Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy

My better half and I love about two thirds of each other’s books, and we avoid each other’s thirds.  This causes friendly disagreements over choices.  Now, we have what some might call a healthy library, so there is more than a lifetime of reading for each of us.  A case in point is Pat Conroy’s memoir, The Water is Wide.  Hardly a week goes by when I don’t find one of her favorites finds its way into my TBR pile, and I must confess to some squirreling away of my favorites in hers.  Then my book club choose this Conroy for our book club.  I was trapped, I had to give in and read this book.  Now, deciding which authors to read or to avoid is a complicated process for me. 

Conroy is a best-selling author, and he is noted for his novels set in his native South Carolina.  River is an autobiographical story of his first year of teaching.  He chooses an island off the coast of South Carolina, Yamacraw Island.  Conroy’s description of the horrific lack of education turned my stomach.  Conroy recites the abysmal list of the failure of the school board to take care of students merely because they were black.  Conroy wrote, “‘Six children who could not recite the alphabet.  Eighteen children who did not know the President.  Eighteen children who did not know what country they lived in…’  I slammed twenty-three of these strange facts down their throats, hoping they would gag and choke on the knowledge.  My voice grew tremulous and enraged, and it suddenly felt as if I were shouting from within a box with madmen surrounding me, ignoring me, and taunting me with their silence.  My lips trembled convulsively as my speech turned into a harangue and the great secret I had nursed in my soul thundered into the open room” (266).  Disgust at the treatment of these children is not powerful enough; shame is not powerful enough to brand this pitifully racist schoolboard consisting of seven whites and two African-American women.  The placement of these two women was gerrymandering of a sort. 

Not only were these children neglected and dismissed as “unteachable,” Yamacraw Island faced another catastrophe.  Conroy writes, “Then a villain appeared.  It was an industrial factory situated on a knoll above the Savannah River many miles away from Yamacraw.  The villain spewed its excrement into the river, infected the creeks, and as silently as the pull of the tides, the filth crept to the shores of Yamacraw.  As every good inspector knows, the unfortunate consumer who lets an infected oyster slide down his throat is flirting with hepatitis” (5). 

Conroy confesses to a period he was racist himself.  While he was in high school, a teacher invited a group of students, including Conroy, to his home.  The students teased the professor for being a n****r-lover.  The professor “spat out a devastating reply” then “he played ‘We Shall Overcome’ by Pete Seger.  I remember that moment with crystal clarity and I comprehended it as a turning point in my life: a moment terrible in its illumination of a toad in my soul, an ugliness so pervasive that it seemed my insides were vomit”  Of course, it still took a while for Conroy to completely abandon his prejudices, he continues, “the journey at least had a beginning, a point of embarkation” (94-95).  The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy is a story we must never forget.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 3/23/18

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

As I resume my tour of the Brontë novels, Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, is next. It was her first and only novel.  It is believed Charlotte destroyed—at Emily’s direction—a novel in progress upon her death.  A journal of Emily’s has tantalizing letters in the remaining fragments of torn out pages, and some poetry and scattered diary entries are all that remain.  Emily died in 1848, and in 1849, Charlotte published a novel, Shirley, about a character which bears a striking resemblance to Emily.  I have often wondered whether the missing novel was autobiographical, or a tribute to Emily from Charlotte, or something else.  More about Shirley in future visits to the Brontë parsonage.

To me, Wuthering Heights is one of the finest Gothic novels of all time.  It has nearly everything a reader could want—love, betrayal, jealousy, revenge, ghosts, a haunted house, and lots of peculiar plot references.  The novel begins with a mixture of conflicting passages.  She writes in Lockwood’s diary, “1801—I have returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with.  This is certainly a beautiful country!  In all of England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society.  A perfect misanthropist’s heaven—and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us.  A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, as I announced my name” (3). 

The beginning of the novel is fraught with a set of images hard to overlook.  Including the name of the new tenant, Lockwood.  We also see a “gate,” which “manifested no sympathizing movement”; Lockwood’s horse was, “fairly pushing the barrier, but [Heathcliff] did not pull out his hand to unchain it” (3).  The novel delivers a healthy set of images, which set the mood.  She describes “storm weather,” “stunted firs,” “gaunt thorns,” a “bitch pointer surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies, and other dogs haunted other recesses” (4-5).  Heathcliff is described as “a dark-skinned gypsy” (5). 

Heathcliff himself adds to the atmosphere, when a dog “provoked a long, guttural snarl” and “You’d better let the dog alone,” growled Mr. Heathcliff” (6).  Lockwood notes, “an obscure cushion full of something like cats.  What sort of creature might that be?”  Two lines later, we are treated to “a heap of dead rabbits” (9).  Then, “‘Get [dinner] ready, will you?’, uttered so savagely that I started.  The tone in which the words were said revealed a genuine bad nature.  I no longer felt inclined to call Heathcliff a capital fellow” (10).

Lockwood fastens his bedroom door.  “In vapid listlessness I leant my head against the window, and continued spelling over Catherine Earnshaw—Heathcliff—Linton, till my eyes closed; but they had not rested five minutes when a glare of white letters started from the dark, as vivid specters—the air swarmed with Catherine’s, and rousing myself to dispel the obtrusive name, I discovered my candle wick reclining on one of the antique volumes, and perfuming the place with an odour of roasted calf-kin” (15-16).  Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights will send chills up and down the spine.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/17/18

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie has become another of my favorite authors.  His detailed and mysterious characters all have stories too intense, too interesting, and all with splashes of humor.  While he has something of a reputation as a writer of dense and obscure fiction, his last ten or so novels were all written with details that leave absolutely nothing left unsaid or undescribed.  His latest novel, The Golden House, maintains his marvelous and intriguing prose style.

As the dust jacket notes, “On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, an enigmatic billionaire from an [unidentified] foreign shore and takes up residence in the architectural jewel of ‘the Gardens,’ a cloistered community in New York’s Greenwich Village.”  Of course, the neighbors are fascinated.  His chosen, new world name is Nero Golden, and his three sons have adopted names of other Roman figures, Apu—from Lucius Apuleius, Dionysus prefers, “D,” and Petronius, takes the nickname, Petya.  Each of these three men take turns unraveling the mystery of this family.

Rushdie also weaves lots of references to a whole slew of literary and real characters ranging from Anton Chekhov to George Clooney.  Here is a sample of what is in store for the intrepid reader.  “That night he talked and drank without stopping, and all of us who were there would carry fragments of that talk in our memories for the rest of our lives.  What crazy, extraordinary talk it was!  No limit to the subjects he reached for and used as punching bags: the British royal family, in particular the lives of Princess Margaret, who used a Caribbean island as her private boudoir, and Prince Charles, who wanted to be his lover’s toy; the philosophy of Spinoza (he liked it); the lyrics of Bob Dylan (he recited the whole of ‘Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands,’ as reverently as if it were a companion piece to ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’; the Spassky-Fischer chess match (Fischer had died the year before); Islamic radicalism (he was against it) and wishy-washy liberalism (which appeased Islam, he said, so he was against it too); […] the novels of G.K. Chesterton (he was a fan of The Man Who was Thursday); the unpleasantness of male chest hair; the ‘unjust treatment ‘ of Pluto, recently demoted to the status of ‘dwarf planet’ after a larger body, Eris, was discovered in the Kuiper Belt” (48-49).  This is about two-thirds of the list of his topics.

Nero had some unspecified plans for the future.  Rushdie writes, “Nero had hired the most powerful members of the city’s tribe of publicists, whose most important task was not to get, but to suppress, publicity; and so what happened in the Golden House very largely stayed in the Golden House” (52). One son is something of a loose cannon.  Rushdie writes, “D Golden, when in his brothers’ company, alternated between ingratiation and rage.  It was plain that he needed to love and be loved; there was a tide of emotion in him that needed to wash over people and he hoped for a returning tide to wash over him. […]  Sometimes he seemed wise beyond his years.  At other times he behaved like a four-year-old child” (67).

Salman Rushdie is an amazingly talented writer who can sweep a reader along on fantastic waves of literature, philosophy, history, and politics, while never forgetting to smile.  His latest novel, The Golden House has from me, a solid 5 stars.

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library by Sue Halpern

As the voracious reader I am, there are certain groups of books I cannot pass up.  Novels about books, libraries, and bookstores are one of the most important of these groups.  Sue Halpern has been widely praised for her journalism and criticism.  Sue has appeared in an impressive range of publications from Condé Nast Traveler to The New Yorker.  She is also a scholar in residence at Milddlebury College, and she was a Rhodes Scholar and a Guggenheim Fellow.  Her latest effort is a novel, Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, which I found most entertaining.

Solstice, known as “Sunny,” is a teenager who tries to steal a 532-page dictionary by slipping it between her belly and her jeans.  She is caught, arrested, and finds herself before a judge, who is reluctant to send a teen to jail for petty theft.  Sue writes, “Solstice Arkinsky, for the crime of stealing the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, I hereby sentence you to forty hours a week of community service at the Riverton Public Library, to be carried out every day during summer vacation until the new school year begins” (27).  One minor detail is revealed when she says, “I don’t go to school” (28).  Sunny is home-schooled by her hippie parents.  At first, Sunny is sullen and resentful.  She is assigned by the director of the library to serve her time under the watchful eye of a librarian, Kit. 

The story carries two distinct plot lines.  In addition to Sunny’s narrative, Kit tells her story in sections labeled “The Marriage Story.”  The story of these two characters is quite interesting.  One of the better aspects of Kit’s story are her occasional visits to her therapist.  Halpern writes, “‘I’m a misanthrope,’ she told Dr. Bondi.  ‘Being alone suits me’ // He was skeptical.  ‘Maybe,’ he said.  ‘Maybe now, but I don’t think it’s in your nature.’ / Kit laughed.  ‘If it’s nature versus nurture, in this case nurture wins.’  ‘Like I said, I don’t think it’s a permanent feature.’ // But it was.  That’s what I had become.  And Kit had come to think of herself as a loner, at home in her solitude, like one of those self-reliant spinster women from literature.  By the end of the workday she craved nothing more than to hear the creak of the floorboards underfoot and the hum of the refrigerator that suffused the house.  By the end of the week, she was content to putter, to speak only the occasional greeting to passersby if she happened to be on the porch, to ask little of others and be asked little in return” (115).  Sunny and Kit become close friends.  Kit invites Sunny to stay overnight on occasions when her parents were out of town.

Before her divorce, Kit was a teacher, “It was books I was drawn to—the smell of them, the feel of them, the way they invaded and captured me—not talking about books.  I enrolled in library school and got a part-time job at a used book store, taking orders over the phone” (195).

A trifecta!  What could be better-- English teachers, books, and libraries!  Anyone interested in these three pillars of knowledge will surely find Sue Halpern’s novel, Summer Hours at the Robbers Library a delightful read!  5 Stars

--Chiron, 5/3/18

Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems by Masaoka Shiki

Masaoka Shiki is one of the four greatest masters of haiku.  I have long been a fan of Basho, the second of the four masters.  Masaoka was born in Matsuyama, Iyo Province in 1867.  His father died when he was about 5 years old.  He entered a University Prep School in 1884, and 5 years later, he developed tuberculosis.  In 1891, he began work on Classified Collection of Haiku.  In 1892 he withdrew from school and became the haiku editor of Nippon and began his quest to organize poetry.  In 1895, his illness worsened, and he went to stay with Natsume Sōseki, a Japanese writer I greatly admire.  He died at home on September 19th, 1902.

The slim and exquisite volume includes an interesting introduction by Burton Watson, one of the world’s best translators of Chinese and Japanese.  He writes, “Japanese knowledge of Western literature was extremely limited” (1).  After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, “some Japanese writers began trying their hand at the new forms” 91).  “Some went so far as to opine that traditional Japanese literary forms […] were now obsolete and before long would pass out of existence” (1).  Masaoka also experimented with these new forms, but he was determined to devote “most of his creative energy to reinvigorating the native haiku and tank forms” (1).  It is believed he wrote over 2,000 poems in his brief life.  I have selected a number of my favorites for your reading pleasure.

These first are from the summer of 1891.  “Hydrangea -- / and rain beating down / on the crumbled wall” (17).  “In cleft on cleft,  / on rock face after rock face -- / wild azaleas” (17).  Summer 1892: “Slipping out / the back way, / cooling off by the river” (18).  “From the firefly / in my hands, / cold light” (18).  Autumn 1892: “Singing somewhere / back of the shoe closet -- / a katydid” (19).  New year’s 1893: “Deep in the mountains -- / New year’s decorations on the gate / of a house where no one calls” (21).  Winter 1893: “Lonely sound -- / simmering in the fire pit, / wood chips with snow on them” (21).

These poems are deceptively simple, but the sounds, the images, they carry bring to mind images of our own experiences.  These thoughtful little nuggets of a brilliant mind, give us plenty to muse over on any day of the year. 

Here are some pieces from later in his career.  Summer 1895: “My summer jacket / wants to get rid of me / and fly away” (37).  “I toss in two coins, / borrow the temple porch / to cool off on” (37).  Winter 1895: “Buddhas -- / a thousand years’ grime on them / and no one wipes it off” (44).  “Sawing hunks of charcoal, / my little sister’s hands / are all black!” (45).  Autumn 1899: “With the help of a cane / I actually stood up -- / bush clover blossoms” (75).  “Winter moon – / above the bare trees / the morning star” (77).  New year’s 1900: “Blank sheets stitched together -- / my poetry notebook // for the year ahead” (79).  Autumn 1902: “A purple so deep / it’s almost black – the grapes” (89).  This is the last of the haiku poems Watson lists.

I could re do this list with dozens of poems every bit as beautiful, stirring, and emotional as these.  Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems are a wonderful way to while away the hours with a cup of tea reflecting on the images and the words.  5 stars

--Chiron, 2/25/18

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively is an author with a subtle and delightful sense of humor and pathos.  She has written more than 20 novels and short story collections.  Her latest collection, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories is every bit engrossing as many of the others I have read.  Penelope was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1933.  She is a British Citizen and has been awarded the title of “Dame of the British Empire.”  She won the Booker Prize in 1987 for her acclaimed novel, Moon Tiger.   She is a sure bet for a great read.

The collection begins with the title story, The Purple Swamp Hen.  The story is told by a Purple Swamp Hen, and it is rather humorous.  Penelope begins with a detailed description—including taxonomy—of the hen.  She writes, “Wondering where all this is going?  Have patience.  You know me on the famous garden fresco from Pompeii—somewhat faded, a travesty of my remarkable plumage, but nevertheless a passable portrait.  You all exclaim over those frescos: the blues and greens, the precise depiction of flora and fauna.  Oh, look!  You cry—there are roses, and ferns, oleanders, poppies, violets.  And oh! There’s a pigeon, a jay, a swallow, a magpie.  You don’t cry—oh! A Purple Swamp Hen, because the vast majority of you can’t recognize one.  You eye me with vague interest and pass on.  It’s just like a garden today! You cry” (1).  I googled this peculiar bird and found it quite beautiful.  I crowned this story as my favorite—until the next couple of stories.

Another favorite soon appeared.  “A Biography” begins with a brief obituary of Lavinia Talbot.  In an effort to document the woman’s life, someone began questioning her friends and relatives.  Alice Hobbs is the first interviewee.  Alice mentions her as an acquaintance.  When the interview is over, Alice reflects on the information she left out of the interview.  Penelope writes, “Yes, actually I’d rather go back to our childhood.  After all, that’s when I knew her best.  I remember the latter part most, when I was—oh, nine, ten—and she was a teenager.  Except there weren’t teenagers then, they hadn’t been invented—people that age were just in a sort of limbo, waiting to be grown up.  But Lavinia somehow refused that, she was very much established, very much already a person, helping Mum out at family gatherings—our mother was lovely, of course, but she wasn’t an organizer, things could fall apart, and Lavinia would step in and see the table got laid and the food got served, all that.  And she wasn’t shy, like I was, she could find something to say to grownups, carry on a conversation.  Goodness, I remember her with Uncle Harry, our cousin Barbara’s father, holding her own like anything in an argument about—oh, something political, I think.  And he got all ruffled—she was getting the better of him maybe—and told her she was still wet behind the ears.  She made that into a great joke, after—always saying, ‘I must be careful to dry my ears if Uncle Harry’s going to be here’” (57).  As you will see while reading, she was a great fan of hyphenated sentences.  She has six in this paragraph. 

Penelope Lively has a wonderful sense of dry English humour.  The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories might take a bit of reading to adapt to her style, but it is more than worth the effort.  5 stars

--Chiron, 4/19/18

Monday, March 5, 2018

Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent

One of my favorite reads of 2017 was Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf.  This tender story is of a widower and a widow who develop a close bond.  I never expected to come across a similar story of a man in his 90s and a woman about half his age.  Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent proved to be every bit as tender, as the two dealt with their own losses.  Edward lost his wife, and Isabel suffers from a traumatic divorce.  This touching story is true.  Vincent is an investigative journalist who writes for The New York Post.  She is a Canadian citizen graduated from the University of Toronto, and she has authored several books.  Edward happens to quite a good chef.

Isabel meets with a long-time friend, Valerie, and she opens up to her friend that her 90+ year-old father is slowing wasting away.  His wife has recently died, and Edward is inconsolable.  Valerie asks Isabel—now living in New York—if she would mind checking up on him from time to time.  Edward has decided he would rather die than spend his remaining years alone.  Vincent writes, “I don’t know if the temptation of a good meal did it for me, or if I was just as lonely that even the prospect of spending time with a depressed nonagenarian seemed appealing” (4).  Isabel agrees, and the wheels of this beautiful story begin to turn.

At first, Isabel felt a bit nervous.  She writes, “In the beginning I would invariably arrive at Edward’s apartment with a bottle of wine.  ‘No need to bring anything, baby,’ he said, although I often ignored the advice, finding it difficult to show up for dinner empty-handed. // And there was no need to knock on the door or ring the doorbell, Edward told me.  He always knew when I was coming because the doorman would call up to his apartment when I walked through the front doors of his building” (5).  She writes, “I could never have imagined that meeting Edward would change my life” (4).

Each chapter begins with a menu for the evening.  At first the meals tended slightly away from simple.  For example, the first mean included “Grilled Sirloin Steak, Sauce Bourguignonne, New Potatoes, Chocolate Soufflé, Malbec” (5).

Naturally, the conversation revolves around the personal events in their lives.  Edward explains, “‘I’m a man who loves women, for all the obscure reasons as well as the obvious ones’, Edward wrote to me in a letter shortly after we met.  ‘Their femininity, their charm, desirability, delicacy, warmth, beauty, tenderness and on and on—a list too long to record.  But I have only been in love with one woman all my mature life” (29).  “I wouldn’t have lived this long without her” (29).  Edward met Paula in a Greenwich Village theater in 1940.

Later, the dinners become more elaborate.  “Chicken Paillard, Sauce aux Champignons, Pomme de Terre Souffles, Baked Acorn Squash, Vanilla Ice cream, Bourbon/Pastis Cocktail, Chardonnay” (54).  I love dining out with my wife, and these kinds of memorable meals are—on occasion—menus we try at home.  More often, however, we try restaurants all over Texas, and especially when we travel.

Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent is a truly moving story of two lonely people developing a close and wonderful bond.  Read this novel and see if you can increase the romance in your life.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/23/18

Back on the Fire by Gary Snyder

A few years ago, I met Gary Snyder at an event at Baylor.  I had read some of his poetry, and I was in awe of all those I read.  A friend passed along a copy of his volume of essays, Back on the Fire.  He has authored numerous collections of poetry and prose.  He won the Pulitzer prize in 1975 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992 and 2005.  He has also won the prestigious Bollingen Poetry Prize among other prizes.  He has lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada since 1970.  Many of the essays in this collection from 2007 are quite relevant today. 

The first deals with “Migration/Immigration.”  He writes, “There are those who argue that since the majority of the North American population is descended from immigrants it would be somehow wrong to change past policies and try to slow immigration down or even bring it to a halt.  This backward-looking position fails to see that, although people do move to new places, they can be expected in time to become members of that place and to think in terms of the welfare of the place itself.  People who have moved do no remain immigrants, with ‘Old Country’ nostalgia, forever—when our loyalties are to the land we live on, the debate changes” (17).  If only we could have a real, honest, humanitarian debate.

Preserving the environment is important to Snyder.  He writes, “We may speak of ‘public land’ or ‘private land,’ but the truth is we are in the presence of an ancient mystery—life itself—and the great life-communities within which all beings thrive and die.  The pines were contemporary with the dinosaurs; the sequoias were a dominant forest that swept across the north Pacific rim and into much of Asia, long ago.  Oakes are in several genus found on every continent except Antarctica.  Indeed, ‘distinguished strangers from another world.’  They are all amazing.  We live in a lovely and mysterious realm” (37).

Of course, Snyder must weigh in on poetry.  He writes, “People are always asking ‘what’s the use of poetry?’  The mystery of language, the poetic imagination, and the mind of compassion are roughly one and the same, and through poetry perhaps they can keep guiding the world toward occasional moments of peace, gratitude, and delight.  One hesitates to ask for more” (60).  What a lovely way to explain poetry!

 During an interview, Snyder explained poetry this way, “The act of making something, bringing elements together and creating a new thing with craft and wit hidden in it, is a great pleasure.  It’s not the only sort of pleasure, but it is challenging and satisfying, and not unlike other sorts of creating and building.  In Greek ‘poema’ means ‘makings.’  It doesn’t change with the years, or with the centuries.” (99).  My large collection of poetry—dating back almost 8,000 years—can attest to the truth of Gary Snyder’s words.

Gary Snyder is an interesting, gentle, soft-spoken lover of nature and all its wonders.  He advocates for the environment and mourns the loss of species, habitats, flowers, and trees.  His slim volume of essays, Back on Fire, is an interesting look at the world we inhabit.  He is not pedantic, but he rather gently gathers words and phrases to support the importance of this tiny blue dot.  5 Stars.

--Chiron, 2/20/18

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I admit to a lack of interest in Neil Gaiman, but my book club chose Norse Mythology for last February's meeting.  It turns out I enjoyed this collection of Norse Sagas, despite a few anachronisms, which seemed forced in some of the tales.  A section of my graduate studies immersed me in the world of Beowulf.  Their battles and drinking mead and general carousing gave me many months of fascination.

According to the informative “Introduction, “The Norse myths are the myths of a chilly place, with long, long winter nights and endless summer days, myths of a people who did not entirely trust or even like their gods, although they respected and feared them.  As best as we can tell, the gods of Asgard came from Germany, spread into Scandinavia, and then out into the parts of the world dominated by the Vikings—into Orkney and Scotland, Ireland and the North of England—where the invaders left places named for Thor or Odin.  In English, the gods have left their names in our days of the week.  You can find Tyr, the one-handed (Odin’s son), Odin, Thor, and Frigg, the queen of the gods, in respectively, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday” (12-13). 

Favorite chapter is “The Mead of Poets.”  He asks, “Do you wonder where poetry comes from?  Where we get the songs we sing and the tales we tell?  Do you ever ask yourself how it is that some people can dream great, wise, beautiful dreams and pass those dreams on to the world, to be sung and retold as long as the sun rises and sets, as long as the moon will wax and wane?  Have you ever wondered why some people make beautiful songs and poems and tales, and some of us do not?” (127).  Then the story continues, “It is a long story, and it does no credit to anyone: there is murder in it, and trickery, lies and foolishness, seduction and pursuit.  Listen! // It began not long after the dawn of time, in a war between the gods: the Aesir fought the Vanir.  The Aesir were warlike gods of battle and conquest; the Vanir were softer, brother and sister gods and goddesses who made the soil fertile and the plants grow, but none the less powerful for that” (127).

Odin desired a secret stash of mead held by Suttung.  The tale continues, “Gunnlod, the daughter of Suttung, stood in the cavern in front of a locked door, behind which were the vats called Son and Bodn and the kettle Odrerir.  She held a sharp sword in her hands, and she sang to herself as she stood. // ‘Well met, brave maiden!’ said Odin. // Gunnlod stared at him.  ‘I do not know who you are,’ she said.  ‘Name yourself stranger, and tell me why I should let you live.  I am Gunnlod, guardian of this place’” (146). 

Gaiman refers to these people as “Vikings,” but my OED first lists the term in the early years of the 19th century.  They knew their ancestors as Norsemen.  Another item was the reference to “seconds” as passage of time (168), and a reference to “The world moved beneath him.  The wind blew about him.  He went even faster, so fast that the air itself boomed with the sound of his passing” (192).  I think this may end in an epic battle among the gods, which far exceeds the comic book heroes in my eyes!

Despite these minor annoyances, Neil Gaiman’s volume of Norse sagas proved highly entertaining.  Find a bottle of mead at your local beverage outlet and trace the journeys and adventures of these most interesting figures.  (4-1/2 Stars).

--Chiron, 2/17/18

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

The Scandinavian literature keeps pouring in, and I am grateful for it.  I have read nearly all Fredrick Backman’s work, including his latest novel, Beartown, and I am happy to add it to my collection. 

This is a peculiar story.  Normally, I dislike novels and sports, but ice hockey is a favorite pastime, so I slid into my hockey days.  This story tells of a small town with little to be proud of—except their hockey team—rated as the second best any where.  Backman writes, “Beartown isn’t close to anything.  Even on a map the place looks unnatural.  ‘As if a drunk giant tried to urinate in the snow,’ some might say.  ‘As if nature and man were fighting a tug-of-war for space,’ more high-minded souls might suggest.  Either way, the town is losing.  It has been a very long time since it won at anything.  More jobs disappear each year, and with them the people, and the forest devours one or two more abandoned houses each season.  Back in the days when there were still things to boast about, the city council erected a sign beside the road at the entrance to the town with the sort of slogan that was popular at the time: ‘Beartown—Leaves You Wanting More!’  The wind and snow took a few years to wipe out the word ‘More.’  (3).

But some of the wealthier residents have pitched in and built up anew program.  And the upcoming game of the Junior league, is filled with talent and determination.  The boys live, eat, and drink their sport.  Backman writes, “Hockey is never satisfied being part of your life, it wants to be all of it” (16).  They also have hopes of attracting a hockey academy on the strength of these youngsters.  As in the U.S., these young boys are the super stars of the game, and they know they can get away with everything.  Sune is a long-time successful coach, but the council wants a younger person to take over the junior team.  David is a retired NHL player with an unusual approach to coaching hockey.  His future depends on how well the team plays in the championship match at the end the season.

Benji is a young player who idolizes Kevin, the superstar of the team.  Backman writes, [Benji] “cycles away from home before his mom wakes up, leaves his bike at the edge of the forest, and walks the last few miles to Adri’s kennels.  He sits in the yard patting the dogs, until his other two sisters, Katia and Gaby, also show up.  They kiss their little brother on the top of his head, then their elder sister comes out and slaps him hard on the back of his neck with her open hand and asks if it’s true he called his teacher ‘sweet cheeks.’  He never lies to Adri.  She slaps him on the back of the neck again, then kisses him just as hard and whispers that she loves him and that she’ll never let anything bad happen to him, but that she’ll kill him if she ever hears he’s spoken to a teacher like that again. // The four of them eat breakfast surrounded by dogs, without saying anything much.  They do this once a year, a quiet act of remembrance, always early in the morning so their mother doesn’t find out about it.  She’s never forgiven her husband” (112).  A rather intense scene, poignant with a dash of humor.

Fredrick Backman’s latest novel, Beartown, is exciting but it also examines a family driven to succeed for a wide variety of reasons.  5 stars!

--Chiron, 2/9/18

The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro

Laurie Gwen Shapiro is an award-winning documentary film make and journalist.  The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica is her first full-length work of non-fiction.  Several friends had recommended it to me, and I did not know it was non-fiction until I read the dust jacket.  I do not usually read much non-fiction, but the inside flap intrigued me.

The story revolves around Commander Richard Byrd’s 1928 expedition to Antarctica.  Shapiro opens the story, “With his back against the sunset, a seventeen-year-old boy lingered on the docks along the Hudson River.  By his calculations, it was a ten-minute swim from where he stood to the ship. // The new high school graduate waited, his soft grey eyes fixed on the City of New York, moored and heavily guarded on the Hoboken piers.  The sun went down at six forty-five this day—August 24, 1928—but still he fought back his adrenaline.  He wanted true darkness before carrying out his plan.  At noon the next day, the ship would leave New York Harbor and sail nine thousand miles to the frozen continent of Antarctica, the last frontier on Earth left to explore.  He intended to be aboard” (1). 

While the exhaustive catalogue of thousands upon thousands of tons of provisions piled up—including more than 100 dogs--I was wracked with a mild case of boredom.  I was most bothered by some of the personal details of Billy Gawronski’s senior prom.  However, as I delved into this exciting and suspenseful story, all was forgiven and forgotten.  As a reward, 36 interesting photos accompany the text.  Apparently, stowing away on a ship was pastime which drew a lot of adventurous people to try and join the expedition.

Billy was an adventurer and thrill-seeker of the first order.  He was discovered and returned to shore several times.  His father owned an upholstery shop, and diligently tried to bring his son into the family business.  As a young boy, he went on a sea voyage, and refused to take off his sailing suit.  When asked what he wanted to do with his life, his mother replied, “He wants to be a sailor.” 

Billy also had a heroic side.  When a part of Byrd’s plane fell into a crevasse, “while others held his legs, he slipped into the crack and, dangling ‘got hold of the pedestal, and the airplane sections, and pulled them out” (127).  When a shipmate “fell into the Ross Sea.  Bennie yelled out he could not swim. […] within seconds, Billy dove into the 28-degree water,” and saved the man’s life.  He was so determined to become a member of the expedition, Billy was willing to accept even the worst job on the ship—the stokehold—and he spent months shoveling coal into one of the ships. 

In 1943, Billy was given his first command as one of the youngest captains in World War II.  He closed his career with three decades in the Merchant Marines.  Ironically, as a sailor, he visited every continent except for Antarctica.  Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s The Stowaway, is a suspense filled and compelling story of determination, pluck, and grit to achieve his life-long dream.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 1/30/18

Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright

My interest in Buddhism dates back a couple of decades before my graduate studies, which included a wide-ranging look at Buddhist imagery in James Joyce.  I find much of Robert Wright’s survey in Why Buddhism is True stimulating and endlessly fascinating.  Of additional interest is the fact that Wright is also a psychologist.

In the “Note to Readers,” he concisely separates several areas of inquiry into five neat packages.  He first says, “I’m not talking about the ‘Supernatural’ or more exactly metaphysical parts of Buddhism—reincarnation, for example, but rather the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy”; second, “there’s no one Buddhism, but rather various Buddhist traditions, which differ on all kinds of doctrines”; third “I’m not getting into super-fine-grained parts of Buddhist psychology and philosophy;” fourth, “‘true’ is a tricky word;” and fifth and finally, “Asserting the validity of core Buddhist ideas doesn’t necessarily say anything, one way or the other, about spiritual or philosophical traditions” (xi-xii).  This two-page note shows this marriage of Buddhism and psychology is precisely the book I have been searching for a long time.

I have so many annotations and marginalia it will be difficult to sort out some of the core ideas Wright addresses.  Here is a timely example.  Robert writes, Technologies of distraction have made attention deficits more common.  And there’s something about the modern environment—something technological or cultural, or political or all of the above—that seems conducive to harsh judgment and ready rage.  Just look at the tribalism—the discord and even open conflict along religious, ethnic, national, and ideological lines.  More and more, it seems groups of people define their identity in terms of sharp opposition to other groups of people” (18).

Wright attended a week-long meditation camp to sharpen his core ideas of meditation.  He writes, “focusing on your breath isn’t just to focus on your breath.  It’s to stabilize your mind, to free it of its normal preoccupations so you can observe things that are happening in a clear, unhurried, less reactive way” (20).  By “things that are happening,” he means feelings inside your mind, such as sadness, anxiety, joy and so forth. 

Wright talks about feelings extensively.  He asks the reader, “Have you ever been visited by the fear that something you said to someone had offended her?  And has this person ever been someone you weren’t going to see for a while?  And has it been the case that you didn’t know her very well, it would have been awkward to call her or to send an email to make sure you hadn’t offended or to clarify that no offense was meant?  That feeling itself […] is perfectly natural” (34).  Shortly after reading this chapter, I bumped into an old friend I had not seen for decades.  As we talked over coffee, I toyed with the idea of apologizing for an unfortunate remark long ago.  I decided to mention the incident, but she had entirely forgotten all about it.  She said with a laugh, “We ere kids!  It is inconsequential.  Forget about it.”  The relief I experienced was wonderful.

Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True is a marriage of Buddhism and Psychology for an amazing journey into mind, memory, and all the associated joys and sorrows we all experience.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 1/27/18

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Knots by Gunnhild Øyehaug

Once again, I am the recipient of a new Scandinavian author, Gunnhild Øyehaug.  According to the dust jacket, she is an award-winning poet, essayist, and novelist.  Her first novel, Wait, Blank, was made into an acclaimed film.  She has also worked as a co-editor of two literary journals.  She lives in Bergen, where she teaches creative writing.  Her collection of short stories, Knots, was first published in 2004.  This “radical collection rangers from the surreal to the oddly mundane.  It prods the discomfort of mental, sexual, and familial bonds.”  For example, one story is of a mother who delivers a male child, but all attempts to cut the cord fail.  The two live the remainder of their lives bound together.  Then his mother’s ghost appears off and on to comfort him.  Bizarre?  Yep, but it is also oddly compelling

Some of the stories are brief—as little as 3 pages on a small format book.  In “Grandma Is Sleeping,” Bragg writes, ‘She got both glaucoma and cataracts early on in life, but she always managed, continued to crochet runners with tiny patterns, weave tapestries of small birds in a tangle of branches, colorful tulips twisting out of the soil and around each other, to the delight of her seven children and her seven children’s spouses and her seven children’s nineteen children.  But today it bothers her.  Today she stands at the kitchen window and looks up at the mountains and wishes she could distinguish where the mountains finish and the sky begins” (57).  She is expecting her family for a large dinner she has prepared.  As the family arrives, she does not answer the door.

In a story of a single page, “The Deer at the Edge of the Forest,” Gunnhild writes, The seed stood at the edge of the forest and was miserable.  He felt like there was no point in anything, like he might as well give up.  I walk around here, day in and day ouy, the deer thought, and there’s no one who sees me.  Am I invisible, or what?  He didn’t think so.  I walk around here and could change people’s lives if only they could see me, but no one sees me.  Here I am, a hart, and no one cares.  The whole point is that I am supposed to be difficult to see, I know that, I am supposed to roam around the forest and not be seen.  But it is the very premise of my life that is now making me miserable.  I want to be seen.  So here I am at the edge of the forest.  I am open to being seen, to being shot.  If someone doesn’t see me soon, I am going to do something drastic, I mean it.  Right now it feels like I’m trapped in deerness.  Oh, I would love to change everything, be someone else, something completely different.  Oh, imagine if I could be a roe deer, an elk” (88).  Several of the longer stories—seven pages—are also appealing.  My favorites are “It’s Snowing” and “Two by Two.”  One short piece was a play with only the thoughts of a woman about her life.

I am not entirely sure why I am attracting all these Scandinavian stories and novels, but I am certainly glad to add these authors to my collection of world literature.  Gunnhild Øyehaug’s collection of stories, Knots, are thought-provoking, and at times funny, serious, sad, and mysterious.  Only a story or two might be uncomfortable, but teasing out of the imagery and description, offers quite a few thoughts on ordinary events, ordinary people, and that should get your mind whirring.  5 stars
 --Chiron, 1/15/18 

All over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg

Rick Bragg’s memoir, All over but the Shoutin’, is a detailed look into the poverty of Alabama in the 50s.  Bragg was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1996.  He is a national correspondent for The New York Times.  He lives in Atlanta Georgia.  As the jacket accurately points out, this story is a “haunting, harrowing, gloriously moving recollection of a life on the American margin.”  Lots of times I ignore these blurbs before I read a book, but this one completely and concisely sums up the sad story of poverty in America.

This memoir is heart-wrenching to say the list.  The poverty of people in Alabama—as bad as it was—was still not as bad as the African-Americans in the same time and place.  Rick Bragg’s story is of his long-suffering mother, Margaret, and his brothers Sam and Mark.  Charles, the father, was an alcoholic, who appeared in and out of the lives of his family.  He never offered any help to the wife and children, and only occasionally saw his sons.  Bragg writes, “Anyone could tell it who had a momma who went eighteen years without a new dress so that her sons could have school clothes, who picked cotton in other people’s fields and ironed other people’s clothes and cleaned the mess in other people’s houses, so that her children didn’t have to live on welfare alone so that one of them could limb up her backbone and escape the poverty and hopelessness that ringed them, free and clean” (xii).  Bragg claims, “This is no sob story.  While you will read words laced with bitterness and killing anger and vicious envy, words of violence and sadness and, hopefully, dark humor, you will not read much whining.  Not on her part, certainly, because she does not know how” (xiii).  This is a portrait of one of the strongest women I have ever read about much less encountered.

Bragg also mentions the plight of African-Americans as well.  He writes, “White people had it hard, and black people had it harder than that, because what are the table scraps to nothing?  This was not the genteel and parochial South, where monied whites felt they owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather.  No one I new ever had a mammy.  This was two separate states, both wanting and desperate, kept separate by hard men who hid their faces under hoods and their deeds under some twisted interpretation of the Bible, and kicked the living [crap] out of anyone who thought it should be different.  Even into my own youth, the orange fires of shacks and crosses lit up the evening sky.  It seems a cliché now, to see it on movie screens.  At the time. It burned my eyes” (4-5).  As I read this passage, I recalled the all too recent image of white supremacists marching with torches, shouting racial epithets. 

Rick Bragg’s bitter portrayal of poverty in the deep south is heart-wrenching and difficult to turn away.  It proves the axiom that when some people are oppressed, many others are likewise.  Racism is a cancer we must eradicate.  All over but the Shoutin’ is a story only the most hard-hearted can ignore.  We will never have justice or peace, until everyone knows justice and peace.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 1/15/18

All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry

The dust jacket reveals that Samantha Mabry teaches writing and Latino literature at a community college in Dallas.  All the Wind in the World is her second novel.  My admiration for products of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill remains strong after reading this interesting story.

Sara Jac and James Holt have escaped from what appears to be Chicago in a dystopian nightmare.  Clues are scattered throughout the novel, indicating some catastrophe.  For example, Farrah asks Sara about trees in Chicago.  Maybry writes, “When I was there last, people from the cities were starting to come in and cut them down, but yeah, up until then there were lots of trees” (150).  Sara had a younger sister, Lane.  Mabry writes, “Lane and I had walked out of the girls’ home […] a couple of weeks earlier and were living on the street as thieves: always hungry, without home or direction.  It was the most alone I’d ever felt” (184).  She also writes of infrequent mail, the rarity of motor cars, lack of decent foot for the hard-working men, women, and children who harvest Maguey, a useful desert plant.

The prose is smooth and wonderfully filled with enough details to keep any reader busy through to the end.  Maybry writes, “People new to this part of the country sometimes describe it as barren, but that’s just them not looking hard enough.  Under the cracked surface, the fire ants swarm in a cool, dark empire.  Lizards and rattlesnakes emerge from the depths to warm themselves on hot rocks for the day.  The birds here—every last one of them black with oil-slick feathers—don’t fly so much as soar in perpetual circles, watching and waiting.  The creatures that live out here are smart and resilient; they have good instincts, they know when to strike and when to rest.  I tell myself that I should be more like them.  There is a sameness here in the desert, yes, but there are also treasures” (32-33).  The ranch James and Sarah work on is brutal—from the weather, the sand, the bees, and the ranch owner who is willing to hang a thief, or burn a murderer at the stake.

The ranch owner has two daughters, the youngest is Bell.  Sara is trying to teach her to ride a horse.  The older sister, Farrah, is ill and needs medical attention.  Mabry writes, “For a moment, neither of us says anything.  Farrah shifts her gaze over to the mountains and holds it there.  That first time I saw [Farrah] out in the maguey fields on [her horse] Britain I thought the expression on her face could best be described as haughty, and that she looked at the landscape like a proud, puffed-up owner would.  I thought she admired the desert and the terrain the same way I admired the small, collected treasures stuffed in my bandana.  Now, I’m not so sure that’s right.  The way she’s watching them, or looking beyond them, like she’s been waiting patiently for so long for someone or something to appear from their far side.  All of a sudden, I feel uncomfortable, as if I’ve stepped into a moment that’s not mine” (150).

All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry is a peculiar story of civilization slowly disintegrating.  Mabry has another novel, and I hope to get to it soon.  5 stars

--Chiron, 1/9/18