Saturday, April 18, 2015

Rock Springs: Stories by Richard Ford




Quite a few years ago, a friend recommended Independence Day by Richard Ford.  It was the early days of my “Rule of 50,” so I decided to stop around page 23.  Then, recently, in an assignment in a graduate class, the novel loomed before me.  I had no choice but to claw my way through the nearly 500 pages of smallish font.  To my surprise, I engaged the character, Frank Bascombe almost immediately.  I began to see the character types Ford drew, and I quickly came to an understanding of his purpose in writing this story.  That fact that he reminded me of Richard Russo only added fuel to my reading.  Since then, I have been accumulating the rest of his works.

Rock Springs: Stories is an interesting collection of tales of middle America and the characters straddling the line between good and evil, love and hate, success and failure.  Ford’s prose is simple and straightforward.  Most of the characters have a matter-of-fact attitude towards their situation.  In the title story, Earl and Edna are driving a stolen car across the country with their daughter Cheryl in the back seat.  The car breaks down, and they do worry about a state trooper stopping to help – but only for a minute or two.  They want to make it to the next town so they can steal a new car.

I really didn’t have one favorite story – I enjoyed them all equally.  However, I did enjoy this exchange between the narrator, Russ, and Arlene, his wife in the story titled “Sweethearts.”  “‘What do you think when you get into bed with me every night?  I don’t know why I want to know that.  I just do’ Arlene said.  ‘It seems important to me.’ // And in truth I did not have to think about that at all, because I knew the answer, and had thought about it already, had wondered in fact, if it was in my mind because of the time in my life it was, or because a former husband was involved, or because I had a daughter to raise alone, and no one else I could be absolutely sure of. // ‘I just think,’ I said, ‘here’s another day that’s gone.  A day I’ve had with you.  And now it’s over.’ // ‘There’s some loss in that, isn’t there?’ Arlene nodded at me and smiled. // ‘I guess so,’ I said. // ‘It’s not so all-bad though, is it?  There can be a next day.’ // ‘That’s true,’ I said. // ‘We don’t know where any of this is going, do we?’ she said, and she squeezed my hand tight. // ‘No,’ I said.  And I knew that was not a bad thing at all, not for anyone in any life. // ‘You’re not going to leave me for some other woman now, are you?  You’re still my sweetheart.  I’m not crazy, am I?’ // ‘I never thought that,’ I said.” (67-68).

Other stories involved sons reminiscing about their childhoods, a crotchety old man who finds children playing with fireworks bothersome, and some Native Americans trying to scratch a living in the plains of Montana.

These stories all please on different levels.  I found much empathy for the struggles of these “ordinary Americans,” and I wanted them all to get what they wanted.  I think you will find – as I did Richard Ford’s 1987 collection of short stories, Rock Springs, a most pleasing companion on a rainy afternoon.  5 stars

--Chiron, 4/12/15

Sister by Rosamund Lupton


During my younger days, I had a passion for genre fiction – fantasy and science fiction – but mysteries and detective fiction never held my attention.  A good friend picked Sister by Rosamund Lupton for our March Book Club, so I read with a slight sense of "I won't like this!"  As it turned out, it was not so much a detective novel as a psychological exploration of a family torn apart following the death of a child, a divorce, the scattering of siblings, and finally the disappearance of a young woman, Tess -- an art student with quite a free spirit.  Much to the dismay of her mother and sister, she had a bit too much of a free spirit.

Bea and Tess, as they called each other, had developed an extremely close relationship, even though Bea had left London for a design job in New York.  She spoke frequently with Tess, and as Bea mentioned several times, “they had no secrets.”  Bea boards the next flight to London and moves into her sister’s flat, hoping to reconnect with Tess.  The police seem oddly unconcerned about the disappearance of Tess, and Bea convinces herself she is alive and will soon turn up.  The novel takes a dark turn when a cast of characters begin to appear.

When her body turns up in a crusty, disgusting public toilet, Bea begins formulating all sorts of scenarios to explain her death.  The police firmly belief the death resulted from suicide.  I won’t say why, because those details are all part of the plot.  I searched for a quote to exemplify Lupton’s tight, suspenseful prose, but most of them revealed plot details, which are full of cleverly placed red herrings.  For example, three men are mentioned as have a Labrador retriever for a pet.  The author fooled me, because they had nothing to do with the crime.  So, I settled on the first paragraph.  Lupton writes, “Sunday Evening.  Dearest Tess, I’d do anything to be with you, right now, right this moment, so I could hold your hand, look at your face, listen to your voice.  How can touching and seeing and hearing – all those sensory receptors and optic nerves and vibrating eardrums – be substituted by a letter?  But we’ve managed to use words as go-betweens before, haven’t we?  When I went off to boarding school and we had to replace games and laughter and low-voiced confidences for letters to each other.  I can’t remember what I said in my first letter, just that I used a jigsaw, broken up, to avoid the prying eyes of my house mistress.  (I guessed correctly that her jigsaw-making inner child had left years ago).  But I remember word for word your seven-year-old reply to my fragmented homesickness and that your writing was invisible until I shone a flashlight onto the paper.  Ever since, kindness has smelled of lemons” (1).  

Believe it or not, several phrases and images in this first paragraph connect directly to numerous points in the plot.  I love a psychological novel, and the bond these two sisters had revealed them both to be interesting characters, with a complex relationship to each other, their mother and absent father, their dead brother, Leo, and numerous other characters in the novel.

Sister, by Rosamund Lupton, will draw you into this complex web, and wonder at their strengths and weaknesses.  To fans and non-fans of suspense I highly recommend this debut novel by a young British writer.  5 stars

--Chiron, 3/26/15

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Her Texas: Story Image, Poem & Song Edited by Donna Walker-Nixon, Cassy Burleson, Rachel Crawford & Ashley Palmer

We round out the first Women Writers Month on “Likely Stories” with a wide-ranging and interesting collection of writings in multiple genres.  Creative non-fiction leads off, followed by song, poetry, fiction and an interesting section on “Lagniappe: An Editorial Extrusion.”  A lagniappe is a small gift given to a customer by a merchant following a purchase, for example, a thirteenth donut when someone purchases twelve.  Three of the editors contributed to this section.  Rachel Crawford begins with “First Names,” an especially interesting short story.  Cassy Burleson adds five fine poems, and novelist Donna Walker-Nixon contributes an excellent short story, “Johnny Messy Skin.”

This volume, published in 2015 contains so many impressive works, I hardly know where to begin to offer samples, as I usually do.  Among the creative non-fiction pieces, I especially liked Betty Wiesepape’s interesting and detailed story of a marriage in the beginning of the twentieth century.  Wiesepape writes, “Ransom Filmore Holland took Vera Kate Bruner to be the mother of his five children on December 24, 1913.  It was not the kind of wedding young women dream about.  No courtship, no matching gold bands, no long white wedding dress – only a hurried buggy ride to purchase a marriage license and stand before a justice of the peace before the Smith County courthouse closed for the Christmas holiday” (55).  Santa never delivered a wedding present quite like he did that day.

Amanda Pearcy wrote four songs, and I especially appreciated “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor.” Perry wrote, “Mama prepare, prepare a room for me. / Mama make me a pallet on the floor to sleep / I’m comin’ home to you / I’m comin’ home to you / I ain’t gonna go on like this no more // Papa bring your mean, bring your mean on me / Papa ain’t no mean I ain’t known or seen / I’m comin’ home to you / I’m comin’ home to you / Like the Prodigal Son, I’m comin’ home” (179).  Like many of the works in this collection, women’s anguish, hope, fears, and joy are expressed with words of truth and emotion.

The collection of poetry contain a number of well-known writers.  Anne McCrady has a reputation in Texas, and someday, I believe her value as a poet will expand well-beyond the Lone Star State.  In “camp Song,” she wrote, “In the pale light / of a canvas tent dawn, / cicadas kazoo / the last verses of their camp song, / that tinnitus of summer. / Hidden in beds of thin grass, / crickets whistle / their own tinny hymn / and out by the pond, / amorous tree frogs blurt / wet advances too late for now / for evening love” (259).  A poet, who can write such a tender, pleasing poetry, full of vivid images, certainly deserves a wider audience.

The fiction selection also presented some difficult choices for a favorite, but since I love – and play – word games, I am going to go with Laurie Champion’s neat and compact little slice of life story, “I’m Her(e).”  A couple meet up in a motel room and duel with pronouns.  Champion writes, “We laughed a lot.  ‘Knock-knock,’ you said one morning when you heard my knock at your hotel door. // ‘Who’s there?’ I asked. //’It’s I’, you said.  You cracked open the door. // ‘Yeah,’ I said.  ‘It’s me.’  You told me I should keep my pronouns straight, said something about subjects and objects and explained the difference between the use of me and I, her and she.  I listened to you, watched you smirk.  I stood outside the room and waited for you to open the door wider, invite me in.  You finished talking, paused, and looked at me, gazed at me as though sizing me up.  Not quite sure what to say, I finally twisted one corner of my mouth into a faint smile and said, ‘It’s you,’ I said.  ‘I’m here.’ // ‘This is he,’ you said. // ‘I’m hemmed,’ I said.  I rolled my eyes and wondered why I told these stupid jokes, played dumb word games.  Perhaps it was part of our agreement.  Our unspoken promise to each other not to take things seriously, or too seriously, as you once put it” (316).  Seems to me these two have a case of the nerves, and from the mention of another woman, I am betting this is a tale with a tryst. 

Interspersed among the writing are many interesting black and white photos of children, adults, and flowers, portraits and landscapes.  Also included are a number of photos of drawings and paintings.  These images make wonderful decorative elements among the words.

While Her Texas: Story, Image, Poem, & Song Edited by Donna Walker-Nixon, Cassy Burleson, Rachel Crawford, & Ashley Palmer does have some pieces less equal than others, it most certainly would make a wonderful gift to the reader in your life.  This celebration of woman belongs on every reader’s book shelf.  It has plenty of writing to justify 5 Stars.

--Chiron, 3/15/15

Selected Poems: 1965-1975 by Margaret Atwood


Last year, I reviewed Margaret Atwood's latest book, of short stories, The Stone Mattress.  That excellent collection made me wonder why I had neglected this favorite writer in preparing my reviews.  I went through my library and picked one of her books I had read a long time ago for a re-read.  I settled on Selected Poems: 1965-1975.

Margaret Atwood was born in Canada on November 18, 1939.  She is a poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist.  She won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for fiction, and she has been short-listed for the Booker Prize five times and won once for Blind Assassin.  She is also the founder of the Writers Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada's writing community.  She has published 14 novels, 4 collections of short stories, essays, and three collections of un-classifiable short prose pieces.  While she is best known for her work as a novelist, she has also published 15 books of poetry.  Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have bee interests of hers from an early age.

Like most of her works, these selected poems deal with the situations women are forced into solely because of their gender.  One of her more horrific stories, The Handmaid’s Tale, foresees the ultimate result of confining women to a second class status.  These poems frequently address that issue, although she does it with allegory and stinging humor.

In a series entitled, “Circe/Mud Poems,” we find excellent examples of her power as a poet.  Covering 23 pages, these 24 poems include my favorites in the collection.  All are untitled as individual pieces. Atwood writes, “Through this forest / burned and sparse, the tines / of blunted trunks, charred branches // this forest of spines, antlers / the boat glides as if there is water // Red fireweed splatters the air / it is power, power / impinging, breaking over the seared rocks / in a slow collapse of petals // You move within range of my words / you land on the dry shore // You find what there is.” (201).

The second, quickly gets down to business.  “Men with heads of eagles / no longer interest me / or pig-men, or those who can fly / with the aid of wax and feathers // or those who take off their clothes / to reveal other clothes / or those with skins of blue leather // or those golden and flat as a coat of arms / or those with claws, the stuffed ones / with glass eyes; or those / hierarchic as greaves and steam engines. // All these I could create, manufacture, / or find easily: they swoop and thunder / around the island, common as flies, / sparks flashing, bumping into each other, // on hot days you can watch them / as they melt, come apart, / fall into the ocean / like sick gulls, dethronements, plane crashes. // I search instead for the others, / the ones left over, / the ones who have escaped from these / mythologies with barely their lives: / they have real faces and hands, they think / of themselves as / wrong somehow, they would rather be trees” (202).

I frequently hear students and interviewers ask, “What does this poem mean?”  The best answer is, “Whatever you think!”  So read these poems and decide for yourself.  No matter an individual’s answer, the power of her words, imagery, and illusions will bring a reader back to Margaret Atwood again and again.  Selected Poems, 1965-1975 is an excellent place to begin exploring the mind of this amazing woman writer.  5 stars

--Chiron, 3/11/15

Friday, March 06, 2015

Girl Reading by Katie Ward

I love calendars.  We have them in nearly every room, but my favorite is a series we have had for the last eight years: Reading Women.  Each month features portraits of women from various times and places – all with a book in their hands.  Recently, I learned of a novel, Girl Reading by Katie Ward, who was born in Somerset, England in 1979.  She now lives in Suffolk, England with her husband and two cats.

Simone Martini  The Annunciation 1333 
Each chapter deals with an artist, a model, and a painting.  The first, is a well-known triptych by Simone Martini from the fourteenth century, commissioned by a bishop to decorate the altar of the cathedral in Siena.  The artist picks, as his model, an orphan left on the doorstep of a convent.  Laura has plans to take the veil, but the artist has other ideas.  Ward writes, “Simone Martini has begun preparatory drawings; with each one his humor deteriorates further still.  He sketches them out with a pen and red and black inks, bent like a monk in a scriptorium, his back giving him pain.  Sometimes the modelli are more elaborate – he goes as far as making meticulous scale paintings.  Laura watched with curiosity the first time he broke an egg into a cup, the familiar sound causing her to look up.  He slithered the yolk in his fingers, pinched it, pierced the sac with a tiny blade, let the yellow liquid run out to mix with ground pigment.  These are Simone’s experiments in color and design, but Laura knows them only as a flourish and a blur when he casts them aside as inadequate” (19).

Pieter Janssens Erlinga
Girl Reading  1668
Simone Martini was born circa 1284, in Siena, and he died in 1344, in Avignon.  He was an important figure in Gothic Painting, who did more than any other artist to spread the influence of Sienese painting.  You can easily find detailed pictures of the triptych on line.  When I looked at details of the triptych, I could easily see the character Laura seated with a prayer book in her lap.  Who says we can’t learn anything from fiction? 

The language in the first chapter sounds to me a lot like the writing of the period.  Ward then goes onto a Dutch Master in 1668.  This piece Woman Reading, painted by Pieter Janssens Elinga – a Dutch Master painter who has fallen on hard times, bears an uncanny resemblance to The Girl with the Pearl Earring.  This novel by Tracy Chevalier relates the story of a servant in the household of Vermeer who cleans his studio, begins mixing paints, and then sits for the famous portrait.  The next chapter covers a woman artist, Angelica Kauffman in England of 1775, then a photograph taken in 1864 London, anonymous painters in 1916 and 2008, and finally a painting dated 2060.  The thread which ties all these tales together is the artistic sensibilities of the artist, the dedication of the subjects, and the sometimes nefarious dealers and gallery owners who sell the art.  The novel demonstrates that some things never change.

Angelica Kauffmann
Portrait of a Lady 1775
Anonymous For Pleasure 1916



















George Dunlop Leslie (?)
Woman Reading circa 1885
Not in the book, but just because I like it.
If the novel has a flaw it is the precociousness of some of the poor, illiterate young women used as models.  It did not seem realistic to me.

I found some of the paintings mentioned in the novel, and I have posted them here.  Girl Reading by Katie Ward makes an interesting read for anyone intrigued by art, the peculiarities of the artistic sensibility, and the roles models play in a great painting.  4 stars


--Chiron, 3/5/15

Hunger: A Novella and Stories by Lan Samantha Chang

I stumbled upon Lan Samantha Chang a couple years back, and I reviewed her novel, Inheritance.  I have now picked up her first book, Hunger¸ which consist of a novella and five stories.  Normally, I don’t care for, what I call “ethnic fiction,” but a friend urged me to try Chang.  I thoroughly enjoyed the novel of seven generations of women, who lived, struggled and survived through all the turmoil in 20th century China.  I hardly knew it was set in China, I felt that comfortable there.  Hunger does the same thing for me.

According to the author’s bio, Chang was born and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin.  She graduated from Yale University and the University of Iowa.  She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant and fellowships from Stanford University.  She divides her time between Northern California and Princeton, New Jersey, where she is a Fellow in the Humanities.  Hunger has won numerous awards.

The collection begins with the title story, and it certainly deserves top billing.  Min leaves what was then the comfortable environment of her native land, China, at the urging of her mother who wants her daughter to have a better life in America.  She struggles to learn English, but she never really masters the language.  Nin works in a Chinese restaurant, and one day, a handsome man, Tian, walks in, but leaves without his hat.  Min hides it, so she can be the one to return it.  She decides she will marry this man.  They get married and move to Brooklyn, where Tian teaches music at a local college.  He hopes for a professorship so he can adequately support his family.  They have two children, Anna, who turns out to be a disappointment, and Ruth, who, while a talented violinist, is also a rebel.  The family struggles to adapt to their new land, but pitfalls abound.  The story is about memory, loyalty, separation, and respect for elders, but their new homeland conspires against the old ways. 

The family “hungers” for more than food.  Min narrates, “[Ruth] stayed in public school with Anna, and continued after Anna left for college.  She kept practicing with Tian.  But she had developed a sudden and brilliant talent for upsetting him.  So many years of pleasing him had given her this ability.  With me she remained obedient.  I prided myself on this, until I recognized it as an emblem of indifference.  My pale love would never interest her.  Tian was her true opponent, and I was only a moth that fluttered around the brilliant bulb of her rebellion” (74). 

The remaining tales fluctuate among a variety of Chinese folktales, modern yarns, and a story of a healer and a charmer.

All in all, Lan Samantha Chang’s collection, Hunger, is a very satisfying collection of tales.  She has another novel, I think I’ll take a look at that soon.  5 stars.


--Chiron, 2/24/15

Lydia's Party by Margaret Hawkins

Margaret Hawkins is an internet friend, we have never met, but we do correspond.  I enjoyed her previous novels, especially Year of Cats and Dogs, so I was nervous about her next novel.  I never realized how hard it can be to approach the work of a friend for the purpose of a review.  Well, now I can breathe a sigh of relief.  Lydia’s Party is a wonderful story that – at first – brought to mind Virginia Woolf’s great novel, Mrs. Dalloway.  However, I quickly began to realize that the similarity of plots ended with the planning of the dinner party for a circle of friends.

Lydia’s Party delves into the mind of a woman who annually schedules a dinner party around the Christmas season for her friends – women only, no men; although on occasion, a husband slithers in to crash the festivities.  Recently, attendance has fallen, but Lydia hopes all seven will attend, as she has an announcement to make to her friends.  The weather becomes a factor, but all show up as planned.

Hawkins’ description of the characters as she maneuvers around her house on the day of the party is spectacular.  She reveals much of the history of the group, as well as some thoughts she has about the women and their husbands and lovers.  Interspersed are chapters by the guests as they scurry around gathering what they have volunteered to bring.

Early in the novel, when the guest list is by no means certain, Hawkins writes, “Lydia went back to her mental guest list: Elaine, Celia, Maura, Jayne, and Betsy.  Maybe Norris.  Lydia was the only one still teaching. […] Elaine, that cagey devil, had gotten out fifteen years earlier, saved up to pay off her mortgage and gave her notice the day she wrote the last check.   She said she couldn’t stand teaching anymore, couldn’t stand the tedium of hearing her own voice repeating itself semester after semester, telling the same jokes and the same stories, acting out the same rehearsed epiphanies, year after year, and Lydia knew what she meant, felt the same way about her own tired performances.  Though Lydia thought that in Elaine’s case it was grading papers that finally did her in.  Four sections of English composition every semester – she’d felt she had to correct every superfluous comma” (21).  These sentiments certainly clang as true as a giant brass bell.

Lydia has a beloved pet, Maxine, a large dog.  The scenes with Maxine had a touching seriousness and humor that nearly brought tears to my eyes.  Maxine is “aging gracefully.” and so is our beloved Marcy.  While cooking, Maxine joins Lydia in the kitchen.  “Lydia began to form the dough into little oblongs and set them on a plate.  She felt a hot breath on her leg and looked down.  Maxine was sitting next to her, still as a statue, her intelligent eyes following the movement of Lydia’s hands from the bowl to the plate, watching the dough in its progress away from her.  She had already forgotten the gift of cheese and now she wanted dough.  She was patient, strategic.  She knew the formed dumplings on the plate were not for her but she also knew that Lydia was genetically predestined to be a patsy and that her best chance lay in what was left in the bowl, an amount that was steadily decreasing.  //  Lydia knew that Maxine knew this because Lydia could read her mind, her eyes, her body, the anxious tilt of her shoulders, her tense ears as she calculated what she might get of what was left” (55).  Every dog lover knows this scene – or they should – and the warm fuzzies it brings to the surface.

Margaret Hawkins’ Lydia’s Party might be considered “chick lit,” but the humanity, the emotions, the love, the tenderness, the friendship, and loyalty are way too evident and universal to confine this wonderful novel to any single niche.  Never maudlin, always thoughtful, Lydia is a character anyone can love.  And, while I hated the story to end, I wasn’t sad, because I felt as if I had made a new friend in Lydia.  A friend who will stay with me for a long, long time.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/21/15

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Descent by Tim Johnston




I am not much of a fan of thrillers, but when Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill comes out with a novel, I read it, regardless of the genre.  Descent, by Tim Johnston might just change my view of suspense novels.

Johnston, a native of Iowa City, Iowa, teaches creative writing at the University of Memphis.  He has authored a young adult novel, Never So Green, and a short story collection, Irish Girl, which won the prestigious Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction.  Descent is his first adult novel (Dust Jacket).  And what a first it is!

Grant and Angela Courtland have two children – Caitlin, 18, and about to enter college on an athletic scholarship as a cross-country runner, and Sean, 16, who idolizes his sister.  The family travels to the Rocky Mountains for a vacation.  One morning, Caitlin goes out for a run, followed by Sean on a mountain bike.  Their travels take them up a mountain and down to a road.  Sean skids onto the road and is hit by some sort of SUV.  Caitlin returns to him and finds he is seriously injured.  She has no cell phone signal.  The driver offers to drive her to the nearest town to get help.  Someone alerts the police, and they find Sean by the side of the road.  But Caitlin has disappeared.

As I near 200 segments of Likely Stories, I can honestly say I have never used the term “Page Turner.”  But Descent is exactly that.  Like all fine fiction, I did not know how the story would end, and I did not care.  The emotions the characters experienced were eerily real.  The narrative was so taut, so detailed, and so exciting, that was all I needed to keep going. 

Angela experienced a tragedy when she was young, losing her twin sister in a swimming accident.  This dark, cloudy memory overhangs the entire story.  The sheriff locates Grant and Angela.  Johnston writes, “Now in the little motel room, his wife’s phone to his ear, he begged: Please God, please God, and the sheriff was asking him again where he was at, telling him to stay put.  The boy was safe, he was sleeping.  He was coming to get them, the sheriff – no more than fifteen minutes.  He would take them up there himself, up the mountain.  He would take them wherever they needed to go.  But they wouldn’t be here when the sheriff arrived, Grant knew.  They would be on the mountain, on their way up.  The boy was safe.  The boy was sleeping.  Grant would be at the wheel and Angela would be at the maps, they way it was in the life before, the way it would be in the life to come” (19).

The story has several twists and turns, and the action happens so fast I am reminded of a slalom skier flying down a mountain.  Descent by Tim Johnston is about as exciting a novel as I have ever read.  Any cliché which comes to mind – page-turner, edge-of-the-seat, hair-raising – they all fit.  I am even in a rare agreement with a jacket blurb – “Lyrical and hypnotic […] a pulse-pounding thriller.”  My next order of business: order his collection of short stories, and then wait for another novel.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/8/15