  Hood writes, “Ted didn’t like books very much. Any books, never mind one about a philosophical seagull.  Over a decade ago, when they lived in Manhattan and she was working at the Strand bookstore on Broadway and Twelfth, she would come home excited, a bag full of review copies and hard-to-find used books.  She would lay them out on their enamel-topped kitchen table as if they were precious things.  They were precious things, she reminded herself now.  How she hated the way he shoved them aside to make room for his own textbooks; he was getting an MBA then, poring over facts and figures at that table long into the night” (96).  I am glad that “book shover” was quickly out of the picture.

The frame for the novel is, of course, the book club.  The annual picking books for the next year occurs, and they do something unusual.  Cate, the coordinator of the club announces a theme for the next year.  Ann writes, “‘Last year our theme was ‘The Classics,’ and Paula’s pick was Remembrance of Things Past.  Can you believe that?” // Ah. Proust.  Ava thought, remembering that he was the writer whose words her mother had repeated.  There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.  She considered reciting the quote to the woman staring up at here to prove herself worthy to be here, in Paula’s shoes” (14).  Now that is an interesting idea, and I might propose we try it as our next book selection event nears.

Meanwhile, Maggie has grown bored with Florence, and she travels to Paris.  She meets an older man, and Maggie’s world begins to fragment.  She occasionally emails her mother, lying about her whereabouts and her health.  Hood writes, “Maggie stood, her knees weak, and made her slow way outside.  It was early morning, and the sky was streaked with pink and red.  It would be a hot day, she thought.  She looked around, searching for something to orient her.  A landmark or a street sign.  But nothing looked familiar.  She walked to the corner, stopped again to look around, still saw nothing familiar, and kept walking, until finally in the distance she saw the green pipes and blue ducts of the Pompidou Center.  Relieved, she walked toward it.  Nearby was the café where she had seen Noah, and the bookstore with the beanbag chairs.  She would have a big café au lait and an omelet and bread and then she would go into the bookstore and sink down in a beanbag chair, and read” (223).

At this point the story comes together with a teary and satisfying ending.  Ann Hood is a wonderful writer with lots of talent for drawing her characters, describing their settings, and exploring their anxieties and fears.  Part of the story involves the death of Ava’s sister when they barely more than toddlers.  Some might call this “chicklit,” but I prefer to call Ann Hood’s marvelous story, The Book the Matters Most a first-rate read for all adults5 stars.

--Chiron, 9/15/17

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

When I first dreamed of teaching college English Literature, my heart was set on studying the Brontës—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.  Without a mentor willing to work with me on them, I had to change direction.  It has been some time since I read any of the works by these women, so I am now going to embark on reading them all again.  I plan on four or five a year.  My first is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne.  I only read it twice, and I was not as impressed as I was with the other two authors.  I was delighted when a colleague nominated Wildfell for our book club.

Anne Brontë was the youngest of the three, and she wrote only one other novel besides Wildfell, Agnes Gray.  She was born in1820, and became close to Emily.  Together they created an imaginary world of Gondal.  This work was the basis for much of their dramatic poetry.  The novel was considered quite scandalous at the time.  Anne drew on her experiences as a governess for the novels, and her experiences with her Brother Branwell provided the fodder for Mr. Huntingdon, the husband of Helen.  Wildfell represents the first sustained feminist novel.  Anne died in 1849.

My attitude toward this novel has turned 180 degrees after this read.  While the novel is the weakest of the Brontës, largely because of a somewhat chaotic ending, I thoroughly enjoyed this story.  In a preface to the second edition, Anne wrote, “My object in writing […] was not simply to amuse the Reader, neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public.  I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.”

The novel opens with a letter from Gilbert Markham to his friend, Halford.  Markham has a crush on Helen Huntingdon, and he maneuvers to place himself in her good graces.  Lots of obstacles are in his—and Helen’s—way to a peaceful life.  Helen is married to Mr. Arthur Huntingdon, and she has a son, Arthur.  Arthur senior has gambling and alcohol problems, and Helen flees with Rachel, her lady’s maid, to the sanctuary of Wildfell Hall, to escape her terrible situation.  She does not reveal her location to anyone, except her brother.  Of course, gossip and the rumor mill are fast at work as soon as news that someone has “taken Wildfell Hall.”

 Markham already smitten, questions Helen.  Ann wrote, “‘Do you not find it a desolate place to live in’ said, I, after a moment of silent contemplation. // ‘I do, sometimes,’ replied she.  ‘On winter evenings, when Arthur is in bed, and I am sitting there alone, hearing the bleak wind moaning round me and howling through the ruinous old chambers, no books or occupations can repress the dismal thoughts and apprehensions that come crowding in—but it is folly to give way to such weakness I know—If Rachel is satisfied with such a life, why should not I?—Indeed I cannot be too thankful for such an asylum, while it is left me.’ // The closing sentence was uttered in an undertone, as if spoken rather to herself than to me.  She then bid me good evening and withdrew” (76).

While the antiquated and elevated language may be a barrier to some readers, a persistent bibliophile will quickly become accustomed to the style.  These three women have left us a fantastic set of literary marvels.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë is an exhilarating ride through one of my favorite literary periods.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/29/17

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

I recently reviewed Fredrik Backman’s splendid novel, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.  As is my curse and joy, I must read the rest of the works by such a talented writer.  A Man Called Ove is every bit as funny, sad, and wonderful.  In the queue for his works is, Brit-Marie, a sequel to Grandmother, and the recently published Beartown.  The story is funny from the first page, and after a few chapters, only the hard-hearted will not be touched to their souls.  Any reader would be well-advised to add these four works to a favorites shelf.

Ove is actually Backman’s first novel, and what a debut story it is!  Ove’s wife has died, and he is quite distraught.  He decides to commit suicide to join her.  But before he can carry out this plan, everything in his house from top to bottom must be in perfect order.  All the appliances, the paint, the door locks, all must all be perfect.  He has a slight case of OCD, as he tries every door knob with three twists.  He was the head of the local housing council, but his constant reminders of the most minute details of running the council eventually gets on everyone’s nerves, so he is fired.  However, he continues his daily walks and checks of the neighborhood.  He becomes particularly upset by strangers who drove in an area forbidden to cars or parked a bicycle outside the shed.  He was also suspicious of strangers, salesmen, realtors, and children.

Backman writes, “It was five to six in the morning when Ove and the cat met for the first time.  The cat instantly disliked Ove exceedingly.  The feeling was very much reciprocated. // Ove had, as usual gotten up ten minutes earlier.  He could not make head nor tail of people who overslept and blamed it on the ‘alarm clock not ringing.’  Ove had never owned an alarm clock in his entire life.  He woke up at quarter to six and that was when he got up. // Every morning for almost four decades they had lived in this house, Ove put on the coffee percolator, using exactly the same amount of coffee as on any other morning, and then drank a cup with his wife.  One measure for each cup, and one extra for the pot—no more, no less.  People didn’t know how to do that anymore, brew some proper coffee.  In the same way nowadays nobody could write with a pen.  Because now it was all computers and espresso machines.  And where was the world going if people couldn’t even write or brew a pot of coffee?” (5). 

Ove also had a romantic streak.  Backman writes, “She had a golden brooch pinned to her dress, in which the sunlight reflected hypnotically through the train window.  It was half past six in the morning, Ove had just clocked off his shift and was supposed to be taking the train home the other way.  But then he saw her on the platform with all her rich auburn hair and her blue eyes and all her effervescent laughter.  And he got back on the outbound train.  Of course, he didn’t quite know himself why he was doing it.  He had never been spontaneous before in his life.  But when he saw her it was as if something malfunctioned” (128).

That is just enough to whet your appetite—a stony, miserable, cantankerous old man, who deep down does have a heart.  I am certain Frederik Backman’s A Man Called Ove will warm your heart or, better yet, cause the running of a few tears.  5 Stars

Chiron, 8/24/17

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: The Complete Stories by Margaret Drabble

My first encounter with Margaret Drabble occurred in a British Women Writer’s class at Rowan University and again in graduate school.  We read a few of her novels as well as several by her sister, A.S. Byatt.  A rift developed between the two sisters, because of biographical elements in their books.  They do not read each other’s novels.  Drabble describes the situation as “normal sibling rivalry,” Byatt says the rift has been exaggerated by gossip.  She claims the sisters have always liked each other (Wikipedia).  Drabble has written 19 novels, and Byatt has authored 11 novels, 5 short story collections, and 7 miscellaneous works of non-fiction.  Working through all these books will eat up a lot of my retirement.  Drabble has also written a number of short stories.  I never knew she wrote short fiction until now.  

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman claims to include her complete short stories.  An introduction to the collection by José Francisco Fernández says, these “are fine examples of well-made stories: neatly constructed, carefully contextualized, focused, unified in tone, elegantly climactic, at times tinged with the seriousness of a moral dilemma” (ix).  I loved these stories, and it is one of those exceedingly rare books that provoked me into a second reading beginning the moment I finished the first read.  Four of the stories are, writes Fernández, “representative cases of the woman who has to divide her time between her duties at home and the demands of a job […] a husband and children” (xii).

The later stories, “The Merry Widow,” “The Dower House at Kellynch: A Somerset Romance,” The Caves of God,” and “Stepping Westward: A Topographical Tale” all describe woman later in their lives when they are free of a husband, family, and work.  As I said, I loved them all, but these four were undoubtedly my favorites—a “best of the best” if you will.  I also credit these four stories as my impetus for an immediate rereading. 

In the first of this “final four,” stories, “Merry Widow,” Drabble writes, “When Philip died, his friends and colleagues assumed that Elsa would cancel the holiday.  Elsa knew this would be their assumption.  But she had no intention of canceling.  She was determined upon the holiday.  During Philip’s unexpectedly sudden last hours, and in the succeeding weeks of funeral and condolence and letters from banks and solicitors, it began to take an increasingly powerful hold upon her imagination.  If she were honest with herself, which she tried to be, she had not been looking forward to the holiday while Philip was alive: it would have been yet another dutifully endured, frustrating, saddening attempt at reviving past pleasures, overshadowed by Philip’s increasing ill-health and ill-temper.  But without Philip, the prospect brightened” (151).  I hope this tidbit will draw you to either--or both--of these exceptionally talented women.

All of the works of these two amazing women writers are interesting and powerful stories.  I have read a few of the novels by each woman, and finishing them off will be a large part of my sunset days.  If you want to lose yourself in reading of the lives of these women in the late 20th and early 21st century, you could not find a better start than Margaret Drabbles A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman.   5 Stars

--Chiron, 8/15/17

The Little French Bistro by Nina George

Last year I read Nina George’s wonderful novel, The Little Paris Bookshop, which was her first novel translated into English.  She had written some 40 books, and was considered an international sensation—except in the US where she was virtually unknown.  Now she has released her second novel, The Little French Bistro.  This novel is quite different from Bookshop, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I can’t wait for another.

Based on Paris Bookshop, I made several assumptions which proved to be false.  First, Nina George is not French; she is German.  I met her at a book reading in Book People in Austin Texas recently and learned she was born in Germany and still lives there with her husband.  Bookshop was not her first novel, but rather somewhere in an oeuvre of over 40 books.  She proved to be gracious and funny as she slipped back and forth among German, French, and English.  After the reading, she signed my books, and hugged every reader who wanted one.

Marianne Messmann is married to Lothar, a man with no sense of romance and a thoroughly unpleasant personality.  They have been married for about forty years, and Marianne has reached a breaking point.  George opens the novel with a chilling scene.  She writes, “It was the first decision she had ever made on her own, the very first time she was able to determine the course of her life. // Marianne decided to die.  Here and now, down below in the waters of the Seine, late on this grey day.  On her trip to Paris. […] The water was cool, black and silky.  The Seine would carry her on a quiet bed of freedom to the sea.  Tears ran down her cheeks; strings of salty tears.  Marianne was smiling and weeping at the same time.  Never before had she felt so light, so free, so happy” (1).  A homeless man rescues her, and she is taken to a hospital to contact her husband.  She then dresses and escapes on a train headed to a remote corner of northwestern France.  All the while on this trip, she plans to reattempt her suicide off the coast of Brittany.

A group of nuns give her a ride to the little fishing village of Kerdruc.  She meets a number of the residents, who welcome her with open hearts.  Each day she resolves to jump into the sea, but she delays a day, then another, and another.  She gets a job working at a bistro then gradually she is absorbed into the community.  Marianne begins to devise an entirely new life for herself.  Then Lothar shows up, and everything is threatened.  I won’t spoil the ending, but it is worth following Marianne to one of three possible conclusions.

Marianne is an empathetic woman.  George writes, “She took a deep breath, carefully picked up the crab and set it down on the polished steel table.  It scrambled around a bit as she searched among the bottles on the sideboard before reaching for the cider vinegar and pouring a few drops into the creature’s mouth.  The clatter of its pincers on the steel surface grew fainter before suddenly ceasing altogether. // ‘This may sound odd, but you can kill humanely too,’ […] ‘Vinegar sends them to sleep, you know.’  She cupped her hands to her cheeks, cocked her head and closed her eyes, then lowered the crab into the boiling water.’  ‘It’s bath time.  See, it doesn’t hurt so much’” (85-86).

Nina George has written a love story like few others in The Little French Bistro.  Kerdruc is a mythical place like no others.  I can only hope another novel will soon appear by this talented, funny, and interesting writer.  5 Stars.

--Chiron, 8/5/17

We Are All Completely besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler has authored six novels and three short story collections.  She has won a Pen/Faulkner award among numerous other prizes.  Fowler has two children, and seven grandchildren.  She lives in Santa Cruz, California.  In We are All Completely Beside Our Selves, she has penned a book at once curious, frightening, sad, and comical.  The is the tale of the Cooke family: the father, Vincent, is a psychiatrist, and his wife, and the children Lowell, Rosemary, and Fern.  The last two were raised together, until Fern was “sent away.” 

The novel is narrated by Rosemary, “sister” to Fern.  She begins the story “in medias res,” so I will do likewise.  Fowler writes, “So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996.  By then, we’d long since dwindled to the family that old home movie foreshadowed—me, my mother, and unseen but evident behind the camera, my father.  In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared.  The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn’t told you that, you might not have known.  By 1996, whole days went by in which I hardly thought of either one. […] I was twenty-two years old, meandering through my fifth year at the University of California, Davis, and still maybe only a junior or maybe a senior, but so thoroughly uninterested in the niceties of units or requirements or degrees that I wouldn’t be graduating anytime soon.  My education, my father liked to point out, was wider than it was deep.  He said this often” (5-6).

Rosemary’s education seems to be a persistent topic for family discussion.  Karen writes, “Mom had a theory I heard through the bedroom wall.  You didn’t need a lot of friends to get through school, she told Dad, but you had to have one.  For a brief period  in the third grade, I pretended that Dae-jung and I were friends.  He didn’t talk, but I was well able to supply both sides of the conversation.  I returned a mitten he’d dropped.  We ate lunch together, or at least we ate at the same table, and in the classroom he’d been given the desk next to mine on the theory that when I talked out of turn, it might help his language acquisition.  The irony was that his English improved due in no small part to my constant yakking at him, but as soon as he could speak, he made other friends.  Our connection was beautiful, but brief” (113).

Fowler has laid a series of less than obvious clues regarding an ending which will offer the reader something between shock and amusement.  How a reader places the clues determines where a reader begins to assemble these clues.  One peculiar item is the lack of a name for the mother.  I usually note names of important characters, and in beginning this review, I realized I had none for her.  I sped through the book from page one to the end, and never saw her referred to as anything except Mom or mother.  Very annoying!  I hereby give her the daughter’s name, Rosemary.

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is a tragic story difficult for animal lovers to read.  The only saving grace is the end of most chimpanzee experiments, and serious curtailing of test on other mammals.  5 star

--Chiron, 7/17/17

The Accomplished Guest by Ann Beattie

First: a confession.  Back in 1986, or thereabouts. I learned of a lecture by Ann Beattie—at the time my number two most favorite writer—at Rutgers-Camden.  I tried to get a ticket, but found it was sold out.  So I devised a plan to see her before the lecture.  I convinced a guard I was a stringer for a local paper in Philly who wanted to snag a few comments before her talk.  I had three of Beattie’s books with me, and after asking a few questions, I took the books out of a bag and asked her to inscribe them.  She graciously signed all three.  I did write a brief article, and I did send it to the paper, but it was never printed.  I resolved to tell her in person if I ever met up with her.  This might be as close as I get.

Ann Beattie has been included in four O. Henry Award collections, John Updike’s Best American Short Stories of the Century and Jennifer Egan’s Best Short Stories of 2014.  She has also captured numerous other awards.  Her latest book, The Accomplished Guest is a collection of short stories with a variety of themes, voices, and situations.

Some of these visitors had interesting experiences getting to their destination.  In “The Indian Uprising,” Beattie wrote, “I took the train.  It wasn’t difficult.  I got a ride with a friend to some branch of the Metro going into Washington and rode into Union Station.  Then I walked forever down the train track to a car someone finally let me on.  I felt like an ant that had walked the length of a caterpillar’s body and ended up at its anus.  I sat across from a mother with a small son whose head she abused any time she got bored looking out the window: swatting it with plush toys; rearranging his curls; inspecting him for nits” (4-5).  One of the most appealing traits of a Beattie story is the attention to details.  Readers can easily place themselves in the train.

In “The Astonished Woodchopper,” Beattie explores those ubiquitous “little white lies” we all tell.  She writes, “John had asked Jen not to tell Bee the details of his surgery, but of course she had—no doubt also cautioning Bee to lie if he asked her directly what she knew.  White lies: as prevalent in this family as white noise on the highway that drifted across the meadow toward their house.  He had wanted a more secluded house; Jen had said she like to be nearer to what she called ‘civilization’—the same environment she now damned as being filled with ‘idiot tourists and Maine-iacs in their tortoise shell SUVs, driving lunatics because they can imagine because they can’t imagine they go belly-up.’  Just the week before, a man had died, not at all protected by his SUV as it rolled” (51). 

These stories have lots of fun and page upon page of humor.  I really think Ann Beattie is an author who deserves much more attention.  The Accomplished Guest is a grand beginning for many years of reading pleasure.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 07/11/14

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose

Because I have to read so many subpar college essays, I enjoy an occasional collection to restore my faith in young writers.  I leaned of an interesting collection by Durga Chew-Bose with an even more intriguing title, Too Much and Not the Mood.  I learned of this book on a frequent segment of the PBS News Hour.  I almost ditched Durga while trying to plow through the first essay of 95 pages.  As I read, I kept glancing at the page number while trying to decide thumb up or down.  But as I read, I decided to keep going.  When I began to read the second essay, I was immediately determined to go all the way. 

The first essay, “Heart Museum” turned out to be an interesting stream of consciousness memoir of her life so far.  Durga writes, “I’m certain, if I wanted, I could walk home from West Forty-seventh, across the bridge and back to Brooklyn.  That spiked measure of awe—of oof—feels like a general a general slowing, even though what’s really taking place is nothing short of a general quickening.  The sheer ensconcelled panic of feeling moved.  Infirmed by what switches me on but also awake and unexpectedly cured.  Similar to how sniffing a lemon when I am carsick heals” (11-12).  This essay requires a bit of extra attention, but well worth the thoughts she loaded into my consciousness. 

Further into “Heart Museum,” she writes, “My quick-summoned first life—how everything was enough because I knew so little but felt cramped with certainty—is, I’m afraid, just like writing.  That is to say, what can transpire if writing becomes a reason for living outside the real without prying it open.  How, like first love writing can be foiling, agitated, totally addictive.  Sweet, insistent, jeweled.  Consuming though rarely nourishing.  A new tactility” (19-20).  This passage led me to continue.  Was I becoming accustomed to her style?  

Several of the essays are a bit more conventional and down-right interesting.  In “Since Living Alone, Durga writes, “I learned last summer that if you place a banana and an unripe avocado inside a paper bag, the avocado will—as if spooned to sleep by the crescent-laid banana—ripen overnight.  By morning, that sickly shade of green had turned near-neon and velvety, and I, having done nothing but paired the two fruits, experienced a false sense of accomplishment similar to returning a library book or listening to voice mail” (167).  As an avid eater of bananas—with almost no ability to tell a ripe avocado from all the others—I look forward to my next shopping trip.  

And finally, “Summer Pictures” touched a corner of my memory of summer days.  She writes, “Because going to the movies still feels like playing hooky, or what I imagine playing hooky felt like: the unburdened act of avoiding my many orbits of responsibility.  Of pretending that adulthood is no match for summer’s precedent, set years ago when we were kids and teenagers governed only by the autonomy of no-school, the distance our bikes could take us, an unlit park or basketball court at night, the weekend my crush returned from camp.  Going to the movies is the most public way to experience a secret.  Or, the most secretive way to experience the public” (191).

My “Rule of 50” is not infallible, and in the case of Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose, I am glad I stuck to it.  It is a wonderful collection to stimulate the mind, the memory, and all the while tickling the fancy.  5 stars

--Chiron, 7/11/17

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen

I have always had a fascination with reporters who turn to novel writing.  Pete Dexter, Christopher Morley, and Carl Hiaasen top the list.  I have read eight of his novels, including his most recent, Razor Girl.  Unfortunately, I experienced several episodes of déjà vu during my reading.  So, there might be a hiatus from Hiaasen until I can sweep up the cobwebs.

Andrew Yancy was a talented detective, but a public rampage resulted in an assault and battery charge and led to his demotion to the “Roach Patrol,” i.e. inspector of eating establishments in Florida.  Somehow, Yancy always ends up with three things: a stunning woman in his bed, a mobster chasing him, and his solving of a difficult case--which the reader might think would lead him to reinstatement, but Sheriff Sommers always steps in and berates him for exceeding his authority.  So back to the roach patrol.

This particular adventures involves a group of brothers loosely similar to the “Duck Dynasty Gang” of TV fame, a $200,000 diamond ring, and a continuation of blocking any construction which might interfere with his view of the ocean.  As a teaser, the book opens with a beautiful woman who abandons Andrew for a new life in Norway.  This little teaser will keep you wondering to the end.

While the novel does have some comic moments, I would not—as some reviewers have claimed—count this as “rip roaring funny.”  However, those funny spots do keep me turning a few more pages.  here is one of the funny moments.  Carl writes, “Merry Mansfield told Yancy a version of her life so far-fetched that he bit his lower lip, trying not to laugh. […] ‘You’ve got a charming imagination.  I could listen to you go on all day.’ // ‘What did I say that you don’t believe?’ // ‘Basically every word.’ […] ‘Technically, I’m not a maritime artifacts appraiser,’ Merry admitted.  ‘Also, I didn’t really go to boarding school in Switzerland.  My mom wasn’t a consular attaché in Morocco.  My dad never had a thing with Sigourney Weaver.  I wasn’t the youngest of six sisters, all master equestrians.  I did get married when I was eighteen, except my husband wasn’t  pulped to death in an orange-juice factory.  What really happened, he went to prison for counterfeiting food stamps and I divorced his ass.  No kinds from the marriage, thank God—that parts true.  What else?  Oh yeah, I didn’t lose a three-million dollar bauxite inheritance to Bernie Madoff.  My folks are still alive, and they’re not leaving me a nickel” (134-135).  Really?  Not one of six kids?

Aside from an improbable escape from some mobsters trying to recover the lost diamond ring, the story is a fun read, and certainly worth the effort.  I guess, if I was forced at gunpoint, I would admit it is entertaining.  Hiaasen does have six novels previous to the eight I own, so, I can see myself lingering near the “H” section of novels and having one more go at Andrew Yancy.  However, by the time I come around to one of his earlier novels, I might just discover a whole new world in Florida.  I you are not familiar with Carl Hiaasen, I am sure, you will get more than an ample reward for a pleasant read of Razor Girl.  4 Stars

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

First a disclaimer: I do not understand much of the intricacies of physics, let alone any algebra or math higher than the most basic of mathematics.  But for most of m reading life I have been fascinated with outer space, which is increased every time new pictures from Hubble appear or photos from the far reaches of our tiny blue dot.  My first look at Carl Sagan and his series, Cosmos, is the centerpiece of what I do know.  Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson became a source of amazement and wonder.  Neil has written a marvelous book titled Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.  I actually read this 208 page book in a single sitting. 

Tyson is a most worthy successor to Carl Sagan.  He explains difficult aspects of physics accessible to all readers who share my fascination.  He begins by breaking down the steps of the Big Bang, beginning with one trillionth of a second after the event up to 1,000,000,000 years ago.  My favorite chapter is “Between the Galaxies.”  He writes, “In the grand tally of cosmic constituents, galaxies are what typically counted.  The latest estimates show that the observable universe may contain a hundred billion of them.  Bright and beautiful and packed with stars, galaxies decorate the dark voids of space like cities across a country at night.  But just how voidy is the void of space?  (How empty is the countryside between cities?)  Just because galaxies are in your face, and just because they would have us believe that nothing else matters, the universe may nonetheless contain hard-to-detect things between the galaxies.  Maybe those things are more interesting, or more important to the evolution of the universe, than the galaxies themselves” (62).  This takes me back to the first time I peered through a department store telescope a looked at a blurry smudge that is the Andromeda Galaxy.

I flirted for a while with considering a degree in astronomy or physics, but the reality of my math skills slammed on the breaks.  I have a weird inability to add, divide, multiply, or subtract more than two figures at a time.  A hand calculator is now my necessary companion.

A hot topic in physics today is the mysterious “dark matter.”  It appears as though the largest amount of matter in our universe is not made up of planets, asteroids, and stars, but rather it is composed of this invisible powerful force.  Tyson says it took geniuses like Newton and Einstein to get us to where we are today.  He wonders who will be the next Sheldon Cooper.  Tyson writes, “We don’t know who’s next in the genius sequence, but we’ve now been waiting nearly a century for somebody to tell us why the bulk of all the gravitational force that we’ve measured is in the universe—about eight-five percent of it—arises from substances that do not otherwise interact with ‘our’ matter or energy.  Or maybe the excess gravity doesn’t come from matter and energy at all, but emanates from some other conceptual thing.  In any case, we are essential clueless.  We find ourselves no closer to an answer today than we were when this ‘missing mass’ problem was first fully analyzed in 1937 by the Swiss-American astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky.  He taught at the California Institute of Technology for more than forty years, combining his far ranging insights into the cosmos with a colorful means of expression and an impressive ability to antagonize his colleagues” (77).  I enjoy the popular comedy, ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ immensely, and I wonder if a real Sheldon Cooper might be in school somewhere, and that I will hear of his discoveries in my lifetime.

If you have an interest in all things scientific—as I do—Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will have you gazing up into the night sky and wondering.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/21/17

New and Selected Poems: Volume Two by Mary Oliver

I recently found Mary Oliver’s collection New and Selected Poems: Volume Two.  The connection I have to her poems is ethereal and pleasing in every sense of the word.  If I have a model to follow, it would most certainly be Mary Oliver.  I have talked about her in several reviews, so this one will only include selections from volume two.

“Work, Sometimes.”  “I was sad all day, and why not.  There I was, books piled on both sides of the table, paper stacked up, words falling off my tongue. // The robins had a long time singing, and now it was beginning to rain. // What are we sure of?  Happiness isn’t a town on a map, or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work ongoing.  Which is not likely to be the trifling around with a poem. // Then it began raining hard, and the flowers in the yard were full of lively fragrance. // You have had days like this, no doubt.  And wasn’t it wonderful, finally, to leave the room?  Ah, what a moment! // As for myself, I swung the door open.  And there was the wordless, singing world.  And I ran for my life.” (6).

“Of What Surrounds Me.”  Whatever it is I am saying, I always / need a leaf or a flower, if not an / entire field.  As for the sky, I am so wildly / in love with each day’s inventions, cool blue / or cat gray or full / of the ships of clouds, I simply can’t / say whatever it is I am saying without / a least one skyful.  That leaves water, a / creek or a well, river or ocean, it has to be / there.  For the heart to be there.  For the pen / to be poised.  For the idea to come.”  (32).

“The Faces of Deer.”  When for too long I don’t go deep enough into the woods to see them, they begin to enter my dreams.  Yes, there they are, in the pinewoods of my inner life.  I want to live a life full of modesty and praise.  Each hoof of each animal makes the sign of a heart as it touches then lifts away from the ground.  Unless you believe that heaven is very near, how will you find it?  Their eyes are pools in which one would be content, on any summer afternoon, to swim away through the door of the world.  Then, love and its blessing.  Then: heaven.” (33).

“The Owl Who Comes.”  “The owl who comes / through the dark / to sit / in the black boughs of the apple tree // and stare down / the hook of his beak, / dead silent, / and his eyes, // like two moons / in the distance, / soft and shining / under their heavy lashes-- // like the most beautiful lie-- / is thinking / of nothing / as he watches // and waits to see / what might appear, / briskly, out of the seamless, // deep winter-- / out of the teeming / world below-- / and if I wish the owl luck, / and I do, / what am I wishing for that other / soft life, / climbing through the snow? // What we must do, / I suppose,/is to hope the world keeps its balance; // what we are to do, however, / with our hearts / waiting and watching—truly / I do not know.” (52-53).

Like so many of her poems, I felt a deep connection. Sometime back, I was out for a pre-dawn walk, when two birds flashed across my eyes—only a foot or two away—and I scared the owl, which flew up into a tree, not more than 10 feet away.  I stood there in a staring contest as we sized each other up.  Then she took off and flew away.

Mary Oliver’s collection, New and Selected Poems: Volume Two, will take you places to see things in a new light.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/10/17

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

I am always a tiny bit nervous when I sit down to read a second novel when the first was terrific.  I have been burned more than once in buying the “sophomore jinx” story.  But this time, my fears were quickly washed away by Paula Hawkins and her new novel, Into the Water.  Her first novel, The Girl on the Train, has been published in 40 countries with 20 million copies sold.

Into the Water seems to me a better novel than Girl.  The only flaw was a confusing number of characters which took me quite a while to sort out with the help of several family trees.  Once I had a clear picture of them—at about page 60 and yes, I did violate my rule of 50—the state of affairs became clear.  She also provided a handy set of epilogues for the surviving main characters. 

As the story begins, Nell Abbot, a single-mother has drowned in a river a short time after a teenager has done the same.  Nell leaves behind her teenage daughter in the care of her sister, Julia “Jules” Abbott.  A popular teen, Katie Whitaker preceded Nell in the river.  The twists and turns had me guessing all the way to the end.  A discerning reader needs to get a handle on the list of suspects as early as possible.  Think three or four family trees.

Each chapter shares thoughts and ideas with the reader.  In this instance, Jules, Nel’s Sister, thinks about her own death.  Hawkins writes, “I pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine.  I looked up.  There were the trees and the stone steps, green with moss and treacherous after the rain.  My entire body goosefleshed.  I remembered this: freezing rain beating the tarmac, flashing blue lights vying with lightening to illuminate the river and the sky, clouds of breath in front of panicked faces, and a little boy, ghost-white and shaking, led up the steps to the road by a policewoman.  She was clutching his hand and her eyes were wide and wild, her head twisting this way and that as she called out to someone.  I can still feel what it felt like that night, the terror and the fascination.  I can still hear your words in my head: What would it be like?  Can you imagine?  To watch your mother die?”

Another interesting character is Nickie.  Some see her as a nuisance, the children as a witch.  Hawkins writes, “Nicki had a flat above the grocery shop, just one room really, with a galley kitchen and a bathroom so tiny it barely warranted the name.  Not much to speak of, not much to show for a whole life, but she had a comfortable armchair by the window that looked out on the town, and that’s where she sat and ate even slept sometimes, because she hardly slept at all these days, so there didn’t seem much point in going to bed: 16).

One good thing about some English mysteries is the lack of guns and shooting.  I quickly found myself trying to untie some of those knots with nothing but the same clues, rumors, and innuendo the police and the family.  Into the Water by Paula Hawkins has about as much suspense as anyone could hope for.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/20/17

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín has been a favorite of mine since the inception of Likely Stories in the fall of 2009.  He was born May 30, 1955.  He is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, critic, and poet.  He has won dozens of awards—far too many to list here.  He is currently a professor of the Humanities at Columbia University in New York, and he is a professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester.  In 2017, he was appointed Chancellor of Liverpool University in 2017.  Colm has written elevan novels along with scads of non-fiction (Wikipedia).  Nora Webster is his tenth novel.  He has a dream career for any aspiring creative writer.  Ever since I immersed myself in the works of James Joyce, I have developed a fascination for Irish writers.  Colm Tóibín is at the undisputed head of that list.

Nora Webster is the story of a woman with four children—two young ladies away at school, Fiona and Aine, and two boys still in high school, Conor and Donal.  As the story opens, Nora has been widowed in her early 40s.  Maurice was the love of her life, and despite this devastating event, she organizes her finances to take care of her children through college.  At first, lots of her neighbors come bearing food and offering help to the point she becomes reclusive.  Tóibín writes, “Once more she noted the hectoring tone, as though she were a child, unable to make proper decisions.  She had tried since the funeral to ignore this tone, or tolerate it.  She had tried to understand that it was shorthand for kindness” (12).  

One day, she gets in the car and drives to a seaside vacation village to visit a house she and Maurice owned.  Everyone tells Nora she should not make any rash decisions.  When she enters the house, she realizes it has no value to her without Maurice.  On a spur of the moment, she sells it to a friend, who gives her the fair market price.  No one takes advantage of Nora.  Tóibín writes, “‘Well, there are a lot of people who are very fond of you” (13).  The children are disappointed, but they accept Nora’s decision.

Nora pays a visit to Fiona at school, and they walk to the train.  Colm writes, “As they looked at one another, Nora felt Fiona was hostile, and forced herself to remember how upset she must be, and how lonely she might be too.  She smiled as she said that they would have to go and in return Fiona smiled at her and the boys.  As soon as Nora walked away, however, she felt helpless and regretted not having said something kind or special, or consoling to Fiona before they left her; maybe even something as simple as asking her when she was coming down next, or emphasizing how much they looked forward to seeing her soon.  She wished she had a phone in the house so she could keep in more regular touch with her.  She thought that she might write Fiona a note in the morning thanking her for coming to meet them” (29).  Nora is as empathetic and kind as anyone could be.  

The biggest problem Nora faces is dealing with her oldest son, Donal.  He stutters and slowly bonds with one of Nora’s sisters.  Margaret is fond of the boy, and when he develops a fascination for photography, she builds a darkroom in her home. Tóibín’s Nora Webster is the story of a wise, warm, empathetic, strong woman, who, when forced to take the reins of the family, does so with determination.  This story can be enjoyed by all ages.  5 stars

--Chiron, 6/10/17