Sunday, October 04, 2015

The State We’re In by Anne Beattie

In my early days of book collecting, I avidly searched out authors whose books I admired.  My goal was signed copies.  I was not so careful in those days, because I have a lot of inscribed copies that are book club editions, or sometimes many editions removed from the first.  I only cared about the signature for my own personal collection – never about collection values.  Most authors gladly signed my books, but sometimes I had to use some minor subterfuge to gain access to those authors shy about meeting strangers.  When I heard Anne Beattie had been asked to speak at Rutgers University, I headed there with a few of her novels.  I learned there would be no signing after the lecture, but I told the guard I was a free-lance writer and reviewer, and wanted to talk to her about an article I was writing.  She agreed to see me, and she graciously signed my copies and answered a few questions, which I dutifully wrote into my notebook.  All true, although the article never found its way into print.  When I admire an author, I will go to many lengths to establish a connection – no matter how brief.  Now, Beattie has come out with a collection of short stories, The State We’re In.  While I really love her novels, I am thoroughly seduced by her short stories.

These 15 stories are loosely connected.  Most deal with teenagers suffering under the onus of parents, who are all, to my mind, parents normally concerned about the welfare of their offspring.  The peek into the mind of teenagers at the beginning and middle of their rebellious years awakens memories of my teen years and reminds me of what my students endure today.

One character who appears in the first story, “What Magic Realism Would Be,” and in the seventh story, “Endless Rain into a Paper Cup,” is Jocelyn.  In “Magic Realism,” she agonizes over an assignment in her English class, and in “Endless,” Uncle Raleigh, now worries about her passing algebra.  He encourages her, because he knows she is smart.  Beattie writes, “‘Thanks for saying something nice to me.’ // ‘That’s because I believe you deserve niceness, Jocelyn.’  […]  ‘If you don’t mind, could you print [your essay] out, because I can’t read that little screen, as you know.  And as I tell you every night.’ // She got up from his office chair, where she’d been slumped, writing and picking at her pedicure.  She turned on his printer.  When it printed out, it was not quite two pages. // ‘Yesterday’s was three pages,’ he said immediately. // ‘She’s tired of reading long papers.’ Jocelyn lied to Raleigh and Bettina – certainly to Bettina – and to her sort of best friend, who was lucky enough to be in Australia this summer, even if it did have to be with her family and her retarded – really, actually retarded – brother, the challenged Daniel Junior, who picked his nose right in front of you” (3).  No political correctness in Jocelyn, and she certainly spares no one.

In “Endless,” Jocelyn has a conversation with her English teacher.  Beattie writes, “Ms. Nementhal held open the side door.  Jocelyn trotted ahead of her, her ears a little zingy, for some reason.  Just listening to Ms. Nememthal had been exciting.  She seemed to think she could do anything.  If Jocelyn ever got into any college, it would be a miracle.  Her mother said that tutoring for the SAT was too expensive, and she couldn’t disagree.  All you could do was read stuff on the Internet and get pointers from your friends, the most helpful so far being that the questions were essentially simple, but they pointed you in a direction that made you question your own perceptions, so you’d change things at the last second and answer wrong” (76).  English professors can be quite influential.

I found the occasional use of second person a bit off putting, but I see that in my students’ essays, so I guess that’s the way of the world.  Anne Beattie has been included in four O. Henry Award collections, in John Updike’s The Best Short Stories of the Century, and in The Best American Short Stories of 2014.  She has won numerous other awards.  She  currently teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia.  If Anne Beattie is an unfamiliar name, The State We’re In is a fine entre into the world of Anne Beattie.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/3/15

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Pulitzer Prize winner, Anne Tyler, has been a favorite of mine for a long time, I have already read all of her novels, so when a new title appears, it becomes a major event in my mind.  She writes relatively slowly – about 2-3 years or more between books.  A Spool of Blue Thread, her twentieth novel, has been shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize.  She is the first American woman to be so honored.  My fingers, toes, and eyes are all crossed as I await the announcement in mid-October.

The most interesting thing about the novel is its structure.  The novel is a story of four generations of a family in Baltimore, Maryland.  Tyler begins with Red and Abby Whitshank, who have two daughters, a son, Denny, and a boy taken in by Abby as an infant when his parents are killed in an auto accident.  They conceal this last bit of information from Douglas – nicknamed “Stem,” until he has reached adulthood.  Oddly, the other children know about the circumstances of his birth but never tell Stem.

As the novel opens, Denny has disappeared from the family.  Every few months, he calls from some unusual place, far away from his parents, only to cut off contact, until he resurfaces somewhere else.  Suddenly, he shows up at his parents’ home with a child, Susan.  The novel then shifts to the story of the meeting and courtship of Red and Abby.  Abby is about to give into Dane, who wants to marry her, but she has an eye on Red.  Then the narrative shifts to Junior and Linnie, Red’s parents, how they met and eventually married and had a daughter, Merrick. The novel ends with the sale of the family home – built by Junior – and the removal of Red to an apartment.  This part – foreshadowed in several of the chapters, struck me so deeply with its verisimilitude.  I am experiencing the same anguish as my parents pass mile marker 90.

Tyler has a gentle, smooth, and completely absorbing style.  She draws characters as round and full as humanly possible.  By telling the story in reverse order – from youngest to eldest – Tyler excavates the Whitshank family tree.  Late in the novel, Junior and Abby “interview” Dane, who is between jobs and working for Junior.  A narrator takes up an observation about Junior and Linnae.  Tyler writes, “How could this man have been the hero of Mrs. Whitshank’s romance?  Whether you found it dashing or tawdry, at least it had been a romance, complete with intrigue and scandal and a wrenching separation.  But Junior Whitshank was as dry as a bone, droning on relentlessly while the other diners ate their food in dogged silence.  Only his wife was looking at him, her face alight with interest as he discussed the value of hard labor, then the deplorable lack of initiative in the younger generation, then the benefits conferred by having lived through the Great Depression.  If young folks today had lived through a depression the way he had lived through a depression – but the he broke off to call, ‘Ah! Going out with your buddies?’ // It was Merrick he was addressing.  She was crossing the hall and stopped to face him. ‘Yup,’ she said.  ‘Don’t wait supper.’  Her hair had become a mass of bubbly black curls that bounced all over her head” (255).

In several of Tyler’s novels – especially The Accidental Tourist – a quiet, reserved man becomes enamored by a bubbly, vivacious woman.  Despite the man’s protests, he succumbs to the charms of the woman, and as the novel ends, it is clear to the reader, the guy is falling for the girl.  In A Spool of Blue Thread, the bubbly girl turns out to be 18-year-old Linnie, who has a desperate crush on Junior.  He is trying to survive the depression by doing odd jobs.  He cannot afford another mouth to feed.

All things considered – to borrow a phrase from NPR – Anne Tyler’s wonderful saga of four generations will surprise and delight the reader.  In A Spool of Blue Thread, I believe everyone can find a family member which that seems ever so tantalizingly familiar. 5 stars

--Chiron, 10/2/15

Friday, October 02, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

Ah for the days of my youth when I read SciFy, but I lost interest in the 60s watching the real thing as rocket after rocket blasted into space.  When a member of my book club selected The Martian by Andy Weir, I eagerly looked forward to see what some new SciFy novels had to offer.  The fact that I saw the trailer for the soon-to-be-released film starring Matt Damon added to my interest. 

According to the inside cover, Andy Weir landed a job as a programmer for a national laboratory at the age of 15.  He describes himself as a lifelong space nerd.  This is his first novel.

I knew the premise before starting to read, and I figured how it would end – sorry no spoiler alert – and I was not surprised.  But none of that took away the suspense or the excitement of the story, which alternates between log entries by Mark Watney, the stranded astronaut, conferences at NASA, an occasional explanation of what happens to Mark by an unnamed narrator, and communications with the crew which escaped a catastrophic dust storm after believing Mark had died. 

The novel has lots of humorous moments.  As he overcomes problems of survival, his log entries become more and more entertaining.  Weir writes, “LOG ENTRY: SOL 381.  I’ve been thinking about laws on Mars. // Yeah, I know, it’s a stupid thing to think about, but I have a lot of free time. // There’s an international treaty saying no country can lay claim to anything that’s not on Earth.  And by another treaty, if you’re not in any country’s territory, maritime law applies. // So, Mars is ‘international waters.’ // NASA is an American nonmilitary organization, and it owns the Hab [living quarters on Mars].  So while I’m in the Hab, American law applies.  As soon as I step outside, I’m in international waters.  Then when I get in the rover, I’m back to American law. // Here’s the cool part: I will eventually go to Schiaparelli and commandeer the Ares 4 lander (positioned for the next Mars mission].  Nobody explicitly gave me permission to do this, and they can’t until I’m aboard Ares 4 and operating the comm[unication] system.  After I board Ares 4, before talking to NASA, I will take control of a craft in international waters without permission. // That makes me a pirate! // A space pirate!” (259-260).

Mark has a facility for repairing things and jury-rigging fixes using duct tape, spit, and anything else he can salvage.  Some of this activity really stretched my credulity, but heck, this is SciFy!  However, I did have a minor problem or two with the novel.  The calculations and measurements are all in metric, and I know little two nothing about converting those numbers to the merry old English system.  I also thirsted for some more descriptions of the Hab, the rover, and other items he needed to survive.  Furthermore, a couple of inexplicable gaps in the story occurred.  Most of the time, the various sources of information tied these together.  For example, the Chinese space agency makes a brief appearance, then they are forgotten for a hundred pages or so, then a brief mention tying up that loose end.

But all that aside, Mark Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, provided lots of suspense, unexpected developments, some hanky-panky among the crew returning to Earth, and Annie, a rather salty spokesperson for the Ares Project, who kept the world updated on Mark’s situation.  5 stars

--Chiron, 9/20/15

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I first read the iconic American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird as a high school sophomore.  I wholeheartedly took to the book, and if memory serves, I immediately reread it and have done so a few more times over the years.  Then I saw the great movie with Gregory Peck.  That quickly became one of my favorite films.  With all this in mind, I approached Harper Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman.  As my loyal readers know, I assiduously avoid reviews of books on my TBR pile, but the hype for this novel was everywhere.  Try as I did, tidbits reached me before publication, and I began to question whether I possibly wanted to risk spoiling my image of Lee, Scount, Atticus, and Maycomb County, Alabama.  In the end, I decided to take the risk and I took the plunge.

The novel left me with more questions than I could handle.  Did Harper Lee sugarcoat Atticus, clearly a stand in for her father A.C. Lee?  Did the earlier novel exaggerate Atticus’ true character to something horrific?  How did Nell Lee, as Scout, fit into the narrative?  The prose of Watchman is something of a shadow of the great writing in Mockingbird.  Did the publisher reject it for that reason?  Or for the portrayal of Atticus?  More importantly, why did Harper Lee agree to the publication of this novel as she approaches the end of her life?  Was she setting the record straight?  Or, as some have accused, was she the victim of someone who saw a pot of gold under the cover of the novel?

Scout, now 26, lives and works in New York.  She comes south for an annual visit with her father and Calpurnia and all her high school friends.  In one scene, the friends gather in the Finch living room, and Scout listens in amazement to the conversation.  She despises her friends, their lifestyle, their attitude toward African-Americans, and the recently passed Civil Rights Acts of the 60s.  Yet, curiously, she does not challenge any of her friends.  Rather she muses, if she marries Henry, her father’s law partner and a childhood friend, her life will slide into step with all her friends.

In a scene reminiscent of the young Scout in Mockingbird, she sneaks off to the courthouse and takes a seat in the balcony and watches her father introduce a speaker at a meeting of the White Citizens Council, of which her father is president with Henry seated beside him.

The racism of Mockingbird and the terrible tragedy of Tom Robinson still bring tears to my eyes.  I don’t need piling on Atticus to press home the point.  In Watchman, Scout refers to a criminal case involving a black man that Atticus only took on, because he knew he could win.  Who is the real A.C. Lee?  Who is the real Atticus Finch?  Who is the real Scout, the real Harper Lee?

I did read one review from an African-American journalist, who applauded the novels expose of racism in the 60s.  I know we must never, ever forget the horrors of slavery.  But I feel certain that back then many people did decry the Jim Crow laws.  So, isn’t it better to have Atticus a kindly man?  A devoted father?  A man seeking justice regardless of the color of the defendant’s skin?

I am not going to quote from Harper Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman.  I think anyone who loves Atticus, Scout, and Jem, who hates racism can decide whether or not to go down this path.

--Chiron, 9/8/15

The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah

Hard on the heels of the thrilling novel of World War II and a pair of youngsters caught up in the Nazi invasion of France, I approached Kristin Hannah’s latest novel, The Nightingale, which involves the same subject.  This time, however, no young German boys were involved.  Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See, would be a hard act to follow.  Kristin Hannah has placed a close second to Doerr.

Kristin Hannah has written a slew of novels and has an impressive list of awards.  She lives in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest with her son.

The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters.  When their mother died, their father shipped them off to boarding school.  Vianne, the elder of the two, becomes pregnant and soon marries the father of her daughter, Sophie.  Vianne’s father does not approve of the husband or the marriage, so he sends her and Sophie to a summer home in the south of France.  Meanwhile, her younger sister, Isabelle, is charming, beautiful, precocious, and very much the rebel.  She runs away numerous times, and finally is expelled from the school.  She returns to Paris and her father’s bookstore.  Then, the Nazis invade France, and chaos takes over.  Papa orders her out of the house, gives her money for a travel to Carriveau to join Vianne in what he believes to be relative safety.

Vianne’s husband leaves for the front, and is soon a P.O.W.  Shortages begin, and then the Germans arrive and occupy the town.  Vianne’s house is requisitioned by a German Captain.  She must allow him to live in her home, or Captain Beck will seize the house and expel her and Sophie.  Then Isabelle shows up.  All this occurs in the first 20 pages or so, so the meat of the plot lies sprawled before the reader.

While exciting in spots, something about the writing seemed a bit off in places.  I detected shades of a romance novel here and there, which is Hannah’s primary genre.  However, I never wanted to abandon the novel, even though I believe I subconsciously compared Hannah to Doerr.  The novel is heavy on dialogue, and I found myself wishing for more introspection, more description.  Here is a sample of Isabelle’s desperate attempt to escape Paris.  Hannah writes, “Hours passed.  The automobile made its slow, agonizing way south.  Isabelle was grateful for the dust.  It coated the window and obscured the terrible, depressing scene. // People.  Everywhere.  In front of them, behind them, beside them, so thick was the crowd that the automobile could only inch forward in fits and starts.  It was like driving through a swarm of bees that pulled apart for a second and then swarmed again.  The sun was punishingly hot.  It turned the smelly automobile interior into an oven and beat down on the women outside who were shuffling toward…what?  No one knew what exactly was happening to them or where safety lay ahead. // The car lurched forward and stopped hard.  Isabelle hit the seat in front of her.  The children immediately began to cry for their mother. // ‘Merde.’  Monsieur Humbert Muttered. // ‘M’sieur Humbert,’ Patricia said primly.  ‘The Children.’ // An old woman pounded on the car’s bonnet as she shuffled past. // ‘That’s it, then, Madame Humbert.’ he said.  ‘We are out of petrol’”  (36).

I also encountered a few phrases my creative writing class might recognize as clich├ęs.  But despite all the minor drawbacks, it is an exciting story with lots of twists and turns.  Kristin Hannah’s latest novel, The Nightingale will certainly hold a reader’s attention all the way to the end.  4-1/2 stars.

--Chiron, 9/8/15