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