Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Metropolitan Life by Fran Lebowitz

My favorite comedian is the curmudgeonly Fran Leibowitz.  Her humor is dry but very funny.  I recently saw a documentary about her, and they mentioned two books she had written back in the late 70s.  Metropolitan Life was easy to find, and I gleefully spent a day enjoying this novel.  Fran is an author, public speaker, and the definitive New Yorker.  She grew up in Morristown, NJ.  I recently saw her on Jimmie Fallon’s late night TV show, and I was happy to see she is her still her crabby, funny self.

Metropolitan Life is a collection of essays covering all sorts of annoyances.  Here are some samples.  In “Vocational Guidance for the Truly Ambitious,” she offers a check list to help sort out a career path.  “If my house or apartment was on fire the first thing I would save would be … a. My son, b. My cat, c. My boyfriend, d. My mention in Women’s Wear Daily; […] My idea of a good party is … a. A big, noisy bash, with lots of liquor and lots of action, b. Good talk, good food, good wine, c. A few close friends for dinner and bridge, d. One to which I cannot get invited; […] My pet peeve about my husband is his …a. Snoring, b. Habit of leaving the cap off the toothpaste, c. Drinking buddies, d. Stubbornness, e. Imperial Concubines” (12-13).

Fran has somewhat of an aversion to children, and she has a list of cons.  For instance, “Even when freshly washed and relieved of all obvious confections, children tend to be sticky.  One can only assume that this has something to do with not smoking enough.”  Also, “Children respond inadequately to sardonic humor and veiled threats” (34). 

Fran also has an aversion to scientists.  She writes, “It is only to be expected that people of this sort are not often invited out.  After all, a person who might well spend an entire evening staring at a kitchen utensil has little to recommend him as a dinner companion.  It is far too risky—particularly if the person in question is moved to share his thoughts with others.  Physical laws are not amusing.  Mathematical symbols do not readily lend themselves to double entendre.  Chemical properties are seldom cause for levity.  These facts make it intolerable for a gathering ever to include more than one scientist.  More than one scientist at a table is bad luck—not mention bad taste.” (78). 

In regard to food, she muses, “If there was no such thing as food, Oyster Bay would be called just Bay, and for the title of The Cherry Orchard Chekhov would have chosen A Group of Empty Trees, Regularly Spaced” (111).  I did say she had a dry sense of humor?  An epithet ascribed to her is “I can assure you, in real life, there is no such thing as algebra.”  Fran Leibowitz is an acquired taste to be sure, and she is not above sprinkling a few dated non-politically correct comments in her writings.  But I find her hilarious, and you might too, so give Metropolitan Life by Fran Lebowitz a try.  You could become a fan.  

--Chiron, 5/30/17

Monday, May 29, 2017

Between You & Me by Mary Norris

Believe it or not, I have a collection of The New Yorker magazine dating back to the early 1970s.  An English teacher I had in high school, recommended that I read the magazine to learn about all sorts of writing, and when I bought my first copy, it had a story by John Updike.  This worm on a hook captured me, and I began my first “author obsession.”  John Updike is gone, but I still read every issue nearly cover to cover.  When I heard of a book by a copy editor at the magazine, I could not resist adding to the lore of the fabled magazine now in its 92nd year.  

Mary Norris—aka the Comma Queen—has written a thoroughly enjoyable tale of her adventures working for the pre-eminent magazine published today.  In a chapter titled “Spelling is for Weirdos,” she writes, “The English language is full of words that are just waiting to be misspelled, and the world is full of sticklers, ready to pounce.  Ours is not a phonetic language, like Italian and Spanish and Modern Greek, where certain letters and combinations of letter can be relied on to produce consistent sounds.  English has many silent letters.  And its motley origins make it fiendishly difficult to untangle.  Besides the Germanic roots of our Anglo-Saxon tongue and the influence of Latin (Emperor Hadrian) and French (the Norman Invasion), and borrowings from Greek and Italian and Portuguese and even a soupçon of Basque, American English has a lot of Dutch from early settlers in the East; plenty of Spanish, from the conquistadores and missionaries who explored the West; and a huge vocabulary of place-names from Native American languages, often blended with French, for added confusion” (17).  We native speakers of English treat our language as though it was a simple matter, but even good students can get tangled in is many webs vines.

But my favorite chapter is “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie.”  I love writing with pencils much more than pens.  Every room has a discarded mug filled with pencils, which outnumber pens by at least 4-to-1.  Norris writes, “In the old days, at The New Yorker, when your pencil point got dull, you just tossed it aside and picked up a new one.  There was an office boy who came around in the morning with a tray of freshly sharpened wooden pencils.  And they were nice long ones—no stubs.  The boy held out his tray of pencils, and you scooped up a quiver of them.  It sounds like something out of a dream!  Even then I think I knew that the office boy and his tray would go the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker” (171).  Oh how warm and fuzzy it is to know there are others who share this innocuous obsession.

Norris has a preference for No. 1 pencils.  I have never used one—I prefer a sturdy German mechanical pencil for my pocket.  No. 2s are for all other tasks.  Norris writes, “Writing with a No. 2 pencil made me feel as if I had a hangover.  It created a distance between my hand and my brain, put me at a remove from the surface of the paper I was writing on.  I would throw it into a drawer” (172).

Mary also made an excursion to The Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Ohio.  The museum boasts 3,441 pencil sharpeners.  The rules for admission to this august temple of pencildom were set down by the founder. “each pencil sharpener had to be unique—no duplicates” however, “it could mean a sharpener was the same shape but a different color, or highly polished instead of dull” (180).  After completing her visit, Mary “went back to my car, found the pencil sharpener just where I had packed it, in a pocket of the zippered compartment on my backpack, and photographed it on the back of my car before shaking out all the shavings in the parking lot.  I did not want the fact that my sharpener was not a virgin to make it ineligible for display in the museum” (191).

Mary Norris’s delightful story, Between You  Me, is an antidote to all the other dark things we read, hear on the news, or read in the papers, I am not a serious punctuation freak—outside of an English Composition class—but I do enjoy catching an errant apostrophe here and there.  5 No. 2 Pencils!

--Chiron, 5/29/17

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

My wife has been reminding me – on about a bi-weekly basis – that I needed to read Chris Cleave’s novel, Little Bee.  My hand was forced when it was selected for my book club.  I got to the novel only a few days before our meeting, and I had no trouble finishing it quickly.  It is a heart-rending tale of a young girl orphaned by a corrupt government, which places oil production above any of its citizens.  Cleave was born in London in 1973.  He attended Balliol College.  Little Bee is his second of four novels, and yes, those three are on the way.  The writing was marvelous – except for a few pages of annoying dialect.

Little Bee lived in a village targeted by the government for clearing open lands for oil drilling.  She escaped the slaughter of her family by hiding in the jungle.  As the novel opens, Bee has been released from a detention center in the UK after a bribe to a guard willing to look the other way.  Bee speaks “the Queen’s English,” so she can maneuver more easily than the three others released with her, all of whom have heavy accents.

Cleave’s prose is magnificent throughout the novel.  When the four women separate, Bee heads to an address on a driver’s license she found on the beach.  The reader does not know the circumstances of this detail until much later.  Bee has formed a relationship with Yevette in the detention center.  Cleave writes, “Leaving Yevette, that was the hardest thing I had to do since I left my village.  But if you are a refugee, when death comes you do not stay for one minute in the place it has visited.  Many things arrive after death – sadness, questions, and policemen – and none of these can be answered when your papers are not in order. // Truly there is no flag for us floating people.  We are millions, but we are not a nation.  We cannot stay together.  Maybe we get together in ones and twos, for a day or a month or even a year, but then the wind changes and carries the hope away.  Death came and I left in fear.  Now all I have is my shame and the memory of bright colors and the echo of Yevette’s laugh.  Sometimes I feel as lonely as the Queen of England” (80).

Little Bee finds her way to the address on the license.  She hides for a few days in bushes behind Sarah’s garden.  Finally, Bee knocks on the door, and Sarah recognizes her from the beach in Nigeria.  She lets her into the house, and tells Bee her husband Andrew has committed suicide, and he would be buried later that day.  Bee instantly comforts Sarah’s son, Charlie, and they quickly develop a bond.  Charlie does not understand the absence of his father, and he begins acting out in day care.  Sarah and Bee come for Charlie, who was angry and hiding in a corner.  Cleave writes, “I went into the corner with Charlie.  I stood next to him and I turned my face into the corner, too.  I did not look at him, I looked at the bricks and I did not say anything.  I am good at looking at bricks and not saying anything.  In the immigration detention center I did it for two years, and that is my record” (143).  Bee always fears someone was coming to take her away.  “I was thinking what I would do in that nursery room, if the men came suddenly,  It was not an easy room, I am telling you.  For example, there was nothing to cut yourself with.  All the scissors were made of plastic and their ends were round and soft.  If I suddenly needed to kill myself in that room, I did not know how I was going to do it” (143).  Be is always looking over her shoulder, always fearing when a stranger makes eye contact.

This story has an open ending, and for that I am fortunate.  Had the worst happened, it would have affected me deeply.  If you have never encountered an undocumented person, read Little Bee by Chris Cleave and walk a mile in their shoes.  

--Chiron, 5/27/17

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life (Part Two) by Joyce Carol Oates

Finally, we arrive at the second installment of Joyce Carol Oates’ wonderful work, Soul at the White Heat: Obsession, Inspiration, and the Writing Life.  This section deals with a number of reviews written by Oates.  I carefully avoid reading reviews of books on my TBR piles.  I want my opinion completely unadulterated by other writers.  However, I really enjoy reading reviews, so I clip those of interest, file them away until I can read the book.  While a handful of reviewers attract my attention, none do more so than Joyce Carol Oates.

In Other Worlds: Margaret Atwood, Oates writes of her “eclectic and engaging miscellany of essays, reviews, introductions, and ‘tributes’ is a literary memoir tracing the myriad links between science fiction and literature” (210).  Embedded in this essay is a quote from Ursula K. Le Guin, another writer I admire.  Le Guin writes, “To my mind, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryyx and Crake, and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things that science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire.  But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science fiction […] She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto” (211).  When I was in middle school, I discovered science fiction, and read as much as I could find.  My favorite was, and still is, A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke.  I passed through that phase to another: archaeology, but I still do read the occasional SciFi novel.

Oates continues, “Both writers would describe their fictions as ‘thought-experiments’ – ways of describing ‘reality, the present world’ by way of original metaphors.  Both writers would argue that ‘a novelist’s business is lying’ – as a ‘devious method of truth-telling.’ // With the good-natured patience of a teacher who has made a point repeatedly, yet is still being misunderstood in some quarters” (211).

This is my favorite review in this section, and perhaps one of my favorites of all time.  This piece gives me the feeling I was at dinner with these three powerful women writers, and I sat there with a huge grin taking it all in.  I think it is important for readers – and reviewers – to read the work of other writers.  John Updike is another writer who has written hundreds of reviews.  He published no less than seven hefty volumes of essays, reviews, and criticism.  Lots can be learned from these volumes.

As a final sample from this collection, Oates writes in “Diminished Things: Anne Tyler,” another of my favorites to add to my obsessions.  She first quotes a poem by Robert Frost, “The Ovenbird.”  Oates then picks up the thread of the last line when she wrote, “’what to make of a diminished thing’ is a proposition that becomes ever more crucial with the passage of time in our lives, and particularly in the lives of writers who began young, with early successes and early fame.  Like her older contemporaries John Updike and Philip Roth, Anne Tyler has addressed this painful subject in recent novels, notably Noah’s Compass, Ladder of Years, and [The Beginner’s Goodbye]; but she addressed it in her characteristically minimalist, understated and modest way” (240).  Ah, another wonderful dinner conversation that would make.

So, we close this piece on a really important work for all readers and writers, Soul at the White Heat: Obsession, Inspiration, and the Writing Life by Joyce carol Oates.  I highly recommend this work.  Stay tuned for part three!  5 stars

--Chiron 3/22/17

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

On a visit to Inkwood Books in Tampa Florida, the proprietor recommended a novel she thought I would like – based on my stack of purchases awaiting payment.  She correctly introduced me to Miss Jane by Brad Watson.  The novel has no conmen, no evildoers, but only farmers and sharecroppers desperately working the land to scrape out an existence for their families.  True, they do have some individuals who drink a little too much, but they care for their families and their children.  The story will warm your heart and make you want to bundle up for cold weather right alongside the Chisolms.

Brad Watson teaches at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.  He has written two collections of stories and a novel, Heaven of Mercury, which was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award.  His short stories have been published widely.  Miss Jane tells the story of the Chisolm Family – Ida, his wife, Grace the eldest daughter, and Jane.  A male baby had died soon after childbirth.  Jane was born with a complicated birth defect.  Back in 1915, nothing could be done for the unfortunate child.  Today, her condition could be easily fixed by surgery.  Watson describes the little girl, “She had been a spritely young girl, slim and a bit lank-haired but with a sweet face and good humor, but by now had grown taller and begun to take on a gaunt, dark-eyed beauty, and moved with a kind of natural grace, as a leak will fall gracefully from a tree in barely a breeze” (173).  Dr. Thompson admired the Chisolms for their work-ethic and, after delivering Jane, he stayed in close touch in hopes of some sort of surgical miracle to correct her condition.

The lovely prose in this novel reminded me of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.  Watson writes, “Leaving the child’s care to her older daughter had made it a little easier for Ida Chisolm to avoid her dark thoughts, though not entirely.  When she had a little break, she sat on the front porch, dipped a bit of snuff – which she knew was smallish sinful but did it anyway, a soul was corrupt at birth and adding a little vice wouldn’t change the equation much – and spat into the bare dirt of the yard doing the best she could to empty her clamorous mind.  Crows banked about the grove of the pine and hardwood by the cow pond and flew back up on fluff-cranked winds into the pecans near the barn, settling in their gnarly limbs like black fluttering shadows into the foliage of clouded thoughts she could not and did not bother to plumb.  Late fall blackbirds swept in waves to the oaks at the yard’s edge, and their deafening, squawking, creaking calls, the cacophonous tuning of a mad avian symphony, drew the grief-born anger from her heart, into the air, and swept it away in long, almost soothing moments of something like peace.  The occasional fluid mumuration of migrating starlings, a wondrous sight when she was a child, could evoke in her all over again in a strange sense of foreboding” (51-52).  The story continues all the way to the disappearance of Grace, the death of Sylvester, Ida, and finally the last days of Jane Chisolm.

Some might view this last sentence as a “spoiler,” but this is one of those rare books, seeps into the mind of the reader, spreads warmth and sorrow, and ends on a satisfying note.  Do not let that stop anyone from reading this novel.  There are few things I enjoy more than a great independent bookstore and a proprietor who can read her customers.  A trip to Florida is in my future, and after reading Miss Jane by Brad Watson, I will surely seek out Inkwood Books.  5 Stars.

--Chiron, 5/15/17

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner by Herman Koch has recently been made into a movie.  The information on the dust jacket intrigued me, so I decided to move it up a few notches.  This is the seventh novel, along with three collections of short stories. of this internationally known writer from Amsterdam.  The story is thrilling, and his prose will push the reader to the end.  I could hardly put it down.

Paul and Serge Lohman are brothers, both are married and both have a fifteen-year-old son.  Serge also has an autistic daughter and an adopted child.  Serge is also a politician, and he is headed to the office of speaker of Parliament in The Netherlands.  Paul has major anger issues, and he frequently fantasizes about beating someone to death.  The dust jack mentions the brothers are entangled in a horrific event brought on by the two boys, or is it?

Paul is misanthropic to say the list.  The couples meet for dinner at a ritzy restaurant.  Paul harbors lots of resentment over his brother’s success.  Koch writes, “What I was in fact planning to do was look at the prices of the entrées: the prices in restaurants like this always fascinate me.  Let me make it clear right away that I’m not stingy by nature; that has nothing to do with it.  I’m also not going to claim money is no object, but I’m light years removed from people who say it’s a ‘waste of money’ to eat in a restaurant while ‘at home you can make things that are so much nicer.’  No, people like that don’t understand anything, not about food and not about restaurants” (25).  The novel drips with sarcasm, snarky remarks, and hidden grudges.

All four of the adults know about the horrific event, but none of the four knows what the others know.  Clair, Paul’s, wife, knows more than the others.  Michel, Paul’s son, writes a disturbing essay, and the principal calls Paul in for a conference.  The principal mentions an incident at the school Paul recently left.  He becomes so angry he attacks the principal and severely beats him.  Oddly enough, there is no further mention of this attack.  In another scene, Paul recalls his son kicking a ball through a glass window.  He takes the boy to apologize and pay for the window, but the bike shop owner is not satisfied.  Paul loses his temper, and picks up a bicycle pump to hit the man.  Later, Michel asks if he was really going to hit the man.  Koch writes, “I had already put the key in the lock, but now I squatted down in front of him again.  ‘Listen,’ I said.  ‘That man is not a good man.  That man is just a piece of trash who hates kids who are playing.  It doesn’t matter whether I would have hit him over the head with that pump.  Besides, if I had, he would only have had himself to blame.  No, what matters is that he thought I was going to hit him, and that was enough’” (139).  The significance of this memory will will become apparent at the end of the story.

The purpose of the dinner was for the adults to discuss the “incident” concerning their sons.  Serge offers to withdraw from the election, despite the fact he is way ahead in the polls and almost certain to win.  Serge’s wife, Babbette, does not want her husband to withdraw.  He has planned a press conference for the next day.  Clair and Babbette plot to stop the announcement.  The ending is surreal, almost dreamlike.  One body leaves the scene on a stretcher.

The Dinner by Herman Koch is a thrilling and suspenseful novel.  A perfect read for a sunny day, or a rainy day, or any day.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/12/17

Summer Reading for Bibliophiles

Summer is prime reading time in my life.  An old rhyme from my elementary school days – with a minor alteration – went something like this, “No more papers, no more books, no more student’s dirty looks.”  Following is a list of titles on my TBR pile.

The Little French Bistro by Nina George.  George was a recent discovery of mine, and this is the second of her novels translated into English.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Little Paris Bookshop, and I am sure this one will please.  While we are on the subject of French Literature, Lydia Davis has produced a new translation of one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, Madame Bovary.  And, before we leave Europe, consider Skylight by Jose Saramago.  He always delights with his peculiar characters and wonderful situations.  If you haven’t read him yet, Stone Raft, in which the Iberian Peninsula breaks away from France and floats into the Atlantic is another worthwhile read along with All the Names

For some fun reads, Carl Hiaasen has a recent novel, Razor Girl, the story of a reporter/detective in Miami dodging his editor and the police.  The tremendously funny Tina Fey has Bossy Pants on my TBR.

Colm Tóibín is among the masters of literary fiction today.  His latest novel is Nora Webster, the story of a woman widowed in her 40s with four children.  Richard Ford has a new novel, Let Me Be Frank with You.  His novels are always interesting and well-written.  For an interesting collection of letters, Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934-1995, has been squealing for my attention in what I am sure will be a fascinating look at one of the best writers of the 20th century.

On the more serious side is Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening.  This has been around for quite a few years, and I have read it a couple of times, but this is one relaxing read even on a second or third read.  Laurence M. Krauss, the noted physicist and author of A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing is a great read for the amateur scientists in us.

When I spent a year at a boarding school back in 1962-63, I was severely limited in the range of available reading material.  So I thought I would time-travel back, and reconnect with G.K. Chesterton in The Flying Inn.  My next foray into the work of the outstanding writer, Kent Haruf, is Benediction.  Underestimated, un-hyped, all of his books are wonderful reads.  Plainsong and Our Souls at Night are also fantastic.  I have a Lily King novel I hope to get to this summer: Father of the Rain.  And a novel by Lisa King, Death in a Wine Dark Sea from the excellent independent publisher, Permanent Press. 

I also want to get to the recent Nobel Prize winning author, Patrick Modiano and, what some call his masterpiece, The Occupation Trilogy.  Another important Nobel winner is J.M. Coetzee.  I have read a number of his works, and they are all thought provoking, interesting, and they will not let you quit until the last page.  Two of his works are on my radar: The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus.

And finally, I close this list with two works for bibliophiles: Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles, and Pencil by Herman Petroski.  After reading The Book of the Book Shelves, I might just start off my summer reading right here.

--Chiron, 5/27/17

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein

According to her website, Lauren Grodstein is the author of four novels, the last of which is Our Short History.  She teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers-Camden.  She lives in South Jersey with her husband and a dog.  After first looking at the dust jacket, I was afraid it would be depressing, or worse, boring.  But something pulled me in.  I think it was the book jacket which featured a silhouette of a woman holding the hand of a child.  After about 20 pages, I knew I had to finish it.

Karen Neulander is an experienced manager, who is running a local campaign.  She is also a single mother of a precocious six-year-old.  When she revealed she was pregnant, Dave, the father of the child, abandoned her.  He had said, in no uncertain terms, he did not want to have any children.  Fast forward 6 years.  Karen has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.  The doctors have given her, perhaps, two years.  She decides to write a memoir, for her son.  She is smart and feisty.  Karen knows what she wants and how to achieve it. 

Her abandonment, by a man she loved, and whom she thought loved her, all boil into resentment against Dave, and a desire to protect her son.  Grodstein writes, “Allison and I frequently discuss issues of privilege and economy.  She says it doesn’t mean we have to raise our kids broke just because that’s how we grew up.  She thinks that insecurity about money doesn’t necessarily make a person more empathetic or kind: Sometimes it just makes a person nervous her whole life.  And she’s right, I know she’s right, but still it irks me to think you’ll never understand that you are, in so many ways, so very lucky.  Allison says, ‘But in at least one way you aren’t lucky at all.  None of us are.  And money is no compensation.’ // There is no compensation.  I am your only parent; I am forty-three years old; I have stage IV ovarian cancer.  I have perhaps two or three years left in my life, and once I am gone you will move here, to Mercer Island, to live with my sister, Allison, and her family.  You can bring your hamster and all your toys.  You can bring anything you want.  You know this, Jake.  You know that if it were up to me, I would live forever with you in my arms” (5). 

Jake begins asking questions about his father, and Karen begins preparing her son for her death.  Grodstein writes, “It seems to me, Jacob, that when the time comes for you to pick a life partner, you should pick someone who behaves well in a crises.  It’s very easy to think you know someone – it’s very easy to think you know yourself – when life is calm and orderly, movie dates on Saturdays, chicken dinner at seven.  But people become their truest selves in emergencies.  Selfish people jump into the life raft first.  Cowards sneak out the back door.  Liars say whatever it takes to get out of trouble.  Craven people walk away from what they have wrought.  But good, morally sound people take responsibility for their actions and stand up for the people they care about, even if they put themselves at risk.  Even if they put their own desires second.  I want you to choose someone who is good and morally sound” (77-78).  This sums up her relationship with Dave, while preparing Jacob for his future.

Lauren Grodstein’s novel, Our Short History is a story filled with wisdom and cautions for Jacob.  Despite the looming tragedy, there is humor, anger, and fears Karen wants Jacob to understand.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/14/17

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 (Part Two) 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 Brontës, 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