Tuesday, June 02, 2015

So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields



Back in the 60s, everyone read Kurt Vonnegut – for his humor, his satire, his snarky comments, and his off-beat and quirky style.  I tried Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse 5.  I rated both “Meh!”  Recently I came across some of his later works, and I went back and re-read the two early novels.  While I didn’t really enjoy, the novels, I was curious about them.  Then, along comes a new biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes, by Charles J. Shields.  Now I have a much better understanding of Vonnegut and a greater appreciation for his work.

Shields authored Mockingbird, a best-selling biography of Harper Lee.  A former teacher, Shields has served as a reporter for NPR, a journalist, and the author of several non-fiction books for children.  His biography of Vonnegut, is detailed, well-documented, and illustrated with several photos of important people and moments in the life of the quirky author.

Kurt Vonnegut had a difficult life.  He constantly found himself in the shadow of his older brother, Bernard, who informed the young Kurt he was “an accident.”  He also had a difficult relationship with his father.  Added to that was a rocky marriage complicated by the arrival several nieces and nephews orphaned by a train wreck (their father) and the death of Alice (their mother) of cancer a few days later.

At a party, Kurt sat down to play the piano.  Two women joined him, and the bench collapsed.  Shield’s writes, “Beneath the hilarity, though, several women got the impression that [Kurt’s wife] Jane, pregnant, already had two children on her hands: three-year-old Mark and her husband.  ‘Being Mrs. Vonnegut,” said one of her friends, ‘was not a nine-to-five-job because he was not inclined to do things for himself.’  When attention strayed from Kurt, she tried to direct it back to him.  He didn’t deem like the typical father, either, at least to another dad at the party – rather distant, in fact.  When Mark [Kurt’s son] rode his tricycle into the room, Kurt said quietly, ‘Mark, that’s gauche,’ and let it go at that.  Nevertheless, Jane whisked around the party, floating on happiness. // Two months later, on December 29, their second child Edith was born.”  (110).

Vonnegut also had a peculiar relationship with his wife.  Kurt wanted to move to Cape Cod where he could befriend other writers, and have the peace and solitude he needed to write.  Shields explains, “From now on, they would live for the arts.  They would read the best and latest books, discuss them, make notes to each other in the margins, and give full rein to Kurt’s career in a location that couldn’t be more salubrious for creativity.  They must do it – to be true to themselves.  And for Kurt it was the vicarious realization of his mother’s dream to live and write on Cape Cod’ (118).  Vonnegut also agonized over the suicide of his mother.  This tragedy, together with his knotty relationships and his World War II experiences as a P.O.W. in Dresden during the horrific firebombing by British and American air forces, shaped his personality and informed his style. 

Kurt Vonnegut is an important figure in post-war fiction.  Charles J. Shields’ biography, And So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life sheds a brilliant light on this quirky writer.  It also led me to a better understanding of his fiction.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/2/15
 


Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills



Reading Marja Mills’ memoir of her brief time spent with Nelle Harper Lee has much in common with mining for gold.  The successful prospector must sift through tons of dross to acquire a few nuggets of gold.  I expected much, much more insight into the author of the great, iconic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Instead I got a load of information I found irrelevant, uninteresting, and completely lacking in insight to Harper Lee.

Our book club read the Charles J. Shields’ unauthorized biography of Nelle Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee a few years ago.  We all thoroughly enjoyed the tantalizingly brief insights into her life.  Lee is widely known as unwilling to give interviews, speak at public functions, or sign copies of her book.  A first edition of TKAM runs to nearly $40,000.  Had Mills’ book not appeared on my club’s reading list, I would have imitated the writer Helene Hanff, who threw a book against the wall, which disappointed her.

Marja Mills was a reporter for The Chicago Tribune.  The Chicago Public Library had chosen To Kill a Mockingbird as the first selection for the “One Book, One Chicago” reading program.  Mills’ editor asked her to travel to Monroeville, Alabama, and see if she could find enough information about the reclusive Harper Lee for a long feature story.

Mills wrote to Nelle’s sister, Alice, and politely asked if she could meet with her.  Alice, and later Nelle, began meeting with Mills, and a friendship gradually emerged.  Mills later moved into the house next door to Alice and Nelle.  The three women shared many of their daily routines.  Sounds great, right?  No.

The first thing that annoyed me was the insertion of Mills into the story.  I detest “new journalism” – ironically pioneered by Truman Capote a close friend of Harper’s when they were children.  Harper assisted Capote in researching his best selling work, In Cold Blood.  Lee detested “new journalism” – according to Mills in the early pages of the memoir.  The Lee sisters were always gracious and patient with Mills and gave her a unique insight into the lives of the two sisters.  The least Mills could have done was remove the tons of dross cluttering up this memoir.

Only available photo of Marja Mills
Secondly, I found the repetitious nature of her writing highly annoying.  After a couple of mentions, I began counting how many times Mills told the reader A.C. Lee – Nelle and Alice’s father – was the model for Atticus Finch.  I counted five times.  I also found her teasing very off-putting.  She would begin a story, then suddenly drop it, as though she was told that particular story was off the record.  She also mentioned a secret fishing hole the sisters enjoyed, but after mentioning how hard it was to find, she gave detailed directions to the spot.  Topping this list of complaints were a couple of chapters devoted solely to Mills personal situation, with only a mention she had to cancel a trip for coffee to a local fast-food restaurant.

Mills could have easily written a biography of Alice Lee, who played an important roll in the life of Nelle and in the friendship Mills was able to develop.  At more than 90 years of age, she continued to work as a lawyer in Monroeville.

My only hope is that Marja Mills has gathered enough information for a complete and authorized biography of Harper Lee, which was given to her on the proviso that the book not be published until after her death.  For all these reasons, Nelle and Alice each get a star for their charm, politeness, and hospitality toward Mills, so that helps Mockingbird Next Door reach 3 stars.

--Chiron, 5/30/15

A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by Tasha Tudor



Over the years, I have heard a number of authors mention the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson, and none were more impressive than the mention and admiration of the renowned poet, W.S. Merwin.  In an interview a few years ago with Bill Moyers, he recounted how his mother read to him every night.  He especially loved A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I have been coveting a copy of this collection for some time, but somehow, other things always got in the way.  While wandering through the offerings of Amazon, I came across a copy illustrated by none other than the marvelous children’s book illustrator, Tasha Tudor.  The book arrived today, and I dropped everything to read it aloud, as Merwin suggested.  Some of these poems sounded vaguely familiar, although I cannot recall my mother reading me any poetry.  She liked stories, and so did I.

This simple and endearing collection is a wonderful way to introduce children to the magic and beauty of poetry.  Here is an example of one I vaguely remember from my childhood, “Bed in Summer”:

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hoping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day? (10).

Another brief poem I especially liked was “Looking Forward”:

When I am grown to man’s estate
I shall be proud and very great,
And tell the other girls and boys
Not to meddle with my toys.” (18).

Of course, I would make one minor change – the last word should now be “books.”  Robert Louis Stevenson’s collection, A Child’s Garden of Verses is an enchanting source for reading to children and helping them understand the beauty and playfulness of verse.  The delightful illustrations by Tasha Tudor, the renowned children’s book illustrator, only adds to the experience.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/25/15

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Locus Amoenus by Vicroria N. Alexander



Victoria N. Alexander has constructed a clever and engaging novel loosely based on Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet.  This dark comedy revolves around the tragedy of 9/11.  Alexander has several novels to her credit, as well as a work non-fiction, The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature, & Nature.  She is also working on a comedy screenplay about a high security dystopia. 

Hamlet’s father has apparently died in the collapse of the twin towers, and Hamlet and his mother Gertrude move to a rural village, Amenia where the residents are suspicious of strangers.  The town suffers from an epidemic of obesity, because of a local connection to big agriculture farms producing only high fructose corn syrup.  When Gertrude tries to sway the school board to a healthier diet for the students, she and Hamlet and isolated from the rest of the town.  One of Hamlet’s former science teacher shows up and convinces Hamlet his father was killed on 9/11 as a result of a conspiracy to justify the Iraq War.  Claudius, who has just married Gertrude, is an engineer, who worked on part of the official report of the events of 9/11.

Alexander has a free-spirited style that entertains on every page.  She writes, “For the greater part of seven years, we have been more or less holed up from the thumb-communicating world.  There are no malls in Amenia.  One buys one’s clothes at Tractor Supply, or else at the drug store.  There are no billboards, and if one does not have cable TV, and aptly named Yahoo account, or newspaper subscriptions – and we do not – a lot of celebrity news can go on without one ever knowing about it.  Sure, things come up in conversation, and, as we go through the grocery line we receive our inoculating dose of tabloid, but that is the extent of our exposure to the flotsam and jetsam that people take for information.  As a child, I read the classics and liked math and science.  I got very good at finding geeky things online and somehow missed everything else.  You really can tunnel your way through the internet using Scholar Google.  Besides my flock [of sheep], I had plenty of playmates, young and old, all over the world, but I completely slept through American popular culture, knowledge of which, it appears to me, could be as important as knowing last year’s weather predictions” (14-15). 

Alexander also sprinkles lots a comments on the wars following 9/11 and the military industrial complex President Eisenhower warned the nation about in his good bye speech as he left the White House in 1961.  The cast of narrow minded, selfish, and greedy residents of Amenia, provides lots of laughs.

My only problem with the novel involves the naming of the characters.  Gertrude, Claudius, Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius, and Horatio seem a bit heavy-handed.  Why not Greta, Claude, Hamilton, Olivia, Larry, Paul, and Harry?  The plot parallels Shakespeare closely enough that most readers will get it.  Nevertheless, in Locus Amoenus, Victoria N. Alexander has produced an interesting story with quite a bit more humor than the bard of Avon planted in his tragedy.  4 Stars.

--Chiron, 5/17/15

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy



Despite numerous friends and strangers touting the wonderful novel, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, I never could get much past the first 15-20 pages.  This doesn’t happen that often, but when it does I must invoke the rule of 50.  Then I read The Road and really enjoyed it.  No Country for Old Men soon followed along with Blood Meridian.  I decided to take at look at some of his earlier works, and I started with Child of God.  This tense novel fits in nicely with the others I have read.

Lester Ballard has been falsely accused of rape for a woman he sees in the woods while hunting.  The sheriff arrests him, but it soon becomes obvious he is innocent and released.  The experience seems to have an effect on Lester, and he begins a slow spiral into bizarre behavior and insanity.  The novel starts off gently, innocently, but as events unfold, the tension mounts.  Sometimes – especially early on – I laughed at and with Lester, as he roamed the forested mountains of Eastern Tennessee.

Lester’s farm is about to be sold at auction.  He protests, and someone hits him over the head.  Lester is dazed, and blood trickles from his ears.  This injury became a major factor in the rest of the novel.

McCarthy has a talent for setting his characters precisely where they belong.  He writes, “Ballard descended by giant stone stairs to the dry floor of the quarry.  The great rock walls with their cannelured faces and featherdrill holes composed  about him an enormous amphitheatre.  The ruins of an old truck lay rusting in the honeysuckle.  He crossed the corrugated stone floor among chips and spalls of stone.  The truck looked like it had been machine gunned.  At the far end of the quarry was a rubble tip and Ballard stopped to search for artifacts, tilting old stoves and water heaters, inspecting bicycle parts and corroded buckets.  He salvaged a worn kitchen knife with a chewed handle.  He called the dog, his voice relaying from rock to rock and back again.  //  When he came out to the road again a wind had come up.  A door somewhere was banging, an eerie sound in the empty wood.  Ballard walked up the road.  He passed a rusted tin shed and beyond it a wooden tower.  He looked up.  High up on the tower a door creaked open and clapped shut.  Ballard looked around.  Sheets of roofing tin clattered and banged and a white dust was blowing off the barren yard by the quarry shed.  Ballard squinted in the dust going up the road.  By the time he got to the county road it had begun to spit rain.  He called the dog once more and he waited and then he went on (38-39).

This vivid writing is so intense, I expected something odd, or strange, or bizarre to happen at any moment.  So early in the novel, I am lulled into the belief this was a story about a poor, unemployed mountain man trying to scratch out a meager existence.  He was that, but as the novel unfolds, he becomes so much more. 

Most definitely an adult novel, Cormac McCarthy's Child of God, will make the hair stand to attention.  The ending I imagined to be inevitable did not happen.  I read this brief novel in a little over two afternoons.  I did not sleep well that night.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/10/15