Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Reader, I Married Him by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy has written a number of wonderfully inventive novels including, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and At the Edge of the Orchard.  She has also managed to corral 21 of the best women writers today.  Among them is Emma Donoghue, Francine Prose, Elif Shafak.  Each writer based their stories the line “Reader, I married him,” and then took that wonderful morsel to stories of amazing creativity, empathy, and power.

Picking favorites for this review is almost impossible.  While the stories vary on the treatment, they all possess wonderful imaginations.  A case in point is “Grace Poole Her Testimony” by Helen Dunmore.  She writes, “Reader, I married him.  Those are her words for sure.  She would have him at the time and place she chose, with every dish on the table to her appetite. // She came in meek and mild, but I knew her at first glance.  There she sat in her low chair at a decent distance from the fire, buttering up Mrs. Fairfax as if the old lady were a plate of parsnips.  She didn’t see me, but I saw her.  You don’t live the life I lived without learning to move so quiet that there is never a stir to frighten anyone. // Jane Eyre.  You couldn’t touch her.  Nothing could bring a flush of color to that pale cheek.  What kind of a pallor was it, you ask?  A snowdrop pushing its way out of the bare earth, as green as it was white: that would be a comparison she liked.  But I would say: sheets.  Blank sheets.  Paper, or else a bed that no one had ever lain in or ever wood” (31).  Grace Poole was a servant of Rochester who was charged with taking care of Bertha, the iconic “mad women in the attic.”

Joanna Briscoe writes in “To Hold,” Mary and I stole conversations between lessons, between days and nights, every moment with her treasured, even the times when we clashed and tangled and cried, then tried so hard to start afresh.  But how could you love a woman as I loved her?  She lined my existence because she lived inside me, and at night as Robert slept, there were the colors of her, the fragrance, the smooth shell of skin behind her ear.  When we could escape town, no one else on the moors on wet days, she walked with me in all the winds, which had names, and by the stream sources, among the curlews, the peregrine nests.  She showed me the sandstone and the thorns and waterfalls: all the pretty places where the toadstools grew in dark secret; the drowning ponds, sphagnum, fairy tale growth in tree shadows” (61).  This story has an ethereal bent that bring to mind the moors the Brontë sisters loved so dearly.

If I had the time and space, I would throw about pages to give a sample of each story.  Tracy Chevalier in Reader, I married Him has assembled a marvelous collection of stories that reflect on the wealth of the literature of the 19th century.  It is a collection every avid reader and admirer of the Brontë’s should have a permanent copy close at hand.  5 Stars for each of these women.

--Chiron, 11/04/18

Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking

When I was young, the Christmas presents I coveted the most were a Junior Chemistry Set and a telescope.  I read as many books on science as I could.  Unfortunately, my math skills resulted in little more than adding two-digit numbers.  There was nearly zero chance of a career in science. Despite this disappointment, I have never given up reading about the latest discoveries in the cosmos and in physics.  Of course, Stephen Hawking became my hero when I read his first book, A Brief History of Time.  While my eyes glazed over at the math, I still could not get enough.  Stephen died this year despite a crippling disease known as ALS.  He was given only a few years to live when he was in his early 20s.  He lived far longer than predicted.  Now, he has a new book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions. 

There is something about the “voice” of his writing that is not condescending, but relaxing, gentle, and mesmerizing.  The book begins with an introduction and brief biography, which crowned Hawking as “the most renowned scientist since Einstein, known both for his groundbreaking work in physics and cosmology and for his mischievous sense of humor,” according to the dust jacket.  He even appeared as himself on several episodes of the hysterically funny comedy, The Big-Bang Theory.

Hawking starts off with “Why We Must Ask the Big Questions.”  He wrote, “People have always wanted answers to the big questions.  Where did we come from?  How did the universe begin?  What is the meaning and design behind it all?  Is there anyone out there?  The creation accounts of the past now seem less relevant and credible.  They have been replaced with a variety of what can only be called superstitions, ranging from New Age to Star Trek.  But real science can be far stranger than science fiction, and much more satisfying” (3).

He starts off boldly with a question as controversial as it is fascinating: IS THERE A GOD?  Stephen wrote, “Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion.  Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask: why are we here, where did we come from?  Long ago, the answer was always the same: gods made everything.  The world was a scary place, so even people as tough as the Vikings believed in supernatural beings to make sense of natural of phenomena like lighting, storms or eclipses.  Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always ling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science” (25).

Of course, Stephen raises another more than interesting question.  He wrote, “I would like to speculate a little on the development of life in the universe, and in particular on the development of intelligent life.  I shall take this to include the human race, even though much of its behavior throughout history has been pretty stupid and not calculated to aid the survival of the species” (67).

Hawking does not pull any punches.  His manner is matter of fact, and to the point.  Some other mind-bending questions he poses and thoroughly disposes of include: “How Did It All Begin?”  “Can we predict the future?”  “What is inside a black hole?”  and one that worries me, “Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?”

These and other questions are challenging to scientists and non-scientists alike.  Stephen Hawking will be missed, but, like Einstein, his work has opened new secrets of the universe, and it may take decades to prove some his hypotheses.  His latest book, “Brief Answers to the Big Questions,” is undoubtedly a challenge.  But it is well worth the effort to learn something about the universe.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/30/18

When I first saw Ann Hood’s new novel, She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, I thought the cover looked a bit peculiar.  I started to read, and in the first page, I realized it was a YA novel.  I have too much admiration for Ann to give up, and I am so glad I did not.  This fun story, of a girl obsessed with meeting Paul McCartney, brought back lots of memories when I first heard of the “Fab Four.”

I have read four of her novels, and all have been wonderful experiences.  This YA novel proved to be as much fun as the others.  Trudy Mixer, a young teen, hatches a plot to meet Paul, when her father’s gift of four tickets to a Boston Concert melts away, because he must fly to Japan on a business deal.  Trudy hopes her mother can drive her and her girlfriend to the concert.  The plan completely melted away when her mother fell and broke a leg. Trudy is the president of the Beatle’s fan club at her middle school.  Getting to the concert becomes her number one priority.  Trudy enlists the help of her last three members of the fan club, as interest in the Beatles is lost to a group of cheerleaders.  Never the less, she persists in her plan to meet Paul. 

Trudy likes to catalogue “things that have made” her happy.  For instance, Hood writes, “The day I found a sand dollar on the beach” (1); and, the day Michelle whispered, “Do you want to be my friend?” (5); and “February 9, 1964.  “My father and I watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show” (6).  As only young girls at that age can do, she also devises a plan.  Hood writes, “Ways to meet Paul McCartney: 1.  Go to his house in St. John’s Wood in London and wait for him to come out.  2.  Write to the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, and request a meeting with Paul.  3.  Um…” (43). 

The chapter numbers are followed by a Beatles’ song.  “Baby, You Can Drive My Car” describes Trudy’s attempt to get her mother to drive her six hours away, despite the fact her mother rarely drives any further than local stores (84).

Trudy also suffers teasing, when the kids find out her real name is Gertrude.  As is true with most teens, she seeks a “BFF,” and Michelle fills that slot.  Here is the plan to finalize her friendship.  Hood writes, “Here are things I know: 1. Michelle’s mother always drops her off at school on Wednesday mornings because that was the day Mrs. Bee worked in her father’s office. […] 2. Because Mrs. Bee had to be at the office by 8:30, Michelle got to school early on Wednesdays usually between 8 and 8:15. 3. No one liked to get to school early. 4. Therefore, Michelle usually hid in the library until the first bell rang at 8:30.  5. If I got to school by 7:59 and went straight to the library I would get Michelle all to myself for fifteen to thirty minutes” (65-66).  We might have a budding stalker here. 

Ann Hood has never disappointed me.  And even though this was a Young Adult novel, I did enjoy the antics of Trudy, Michelle, and the other members of The Robert E. Quinn Beatles Fan Club.”  Without actually spoiling the ending, I will tell you that Trudy and her friends had a wonderful evening.  She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah! is a story any middle-schooler would enjoy.  I suspect this story might be firmly based in reality.  As the dust jacket points out, “Ann has loved the Beatles ever since she saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show when she was seven.  Paul is still her favorite Beatle.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 10/24/18

Kokoro by Netsumi Sosecki

One of my interesting resources for new books might come as a surprise to some.  This occurs when I read a novel with characters who give high praise to a novel they admire.  I read a novel by Japanese novelist, Natsume Sōseki based solely on the title, Kafka on the Shore.  I loved it and have since read a couple of others.  I recently reviewed the latest novel of Haruki Murakami, Men without Women.  This novel led me back to Sōseki and, what is purported to be, his masterpiece, KoKoro.  I, too, lavish a ton of praise on Sōseki for this puzzling and interesting novel.

The book is divided into three parts.  Part One is “Sensi and I,” which tells the story of a young, unnamed college student.  One day at the beach, he sees a man who dives into the ocean and swims out of sight.  He continues watching until the swimmer returns.  The young man sees him twice more, but he never strikes up a conversation.  Finally, he introduces himself, but the man, who he has named “SensI,” seems uninterested.  Sensi is a Japanese word meaning “teacher.”  He asks Sensi, “Would it be all right if I visited you at your home now and then?”  Sensi agrees.  Sōseki writes, “Often, during my association with Sensi, I was disappointed in this way.  Sometimes, Sensi seemed to know that I had been hurt, and sometimes, he seemed not to know.  But no matter how often I experienced such trifling disappointments, I never felt any desire to part from Sensi.  Indeed, each time I suffered a rebuff, I wished more than ever to push our friendship further” (8).  To westerners, this behavior might seem odd at the least, but apparently, not to the Japanese.  As time passes, the two men develop a moderately close relationship.  Sensi also holds back some information, when the young man questions him.  More about this in Part Two and Three.

Part Two is “My Parent’s and I.”  The young man has managed to complete his degree.  His father has developed an unspecified illness, and the young man returns home for an extended period.  The father pushes his son to determine the course of his life.  Sōseki writes, “‘I must go,’ I said, ‘if I am to find the kind of job that you had in mind for me.’ // I made it seem as though I wished to go to Tokyo merely to realize my father’s hopes for me. // ‘Of course, I want my allowance only until I find a job.’  // Secretly, I felt that there was little chance of my finding a decent position.  But my father, who was somewhat removed from the realities of the world outside, firmly believed otherwise.  // ‘All right,’ he said.  ‘Since it will only be for a short time, I’ll see to it that you get your allowance.  But only for a short time, mind.  You must become independent as soon as you find employment’” (98).  Before the son leaves for Tokyo, he receives a manuscript from Sensi.  He begins to read, but it is long and complicated.  He saves the reading for a later date.

 Part Three is “Sensi and His Testament.”  The “Testament” is the long manuscript-letter Sensi sent to the young man.  In it, Sensi answers the questions the young man had asked during their friendship.  Shortly after, Sensi dies.  In the letter, he reveals the source of his misanthropy as a way to instruct the young man in his future.  This fascinating story of friendship, teaching, learning by the great Japanese writer Kokoro by Netsume Sōseki is a serious philosophical exploration of life and death.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 10/13/18

His Favorites by Kate Walbert

Every once in a while, I happen to encounter a young writer on only her fourth or sixth novel.  The prose has a different texture, some of the characters have memories similar to mine.  I sit down to read and touch the un-familiar paper, with maybe a small, warm font to entice me.  This time, the young writer is Kate Walbert, and this, her third novel to be shelved and eventually joined by others.  In this case, Kate Walbert has revived these memories.  His Favorites is the novel, and I have just this minute finished reading her warm and near pleasant narrative. 

Kate Walbert was born in August 13, 1961.  She was a finalist for the National Book Award for her novel, Our Kind.  Her novel, A Short History of Women, was a New York Times best seller, which was also named as one of the ten best books of 2009.  She lives in New York City.  Only three novels will catch me up to these wonderful novels.

Jo Hadley has suffered all the problems attending a divorce.  Walbert writes, “That year my mother, a beautiful woman given to her own fowl play, divorced my father and took up with a much younger man, someone she met at a farmers’ market on a trip to Portland.  She will move to the West Coast and eventually marry him, adopting and training shelter dogs as service animals, forswearing liquor, pot, and meat in short order” (14).  She says, “It’s not the story you wanted me to tell” (14).  That line made me hunger for the story she wanted to tell.

She finished boarding school and moved onto college.  The early scenes in the novel remind me of John Knowles and his iconic coming of age story, A Separate Peace.  That was one of the first novels of that sort I read in high school—copies of Catcher in the Rye were scarce, and if found in my possession, there was a heavy price to pay.

The first chapter set in her college, began thus, “Master Aikens was one of those teachers.  Everyone called him Master, or sometimes, M.  I saw him for the first time in late October, a few weeks after I arrived at Hawthorne, leaning against one of the columns in the portico between the science building and the library, holding court for a group of the boys.  I recognized one from my American Histor seminar, Teddy Pyle, and several who looked like upperclassmen, the juniors and seniors I did not dare speak to * the times I followed Lucy and the other girls to watch them play Frisbee in the football field” (15).    Master had a, “constant orbit that circled him wherever he seemed to be, laughing, always laughing; Mister hilarious, I heard, and cool” (15).

Towards the end of the novel, Walbert writes, “There are four other girls in Modern Lit besides Charlotte and me, although they are not his favorites.  We are still his favorites.  The others are smeared, their edges blurry, bleeding into the background, dissolved around the seminar table.  I barely see them.  And he pays little mind” (140).  The student, Susan, is a brilliant student, but in this case, she refuses to answer.  Kate writes, “Master walks over to stand behind her, placing a hand on either padded shoulder.  ‘Cat got your tongue?’”  //  ‘I forgot what I wanted to say,’ she says.  //  ‘Happens to the best of you,’ he says, winking at us from behind Susan.  ‘But don’t you look lovely,’ he adds” (141).  Kate Walbert, in His Favorites, has written an unforgettable story which will chill you on a warm winter’s night.  Don’t miss it!  5 Stars.

--Chiron, 10/9/18

--Chiron, 10/9/18

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I really enjoy novels with a psychological undertones.  As the character unwinds his or her mental ordeals, it is absorbing reading to experience the trauma such a character undergoes to conquer their demons or the tragic ending evidenced by an inability to cope.  The opening lines of Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, do not portend an easy recovery, but perhaps worse, a tragic ending. 

However, this is a story of a woman fighting all those demons to reassemble her life after a tragic act perpetrated by her mother.  The novel opens, “When people ask me what I do—taxi drivers, hairdressers—I tell them I work in an office.  In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked whether that’s because I fit perfectly with their idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether people hear the phrase work in an office and automatically fill in the blanks themselves—lady doing photocopying, man tapping at a keyboard.  I’m not complaining” (3).  My first impression sounded an alarm of ennui, but something held me captive and I began turning pages. 

Honeyman continues, “I’m thirty years old now and I’ve been working here since I was twenty-one.  Bob, the owner, took me on not long after the office opened.  I suppose he felt sorry for me.  I had a degree in Classics and no work experience to speak of, and I turned up for the interview with a black eye, a couple of teeth missing and a broken arm” (3).  My intrigue meter shot up, and I started reading with only a bit of concern, since this was a debut novel.  A couple of hours later, I was fully invested.  This turned out to be a suspenseful story of a young woman coming to terms with her life following a tragic fire.

As you might expect, Eleanor spends much time and effort in examining her life, and what she might be able to accomplish.  Honeyman again, “I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone.  I’m a sole survivor—I’m Eleanor Oliphant.  I don’t need anyone else—there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle.  I am a self-contained entity.  That’s what I’ve always told myself, at any rate.  But last night, I’d found the love of my life” (7-8).  I felt as if I was listening in on a patient therapist discussion.

Eleanor turns out to be an erudite individualist, and her sprays of literature made me want to cheer her on.  Gail writes, “I was crying.  Sobbing!  I hadn’t cried so extravagantly for years.  I tried to remember the last time; it was after Declan and I split up.  Even then, those weren’t emotional tears—I was crying with pain because he’d broken my arm and two ribs when I’d finally asked him to move out.  This simply wasn’t [], sobbing in the kitchen of a colleague’s mother.  Whatever would Mummy say?  I pulled myself together.  //  ‘Please don’t apologize, Mrs. Gibbons,’ I said.  My voice croaking and then splitting like a teenage boy’s as I tried to calm my breath, wiping my eyes on the tea towel.  She was literally wringing her hands and looked on the verge of tears herself.  Raymond had his arm around her shoulder” (94-95).  Eleanor is a strong woman, and she seems to have ready in reserve the strength for what she needs to do to sweep away those demons.
Incidentally, this novel comes to me from England, so the syntax and diction are clearly from the British Isles.  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is a story that will have you turning pages to cheer her on.  5 Stars.

--Chiron, 9/24/18

Miscellaneous YA Novels

A close friend has suggested I put together a collection of Young Adult (YA) fiction.  Although I do not normally collect this genre, my wife is a retired librarian and has worked with children of all ages.  The two of us have collected quite a few books we remember from our own childhoods and she pointed out that quite a few titles in our collection might be appropriate for younger readers.  All merit 5 stars.

Let’s start off with the beautiful classic novel, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.  This story explores the question “what if you could live forever?” as young Winnie discovers a spring on her family’s property whose waters grant immortality. Natalie Babbitt is considered one of the best authors and illustrators in children’s literature.  Tuck Everlasting has been adapted into two feature films and a Broadway musical.

When I was young, I loved stories about animals.  Some of my favorites were The Black Stallion and others by Walter Farley.  My original copy is long lost, but I have finally found one with the identical dust jacket.  Another favorite author was Rutherford G. Montgomery, whose Carcajou I read over and over again.  Carcajou, the main character, was a wolverine.  The book was out of print for a number of years, so you’re likely to find some high prices for it on Amazon if you want the original edition.  It was reprinted in 2000, so more reasonably priced editions are available. 

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith came to my attention from a trusted book-buddy in our circle.  First published in 1948, this novel is a timeless view of growing up and falling in love. I highly recommend this excellent novel, but I’m not the only one.  J.K. Rowling says “this book has one of the most charismatic narrators I’ve ever met.”

Another “coming of age” story, but one more recently published, is The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.  It begins with the memorable line “I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”  Susie tells the story of her death while she observes, from heaven, the actions and reactions of her friends and family.

And speaking of death, don’t miss Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which is an unforgettable story set in World War II.  Death, the narrator, sees Liesel on the train to Munich with her mother as her little brother dies, and as she steals her first book at his gravesite.  In Munich, Liesel is left with a foster family and rescues another book from a Nazi bonfire.  Death continues to watch over Liesel as she becomes witness to the atrocities of war and other heartbreaking events. The book is over 500 pages long, but I couldn’t put it down!

Next is Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons.  This was one of Oprah’s early book club selections, and it too, has a memorable first line that took my breath away: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.” Eleven-year-old Ellen has been abused, neglected, and orphaned.  She tells of being passed from one member of her family to another. She dreams of a better life with a loving home and mother.

--Chiron, 10/19/18