Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy

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

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

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

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

--Chiron, 3/23/18

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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

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

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

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

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

--Chiron, 5/17/18

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library by Sue Halpern

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

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

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

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

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

--Chiron, 5/3/18

Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems by Masaoka Shiki

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Chiron, 2/25/18

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Penelope Lively

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

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

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

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

--Chiron, 4/19/18