Monday, July 30, 2018

The Heart Goes First by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is one of my all-time favorite authors.  I once drove from Philadelphia to Boston for an opportunity to meet her, hear her speak, and gather some treasured inscriptions.  The line for signings was long, but I waited until the end to get as many of her books signed as I could.  At last, I made it to her desk, and she signed every one of my copies.  She was kind, gracious, and quite funny.  It was a day I will not soon forget.  The Heart Goes Last is another of her dystopian novels.

The first novel of hers I read was The Handmaid’s Tale.  It blew me away, and it was an early example of a novel I read and immediately started over from page 1.  When the newest film of the movie came out, I quickly forgot about an older version with Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway.  I recently watched the new first and second seasons, and I hope the promised third will be out soon.  If you have not read the Handmaid’s Tale, do so as soon as possible.  This is a story that could easily be transformed into fact. 

Stan and Charmaine have both lost their jobs.  The city is ravaged with chaos.  They are now living in their car.  The tension between the couple is intense.  They are also not getting along.  To make matters worse, they must constantly be on the alert for roving bands of criminals.  Atwood writes, “Sleeping in the car is cramped.  Being a third-hand Honda, it’s no palace to begin with.  If it was a van they’d have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money.  Stan says they’re lucky to have any car at all, which is true, but that luckiness doesn’t make the car any bigger. // Charmaine thinks Stan ought to sleep in the back because he needs more space—it would only be fair, he’s larger—but he has to be in the front in order to drive them away fast in an emergency.  He doesn’t trust Charmaine’s ability to function under those circumstances: he says she’d be too busy screaming to drive.  So Charmaine can have the more spacious back, though even so she has to curl up like a snail because she can’t exactly stretch out” (3).

Stan has a brother, Conor, who is something of a misfit.  He has been known to use drugs, and he was constantly getting into scrapes, for which he must turn to Stan to bail him out.  As they near “The Positron Project,” they are recruited for a walled community where they will be safe, given housing, clothing, food, in short, everything they could want.  Conor tells his brother about this scheme, and he desperately tries to convince Stan Positron is a dangerous cult.  They do not take Conor’s advice.  Stan does not trust his brother, and he and Charmaine sign up for housing.

At first, everything seems as advertised, but there are some sinister and evil doings in Consilience, the town in which Stan and Charmaine now live.  As the couple immerse themselves into the cult, things become darker and darker.  But they soon discover there is no way out.  Then, Stan finds out there is an exit, but Stan trusts no one.  He believes it is a test, and becoming part of the plot could end in their deaths.  Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is another addition to the swarm of dystopian novels worthy of this Booker Prize winning novelist.  This suspenseful story is another feather in Atwood’s impressive oeuvre.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 7/17/18

The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and their Muses) by Terri-Lynne DeFino

Novels involving writers, books, libraries, and bookstores have long fascinated me.  In The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writes (and  Their Muses), Terri-Lynne DeFino has blended much of this literary lore into an interesting and fun read.  According to the jacket, DeFino was born and raised in New Jersey, but she moved to Connecticut where she lives with her husband and her cats.  She wrote a series of genre romance novels, and this is her first literary novel.

Cecibel is a young woman who survived a horrible auto crash, which left one side of her face seriously disfigured.  She is self-conscious about her wound, and she tries to hide it with a “Veronica Lake hair style.”  She works in the Bar Harbor Retirement Home.  Cornelius Traegar was a wealthy writer, and he developed the idea of the Bar Harbor home.  Only those with a background of writing, editing, and other literary pursuits are eligible.  When Cornelius dies, he leaves his exquisite private suite to his friend, Alfonse Carducci.  Alfonse pursued, and is pursued by many women, including several women now residing at Bar Harbor.  Cecibel admires Alfonse and she develops a crush on him.  Olivia is a well-known novelist who resides at Bar Harbor, where she self-medicates with marijuana to relieve a seriously painful condition.  This novel has some wonderfully funny passages.

Dr. Kintz watches over his patients who could, at times, be cantankerous.  DeFino writes, “‘If you insist on calling me Olivia,’ Mrs. Peppernell said evenly, ‘I shall call you Richard.  Or Dick, if that is your preference.’ // ‘Would it make you happy to call me Richard?” // ‘It would make me happy if you would use the title I earned with sixty-two years of marriage.  And it would make me even happier if you would stop speaking in the royal ’we.’  Now go away, Dick.  I am finished being monitored for today’” // ‘Good day.’  He bowed his head.  If he glanced Cecibel’s way, she didn’t know.  She turned her face to the wall before he could.  […]  Poor Dr. Kintz.  Only a week in the Pen and he still had no idea what he was in for.  Those who left made sure not to tell.  Those who stayed knew better. // ‘Fetch my medicine, will you dear?’” (2).  The “Pen” is the nickname the residents adopted.

When Alfonse arrives, he locks himself in the magnificent suite left to him.  Mrs. Peppernell is his fist visitor.  DeFino writes, “‘You have to open your door sooner or later, Alfie.  You know better than to hope I’ll just go away’ […] Laboring to the door, he took deep, even breaths.  He rested his hand on the knob.  Shoulders as straight he could get them, he opened the door.  ‘Livy.’  Her name gushed out of him in a breath he hope she heard as the joy it was, and not his failing lungs.  ‘You gorgeous creature.  Come in, come in.’ // Old.  So old.  Weren’t they all?  But Alfonse saw her still that menace with the red hair and whipcrack blue eyes, transposed over the frail frame.  He recalled curves and softness and a willingness to let him explore every lovely inch” (10).

Of course, his friends all wondered if Alfonse had one last great story in his waning days.  Terri-Lynne DeFino’s Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And their Muses) is as charming and fun a read as anyone could want.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 7/12/18

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

David Sedaris is a frequent guest on the late-night TV show circuits.  He has a sister, Amy, who is also a writer and a comedian.  Comedy-wise, I have preferred Amy over her brother, but David’s latest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, has made me take a second look at his work.  David was born in 1956 in Johnson City, NY.  He attended Western Carolina University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Besides Squirrel, he has written a half dozen or so books of humor.  I found his latest work to be rather evenly funny, with only a very few duds.  The book opens with “The Cat and the Baboon.” David writes, “The cat had a party to attend, and went to the baboon to get herself groomed. // ‘What kind of party?’ the baboon asked, and she massaged the cat’s neck in order to relax her, the way she did with all her customers.  ‘Hope it’s not that harvest dance down on the riverbank.  My sister went last year and she said she’d never seen such rowdiness.  Said a fight brock out between two possums, and one gal, the wife of one or the other, got pushed into a stump and knocked out four teeth.  And they pretty ones too, none of this yellowness you find on most things that eat trash.’ // The cat shuddered.  ‘No,’ she said.  ‘This is just a little get-together, a few friends.  That type of thing.’ // ‘Will there be food?’ the baboon asked. // ‘Something,’ the cat sighed.  ‘I just don’t know what’ (3-4).  Not every one’s cup of tea, but funny nonetheless.

The title story of the collection is one of my favorites, “The Squirrel and the Chipmunk.”  He writes, ‘The squirrel and the chipmunk had been dating for two weeks when they ran out of things to talk about.  Acorns parasites, the inevitable approach of autumn: these subjects had been covered within their first hour, and so breathlessly their faces had flushed.  Twice they held long conversations about dogs, each declaring an across-the-board hatred of them and speculating on what life might be like were someone to put a bowl of food in front of them two times a day.  ‘They’re spoiled rotten is what it comes down to,’ the chipmunk had said, and the squirrel had placed his paw over hers, saying, ‘That’s it exactly.  Finally, someone who really gets it’” (16).

And finally, the crown piece of this selection, “The Mouse and the Snake.”  Sedaris writes, “Plenty of animals had pets, but few were more devoted than the mouse, who owned a baby corn snake—‘A rescue snake,’ she’d be quick to inform you.”  [   ]  ‘I’m sorry to barge in on you this way,’ the toad said, ‘but a few of my babies has taken off and I’m just about at my wit’s end.’  She blew her nose into her open palm, the wiped the snotty hand against her thigh.  ‘They’s girls as wells as boys.  Nine in all, and wasn’t a one of them old enough to fend for themselves.’ // […] ‘Well,’ the mouse said, ‘if you were that concerned for the safety of your children, you probably should have kept an eye on them’” (43,45).

I will leave the last one without a spoiler alert, so you can solve the mystery for Mrs. Toad.  This slim volume has plenty of humor, however a few might be rated “For Mature Audiences,”  I think after reading “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” I should reevaluate David Sedaris comedy writings.  4 Stars

Chiron, 7/12/18

Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Back in my high school days, I wanted to read a novel by Australian author, Shirley Hazzard titled The Transit of Venus.  I was in a period of reading a great deal about astronomy, and this seemed like a natural connection.  When I found out Hazzard’s novel hat nothing to do with astronomy, I ditched her novel.  But my curiosity lived on and on.  In a recent trip to an independent bookstore, I found I found a copy; I was finally able to cure my longing for this work.  I am glad I persisted.

According to the author’s note in the paperback, Shirley was born in Australia.  She has written eight books, five works of fiction, and three works of non-fiction.  Many of her stories have been published in The New Yorker, and she has received, among other recognitions, a First Prize in the O. Henry Short Story award competition.  She died in 2016.

The Transit of Venus is the story of two sisters, Grace and Caro who decide to leave Australia and make their way to the UK.  The sisters are immediately on the hunt for husbands.  Grace marries and lives an exemplary life as a faithful and dedicated wife.  Caro seems unable to make up her mind and has a few affairs.  She meets Ted Tice, who immediately falls in love with Caro.  Hazzard wrote, “An hour had already passed, of this day they were to spend together.  Ted Tice was glad of each additional mile, which would at least, at last, have to be retraced.  Every red and noticeable farm house, every church or sharp right turn was a guarantee of his time with her.  He said, ‘Are you thinking how tame it is, all this?’.  He meant the floral English summer, but could not have been understood otherwise.  In fact, he was not bold enough to touch her, but made his gesture to her head.  ‘What are you thinking?’ // Caro had been watching out the window, and turned the same look of general, landscaped curiosity on him.  This man was no more to her than a callow ginger presence in a cable-stitch cardigan.  The country bus lurched over an unsprung road.  The girl thought that one would read that he and she were flung against each other’ and how that was impossible.  We can only be flung against each other of we want to be” (26).  Caro seems bored with this young man, but he will do until something better comes along.

In another scene, Hazzard wrote, “Grace with a satchel and pale jiggling ringlets, Caro tilted to a loaded briefcase.  At school both were clever, which was attributed to the maturing effects of their tragedy—just as they had lagged, obtuseness would have been ascribed to the arresting trauma.  They sought each other in the playground and were known to be aberrant, a pair” (39). 

The girls’ mother, Dora, was a difficult woman, and part of their desire to leave for the UK was an attempt to get away from her.  Hazzard wrote, “Dora was twenty-two and had dark sloping eyes and, despite an addiction to boiled sweets, perfect little teeth.  Caro wondered when Dora would be old enough for tranquility.  Old people were serene.  You simply had to be serene, for instance, at seventy.  Even Dora must be, if they could only wait” (41).

This interesting story won Shirley Hazzard a National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.  The Transit of Venus reminds me of some of George Eliot’s fiction especially The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 7/2/18

Friday, June 29, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Count Alexander Rostow was a nobleman in the waning days of Tsar Nicolas II and the Romanov family.  Alexander was in Paris with his sister when the revolution began.  He immediately returned home.  In 1922 he was hauled before “The Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.”  The Count expected to be shot, but some high party officials recognized him as “among the heroes of the prerevolutionary cause.  Thus, it is the opinion of this committee that you should be returned to the hotel of which you are so fond.  But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.” (5).  Despite this ominous beginning, about a third of the novel is full of humor, jokes, literary references, and lots of pleasant dining with gallons of wine and meetings some with old friends. 

Alexander was escorted from the trial venue to the hotel and his room.  Towles writes, “On the third floor, the count walked down the red-carpeted hallway toward his suite—an interconnected bedroom, bath, dining room, and grand salon with eight-foot windows overlooking the lindens of Theatre Square.  And there the rudeness of the day awaited” (10).  The Count was given a room in the attic of the hotel.  Towles continues, “Among the furnishings destined for his new quarters, the Count chose two high-back chairs, his grandmother’s oriental coffee table, and a favorite set of porcelain plates” (11).  He hardly had room for a picture of his sister, a leather case, and a few odds and ends.

While dining one day, a young girl in a lemon yellow dress began staring at the Count, and slowly she befriends Alexander.  The two become close friends, and they enjoy games and discussions.  Nina raises the subject of what is a princess.  Towles writes, “‘I would be ever so grateful, […] if you would share with me some of the rules of being a princess.’  ‘The Rules? […] But, Nina,’ the Count said with a smile, ‘being a princess is not a game.’ Nina stared at the Count with an expression of patience.  ‘I am certain that you know what I mean.  Those things that are expected of a princess” (49). 

On one of their adventures, Nina and Alexander sneak into the balcony during a conference to listen to a meeting of a trade union.  Towles writes, “Here indeed, was a formidable sentence—one that was on intimate terms with the comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard.  For its apparent purpose was to catalogue without fear or hesitation every single virtue of the Union including but not limited to its unwavering shoulders, its undaunted steps, the clanging of its hammers in summer, the shoveling of its coal in the winter, and the hopeful sound of its whistles in the night.  But in the concluding phrases of this impressive sentence, at the very culmination as it were, was the observation that through their tireless efforts, Railway Workers of Russia ‘facilitate communication and trade across the provinces’” (68).  Someone is in dire need of an English teacher.

Amor Towles fantastic and absorbing novel, A Gentleman in Moscow is hard to lay aside.  You will not soon forget this story.  10 Stars

--Chiron, 6/23/18

The Circle by Dave Eggers

This frightening and eerie  Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle, involves a vast and powerful corporation.  The novel has echoes of Jonathan Swift, Margaret Atwood, and George Orwell, with a shadow of Dante’s Inferno.
mirror to our current world, makes me shiver.

Mae Holland has graduated from college, and her first job turns out to be deadly boring.  Her college roommate offers Mae an opportunity to work for an exciting and progressive company, known as “The Circle.”  Her first day on the job seems like a dream come true.  As days pass, she finds herself overloaded with connections she is required to maintain for thousands of people also connected to The Circle. 

At first, she breezes through her first contacts with customers, but then the work begins to grow more than she can handle.  One day, Gina stops by her office.  Eggers writes, “‘this would be a good time to set up all your socials.  You got time?’  ‘Sure,’ Mae said, though she had no time at all. // ‘I take it last week was too busy for you to set up your company social account?  And I don’t think you imported your old profile?’  Mae cursed herself.  ‘I’m sorry.  I’ve been pretty overwhelmed so far.’ / Gina frowned.  […] Gina tilted her head and cleared her throat theatrically.  […]  ‘We actually see your profile, and the activities on it, as integral to your participation here’” (95).  Mae is then shown a dizzying array of computer screens which create numerous obligations for interacting with thousands of other “Circlers”—as they are known—all around the world.  Gina opens a “Zinger” account for Mae, and she suddenly has over 10,000 co-workers she must constantly monitor and establish interactions.

At another company meeting, one of the engineers demonstrates a miniature camera, which can be hidden.  He shows a few camera views—all ultra-high definition and audio as well.  Eggers writes, “Now there were twelve live images of white-topped mountains, ice-blue valleys, ridges topped with deep green conifers. // [This] ‘can give me access to any of the cameras he wants.  It’s just like friending someone, but now with access to all their live feeds.  Forget cable.  Forget five hundred channels.  If you have one thousand friends, and they have ten cameras each, you now have ten thousand options for live footage.  If you have five thousand friends, you have fifty thousand options.  And soon you’ll be able to connect to millions of cameras around the world.  […] ‘Imagine the implications!’’  Yes, imagine in deed!

The speaker goes on to say that the plan is for millions of these tiny cameras covering the entire world available to everyone’” (65).  If you thought Facebook destroys privacy, think again.  This is only the beginning.

One day, a mysterious man meets Mae on her way back to the office.  He introduces himself as Kaldan and asks her to demonstrate what she does.  He has a badge admitting him to the company, so she obliges him.  Eggers writes, “Mae paused.  Everything and everyone else she’d experienced at The Circle hewed to a logical model, a rhythm, but Kaldan was the anomaly.  His rhythm was different, atonal and strange, but not unpleasant.  His face was so open, his eyes liquid, gentle, unassuming, and he spoke so softly that any possibility of threat seemed remote. // […] And so he watcher Mae answer requests. // […] He was close to her, far too close if he was a normal person with everyday ideas of personal space, but it was abundantly clear he was not this kind of person, a normal kind of person” (94).  Then he leaves.  Attempting to develop some theories about what goes on in this “corporate utopia,” heightens the suspense of this novel.

Dave Eggers suspense filled novel, The Circle, will keep you on the edge all the way to the end.  5 stars

--Chiron, 6/15/18

Spectral Waves by Madeline Defrees

Madeleine DeFrees’s eighth poetry collection—an author who has never crossed my radar—is a happy accident.  According to the author’s biography, she has won numerous awards, including the Academy of American Poets Lenore Marshall Prize and the Washington State Book Award.  She has also published short stories, essays, journalism feature stories, and two poetry chap books and two memoirs.  She has also taught at Pacific University Low-residency M.F.A. Program.  I will soon be digging into more of her work.

This collection of poetry contains works that use words and phrases to weave interesting and thought-provoking poems of elegant beauty.  Here is one example: “Mythology of Spider Silk.”  “Skein upon skein of thread in rainbow colors-- / silk of silver and gold as well-- / heaped beside the peasant girl whose claim to rival / Athena’s skill as a weaver will soon / be tested.  Beside each loom, the raw stuff / that will prove who is the better / at her craft. // The signal given, shuttles fly.  Athena’s / fabric, as expected, dazzles the eye. / Arachne’s, finished at the same moment, no less / impressive.  The goddess, in a jealous / fury, slits Arachne’s web / from top to bottom, then beats the maiden / about the head with a shuttle. // Disgraced and angry, / Arachne hangs herself.  At that, a slight regret / steals into Athena’s heart.  She / lifts the body from the noose, sprinkles the corpse / with magic liquid.  As if from sleep, / Arachne stirs, comes back to life as a spider, her / skill at spinning, preserved” (22).  Greek mythology is one of my favorite topics for literature of any genre.

Another of these cleverly woven poems is “Astronomy.”  “This bird-woman flew to my kitchen wall, high / above the sink—a bibelot made of / coconut shell from Mexico—woman I call / my Aztec Sun.  Sun-yellow / frames her painted cheeks, and six / symmetrical rays surround them, each: red / yellow, and green. // Eyebrows fallen parentheses, / lips a small star, it’s clear that she’s / missing her starfish brother.  Fossils show: 300 / million years before dinosaurs, Blood Star / plunged to the ocean floor. / Aztec remembers.  Replays the scene / evenings when sun sets red in the west” (60).

Numerous poems in this collection deal with nature—reminiscent of Mary Oliver--a poetry topic I love to spend hours pouring over.  Here is an example of one of her bird poems, “To a Crow Outside My Bay Window.”  “When have I ever welcomed you to my gutters, / stuck on the one wrong note / Poe’s ‘Raven’ returned forevermore?  Litany and / response, my every invocation / draws down the repeated guttural cry / your mate doubles from a telephone wire / high overhead. // When I stomp my foot, clap / my hands, rattle venetian blinds, you flap away, / but there’s no mistake: you’re / on a round-trip with no plans to brake anywhere / but over my eaves, morning and noon / all summer.  Am I expected to ask you in, / terrific newcomer mimic? // You do have a language / mostly scold, a memory better than mine / for bold aggression.  Smartest of birds, your / fossils revealed in deposits 12 million years / old in Colorado, what chance do I have / with an omen?  Go back to your nest!  My / nuisance, nemesis, shadow at my window” (68).

Is there anything sweeter than stumbling on an unknown poet and discovering a whole new world of enchantment?  Spectral Waves by Madeline DeFrees is an instance of such a happy accident.  5 Stars

--Chiron, 6/14/18

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

Best-selling author, Ian McEwan has a knack for stories that slowly build for the reader right up until the precipice.  According to WikiPedia, Ian Russell McEwan (born 21 June 1948 14 days after my birthday) is an English novelist and screenwriter.  In 2008, The London Times featured him on their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945" and The Daily Telegraph ranked him number 19 in their list of the "100 most powerful people in British culture."  In 1998, he won The Booker Prize for Amsterdam.  This 1997 novel, Enduring Love is among a few of his early works I have eagerly devoured. 

Joe and Clarissa have what seems to be an ideal marriage.  Clarissa is a therapist, who is dedicated to her profession.  Joe has a doctorate in physics, but his research interests have withered.  He is now a successful freelance writer.  Clarissa has been away for some time, and when she returns from her latest job, they want to rekindle their relationship with a romantic picnic.  McEwan writes, “The beginning is simple to mark.  We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind.  I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand, and Clarissa was passing me the bottle—a 1987 Dauman Gassac,  This was the moment, this was the pin prick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout.  We turned to look across the field and saw the danger.  Next thing, I was running toward it.  The transformation was absolute: I don’t recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me.  What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from out happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak.  There was the shout again, and a child’s cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows.  I ran faster.  And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me” (1). 

This opening paragraph displays the real power of McEwan as a writer.  His attention to details, the split-second reaction, all led Joe to a nightmare of unusual proportions.  In two appendices, McEwan spells out a peculiar affliction known as “de Clerambault’s Syndrome.  Joe becomes a victim, when one of the men, who attempted to rescue a child in the out-of-control balloon, directs his obsession to Joey.  Unfortunately, no one has seen Jed, he has no police record, and the stress is damaging Joe and Clarissa’s marriage.

I was amused by some of the stories Joe heard from his students, and similar stories from Clarissas’s patient.  McEwan writes, “The student [Clarissa] supervised yesterday, a raw girl from Lancaster, phoned her in tears and shouted incoherently.  When Clarissa calmed her down, the girl accused her of setting her impossible reading tasks and of sending her up blind alleys of research.  The Romantic poetry seminar went badly because two students appointed to give discussion papers had prepared nothing and the rest of the kids had not bothered with the reading” (85).  Joe has a similar experience with one of his students. 

Ian McEwan is a masterful story teller with deep and interesting examinations of the mind.  No one believes Joe, and he begins researching the syndrome.  The marriage begins to shred.  The climax of Enduring Love is unforgettable.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/13/18

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford

Richard Ford has a knack for creating characters who are down and out and only hanging on by a shoe string.  In fact, the main character of Let Me Be Frank with You is a case in point.  This collection of four lengthy stories is a mixed bag at best.  The first two I consider to be superb, but the second two, not so much.  Had I read these stories in reverse order, they would have made a quick trip to “Rule of 50” oblivion.

Ford has garnered some praise, but notable prizes have escaped him.  I will say that I have enjoyed Fords novels much more than his shorter works.  Frank Bascombe is the center of these pieces.  He frequently uses these characters to string the rest of a collection together.  I confess I have a certain soft spot for Frank. 

The first story in the collection, “I’m Here,” tells about a house Frank owned and which he sold to Arnie Urquhart, who in turn sold it a few months before a big hurricane hit the New Jersey shore.  This storm wiped out most of the shore properties.  The man Arnie sold the house to wants his money back, and he enlists Frank’s help to show the error of his fantasy.  Frank muses about this situation, which is a frequent pastime of his.  Ford writes, “Back in the bonanza days of the now-popped realty bubble, I sold Arnie not just a house, but my house.  In Sea-Clift.  A tall, glass-and-redwood, architect-design beach palace, flush up against what seemed to be a benign and glimmering sea.  Anybody’s dream of a second home.  I saw to it Arnie coughed up a pretty penny.  Sally and I had decided to move inland.  I was ready to take down my shingle.  It was eight years ago, this fall—two weeks before Christmas, like now” (9).  Soft spot!

The second story—the best of this collection—is “Everything Could Be Worse.”  One day, “as I pulled into my driveway on Wilson Lane, I saw a woman I didn’t know standing on my front stoop.  She was facing the door, having possibly just rung the bell and put herself into the poised posture (we’ve all done it) of someone who has every right to be where she is when a stranger opens the door—and if not every right, at least enough not to elicit full-blown hostility. // The woman was black and was wearing a bright red Yuletide winter coat, black, shiny boots, and carried a larger black boat of a purse, appropriate to her age—which from the back seemed mid-fifties.  She was also wearing a Christmas-y green-knit tam-o’-shanter pulled down like a cloche, something a young woman wouldn’t wear” (65).  Ford seems moderately fond of hyphens, parenthesis, and asterisks.

I do not mean to say I dislike this collection, but the unevenness of the last two stories, together with a smarmy attitude, dims my admiration just a bit.  I imagine him throwing sarcastic remarks over his shoulder to unsuspecting followers.  Frank has a sideline in recording books for the blind.  Ford writes, “This fall, I’ve been reading Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (30 minutes is all they or I can stand), and in many ways it’s a book made for hearing in the dark, in a chill and tenebrous season.  Naipaul, despite apparently having a drastic and unlikeable personality, is as adept as they get at throwing down the gauntlet and calling BS on the world” (67).  Richard Ford, in Let Me Be Frank with You, shows he is a good writer, and despite my slight misgivings, he remains a favorite.  4-1/2 Stars.

--Chiron, 6/7/18

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

I am a long-time admirer of the Ancient Greeks and the Trojan War.  In Colm Tóibín’s novel, House of Names, he has retold the events in the aftermath of the war.  The basic background of the story revolves around Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the gods.  Her mother, Clytemnestra, vows vengeance when her husband returns from the war.  Her son, Orestes, is kidnapped as a hostage.  Achilles has a cameo role.  According to the dust jacket, Tóibín has written eight novels before House, and he has garnered quite a few awards.  He was also three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  He lives in Dublin and New York.

The story is told in segments by the main characters.  Clytemnestra speaks first.  “When he was alive, he said and the men around him believed that the gods followed their fates and cared about them.  But I will say now that they did not, they do not.  Our appeal to the gods is the same as the appeal star makes in the sky above us before it falls, it is a sound we cannot hear, a sound to which, even if we did hear it, we would be fully indifferent” (7).  She continues, “It struck me for a second that this was what the gods did with us—they distracted us with mock conflicts, with the shout of life, they distracted us also with images of harmony, beauty, love, as they watched distantly, dispassionately, waiting for the moment when it ended, when exhaustion set in.  They stood back as we stood back.  And when it ended, they shrugged.  They no longer cared” (22).  She was resolved, “I would trust no one, I thought.  I would trust no one.  That was the most useful thing to hold to hold in my hand” (39). 

When young Orestes was captured and taken away, he began to worry.  Tóibín writes, “Over the days that followed, although he walked between [the guards] most of the time, the guards did not threaten him or speak to him roughly.  Mostly they said very little.  A few times when he asked about his father and his mother, they simply did not reply.  But he heard them talking at night, and he learned that great numbers of the men tied to each other and forced to march were the soldiers who had returned with his father.  Others were slaves whom his father had captured” (78).  When they arrived at a barn occupied by numerous other young children, Orestes meets Leander and the two begin plotting escape.

Orestes and Leander manage to return home along with many slaves.  These homeless people caused a problem in the city.  Aegisthus began an affair with Clytemnestra.  He began to assert his authority over the queen.  Orestes listened to the debate about the foreigners.  “Aegisthus interjected to say that some of these slaves were dangerous and they should only be released in twos and threes, having been carefully vetted.  He believed…that the slaves who were roaming would have to be forcibly removed to this new territory as they would not go willingly. // Some of them even had hope [   ] they would be sent back to their country of origin, which could not happen since their land had been had been resettled by soldiers who had fought in the wars against them” (269).  History has a nasty way of repeating itself.  House of Names by Colm Tóibín demonstrates the revolving door of history and the repetition of evil it brings upon the world.

--Chiron, 5/31/18

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble is one of the most renowned novelists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  I have read many of her novels, and to my surprise, I recently discovered she had also written a number of short stories.  I reviewed those stories last year, and I was thrilled at the opportunity to see an entirely different side of her as a writer.  Her latest novel, The Dark Flood Rises, tells the story of a woman who decides to explore lots of places in England she never visited.

At first, I was afraid this might be depressing, but it turned out to be anything but.  Fran Stubbs is twice divorced.  Her second ex-husband recently passed away, and her first husband Claude, is seriously ill.  She cooks several meals a week for him, and they revisit a lot of the old times they had.  Fran also has a number of women friends, and they do a lot of things together.  The “Envoi,” at the close of the novel, is something of a pleasant ending.

As is the case in many of the literary fiction novels I love so much is the detailed vocabulary, the references to most of the American and English novels I admire, as well as lots of introspection illuminated by an omniscient narrator. Here is a sample of her thoughts.  Drabble writes, “Her new-old friend Teresa, who is grievously ill, wouldn’t be censorious, as she is never censorious about anyone. // I am the captain of my fate, I am the master of my soul. A Roman, by a Roman, valiantly vanquished” (2-3).  A few pages later, she writes, “England is now her last love.  She wants to see it all before she dies.  She won’t be able to do that, but she’ll do her best” (5).  “Fran doesn’t meddle with her children’s lives” (11).

Fran’s favorite places to stay while on her excursions are a chain motel.  Drabble writes, “There is something robust and cheering about the sight of the Premier Inn Full English Breakfast and those who are devouring it.  It is even better than the bright red dinner.  Fran doesn’t go for the Full English herself, but requests a soft-boiled egg with toast.  She would quite like to go over to the side table to make her own toast, but the not-so-young young woman labelled Cynthia, Cynthia with her chalk-white face and her raven-black hair, is so helpful and eager to please that Fran surrenders and allows herself to be waited on.  All around Fran, younger people in their thirties and forties and fifties tuck into friend eggs and bacon and beans and hash browns and mushrooms and fried tomatoes and fried bread, all wielding their cutlery with an air of gusto.  Condiments flow, the red and the brown and the mustard-coloured, and loud piped music resounds.  Both Claude and Hamish would have hated the piped music, but Fran doesn’t mind it at all” (21).

 Fran is a strong, empathetic, hard-working woman.  Drabble writes, “Fran is fond of her flat in Tarrant Towers, although it is a bad address, a bad postcode, and the lifts often break down.  But the view is glorious, the great view over London.  She likes to watch the cloudscapes assemble from afar, the great galleons of cumulus sailing her way on the approaching storm” (31).  Margaret Drabble’s latest novel is a story of a woman in control of her life, with a job she loves, in a world of her own devising.  5 stars

--Chiron, 5/21/18

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

A few years ago, a friend urged me to read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All besides Our Selves.  This story told of animal rescue people who plan to release a number of caged chimpanzees used in experimentation.  As much as I liked Besides Ourselves, this Fowler novel adds to my admiration of Fowler, while adding to my collection of books with a book club theme.  The Jane Austen Book Club pre-dates the first Fowler I read, and it is a worthy addition to my collection. 

A “Prologue” lists the members and adds a thumbnail description of their interests and background.  Here are main characters.  Fowler writes, “Each of us has a private Austen. // Jocelyn’s Austen wrote wonderful novels about love and courtship, but never married.  The book club was Jocelyn’s idea, and she handpicked the members.  […]  Bernadette’s Austen was a comic genius.  Her characters, her dialogue remained genuinely funny, […] Prudie had once seen Bernadette in the supermarket in her bedroom slippers; she was the youngest at twenty-eight. […]  //  Jocelyn met Sylvia when they were both eleven years old; they were in their early fifties now.  Sylvia’s Austen was a daughter, a sister, and an aunt, […] who wrote her books in a busy sitting room” (1-2).  Corinne, Sylvia’s daughter, was the fifth member.

Bernadette suggested, “I think we should all be women, [   ] The dynamic changes with men.  They pontificate rather than communicate.  They talk more than their share’” […] “Besides, men don’t do book clubs, […] They see reading as a solitary pleasure.  When they read at all” (3).  Lastly, the sixth member was Grigg.  Fowler writes, “None of us knew who Grigg’s Austen was” (4-5).  I really enjoyed watching these six people reveal their innermost feelings about Jane Austen and each other.  Incidentally, our club has several male members who admirably participate.

My only regrets about this book is the limited number of members—my club averages about 10-16 per meeting, but the novel only accounts for six meetings.  In an epigram, Fowler quotes Austen’s great novel, Emma, “Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.”  My love of Jane Austen is second only to the Brontës.  I feel the urge for an Austen survey in the near future.

In one interesting discussion, the group creates “A partial list of things not found in the books of Jane Austen: locked-room murders; punishing kisses; girls dressed up as boys (and rarely the reverse); spies, serial killers; cloaks of invisibility; Jungian archetypes, and most regrettably, doppelgängers; and cats” (43). 

Allegra weighs in with a criticism of Austen.  Fowler writes, “Alegra was trying hard not to express any of Corinne’s opinions, but every time she spoke, Corinne’s words came out.  Corinne was in no mood to praise a writer like Austen, who wrote so much about love when the world was full of other things, ‘Everything in Austen is on the surface,’ Corinne said.  ‘She’s not a writer who uses images.  Image is the way to bring the unsaid into the text.  With Austen, everything is said’” (74).

I found the discussions of this club fascinating.  I also see many of my friends in our club sharing the same thoughts.  I am happiest when not everyone agrees to love, like, or hate a particular book.  Sharing this small corner of the 18th and 19th centuries is what I love most about literature.  If you haven’t read Austen in a while—or at all—she is certainly worth the time and effort for many wonderful stories.  Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club is an enchanting place to begin or revisit the world of Jane Austen.

--Chiron, 5/6/18

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

I am fortunate to coordinate a Book Club made up of a number of erudite and voracious readers.  I come away from every meeting with some new insights, some new authors, and an all-around fun evening.  This past month I was introduced to Steven Galloway, a Canadian novelist and a former professor at the University of British Columbia.  He has won several awards for The Cellist of Sarajevo

This novel, a bit over 230 pages, is packed with an intensity I relish in a good read.  The novel is set at the height of the War in Sarajevo.  The city is in ruins, and mortar shells rain down and snipers seem to be around every corner.  The novel opens with, “It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort.  A target expanded in size, brought into focus by time and velocity.  There was a moment before impact that was the last instant of things as they were.  Then the visible world exploded. // In 1945, an Italian musicologists found four bars of a sonata’s base line in the rubble of the firebombed Dresden Music Library.  He believed these were the work of the 17th century Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni and spent the next 12 years reconstructing a larger piece from the charred manuscript fragment” (xv).  According to this introduction, scholars are divided over the authenticity of the piece.  We know it today as “Albinoni’s Adagio,” music of sublime and moving beauty.

Four main characters weave tales of the terrible destruction of Sarajevo.  Kenan, a man trying to keep his family and friends with enough water; Dragan, a soldier directing the defense of the city; Arrow is a young woman who has been recruited as a sniper; and a musician known only as “The cellist.”  When a surprise mortar attack kills 22 people lined up for bread, the Cellist begins playing the Adagio for twenty-two days—one for each of the 22 people who died.  Arrow is assigned to protect the cellist.  Galloway writes, ‘[Arrow] reaches down and picks up a small piece of glass.  Glass is disappearing from the city.  […]  One pane at a time the windows through which people see the world are vanishing. // This is how she now believes life happens.  One small thing at a time.  A series of inconsequential junctions, any or none of which can lead to salvation or disaster” (82).

Arrow is an excellent sniper.  After a while, she has an existential crisis about killing.  She decides to quit and try to escape the city.  Dragan reminds her she is a soldier, and he commands her to follow his orders to shoot as ordered.  She prefers finding her own targets, but Dragan insists. 

Kenan lives in his apartment with his wife Amila, and he must travel every day for water.  Galloway writes, “Another day has just begun.  Light streams its way into the apartment, where it finds Kenan in his kitchen, his hand reaching for the plastic jug containing his family’s final quarter-liter of water.  His movement is slow and stiff.  […]  Like him, [Amila’s] middle age has somehow escaped her.  She’s barely thirty-seven but looks well over fifty.  Her hair is thin and her skin hangs loose off her flesh, suggesting a former woman, who, Kenan knows, never was” (13).

Steven Galloway’s taught novel is hard to put down.  The tension is on every page.  The Cellist of Sarajevo is a story you will not soon forget.

--Chiron, 4/15/18  

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

A few years ago, I heard of a book, which seemed interesting.  The Wild Trees by Richard Preston turned out to be much more than interesting.  It changed forever my opinion of the giant redwoods inhabiting the Pacific North West.  I have recently received a book from a friend, which repeats my experience with the trees.  Lab Girl by Hope Jahren does for soil what Preston did for forests of giant sequoias, although Hope sprinkles some personal and professional obstacles she was forced to overcome.

Jahren writes, “For several billion years, the whole of the Earth’s land surface was completely barren.  Even after life had richly populated the oceans, there is no clear evidence for any life on land.  While herds of trilobites wallowed on the ocean floor preyed upon by […] a segmented marine insect the size of a Labrador retriever—there was nothing on land.  Sponges, mollusks, snails, corals, and exotic crinoids maneuvered through nearshore and deep-water environments” (177).  “The first jawed and jawless fishes appeared and radiated into the bony forms we know today. // Sixty million more years passed before there was life on land that constituted, and more than a few single cells stuck together within the cracks of a rock. […]  Once the first plant did somehow make its way onto land, however, it took only a few million years for all of the continents to turn green, first with wetlands and then with forests” (177).  Crinoids are primitive creatures that live in shallow waters to as far as 9,000 meters below the surface.

Hope’s constant search for more interesting examples of soil took her to many remote places.  She writes, “The place where we work in the Artic is more than 1,000 miles away from the nearest tree, but it wasn’t always like that.  Canada and Siberia are loaded with the remains of what were lush deciduous conifer forests that sprawled north of the Arctic Circle for tens of millions of years, starting about 50 million years ago.  Tree-dwelling rodents climbed the branches of these forests and looked down upon huge tortoises and alligator-like reptiles.  All these animals are now extinct, but together they formed an ecosystem more reminiscent of Alice’s Wonderland than of anything that can be found today” (195).

As a dedicated and curious scientist, Hope naturally becomes aware of all the creatures around her.  She writes, “There is a wasp that cannot reproduce outside the flower of a fig; this same fig flower cannot be fertilized without the help of a wasp.  When the female wasp lays her eggs inside the fig flower, she also deposits the pollen that coated her when she hatched within a different fig flower.  These two organisms—the wasp and the fig—have enjoyed this arrangement for almost 90 million years, evolving together through the extinction of the dinosaurs and across multiple ice ages” (203).

The author has an interesting epigram from Helen Keller: “The more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.”  Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is an interesting excursion into an area of science I know little about.  Her story of soil all around us, will make an interesting companion to The Wild Trees.

--Chiron, 6/9/2018

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