Friday, September 14, 2018

The Black Stallion by Walter Farley

When I was about 10 years old, I lived in a brown stone row house in Philadelphia.  It was a few years before they planted trees on our block.  We had about a 10 by 10-foot slab of concrete for a back yard.  When I read The Black Stallion by Walter Farley, I fell in love with horses and horse stories.  I doubt I had ever seen a live horse by then.  But I loved that book so much, it became a frequent companion.  We had an alley between our house and a neighbor’s, and I begged my parents to let me have a horse, which I could stable in the alley.  As time passed, I forgot about Farley and horse stories. 

Recently, I began searching for nice, clean copies of Farley’s 41 stories.  I have found about 6, but “The Black” as Farley named him, eluded me.  Suddenly, I found a pristine copy of a new edition of Farley’s work.  In every detail, it perfectly matched my memory.  I sat down and red it again—complete with the original illustrations and dust jacket.  I am going to intensify my search for others in the series.

The story line is a typical YA novel.  A young boy, Alec Ramsey, is on a ship bound for home from an Arabian port on the red sea.  Alec watches as the huge, magnificent stallion tries to break out of the hold, with no success.  Then a storm comes, and the small ship is tossed up and down and all around.  The ship began to sink.  Alec and the other passengers abandoned the ship.  Farley wrote, “When he came up, his first thought was of the ship; then he heard an explosion, and he saw the Drake settling deep into the water.  Frantically, he looked around for a lifeboat, but there was none in sight.  Then he saw the Black swimming not more than ten yards away.  Something swished by him—a rope. And it was attached to the Black’s halter!  The same rope they had used to bring the stallion aboard the boat, and which they had never been able to get close enough to the horse to untie.  Without stopping to think, Alec grabbed hold of it.  Then he was pulled through the water, out onto the open sea” (22).  Ah, how those thrilling words came back to me.

Alec was ship wrecked on an uninhabited island.  First, he tried to get close to the horse with no luck.  He began to explore and found some fruit trees.  Slowly the Black began to trust Alec, and they formed a heart-warming bond.  He was able to build a fire, which spread to some trees.  He ran to the shore.  A ship saw the smoke.  As they approached, the Black ran off.  The sailors tried to convince Alec to leave the island without the Black.  Farley writes, “Alec’s eyes blurred; he couldn’t see.  He stumbled and fell and then clambered to his feet.  Again, he rushed forward.  Then they had their arms around him. // ‘For the love of St. Patrick,’ the man called Pat groaned, ‘he’s just a boy!’”  Alec stubbornly refused to leave the island without the horse.  Then the stallion appeared, and Alec mounted him.  Farley wrote, “Approximately thirty yards away, Alec cane to a halt.  ‘You just have to take us both, Captain!  I can’t leave without him!’” he yelled” (59).  Lots of exclamation points and lots of suspense.

Walter Farley’s, The Black Stallion, is a magnificent story for readers of all ages.  It is a story sure to delight Texans who love horses.  5 stars

--Chiron, 9/11/18
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert remains one of the most important pieces of 19th century French literature.  In Lydia Davis’s introduction to her new translation of Bovary, she quotes Flaubert, “‘Yesterday evening, I started my novel.  Now I begin to see stylistic difficulties that horrify me.  To be simple is no small matter.’  This is what Flaubert wrote to his friend, lover, and fellow writer Louise Colet on the evening of September 20, 1851, and the novel he was referring to was Madame Bovary.  He was just under thirty years old.” (ix).  In my Batcheler days, I met a member of the French Language department at The University of Pennsylvania.  The details of the event have withered away, but I have not forgotten the 2-3 hours we spent discussing Emma Bovary and her tragic story.  Since then, I have read and re-read Bovary too many times to count.  I have used it dozens of times in my world literature classes.  Now, I have a new translation by Lydia Davis, and I am thrilled--once again with the power of this masterful novel.  

The story has so much minute detail, his prose is magnificent, and this new translation has rekindled all my passion for Emma.  Instead of robbing my first-time readers of this story, I have selected an interesting passage for comparison with my original copy translated by Margaret Cohen.  I begin with Cohen’s version.  “The atmosphere of the ball was heavy; the lamps were growing dim.  Guests were flocking to the billiard room.  A servant got upon a chair and broke the window-panes.  At the crash of the glass, Madame Bovary turned her head and saw in the garden the faces of peasants pressed against the window looking in at them.  Then the memory of the Bertaux came back to her.  She saw the farm again, the muddy pond, her father in his apron under the apple trees, and she saw herself again as formerly, skimming with her finger the cream off the milk-pans in the dairy.  But in the splendor of the present hour her past life, so distinct until then, faded away completely, and she almost doubted having lived it.  She was there; beyond the ball was only shadow overspreading all the rest.  She was eating a maraschino ice that she held with her left hand in a silver-gilt cup, her eyes half-closed and the spoon between her teeth” (Cohen (45-46).

Here is Lydia Davis’s version.  “The air of the ball was heavy; the lamps were growing dim.  People were drifting back into the billiard room.  A servant climbing up onto a chair broke two windowpanes at the noise of the shattered glass, Madame Bovary turned her head and noticed in the garden, against the window, the faces of country people looking in.  Then the memory of Les Bertaux returned to her.  She saw the farm again, the muddy pond, her father in a smock under the apple trees, and she saw herself as she used to be, skimming cream with her finger from the pans of milk in the milk house.  But under the dazzling splendors of the present hour, her past life, so distinct until now, was vanishing altogether, and she almost doubted that she had ever lived it.  She was here; and then, surrounding the ball, there was nothing left but darkness, spread out over all the rest.  She was at that moment eating a maraschino ice that she held with her left hand in a silver-gilt shell and half closing her eyes, the spoon between her teeth” (Trans, Davis (44-45)).

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is one of those novels a reader can easily fall in love in a heartbeat.  5 stars for Cohen and Davis.

Chiron, 9/14/18

Good Trouble by Joseph O'Neill

Joseph O’Neill has put together a slim collection of short stories which can easily occupy an afternoon or two.  He won the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction in 2009.  He was born in Ireland of Irish/Turkish ancestry.  He preferred English, because, as he wrote "literature was too precious" and he wanted it to remain a hobby.  He began writing poetry, and Good Trouble is his fifth novel. 

In “Pardon Edward Snowden,” he shares some cogent observations.  He receives a poem from a fellow poet, Jarvis, which he shares with his friend, Liz.  “She wrote back: ‘So great that you’re writing again!  This is good—best thing done in a while.  So effortless “Physics” and “fizz” is a pleasure.  And don’t think I haven’t noticed that the English-language contractions erase “I” and “u.”  In a poem drowning in materialism, that’s just such a smart, playful way to raise the issue of subjectivity.’ // Mark did not get back to Liz.  Or to Jarvis. // Re the Dylan Nobel, Liz said, ‘It’s depressing.  I can’t separate it from the Trump phenomenon.’ // The election was a week away. // ‘Yes,” Mark said.  ‘And hypercapitalism, too.  The reader as consumer.  It’s an interesting question.’ // He kept secret, even from Liz, the fact that he’d already written on this question” (9).  This passage encapsulates this story.

In “The World of Cheese,” O’Neill wrote, “It had never occurred to Breda Morrissey that things might go seriously wrong between herself and her son, Patrick.  But back in the fall he had declared her ‘persona non grata’—his actual expression—and pronounced that she was no longer permitted to have contact with her grandson, Joshua, on the grounds that she would be ‘an evil influence.’  It was a crazy, almost unbelievable turn of events, and all about such a strange matter—a scrap of skin” (31). 

“The Death of Billy Joel” has a somewhat disturbing title.  O’Neill writes, “For his fortieth birthday Tom Rourk organizes a golf trip to Florida.  He e-mails (sic) a total of ten men, but only three say yes.  A few, including some of his oldest and, historically and theoretically, best friends, do not even summon the energy to reply.  Two of the three who agree to join him, Aaron and Mick, are his regular golfing partners in New York and friends of only a few years’ vintage.  Only the final member of the quartet, David was at college with Tom back in the eighties.  David now lives in Chicago.  Tom hasn’t seen David in a long time, and hanging out with him is one of the things he’s most looking forward to” (68).  Another teaser, as to whether this will be fun outing or a disaster.

Lastly, we have “Goose.”  “In late September, Robert Daly flies New York-Milan.  He travels alone: his wife, Martha, six months pregnant with their first child, is holed up at her mother’s place upstate, in Columbia County.  Robert is going to the wedding of Mark Walters, a Dartmouth roommate who for years has lived in London and is marrying an English girl with a thrilling name—Electra.  Electra’s mother is Italian, hence the Italian wedding.  […]  Italy, New York friends tell him, is the most beautiful country in the world” (118). 

Bravo if you can figure out the connection of these and the other seven stories.  Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill is a story which will have you puzzled through to the end.  5 Stars  

Chiron, 8/25/18

Circe by Madeline Miller

I have had a long-time fascination with the history and lore of the ancient Greeks.  The connection of these gods, goddesses, nymphs, witches, and heroes never to be forgotten, pop up over and over in many different forms.  Madeline Miller now has now written two fantastic books on the ancient Achaeans, as they referred to themselves.  Her first, The Song of Achilles, was a spellbinding story of the greatest hero of his age.  Miller now adds Circe to her credit. 

According to the dust jacket, Miller was born in Boston and attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in classics.  She lives in Narberth, PA, with her husband and two children.  She won the Orange Prize for Achilles, which has been translated into twenty-five languages. My hope is she might write a novel on Kalypso, another of my favorite characters in The Odyssey.

Chapter One begins, “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.  They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and [a]thousand cousins.  Least of the lesser goddesses, our powers were so modest they could only scarcely ensure our eternities.  We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves.  That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures.  In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride (3).  This introduction tells me about a part of the pantheon of gods/goddesses which I knew precious little.  It turns out Circe is a witch with formidable powers.

Another aspect of the Achaeans was punishment.  Miller writes, “The punishment of a god was a rare and terrible thing, and talk ran wild through our halls.  Prometheus could not be killed, but there were many hellish torments that could take death’s place. […].  On the appointed day, the doors of my father’s receiving hall were thrown open.  Huge torches carbuncled with jewels glowed from the walls and by their light gathered nymphs and gods of every variety.  The slender dryads flowed out of their forests, and the stony oreads ran down from their crags.  My mother was there with her naiad sisters; the horse-shouldered river-gods crowded in beside the fish-white sea-nymphs and their lords of salt.  Even the great Titans came: my father, of course, and Oceanos, but also shape-shifting Proteus and Nereus of the sea; my aunt Selene, who drives her silver horses across the night sky; and the four winds led by my icy uncle Boreas.  A thousand avid eyes.  The only ones missing were Zeus and his Olympians.  They disdained our underground gatherings.  The word was they had already held their own private session of torment in the clouds” (17-18).

These teasers should get the juices of adventure flowing.  Circe has pity for Prometheus as he awaits his punishment.  She brings him food and water.  When she discovers her witch-powers, her father exiles her to a distant island, Aiaia.  She explores her prison, and learns the lore of witch-power, and takes control of the plants and animals on the island.  Many visitor’s come to her island, Jason and Medea in search for the golden fleece.  Of course, Ulysses comes and spends the year at the feet of Circe.  Another visitor is Hermes, the messenger of the gods.  Her father also sends some women to the island for temporary imprisonment.  This does not sit well with Circe.

This glimpse into an amazing array of figures from ancient Acheaha only begins to scratch the surface.  The ending is particularly interesting as eons of time pass on Circe’s Island.  Madeline Miller has written a fascinating peek into times we can only enjoy through her version of Circe.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/21/18

Men without Women by Haruli Murakami

Haruki Murakami is one of the most interesting writers I have encountered over the last decade.  He tells interesting stories, and I always feel as though I am sitting in an easy chair as he spins another fantastic yarn.  His prose is simple and to the point. He uses ordinary language, and following his threads is always absorbing.  I have a hard time putting aside any of his stories regardless of length.  His latest novel, Men without Women is a case in point. 

My first encounter with Murakami occurred when I came across a novel with an intriguing title: Kafka on the Shore.  Other equally fascinating titles are 1Q84, Norwegian Wood, and The Strange Library.  Men without Women belongs in this category to be admired, ruminated over, and reread.  His descriptions of characters reveal the deepest of emotions that a man can experience when he has lost a love, or a friend.  I find pieces of his puzzles fit nicely into my experiences.

This collection contains seven stories, and it is impossible to pick a favorite—they are all my favorites.  In “Drive My Car,” Kafuku hires a peculiar woman to act as his chauffeur.  Murakami writes, “Kafuku seldom drew distinctions between men and women in his daily life.  Nor was he apt to perceive any difference in ability between the sexes.  There were as many women as men in his line of work, and he actually felt more at ease working with women.  For the most part, women played closer attention to details, and they listened well.  The only problem occurred when he got in a car and found a woman beside him with her hands on the steering wheel.  That he found impossible to ignore.  Yet he had never voiced his opinion on the matter to anyone.  Somehow the topic seemed inappropriate” (5).  In the story, “An Independent Organ,” Mr. Tanimura plays squash with a doctor friend, who suddenly passed away.  Goto breaks the news to Tanimura.  Murakami writes, “As we were saying goodbye he said, ‘Mr Tanimura, I know this is an imposition, but I have a favor to ask.  Please remember Dr. Tokai.  He had such a pure heart.  I think that what we can do for those who’ve passed on is keep them in our memories as long as we can.  But it’s not as easy as it sounds.  I can’t just ask anyone to do that.” // You’re absolutely right, I told him.  Remembering someone for a long time is not as easy as people think.  I’ll try to remember him as long as I can, I promised.  I had no way to decide how pure Dr. Tokai’s heart really was, but it was true he was no ordinary person, and certainly someone worth remembering.  We shook hands and said goodbye” (111).

In the title story, “Men without Women,” a man was woken at one A.M.  Murakami writes, “A man’s low voice informed me that a woman had vanished from this world forever.  The voice belonged to the woman’s husband.  At least that is what he said.  And he went on.  ‘My wife committed suicide last Wednesday,’ he said.  ‘In any case, I thought I should let you know.  In any case.  As far as I could make out, there was not a drop of emotion in his voice.  It was like he was reading lines meant for a telegram, with barely any space at all between each word.  An announcement, pure and simple.  Unadorned reality.  Period” (212).

This fascinating collection of stories—Men without Women by Haruki Murakami—is a great introduction to Japanese literature.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/8/18

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Ninth Hour by Alice Mcdermott

Alice McDermont has won the National Book Award, as well as a finalist for numerous other prizes.  She teaches at Johns Hopkins University.  The Ninth Hour is her eighth novel.  To quote the dust jacket, "On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas tape in his Brooklyn tenement.  He is determined to prove--to the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his badgering pregnant wife--that "the hours of his life belonged to him alone."  His suicide has repercussions among the neighbors, but the repercussions to his widow, Annie, and his unborn child have far greater impacts.   

A nun appears ready to help the unfortunate widow.  These nuns take over to a good bit of the work to overcome the result of the suicide.  McDermott writes, “In her thirty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.  Her own little Tammany, Sister Miriam called it. // She could get this woman’s husband buried in Calvary.  If it was all done quickly enough, she could manage it” (15).

The nuns clean, scrub, and even paint the apartment to rid it of the memories of Jim, the widow’s husband.  The nuns hire her to do the laundry for the convent, and even allow her to bring her newborn to the laundry while she works.  The nuns avoid talking about the incident, but outside the convent, there is enough chatter to alert the church about the suicide.  Alice writes, “She could tell herself that the illusion was purposeful: God showing her an image of the young man, the suicide, trapped in his bitter purgatory, but she refused the notion.  It was superstitious.  It was without mercy.  It was the devil himself who drew her eyes into that tangle, who tempted her toward despair.  That was the truth of it” (19).  The sisters cut corners, wheedled and cajoled to keep their charitable endeavors flowing so important to many of the parishioners. 

Sister Jeanne prays.  “She wanted him buried in Calvary to give comfort to his poor wife, true.  To get the girl what she’d paid for.  But she also wanted to prove herself something more than a beggar, to test the connections she’d forged in this neighborhood, forged over a life time.  She wanted him buried in Calvary because the power of the Church wanted him kept and she, who had spent her life in the Church’s service, wanted him in. // Hold it against the good I’ve done, she prayed.  We’ll sort it out when I see You” (30.

The child was born and grew up among the sisters.  The nuns believed the child, Sallie, was destined for a life in the convent.  McDermott writes, “It was Sister Jeanne who suggested Annie give her baby the nun’s name in baptism.  A formidable patroness for the child” (130).  They spoke to Annie about the miraculous occurrences when the old nun died.  Alice continues, “Annie didn’t doubt the report.  Sister Jeanne couldn’t tell a lie.  But Annie was inclined to reconcile such miracles with the sensible world.  Sister St. Savior died in July.  The windows were surely open—or, if they weren’t, Sister Jeanne, who held onto the old superstitions, would have opened one the moment the old nun passed.  Surely roses bloomed somewhere in the neighborhood” (130).

Alice McDermott’s latest novel, The Ninth Hour, is a sweet and loving story of a band of nuns who try and make life a little bit better for the poor of Brooklyn.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/7/18

Florida by Lauren Groff

 Lauren Groff made the long list for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, but unfortunately, her newest novel, Florida, did not make the cut.  This interesting novel focuses on eleven people who live and work in and around Florida.  The stories are only loosely connected, but each is interesting in its own way.

I was particularly intrigued by “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners.”  Groff writes, “Jude was born in a Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.  Few people lived in the center of Florida then.  Air-conditioning was for the rich, and the rest compensated with high ceilings, sleeping porches, attic fans.  Jude’s father was a herpetologist at the university, and if snakes hadn’t slipped their way into their hot house, his father would have filled it with them anyway.  Coils of rattlers sat in formaldehyde on the windowsills.  Writhing knots of reptiles lived in the coops out back, where his mother had once tried to raise chickens.  At an early age, Jude learned to keep a calm heart when touching fanged things.  He was barely walking when his mother came into the kitchen to find a coral snake chasing its red and yellow tale around his wrist (13).  When I was young, I had an interest in snakes, but my interest waned when I could find none in a brown stone row house in Philadelphia.

In “Eyewall,” an attempt to raise chickens had some odd results.  Groff writes, “It began with chickens.  They were Rhode Island Reds and I’d raised them from chicks.  Though I called until my voice gave out, they’d huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing.  Fine, you ungrateful turds!  I’d said before abandoning them to the storm.  I stood in the kitchen at the one window I left unboarded and watched the hurricane’s bruise spreading in the west.  I felt the chickens’ rising through the floorboards to pass through me like prayers” (64).  Groff has a talent for bringing into sharp relief, the two- and four-legged, as well as those with no legs at all.

“Flower Hunters” ends on a peculiar note.  The unnamed narrator wants to call her friend Meg, but she remembers Meg wanted to “take a break” from their relationship.  Lauren writes, “Two weeks ago, she called Meg at eleven at night because she’d read an article about the coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico being covered with a mysterious whiteish slime that was killing them, and she knew enough to know that when a reef collapses, so do dependent populations, and when they go, the ocean goes” (167)

Snakes appear off and on, and here is another, “Snake Stories.”  She writes, “It is strange to me, and alien in this place, and ambivalent northerner, to see how my Florida sons takes snakes for granted.  My husband, digging out a peach tree that had died from climate change, brought into the house a shovel full of poisonous baby coral snakes, brightly enameled and writhing.  Cook! Said my little boys, but I woke from frantic sleep that night, slapping at my sheets, sure the light pressure on my body was twining of many snakes that had slipped from the shovel and searched until they found my warmth” (206).

Lauren Groff is a writer who can easily describe a character in her stories as well as calmly describing dangerous reptiles.  Florida is a story for readers who abhor snakes, as well as those who are fascinated by the scaly creatures.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/2/18

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I have a cast of friends who populate independent bookstores.  These are friends to guide me to obscure novels and open a whole new world of new adventures.  An Inkwood Bookshop in Tampa and her sister's shop in Haddonfield, New Jersey have been wonderful sources.  It was a trip to New Jersey that led me to Elena Ferrante and her masterpiece the four "Neapolitan Novels."  Book One is titles My Brilliant Friend.  I already have the next three books in the series, and I can't wait to get into the three remaining volumes, which are sprawling, insightful, and a fantastic read.

Elena is a peculiar writer.  She disdains meeting her followers, and she avoids conferences, signings, and most attempts to uncover her real name.  Recently, someone tried to reveal her real name.  When I started to read the essay, I put it away.  Her story is magnificent, and if she wishes to remain anonymous, I will not be one to reveal her secret.

The story begins with two friends, Elena and Lila.  Both live in Naples with families on the edge of poverty.  Lila appears to be the better student, but she opts into an early marriage giving up her studies.  Elena is envious of Lila, and she struggles to surpass her friend.  Book one of this story carries the tale to the girls’ 16th birthday.  The friendship of the two girls wavers back and forth.  When Lila decides to marry, she asks Elena for help, much to the consternation of the bride’s family.

Ferrante’s style is detailed and wonderfully adept at describing these characters.  Elena writes, “Lila knew how to read and write, and what I remember of that gray morning when the teacher revealed it to us was, above all, the sense of weakness the news left me with.  Right away, from the first day, school had seemed to me a much nicer place than home.  It was the place in the neighborhood where I felt safest, I went there with excitement.  I paid attention to the lessons, I carried out with the greatest diligence everything I was told to carry out, I learned.  But most of all I liked pleasing the teacher, I liked pleasing everyone.  At home I was my father’s favorite, and my brothers and sister, too, loved me.  The problem was my mother; with her things never took the right course.  It seemed to me that, though I was barely six, she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life.  I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me.  Her body repulsed me, something she probably intuited. She was a dark blonde, blue-eyed, voluptuous. But you never knew where her right eye was looking” (44-45).

Having to deal with the parents, friends, and family, while managing her friendship with Lila, was daunting.  Elena’s ability to handle all this requires an amazing array of characters and events.  She did all this while studying her lessons and achieving the highest scores in all her subjects.  A comprehensive set of family trees proved quite helpful, especially since there were a few similar names and nicknames.  A number of writers have labeled Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend her masterpiece, and I am in complete agreement with that judgment.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 7/29/18

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