Saturday, May 13, 2017

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I love coming across a new author and a first novel.  According to her website, Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Story Quarterly, Story South, and elsewhere.  In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction.  She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.  She received a DC Commission on the Arts Grant for her forthcoming second novel, Balm.  Dolen teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine.  She is a graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA.  She is a popular guest for Black History and Women's Month programs.  Dolen lives in Washington, DC with her family.  Wench is an absorbing, heart rending story of a group of women slaves in the middle of the 19th century.

I have read a number of African-American novels in my time.  Among these are Beloved (and others) by Toni Morrison, Eva’s Man by Gayle Jones, and of course, the novels of Zora Neale Hurston.  While they all contained horrific accounts of African-Americans, and all were compelling and well-written, none had the lyric beauty of Dolen’s prose.  The novel has a number of pastoral scenes frequently interrupted by the horrors of slavery.

The novel centers around four slaves, Sweet, Lizzie, Reenie, and Mawu.  All are owned by men with a varying degree of concern for their slaves.  Lizzie was the mistress of Drayle, who treated her better than most slave owners, but, nevertheless he was not above slapping or raping her.  She knew early on Drayle’s wife was unable to conceive, and so after Lizzie twice became pregnant, her focus shifted to her son Nate and her daughter Rabbit in hopes of earning their freedom.

Perkins-Valdez writes, “The slaves had been back at Tawawa house for only a short time before Mawu was spotted sweeping her cottage porch as if she’d never left.  As they passed one another, they gave the silent signal to meet at the stables that night: eye contact, a glance in the direction of the stables, and brushed fingertips down the forearm to signal dusk” (34).  These women were resourceful.

As the women became acquainted with Mawu, she told her story.  Dolen writes, “Mamu told them she was telling her story so they would know why she couldn’t go back to Louisiana, why she didn’t feel the same pull they felt toward their children.  She didn’t live in the big house like Lizzie.  Her children did not have special favors like Sweet’s.  She hadn’t had a cabin built for her like Reenie.  She was just a slave like any other – beaten, used, and made to feel no different than a cow or a goat or a chicken” (42).  Later in the novel, Wamu was whipped into unconsciousness because her owner, Tip, heard she was thinking about running away.

Because of her special “relationship” with Drayle, Lizzie was taught to read.  Perkins-Valdez writes, “As Lizzie learned the meaning s of new words and what the letters looked like on the page, it became more difficult to hide the fact she could read.  She wanted to read everything.  She scanned the spines of books along the shelves in Drayle’s library.  She looked over [Mistress] Fran’s shoulder as she cleaned around her, straining to make out the handwriting of Fran’s mother.  She wanted to read to the slaves in the cabins.  There was only one man among them who could read the newspaper, and Lizzie thought she might be able to read as well as he could.  She wanted to show him up, prove that women could learn, have everyone’s eyes hungry for her mouth to open and turn the piece of pulp in her hands into hope” (94-95).  Despite living under the most extremely horrific circumstances, the thirst to learn burned in Lizzie’s heart.

Time and again, when things seemed hopeless, and one of the women said they needed the help of a man, “No. […] Us can do this our own selves” (187).  Near the end of the novel, Lizzie thinks about her daughter.  Dolen writes, “As she leaned against the porch post, she thought of Rabbit and what she would teach her.  This was what she would say: Don’t give in to the white man.  And if you have to give in, don’t give your soul over to him.  Love yourself first.  Fix it so you don’t give him children.  If you ever make it to freedom, remember your mammy who tried to be good to you.  Hold fast to your women friends because they are going to be there when ain’t nobody else there.  If you don’t believe in God, it’s all right.  God believes in you.  Never forget your name.  Keep track of your years and how old you are.  Don’t be afraid to say how you feel.  Learn a craft so you always have something to barter other than your private parts” (287-288).  I find it difficult to imagine a mother having to give her daughter advice like this.  It reminds me of the mothers in Ferguson, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities where woman have to teach their children to fear the police and how to act if stopped.  This passage brought tears to my eyes.

The strength, courage, intelligence, and persistence of these four women was heart-warming, and, sometimes, horrific.  But against overwhelming odds, these woman managed to maintain their dignity and raise children, all the while under the constant threat of the whip.  Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a tremendously inspiring story.  While not sugar-coating the horrors of slavery, it demonstrated how – under incredibly difficult circumstances – they were able to maintain a sense of decency to pass onto their children.  5 stars

--Chiron, 4/30/17

Soul at the White heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates

About a month ago, I began a three-part review of Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates.  Part One dealt with essays by Oates about the “Writing Life.”  We now turn to “Part Two, Classics” which deals with reviews of classic authors Oates selected for inclusion in this magnificent work. 

A review of My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead starts off this section.  Middlemarch is one of my most loved stories of the 19th century.  One of my original ideas for grad school centered on women’s British novels including George Eliot, the Bront√ęs, and Jane Austen.  Mead’s work involves a little known genre, the bibliomemoir.  I have a couple of these in my collection and they are always enjoyable excursions through literary fiction backed up by a non-fiction memoir.  U and I by Nicholson Baker examines the author’s connection to John Updike.  Sharing points of intersection with these works is a real rush.

Oates discusses an author I recently discovered who has captured my imagination.  Georges Simenon, born 1903 and died 1989, has me scrambling to find more of his work.  He has written nearly 400 titles, including seventy-fife showcasing the detective, Inspector Maigret.  Oates points out that his novellas have given birth to the genre.  She writes, “A “simenon” is a sparely constructed novella” by the phenomenal Belgian-born Georges Simenon” (108).  I add to my collection by accidentally stumbling on a book here and there.  I am afraid a thorough search my just bankrupt my book budget.

In “Two American Prose Masters: John Updike, Ralph Ellison” Oates examines the work of my number one favorite author, John Updike.  She describes his work as, “brilliantly condensed, intensely lyric homage to the voice of another American contemporary, J. D. Salinger,” in a story “most anthologized, as it is likely the Updike story most readily accessible to young readers” (117).  In my literature classes, I always compare this story, “A&P” to a wonderful James Joyce story, “Araby.”  Both stories demonstrate a young boys coming of age in difficult situations.  Updike is an outstanding and prolific short story writer, and I cannot recommend him more highly.

In “A Visit with Dorris Lessing” – another of my favorite authors – enlightened me as to the inner workings of Doris’s mind and how she constructed her writings.  She had an interesting life, having been born in Iran, and traveling in Africa and London.  Oates writes, “Doris Lessing is direct, womanly, very charming.  She wears her long, graying black hair drawn into a bun at the back of her head; her face is slender and attractive” (122).  Oates admits she “had been reading and admiring for so long.  Meeting her at last I felt almost faint – certainly unreal – turning transparent myself in the presence of this totally defined, self-confident, gracious woman” (122).  I can honestly report I have felt that same tingling when in the presence of authors I love and admire.

Other works in this section include Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, and “The King of the Weird”: H. P. Lovecraft, whom Oates describes as “The American writer of the 20th century most frequently compared to Poe, in the quality of his art […], its thematic preoccupations […] and its critical and commercial reception during the writer’s truncated lifetime […] is H.P. Lovecraft (74).  Even my students, who are horror fans, appreciate his work.

There is so much more to Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates than I can ever hope to reveal in a brief review.  However, anyone interested in writing, reading, and collecting will find this volume most enjoyable.  Stay tuned for Part Three.

--Chiron, 4/29/2017

Night by Elie Wiesel

Back when I was in high school, I worked at a soda fountain/diner near my home.  I cleaned pots and pans, helped the waitress clear tables, served some customers, and made about fifty-cents an hour.  The couple who owned the place had peculiar accents.  One day, I happened to see some numbers on the arm of the woman, and I asked her what they meant.  She asked me what did I know about the Holocaust, but I only have a few vague and scattered notions of what happened during World War II.  Her husband had a similar number.  Both had been in Auschwitz. 

At the library, I asked for books about the murder of 6 million Jews and another 6 million men, women, and children.  One book struck me, it was This Must Not Happen Again.  The pictures were horrific beyond anything my 15-year-old imagination.  The next year, we read Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his time in Auschwitz, Night.  Some of the knuckleheads in the class, laughed and made jokes, but I knew better. 

Considering the disturbing climate of Zenophobia spreading across the U.S. and the world today, I re-read Wiesel’s book.  I could not stop reading for a minute.  All the old images, together with Jack and Leah’s stories came pouring out like some poison released in my room.

Then my thoughts turned to the title: This Must Not Happen Again, and I realized it has – and is -- happening again today all over the world.  The slaughter of an estimated two million Cambodians under Pol Pot, Darfur, Rwanda, Angola, now Syria, and numerous other ethnic and religious groups all around the planet.

I will not give any excerpts, because this book needs to be digested – preferably in one sitting – to take in the truly disgusting depths to which the human species is capable.  The history of the human race, dating back hundreds of thousands of years, attests to the strategy of turning one group against another by blaming the “others” for all the problems and woes a particular society faces.

In a Preface to my new edition, Wiesel asks, “Why did I write it?  Did I write it so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind?  Was it to leave behind a legacy of words, of memories, to help prevent history from repeating itself?  Or was it simply to preserve a record of the ordeal I endured as an adolescent, at an age when one’s knowledge of death and evil should be limited to what one discovers in literature?” (vii).  Even at a point in my life far removed from the concentration camps and the gas chambers, and crematoria, my stomach turned at Wiesel’s descriptions.

Wiesel concludes the preface, “I believe it Important to emphasize how strongly I feel that books, just like people, have a destiny.  Some invite sorrow, others joy, some both” (xiv).  He continues, “Sometimes I am asked if I know ‘response to Auschwitz’; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response.  […]  The witness has forced himself to testify.  For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow.  He does not want his past to become their future.

Elie Wiesel’s horrific memoir, Night, should be on every thinking-person’s reading list.  We must not allow our neighbors around the corner or around the globe to be subjected to this horror.

--Chiron, 4/23/17

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I dimly remember reading Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter around the time we were reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  At the least my current reading of McCullers reminds me of Harper Lee’s great novel.  Set in the days at the end of 1939, she recaptures all the difficulties at the tail end of the depression.  Inevitably, it also examines the Jim Crow era in the south.  This classic novel should be on everyone’s bookshelf.

According to the back cover, Carson McCullers was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1917.  She graduated from high school at 16, and began to pursue a dream of becoming a concert pianist.  Rheumatic fever cut short those hopes.  While in recovery, she became a voracious reader and decided to become a writer.  Carson wrote a total of nine novels, one of which was made into a play.  She died at the young age of fifty in New York. 

The title of the novels tells all – the southern town is populated by characters who struggle with loneliness throughout their lives.  McCullers begins the novel with the appearance of Singer and Antonapoulos.  She writes, “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.  Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work.  The two friends were very different.  The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek.  In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging loose behind.  When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater.  His face was round and oily, with half closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid smile.  The other mute was tall.  His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression.  He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed” (3).  These two men carry a thread through the entire novel, and they affect a variety of characters in an almost exclusively positive way.

Mick Kelly a 16-year-old high school student, began to develop a strange attraction to the tall Mr. Singer.  She secretly followed him to work in the morning, and she waited for him after his work day ended.  She thought of him constantly.  Singer welcomed her into his apartment, where they played chess, listened to the radio, and talked about their lives.  Singer held up his end of the conversation with a silver pencil.  Everyone liked Mick and Singer, and several other people visited Singer for the same purposes.  Even an African-American Doctor had been partially abandoned by his children.  In one scene, he sits in a rocking chair in his empty house as his children try and move him into retirement.

As any reader can imagine, all of the characters spend vast amounts of time reflecting on their lives, fretting about their future, or the impending war.  I frequently found myself deeply involved with these characters.  I wanted to sympathize, to advise, to help them.  Carson McCuller’s splendid novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, is anything but dull and depressing.  It is, however, a story which drew me into this town, the local bar, the doctor’s office, the apartment where Singer and Mick lived, and the quiet lives most of these characters experienced.  Be prepared.  The ending is startling.  5 stars

--Chiron, 4/22/17

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Book on the Book Shelf Henry Petroski

Quite a few years ago, I learned of a book about pencils.  I thought it was silly, so I passed it by without a second thought—that is until now.  The author of The Pencil has now written a book about bookshelves.  Boring you say?  I wondered about that, too, but from the first page I was trapped.  Henry Petroski is the author of The Book on the Book Shelf.  It turns out he also authored a staggeringly long paean to the humble pencil.  Need I mention a copy of The Pencil arrived while I was writing this review? 

The Book on the Book Shelf is an interesting look at the evolution of book shelves from Alexandria all the way to modern libraries with all sorts of digital tools and equipment to keep track of, sort, and shelve tens of thousands of books.  I must admit I was incredulous that such a book existed, or would be widely read, yet, I secretly yearned to find out what it is all about.  This may not seem exciting, but the first page put me on a thrilling ride through history.  I have said this before about trees, and I gleefully repeat myself, I will never again look at my bookshelves as mere furniture.  As Petroski writes, “One evening, while reading in my study, I looked up from my book and saw my bookshelves in a new and different light.  Instead of being just places on which to store books, the shelves themselves intrigued me as artifacts in their own right” (ix).  This is the first sentence of the preface, and I immediately closed the book, and looked at my shelves.  I realized each had a story to tell, and each held remembrances of all the decades we had spent together.

Petroski tells us “over 50,000 books are published each year in America alone” (5).  I wish I didn’t know this fact.  Now I will never catch up!  Every time I visit friends or family, I find time to slip away and examine their shelves.  I believe a lot can be learned by examining a library.  One time, to my horror, I visited a “friend-of-a-friend’s house and could not find a single book—except for some cookbooks in the kitchen.  I was stunned!  How awful that must be to live without books.  I believe it was Cicero who wrote, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”  Petroski writes, “The bookshelf, like the book, has become an integral part of civilization as we know it, its presence in a home practically defining what it means to be civilized, educated, and refined.  Indeed, the presence of bookshelves greatly influences our behavior” (4).  I must admit I take on a reverential calm when I am among my books or merely walking down the hall.

Petroski has chapters on scrolls and manuscripts, printing and binding, and of course stories of the medieval monks bent over an illuminated manuscript.  He explains how books became chained to the library tables.  He also includes dozens of intriguing drawings of medieval scholars reading at desks with a variety of solutions to storing books in the background. 

I think Henry Petroski has tapped a much ignored vein, which, once let loose, will start a renewed interest in bookshelves as much more than mere furniture.  The Book on the Book Shelf belongs in every library along with Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, Sears Subject Headings, and an O.E.D.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 3/30/17

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders has received enormous praise for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.  I try to be wary of over-hyping, but when one of my several trusted friends spoke so highly of it, I decided to read it.  At first, I felt as if it was another “gimmick” novel, but it turned out to be a “gimmick” I have never seen.  The first, obvious peculiarity I notice was the structure, but then I became intrigued.  The “Bardo” is a Tibetan word for the time after death and before the soul is “taken away.”

According to Wikipedia, Saunders is an American writer of short stories, essays, novellas, and children’s books.  His writing has appeared in The New Yorker as well as other magazines.  He was born December 2, 1958 in Amarillo, TX, and he has won a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as several other awards.  He lists his influences as Kurt Vonnegut, Pynchon, Flannery O’Conner, John Updike, and Steinbeck.  He is a professor at Syracuse University.

The story begins casually enough with a man who marries a woman much younger than himself.  On the day after his wedding, he goes to his office, and while seated at his desk, Saunders writes, “A beam from the ceiling came down, hitting me just here, as I sat at my desk.  And so while our [honeymoon] must be deferred, while I recovered.  Per the advice of my physician, I took to my-- // A sort of sick box was judged to be—hans vollman // Efficacious.  roger bevins iii // Efficacious, yes,  Thank you, friend.  hans vollman // Always a pleasure.  roger bevins iii” // There I lay, in my sick-box, feeling foolish, in the parlor, the very parlor through which we had recently (gleefully, guiltily, her hand in mine) passed en route to her bedroom.  Then the physician returned, and his assistant carried my sick-box to his sick-cart, and I saw that—I saw that our plan must be indefinitely delayed” (5).  As I am sure you are aware, hans is dead, as is roger blevins iii.  The names appear on the page as if they are scripts for a film.  The names of hans, roger, and all the inhabitants of the Bardo are all in lower case with about an 8 point font.  The rest of the novel involves conversations of more than forty deceased characters.

When willie appears in the Bardo, the other souls try to reconnect him with his father who pays daily visits his tomb.  They believe that a connection to Lincoln can save Willie for a life in the Bardo, so he won’t be "taken away. "

Most of the conversation takes place among, hans, bevins, and the reverend everly thomas.  There are some characters who provide a tiny dab of humor.  The barons use a stream of obscenities each time they talk, and thankfully, only the first and last letter of each word appears with a dash between them.  Another character, actually corrects the grammar of the deceased. 

Interspersed with the conversations of the deceased are the italicized thoughts of Abraham Lincoln as he agonizes over the way the Civil War is being conducted, as well as the death of his son willie.

The novel has 108 chapters, some with only a single line of text.  Occasionally, Saunders places what appear to be newspaper, magazine articles, and quotes from works of history regarding Willie’s death and Lincoln’s presidency.  This 343-page novel can be read in a single sitting.

This interesting novel, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is a novel that will keep you in your chair to find out what happens next!  5 stars.

--Chiron, 4/2/17

Soul at the White Heat by Joyce Carol Oates (Part One)

When I first began collecting Joyce Carol Oates back in the 70s, I had no idea how difficult a task it might be.  She averages about 5 books a year, but some have slipped past me leaving a hole like a missing tooth.  Her latest work is one that made move it to the top of my TBR pile.  Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life encapsulates all the things I love about her work.  The title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem.  Of the thirty-three essays in this amazing collection, fifteen are by Oates and the remaining represent many of the writers I most admire: for example, John Updike, Doris Lessing, J.M. Coetzee, Julian Barnes, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, and Margaret Drabble to name a few. 

The first four essays are by Oates and deal with “The Writing Life.”  The first asks the question, “Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living?”  This has haunted me for decades.  When I finish a book, my first order of duty is searching for my next read.  I have numerous piles from which to choose from, but sometimes, I feel as though I need to take a break from reading.  That break rarely lasts longer than a few hours, while my mind wanders among the shelves searching for the next read.  This obsession never dies, although the flames do flicker a bit.  Joyce quotes numerous authors as far back as the ancient Greeks right up to Updike.  Swimming through this essay alone, visiting authors like Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and many others too numerous to count, compensates ten-fold for the purchase of the book.  In he next essay, she provides her “Five Motives for Writing.”  It is as if she has hacked my brain and reminded me of why I love to write.  “Commemoration,” “Bearing Witness,” “Self-Expression,” “Propaganda, or moralizing,” and “Aesthetic Object,” are all reasons I write, even though I never planned that out.  They seem to me natural reasons for writing.  What could possibly be a better validation for an aspiring writing from such a source.  She finishes this section with “Anatomy of a Story,” and “The Writing Room.”  Once again, she has described – with only a few minor alterations, my writing place.

Joyce writes, “There is surely some subtle connection between the vistas we face, and the writing we accomplish, as a dream takes its mood and imagery from our waking life” (46).  She continues, “[My] writing room replicates to a degree, the old, lost vistas of my childhood.  What it contains is less significant to me than what overlooks though obviously there are precious things here.  […]  Like all writers, I have made my writing room a sanctuary of the soul” (46).  Joyce admits, “I love my study and am unhappy to leave it for long” (47).  Need I say exactly the same thing about my library, my desk, my teetering piles of novels.  This is what have drawn me to Oates since I first read her back in the 60s.

This review is only “Part One” of what I have to say about this marvelous, enchanting, thought provoking guide to the writing life.  To me, Oates is the premier woman of letters alive today.  In “Part Two,” I will talk about some of the other essays she has written, and “Part Three” will look at some of the reviews Oates has written.  Stay tuned—if you have the patience to wait—or, if you are like me, rush out and add this to your library.  Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates is a book every writer should own.  I cannot recommend more it more highly.  Part One merits—5 Stars.

--Chiron, 4/2/17

The Life Group by Maura Jortner

I am grateful and appreciative of friends who offer me books to read for Likely Stories.  Sometimes they are simply poorly written.  Others are in genres I do not care to read.  I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  If only I had Harry Potter’s “Cloak of Invisibility,” I could avoid those generous souls.  In the case of Maura Jortner’s The Life Group, I faced a different dilemma.  The novel was labeled YA – Young Adult, but this did not present a problem.  I read and enjoyed The Book Thief, The Giver as well as a number of other YA titles.  The problem arose as I reached the last 40 or so pages.

The story is clearly set in Waco, with several landmarks mentioned along with “Brazos University” and Lake Waco.  Rachel is a high school student, and her sister, Leah, has disappeared after visiting a radical Christian church.  Rachel is determined to find her sister, even though a month or so after her disappearance, the police have found no clues to Leah’s whereabouts.  An odd pastor of the odd church connects Leah with an older man, who seems pious and anxious to help Rachel.  They drive around the city, and try to question friends who may know something.  One clique of young women only say “It’s God’s plan.”

Interspersed among the pages of Rachel’s adventures, is a YouTube video counting views which increase by the hundreds.  By the end of the novel, these pieces of the puzzle amount to nearly 2 million views.  Jortner slowly builds suspense to a completely surprising ending.  Near the end, Tim is driving Rachel to “Salvation Day Church.  Jortner writes, “As we travel to Salvation Day Church, I gaze out the window and watch the world go by. ‘Leah,’ I whisper quit enough so Tim can’t hear, ‘where are you? Are you going to hurt yourself?’  My chest feels heavy.  A great longing for my sister—stupid and annoying as she is—has balled itself up and lodged under my sternum.  A sudden thought grips me: this is why they call it a heavy heart.  I glanced at my phone one more time, hoping to see a text or notification, but it remains stubbornly blank.  I toss it down harder than I meant to, but it lands in my open purse.  It bounces once, then stays put” (185).  This is the beginning of the end of the story, the ramping of the suspense, and the appearance of my problem with the novel.

 The last pages are as suspenseful as any novel I have recently read.  I could not wait to find out what happened to Leah.  But to get to the climax, I had to work my way around obstacles.  Now, I am far from a prude, but the sudden explosion of obscenities—both spoken and thought by Rachel took me aback.  I counted more than 40 examples, not including a few in the early pages before I started counting.  I am not entirely convinced these added anything to the story line.  However, I did question a couple of friends who are now parenting teens, and they assured me this is how this generation speaks.  They don’t like it, they discourage the use of this word—especially around the house, but there is no complete escape for them.  I have also listened as I pass groups of students around my campus, and I have heard the word more than a few times.

So, I will recommend Maura Jortner’s exciting and suspenseful novel, The Life Group with a caution to readers that the word flies fast and furious.  4 stars

--Chiron, 3/15/17

The Pleasing Hour by Lily King

Lily King’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour, is the third of her four novels I have had the distinct pleasure of reading.  King grew up in Massachusetts and received a B.A. in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an M.A. in creative writing from Syracuse University.  She has taught at a number of schools and colleges.  Lily has also racked up a number of regional awards as well as a MacDowell Fellowship and a Whiting Award. 

Rosie anguishes over her sister Sarah’s inability to conceive a child.  Rosie seems a bit shy, but she hatches a plan to help her sister, whom she dearly loves.  She doesn’t date, but she selects an equally shy young man, and after a few dates, Rosie convinces him to sleep with her.  Two weeks later she finds she is pregnant.  She tells Sarah and her husband she wants them to keep and raise the baby.  Rosie lies to her boyfriend and convinces him the baby is not his.  She goes through counseling and insists on giving the baby to her sister.  After the birth, the baby is taken away from Rosie after holding him briefly, but she has only has a fleeting moment of regret.  As the narrator, Rosie barely mentions the baby.  Then Rosie abruptly answers an ad for a jeune fille – an au paire – in a small town, Plaire, France, and she abandons her plan to attend college.  She neither speaks nor reads French.  With the help of the children Rosie cares for, she slowly learns to speak and read and do the shopping for the family.

The Pleasing Hour is an apt title for this novel.  Numerous times I would read a passage, put the book aside, and turn the page over again in my mind.  These passages were “pleasing” in more ways than one.  Rosie had no friends, but Nicole, the mother of the family, makes a call, and a jeune fille , who worked for a friend, called Rosie and offered to take her out on the town,  King writes, “The metro stop was unmarked. a sudden flight of stairs descended beneath the sidewalk.  A monthly pass came with the job, and I had used mine twice.  I slid the orange ticket through the meter in the turnstile and hurried down the hallway marked Gare d’Austerlitz.  There was only one line at this stop, so the passageways were small and without vendors or musicians, though the walls were plastered with the same enormous advertisements: on the left was a poster for an Italian movie, one large breast held in a man’s hand, and on the right a yogurt ad.  They were repeated for the entire walk to the rails.  Spoon, lip, smirk, litter, wind corridor, wrist nipple, wind, sign, trench coat, slouch.  I let English flood inside me as I rounded the corner” (50).  This brings back memories of my first time in the Paris Metro.

Rosie also spends a chapter describing each of the children she handles, as well as Nicole and Marc, the parents.  As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Rosie is nursing a crush on Marc.  Nicole seems withdrawn from Marc, who works long hours in a hospital.  The family decides to take a vacation to Spain, and they invite Rosie to come along.  At first Rosie seems reluctant, and she deliberately leaves her passport at home.  As they approached the airport, she announces the missing document, but Marc turns around, goes home, and gets her passport.  Lily King’s novel, The Pleasing Hour is definitely a wonderful way to arm chair travel.  4-1/2 Stars

--Chiron, 3/16/17

Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov

One thing I find hardest to do is blast a novel by a well-known, widely-admired, great writer.  So I struggle to write this review of Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov.  I read this novel long before I started keeping track of my reading with this journal more than 10 years ago.  Perhaps I notice the things which bothered me more now that I have experience writing these reviews.  Reading with a possible public review in mind certainly has affected these writings.

Nabokov is well-known for his meticulous pursuit of the correct word in a sentence.  I have heard tell he sometimes spent hours trying to find a precise word to fill a blank in a sentence, of a chapter, of a novel.  I admit to sometimes searching for a particular word, but I never spent more than a few minutes – sometimes with the help of a dictionary and a thesaurus. 

When I began re-reading Bend Sinister, I was immediately struck by his diction.  In the first chapter, he wrote, “An oblong puddle in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see nether sky.  Surrounded.  I note, by a diffuse tentacled black dampness where some dull dun leaves have stuck.  Drowned, I should say, before the puddle had shrunk to its present size” (1).  Can readers spot the two “made-up words”?  Can you spot words that seem just a bit pretentious?  Not to forget to mention some rather strange syntax?

Now, I pride myself on a higher than usual vocabulary, but on the other hand I have long fought the fight against obfuscation in my diction.  I suspect the latter was a reaction to the legalese I suffered through for about 15 years.  I might also blame my admiration for Hemingway, that is, his diction not his misogyny.  I even find this paragraph a bit pretentious.  What is a reader/writer to do?

Well, I have decided.  I am going to tell the world I believe the emperor has no clothes or, rather, the emperor has too many dictionary pages stuck to his crown. 

Here is part of another paragraph my reading notes labeled as poetic.  Nabokov wrote, “November trees, poplars, I imagine, two of them growing straight out of the asphalt: all of them in the cold bright sun, bright richly furrowed bark and an intricate sweep of numberless burnished bare twigs, old gold—because getting more of the falsely mellow sun in the higher air.  Their immobility is in contrast with the spasmodic ruffling of the inset reflection—for the visible emotion of a tree is the mass of its leaves, and there remain hardly more than thirty-seven or so here and there on one side of the tree.  They just flicker a little, of a neutral tint, but burnished by the sun to the same ikontinct…” (2).  “Ikontinct” is not in my OED or my Random House Dictionary of well-over twenty-four hundred pages.  It is amazing how a single word can spoil otherwise wonderful poetic phrasing. 

Okay, so now I must choose: slog through hundreds of pages with who knows how many unidentifiable words, or revert with a measure of pretension of my own to that old Latin phrase: Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus.  Look it up if you wish.  2 stars.

--Chiron, 3/5/17

Forty-Nine Poems by W. H. Davies

I have often told a tale of finding a book, which delights me to no end.  On a recent trip to Tampa, Florida, I found a wonderful bookshop – The Old Tampa Bay Bookstore.  The first day I spent all my time in the fiction section, and as I left that day, I saw a large section devoted to poetry.  I had to come back the next day, and my decision was rewarded with a little treasure by a poet I which never crossed my “Bookdar.”  Forty-Nine Poems by W.H. Davies, selected and illustrated by Jacynth Parsons took me back to my elementary school days.

According to Wikipedia, William Henry Davies was born on July 3, 1871.  He was a Welsh poet and writer.  He spent a significant amount of time as a tramp or a hobo in England and the U.S.  W.H. Davies, as he was known, became one of the most popular poets of his time.  He wrote a number of volumes of poetry as well as an autobiography.  He died September 26, 1940 in Nailsworth, U.K.

The first thing that attracted me to the book were the wonderful color illustrations by Jacynth Parsons.  He began his career as an illustrator at the age of 16.  He died in 1992 at the age of 81.  His work reminds me of a book of poems we read in about the fifth grade.  His illustrations are soft, gentle, and filled with little creatures and people inside trees and clouds.  Most are in black and white, but the hand tinted drawings are even more enchanting than the others.

Here is a sample, “My Love Could Walk.”  Davies wrote, “My love could walk in richer hues / Than any bird of paradise, / And no one envy her her dress: Since in her looks the world would see / A robin’s love and friendliness. // And she could be the lily fair, / More richlt dressed than all her kind, / And no one envy her her gain, / Since in her looks the world would see / A daisy that was sweet and plain. // Oh, she could sit like any queen / That’s nailed by diamonds to a throne, / Her splendor envied by not one: / Since in her looks the world would see / A queen that’s more than half a nun” (7).

Here is another with the moon emerging from the clouds as a woman floating above the trees.  He writes in “The Moon,” “Thy beauty haunts me, heart and soul, / Oh thou fair Moon, so close and bright; / Thy beauty makes me like the child, / That cries aloud to own thy light: / The little child that lifts each arm, / To press thee to her bosom warm. // Though there are birds that sing this night / With thy white beams across their throats, / Let my deep silence speak for me / More than for them their sweetest notes: / Who worships thee till music fails / Is greater than thy nightingales” (29).

This slim volume will entertain on a beautiful Texas spring morning.  While some of his work might be hard to find, several are available.  Forty-Nine Poems by W.H. Davies would be more than well-worth the effort.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/22/17

Still another Day by Pablo Neruda

I like Pablo Neruda, but I sometimes find him as confusing as Pablo Picasso’s well-known painting, Guernica, a jumble of ideas, descriptions, events, and characters I do not understand.  Copper Canyon Press, a noted publisher of poetry, has a high – and I am sure – deserved view of this poem.  Inside the front cover, they wrote, “Confronted with his own mortality, Neruda wrote these twenty-eight cantos in two days, an inward expedition to find his deepest roots.  The poet evokes the Araucanian Indians and the conquistadors who tried to enslave them, while drawing heavily upon Chilean folklore, the places and people of his childhood, and the sights and smells of the marketplace.”  The text has Spanish on the left and English on the right.

Here is “Canto II,” “Araucanian, wet rose, I discover / inside myself, in the provinces of water / your roots, the goblets of the exhumed, / the broken larches, the dead Araucanian, / and your name shines in my chapters / like a catch of fish in a yellow creel! / You are also silver motherland and stink / in bitterness in storms in chills. // Today as a day grew wide / like the land and wider still, / when the light opened to illumine the land, / your rain came and brought in your swords / the portrait of bullet-riddled yesterday, / the love of the unbearable earth, / with those roads that carry me / to the South Pole, among burnt trees.” (5). 

I think I need a biography of Neruda as well as some additional research before I can fully comprehend this marvelous work of poetry.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 2/18/17

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Over the years, I have read bits and pieces by Doris Lessing.  I liked those works – a lot.  But something held me back from a full on committal to her novels.  Then I read an article about her work, which praised The Golden Notebook as her masterpiece.  I had tried to read it three decades or so ago, and I could not get into it.  This was one of my earliest deployments of “The Rule of 50.”  About Twenty years ago, I tried again, but I got no further.  About a month ago, I decided to try once more.  Unfortunately, my copy of the book had disappeared.  I bought another copy, and the new one had an introduction by Doris.  This detailed look into her life, her writings, and her philosophy open wide the doors of understanding.  This time I was determined to read the entire The Golden Notebook.

Doris May Lessing had an amazingly interesting and widely varying life. She was a British novelist, poet, playwright, librettist, biographer, and short story writer.  She was born October 22, 1919 in Kermanshah, Iran, and she died in London November 17, 2013.  The introduction to my newest copy of the book has an extensive introduction to the novel.  I do not recall whether or not my original copy had the Intro, but I found it to be most helpful in digging through the layers to an understanding of her, her life, and her works

As my readers can imagine from the introduction, this novel will be a challenge; however, readers interested in writers, philosophy, politics, and fiction will be rewarded with an amazing experience.  The story revolves around four journals Doris kept from a young age.  The journals were green, blue, red, and black.  Each deals with a different aspect of her life – politics, a memoir, her written work, and a diary.  She then took these four books and wove into them a story of two women.  Anna is a character who seems a lot like Doris.  Anna is a writer, and she is telling the story of Ella, who seems a whole lot like Anna and Doris.

Some of her paragraphs go on for well over two or even three pages.  If you delve into this wonderful and amazing novel, take some serious concentration pills, a pencil, and note book paper.  Here is a sample of a conversation between Anna and Saul, her then current love interest.  Lessing wrote, “‘you can’t go on like this, you’ve got to start writing again.’ // ‘Obviously if I could, I would.’ // ‘No, Anna, that’s not good enough. Why don’t you write that short story you’ve just told me about?  No, I don’t want all that hokum you usually give me—tell me in one simple sentence, why not.  You can call in Christmas cracker mottoes if you like, but while I was walking about I was thinking that you could simplify it in your mind, boil it all down to something, then you could take a good long look at it and beat it.’ // I began to laugh, but he said: ‘No, Anna, you’re going to really crack up unless you do.’ // ‘Very well then.  I can’t write that story or any other story, because at that moment I sit down to write, someone comes into the room, looks over my shoulders, and stops me.’ // ‘Who? Do you know?’ // ‘Of course I know.  It could be a Chinese peasant.  Or one of Castro’s guerrilla fighters.  Or an Algerian fighting in the F.L.N.  Or Mr. Mathlong.  They stand here in the room and they say, why aren’t you doing something about us, instead of wasting your time scribbling?’”  (609). 

I also noticed some references to other characters and story-lines.  I has pleased to read of a character who reminded me of Martha Quest, the title character in her first of four novels in the Children of Violence series.  Reach beyond what you usually read, and stretch you reading skills with The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing.  5 stars

--Chiron, 2/8/17

Monday, January 16, 2017

Felicity by Mary Oliver

It seems as though every time I go to a bookstore, I stumble upon a new poetry collection by Mary Oliver.  No discussions this time.  Rather I am going to offer as many poems as I can squeeze into three minutes from Felicity by Mary Oliver.

Walking to Indian River – “I’m ready for spring, but it hasn’t arrived. / Not yet. / Still I take my walk, looking for any / early enhancements. / It’s mostly attitude.  I’m certain / I’ll see something. / I start down the path, peering in / all directions. / The mangroves, as always, are standing in their / beloved water, / their new leaves very small and tender / and pale. / And, look! the way the rising sun / strikes them, / they could be flowers / opening!” (5).

Moments – There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled. / Like, telling someone you love them. / Or giving your money away, all of it. // Your heart is beating, isn’t it? / You’re not in chains, are you? // There is nothing more pathetic than caution / when headlong might save a life, / even, possibly, your own.” (9)

Nothing Is Too Small Not to Be Wondered About – “The cricket doesn’t wonder / if there’s a heaven / or, if there is, if there’s room for him. // It’s fall.  Romance is over.  Still, he sings. / If he can, he enters a house / through the tiniest crack under the door. / Then the house grows colder. // He sings slower and slower. / Then, nothing. // This must mean something, I don’t know what. / But certainly it doesn’t mean / he hasn’t been an excellent cricket / all his life” (27).

That Little Beast – “That pretty little beast, a poem, / has a mind of its own. / Sometimes I want it to crave apples / but it wants red meat. / Sometimes I want to walk peacefully / on the shore / and it wants to take off all its clothes / and dive in. // Sometimes I want to sum up and give thanks, / putting things in order / and it starts dancing around the room / on its four furry legs, laughing / and calling me outrageous. // But sometimes, when I’m thinking about you, / and no doubt smiling / it sits down quietly, one paw under its chin, / and just listens.” (57-58).

Not Anyone Who Says – “Not anyone who says, ‘I’m going to be / careful and smart in matters of love,” / who says, ‘I’m going to choose slowly,’ / but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all / but were, as it were, chosen / by something invisible / and powerful and uncontrollable / and beautiful and possibly even / unsuitable -- / only those know what I’s talking about / in this talking about love.” (65).

I Don’t Want to Lose – “I don’t want to lose a single thread / from the intricate brocade of this happiness. / I want to remember everything. / Which is why I am lying awake, sleepy / but not sleepy enough to give it up. / Just now, a moment from years ago: / the early morning light, the deft, sweet / gesture of your hand / reaching for me.”  (73).

Thank you Mary Oliver for touching my heart on nearly every page of Felicity.  5 stars

--Chiron, 1/16/17

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan represents all the good things I love about literary fiction.  Precise and effective prose, interesting characters, plots that will not let go, and a wonderful resource for building a vocabulary.  His latest novel, Nutshell, has an even more unusual character/narrator than I have come to expect.  At first, I believed this was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  The characters, Trudy and Claude, plot the murder of John, Claude’s brother and Trudy’s husband.  But McEwan has led us down that path with a sudden 180 degree twist.

The narrator is the fetus of Trudy and John.  Now, this is not unique.  Lawrence Sterne in his 18th century novel, Tristram Shandy, relates the life of the title character from the womb.  Take that idea and mix in an articulate narrator, and McEwan has given us a thoroughly modern twist on Sterne.

Yulia Tymoshenko
Trudy is at dinner with Claude, and she refuses a third glass of wine.  McEwan writes, “But, no, she restrains herself for love of me.  And I love her – how could I not?  The mother I have yet to meet, whom I know only from the inside.  Not enough!  I long for her external self.  Surfaces are everything.  I know her hair is ‘straw fair,’ that it tumbles in ‘coins of wild curls’ to her ‘shoulders the white of apple flesh,’ because my father has read aloud to her his poem about it in my presence.  Claude too has referred to her hair, in less inventive terms.  When she’s in the mood, she’ll make tight braids to wind around her head, in the style, my father says of Yulia Tymoshenko.  I also know that my mother’s eyes are green, that her nose is a ‘pearly button,’ that she wishes she had more of one, that separately both men adore it as it is and have tried to reassure her.  She’s been told many times that she’s beautiful, but she remains skeptical, which confers on her an innocent power over men, so my father told her one afternoon in the library.  She replied that if this were true, it was a power she’d never looked for and didn’t want.  This was an unusual conversation for them, and I listened intently” (7-8).  Curiously enough, I found myself listening intently to the conversations between John and Trudy and Claude and Trudy, as if I were an eavesdropping intruder, to piece together how the novel might turn out.

Trudy listens to pod casts to pass the time, and in one passage – too long for a complete sample – the lecturer discusses the state of the world – “in existential crises” – “new forms of brilliant weaponry” – “global corporations to dodge taxes” – ‘China, too big to need friends or counsel” – “Muslim-majority countries plagued by religious puritanism” – “The Middle East, fast breeder for a possible world war” (24-25).  And lastly, “the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran.  Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by an inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every new handgun” (25). 

This is the power of fiction.  Holding up the reader to his or her country for debate – hopefully before it is too late.  The Nutshell by Ian McEwan shows us one of those writers I voraciously pursue to get every drop of the message, every turn of phrase, and every new word.  5 stars

--Jim, 1/16/17

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

At the urging of several friends, I began Elizabeth Stroudt’s novel, Olive Kitteridge.  I barely made it to page 20 before I invoked the rule of 50.  This was 2011, and about 4 years later, I came across Kitteridge as a movie starring Frances McDormand, an actor I greatly admire.  So, I decided to have another go at Olive, and I loved it.  Now my book club has pressed upon me My Name is Lucy Barton.  This time, I was determined to get through to the end.

Lucy Barton was admitted to the hospital for an appendectomy, but side effects lengthened her stay to almost nine weeks.  Her husband occasionally visited, but it wasn’t until her mother arrived to stay at her bedside that things really began to percolate.  Lucy had come from a poor family in Amgash, Illinois.  The other children teased her unmercifully about her clothes, her family, and her body odor.  Lucy spends most of her time in the hospital musing over her life.  At first, I thought this would be boring, but it did take an interesting turn.

Lucy describes her childhood, “Until I was eleven years old, we lived in a garage.  The garage belonged to my great-uncle who lived in the house next door, and in the garage there was only a trickle of cold water from the makeshift sink.  Insulation nailed against the wall held a stuffing like pink cotton candy, but it was fiberglass and could cut us, we were told.  I was puzzled by that, and would stare at it often, such a pretty pink thing I could not touch; and I was puzzled to think it was called ‘glass’; odd to think now how much time it seemed to take up in my head, the puzzle of the pretty pink and dangerous fiberglass we lived right next to every minute” (22). 

Strout writes about Lucy’s thoughts of her sister, “How Vicky managed, to this day I don’t know.  We were not as close as you might expect; we were equally friendless and equally scorned, and we eyed each other with the same suspicion with which we eyed the rest of the world.  There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: It was not that bad.  Perhaps it was not.  But there are times, too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived.  This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true.  But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are completely free from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are.  So much of life seems speculation” (14).  

This dysfunctional family communicates poorly, and it seems to have parents unable to express any but the most obscure grains of affection.  Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton is an interesting journey of introspection for Lucy.  This time I am glad I ignored the “Rule of Fifty.”  4-1/2 Stars

--Jim, 1/16/17

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

I have never been a fan of adaptations and classic plays and operas reset into modern times.  One particularly egregious example, which infuriated me, was a Mozart opera set in a bowling alley.  Another noted example is Hamlet played with no background, no props and all the actors dressed in black with black turtlenecks.  However, lately, I have enjoyed some of the products of the Hogarth Shakespeare Press.  Hogarth, founded in 1917 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, went out of business in 1946.  In 2010, the press was revived by Random House under the Crown Printing label, with the stated purpose of issuing modern adaptations.  This novel was commissioned by Random House as part of its Hogarth series of re-telling of Shakespeare plays.  Other authors participating in the series include Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler, Jeanette Winterson, and Tracy Chevalier, among others.  I have read Taming of the Shrew as Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  The latest addition to this series is Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood.  She retells Shakespeare’s Tempest cleverly set in a prison.  Tastes change as time passes.

Felix is a renowned theater director at the Makeshiweg Theater Festival.  He is planning a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest.  Tony covets Felix position, and objects to the new version, and he plots to bring down Felix and place himself in Felix’s job.

Felix bitterly accepts the loss of his job, and he plots revenge on Tony.  Felix stays secluded, but he answers an ad for someone to teach literacy in a local prison.  Felix applies for the job – no one else did – and he agrees to take on teaching in a prison, provided he can have complete artistic control, and he must beallowed to work ubder the name of Mr. Duke.  At first, the prison administration is skeptical, but after he puts on several productions, they see the change in the prisoners, and encourage him to continue.

Twelve years later, Felix still seethes at Tony’s duplicity.  He learns that the Minister of Justice and the head of the prison system are scheming to do away with Felix and the literacy program.  He sees an opportunity to exact revenge, help some of the inmates, and have some fun at the same time.  Felix is also haunted by the death of his daughter, Miranda, at age three.  As he plunges into the production, he becomes more and more like Prospero.  He even imagines his daughter is speaking to him.  She wants to play Miranda, but that spot has been cast for Anne-Mariel, a professional actor and friend of Felix.

While the premise of the story edges on the preposterous, it is all done in great fun.  Some smuggled grapes – laced with narcotics – some fancy electrical equipment brought in under the excuse of sticking to a real theater experience, and with the help of Anne-Marie as Miranda, Felix pulls off the event.  He saves the program, and he helps the inmates in various ways.

I have not included any excerpts in this review, because the language of Shakespeare, the rap versions of the Bard’s lines, and the near hallucinations of Felix of his deceased daughter, all meld into one terrific story.  Margaret Atwood has assembled an interesting and fun version of The Tempest.  Several other plays have been adapted, and I can’t wait until I discover where my newly-found tastes will take me.  5 stars. 

--Chiron, 1/11/17