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

The Book Lovers' Anthology compiled by the Bodleian Library, Oxford

I came across a most unusual book.  It had no author, editor, or translator, but it did have notes and an index of nearly 30 pages.  The Book Lovers’ Anthology found its way to publication when compiled by the Bodliean Library at the University of Oxford.  So we have no plot, no pictures, no characters – except for the thoughts and fancies of many noteworthy literary figures dating back to the ancient Greeks.  Therefore, all I can do is offer some tempting tidbits to make you smile, laugh, and occasionally groan.

In a letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey wrote, “Talk of the happiness of getting a great prize in the lottery!  What is that to opening a box of books!  The joy upon lifting up the cover must be something like what we shall feel when Peter the Porter opens the doors upstairs, and says, ‘Please do walk in, sir.’  That I shall never be paid for my time and labour according to the current value of time and labour, is tolerably certain;  but if anyone should offer me £10,000 to forgo that labour, I should bid him and his money go to the devil, for twice the sum could not purchase me half the enjoyment.  It will be a great delight to me in the next world, to take a fly and visit these old worthies, who are my only society here, and to tell them what excellent company I found them here at the lakes of Cumberland, two centuries after they had been dead and turned to dust.  In plain truth, I exist more among the dead than the living, and think more about them, and, perhaps, feel more about them” (4).

Not all the contributors are well-known.  C.C. Colton, and English Vicar, wrote, “We should choose our books as we would our companions, for their sterling and intrinsic merit” (6).  From this side of the pond, Washington Irving wrote in his Sketch Book, “The scholar only knows how dear these silent, yet eloquent, companions of pure thoughts and innocent hours become in the season of adversity” (9).  Ralph Waldo Emerson notes, “It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books.  They impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote, and the same reads.  We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy – with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses.  There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and said” (26).

Bodleian Library, Oxford, England
Robert Lowe, Lord Sherbrooke spoke at the Croyden Science and Art Schools in 1869.  He exhorted the students to, “Cultivate above all things a taste for reading.  There is no pleasure so cheap, so innocent, and so remunerative as the real, hearty pleasure and taste for reading.  It does not come to everyone naturally.  Some people take to it naturally, and others do not, but I advise you to cultivate it, and endeavor to promote it in your minds.  In order to do that, you should read what amuses you and pleases you.  You should not begin with difficult works, because, if you do, you find the pursuit dry and tiresome.  I would even say to you, read novels, read frivolous books, read anything that will amuse you and give you a taste for reading” (35).  I have given this exact same advice to my students, who – in increasing numbers – do not read. 

So thank you Emerson, and Voltaire, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, Dickens, Swift, Laurence Sterne, Milton, Tennyson, Thackery, and many dozens more.  The Book Lovers’ Anthology: A Compendium of Writing about Books, Readers & Libraries compiled by the Bodliean Library in Oxford, England should not be read like a novel.  Browse through and zero in on a favorite writer.  Open the volume to random pages and find all the wonders and delights of reading and books you share with these giants of literature.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/10/15

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

I frequently judge books by the cover and sometimes simply by the title.  How could I possibly ignore Cynthia Swanson’s novel, The Bookseller. I rely on the “Rule of 50” to protect me.  Kitty Miller, the main character does run a book store with her long-time friend, Frieda.  But the story takes twists and turns which stimulate the imagination.  While, I did figure out what was going on in the novel pretty early on, I kept reading, because the story was that gripping.

The book jacket reveals Cynthia Swanson is a writer and a designer of mid-century style.  She has published a number of short stories, one of which garnered a Pushcart Prize nomination.  She lives in Denver with her husband and three children.  The Bookseller is her first novel.

Kitty Miller is a single, 30-something woman who shares the running of Sisters Bookshop on Pearl Street in Denver.  The city had recently diverted a streetcar route which had passed in front of Sisters.  Now, without the foot traffic, business has fallen off, and Frieda and Kitty are trying to decide what to do.  Frieda wants to move to a strip mall in a busy shopping district, but Kitty wants to keep going in the hope things will turn around soon.

Years before, Kitty placed a personal ad in a Denver newspaper, but all the responses seem to be duds – except for one: Lars Andersson.  He impressed Kitty as a quiet, sensitive, kind man, with a number of interests shared with Kitty.  They agree to meet for coffee in a couple of days.  She is excited and gussies herself up for the date.  However, Lars never appears.  Kitty is really disappointed, and she gives up the quest for a husband and devotes her energies to the shop.

Then the dreams begin.  Swanson writes, “This is not my bedroom. // Where am I?  Gasping and pulling unfamiliar bedcovers up to my chin, I strain to collect my senses.  But no explanation for my whereabouts comes to mind. // The last thing I remember, it was Wednesday evening and I was painting my bedroom a bright, saturated yellow.  Frieda, who had offered to help, was appraising my color choice.  ‘Too much sunniness for a bedroom,’ she pronounced, in that Miss Know-It-All tone of hers.  ‘How will you ever sleep in on gloomy days with a room like this?’” (1).  However, Kitty cannot recall anything further of that day.  She assumes she is still asleep, Swanson again, “This dream bedroom is quite a bit larger and swankier than my actual bedroom.  The walls are sage green, nothing like the deep yellow I chose for home.  The furniture is a matched set, sleek and modern.  The bedspread is neatly folded at the foot of the bed; soft, coordinating linens encase my body.  It’s delightful, in a too-put together sort of way” (2).

As the novel progresses, Kitty swings back and forth between her life as Kitty, friend of Frieda and co-proprietor of Sisters.  She begins to fear sleeping.  Kathryn, as she is called by a bewildering number of people who know her, but she has no clue who any of these people are.  She learns she is married to Lars Andersson, they have three children, triplets, and they live an idyllic life in a ritzy suburb of Denver.

As the dream world deepens, Kitty becomes more and more concerned.  Some characters from her life at the bookstore are in the dream, and some are not.  Aslan, her beloved cat, occupies both realms.

An interesting and gripping tale of a woman trying to deal with two different worlds and vastly different sets of problems, Cynthia Swanson’s debut novel, The Bookseller, certainly merits    5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/14/15

Saturday, May 09, 2015

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is a national – no an international treasure -- but she is first and foremost, “Our treasure.”  At 84, she continues to produce some of the finest works of fiction published today.  Her eleventh novel came out in April 2015.  When a Morrison novel enters my reading radar, I pounce and place it on the top of the pile.  At 178 pages, God Help the Child packs every bit of joy, anger, hatred, prejudice, love, as any of her works.  All this energy and emotion becomes embedded in a story a finely drawn as a silk sheet as it gently glides to cover us.  

God Help the Child is Morrison’s first novel set in the present day.  How timely with the events of Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore to name a few.  Lula Ann, or Bride – as she calls herself – has a stunning beauty which attracts the attention of men and women alike.  Not only gorgeous – I am thinking of Halle Berry – but she has a rare and sensitive intelligence.  She also displays a justly confident spirit.  As the novel opens, Sweetness says, “It’s not my fault.  So you can’t blame me” (3).  The event she disavows is the birth of her daughter, Lula Ann.  The baby is blue-black, and Sweetness cannot bear to even touch the child.  Lula Ann repulses her.  The father, Louis, abandons the family, accusing Sweetness of infidelity.

This reminds me of Kate Chopin’s short story, “Desiree’s Baby.”  In the story, a couple argue and fight over the color of a baby.  The husband cruelly says to his wife, “You are not white!”  He expels her from the house, and she takes the baby and disappears.  But this 19th century story set in Louisiana is the thinnest of shadows of Morrison’s novel.  She digs deeply into the psyche of Lula Ann, who

Each chapter has a different Narrator.  Sweetness opens and closes the novel, and the others – Bride, Brooklyn, Bride’s best friend at the cosmetics company which employs both of them.  Sofia and Rain are also important characters.  On several occasions, and omniscient narrator intervenes and spreads lots of insight into the characters.

Morrison’s words overflow with emotions and tension.  In a chapter narrated by Sweetness, Morrison writes, “Oh, yeah, I feel bad sometimes about how I treated Lula Ann when she was little.  But you have to understand: I had to protect her.  She didn’t know the world.  There was no point in being tough or sassy even when you were right.  Not in a world where you could be sent to a juvenile lockup for talking back or fighting in school, a world where you’d be the last one hired and the first one fired.  She couldn’t know any of that or how her black skin would scare white people or make them laugh or trick her” (41).  How awful and painful it must be to have to shelter a child from centuries of hate and prejudice.  It sickens me and makes me ashamed that my country – the land of freedom – allows the ugly and pernicious actions of some people to result in murder, riots, and mass incarceration.

Read Toni Morrison’s latest novel, God Help the Child and begin to try and understand what African American mothers have experienced for more than 400 years.  An inadequate 5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/6/15