Monday, December 31, 2007

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Years and years ago, I remember reading a study done by some graduate students who tried to measure the IQs of historical and literary figures. The study included number and length of works, lifespan, vocabulary, and a few other points I do not recall. However, I do remember that Goethe was declared the smartest person, Samuel Johnson was second, and Shakespeare third. I would give anything to find that study.

My first encounter after this was in German class in college when we tried to translate some of Goethe’s poetry. That was fun…NOT!

Years later (before graduate school) I came across some of his prose and, of course Faust. I really liked his stuff, and I got a copy of Young Werther, but it was lost until recently. I decided to end the year with Goethe.

The story is extremely emotional, without being maudlin. I found myself feeling sorry for the young man, and it wasn’t until I read the introduction to this edition that I came to realize how autobiographical this novel is.

If you like the image of 18th century enlightenment figures arguing philosophy, religion, politics, and, most importantly, love and romance, you will like this novel. I can see them in their waist coats, powdered wigs, and knee stockings, walking in a park with canes, discussing these weighty issues. Five stars (How could I give the smartest person who ever lived anything less?)
Thus ends 2007.
--Chiron, 12/31/07 9:08 PM, CST.

A Short Quiz to Kick-off the New Year

2007 marks the first time I have counted the books I read in a single year. I was astounded to find I had read 75 (although, I am reading #76 now, and if I finish by midnight). Check back in a couple of days to see if I made it. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to post a short quiz to start off 2008. This one is all about women. Next time -- something else.

I will send a book to the person with the most correct answers by 5:00 PM CST, Monday, January 7th

1. What was Madame DeFarge knitting?
2. How did Rodolphe send his break up letter to Emma?
3. What job did Lucy Snow have in Belgium?
4. Where did Jane wait for a coach to take her to Thornfield Hall?
5. How did Anna Karennina die?

--Chiron, 12/31/07

Vermeer: Rizzoli Art Classics by Roberta D’Adda & “Renoir Landcapes: 1865-1883” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Normally, I do not like to read art books. More often than not, as with musical biographies, there is a great deal said about the technical aspects of the artist’s methods. This volume on Vermeer is no exception.

However, I did enjoy the brief biography of Vermeer, and the reproductions of thirty-seven of his paintings – including all of my favorites. I think this is a perfect book for the amateur art enthusiast, like myself, as well as trained artists. I like to look at paintings that draw me in, that affect me, or touch me in a deep way. Many of Vermeer’s works do that. Five Stars

While I am on the subject of art, I visited The Philadelphia Museum of Art over the holidays, and saw the exhibit, “Renoir Landscapes: 1865-1883.” Philadelphia is the only venue for this show, and it closes January 6th. I had no idea Renoir painted so many landscapes, and some were breathtaking – others…not so much. But on the whole the collection was more than worth the investment in time and money.
--Chiron, 12/31/07

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Verdict is in?

Faced with a long drive home for the holidays, we purchased two audio books. The first was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I had never read this one, and neither had my wife.

The version we bought was read by Frederick Davidson, who did a wide variety of voices, which helped with the continuity. Listening to an interesting story really passes the time, but does it count as reading the book? Anyone care to weigh in on this?

I am torn. I do remember details, but it is difficult, especially when driving, to go back over a passage to ruminate over and savor especially good sentences and phrases. Of course, my main problem with audio books is the impossibility of curling up with an audio book on a cold and rainy or snowy evening with a cup of tea and a cat on the lap.

The second is Tolstoy’s Anna Karennina. I have read this one, so we will see the difference on the ride home.

--Chiron, 12/26/07

Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóbín

Lately, the name of Colm Tóbín has been popping up in reviews and articles about Irish Literature. I did a little looking and I found out that this title was short-listed for the Booker Prize, so I pounced. Very glad I did! Now, all his other titles are on my Amazon wish list.

Tóbín’s sparse style reminds me of Hemingway – virtually no adjectives, but I had no trouble feeling the colors, textures, sights, sounds, and smells of this tale set in contemporary Ireland.

The story is about three generations of women who are drawn together to nurse the brother, son, and grandson suffering from AIDS. The women have their own problems, which each must face and resolve. These women have a history, and Tóbín is as reluctant to admit to the details of the conflict as is Helen, the sister and principle character.

The ending was completely unexpected – not entirely satisfying, but I feel the characters are on the road to repair the damage the years have inflicted on this group of women survivors. I can’t wait to get to the next Tóbín title. Five stars.
--Chiron, 12/26/07

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Seeing by Jose Saramago

Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize in 1995, comes up with the weirdest story lines. All the Names tells the story of a bureaucrat whose life is dominated by the routines of his job in the office of birth, marriage, divorce, and death records. When his routine is broken, he spirals into some pretty bizarre behavior. The Stone Raft is about a crack that develops in the Pyrenees Mountains, and gradually widens until Spain and Portugal float off into the Atlantic Ocean. Blindness, a bit more conventional as a thinly veiled retelling of Albert Camus’ The Plague, has been followed by Seeing.

In this novel, 83% of the electorate in the same fictional country as Blindness have cast blank ballots. The police attempt to find out what is going on, and all they get are, pun intended, blank stares and stonewalling.

I would love to ask Saramago if this novel is an allegory for the Bush administration. The parallels are eerie and gave me another reason to keep reading to find more threads connecting the two. Paranoia, slippery slope logical fallacies, and obfuscating politicians are only some of the parallels.

His style is also peculiar. For example, one typical section break (he does not use chapters) begins with a single paragraph that runs on to 5 and a half pages in length. The sentences are enormous. Here is an example:

So, what did you find out. The question, as well as being superfluous, was, how can we put it, just the teeniest bit dishonest, firstly, because, when it comes down to it, everyone would have found out something, however irrelevant, secondly, because it was obvious that the person asking the question was taking advantage of the authority inherent in his position to shirk his duty, since it was up to him, in voice and in person, to initiate any exchange of information. (9)

Fourteen commas before we see a period. The only other markers in his sentences are capital letters, which indicate someone is speaking.

The last third of the book provides some comedy and some serious parallels to the Bush Administration. Several police officer are sent to the capital city with orders to prove a particular individual is guilty of the crime of fomenting the rebellion which resulted in the casting of the blank ballots. The government declares the investigation complete, and identifies the guilty party. Foregone conclusions, manipulation of the facts to suit that conclusion, and the manipulation of the press to further the agenda of the government. Sound familiar?

ANOTHER weird thing about Saramago is how he traps the reader. It almost becomes a game to stay with him, follow the huge strings of parenthetical statements, and understand what is going on in this strange city. You have to keep reading to play the game, to understand the game, and then to win the game. A win, I might add that is terrifically satisfying.

Together with Blindness, Seeing is an important book, Saramago is an important writer, and I completely understand the Swedish Academy awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you are a serious reader, this book MUST be on your TBR shelf. Five Stars
--Chiron, 12/23/07

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Beethoven: The Universal Composer [Eminent Lives Series] by Edmund Morris

Few things cheer me, warm me, or bring tears to my eyes as does the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. I have long been searching for a biography of Beethoven that avoided the technical aspects of his music and focused on the man and his associates, his loves, and his struggles. In a brief introduction, Edmund Morris writes, “This biography is a story of the life, not a survey of the work. It is intended for general readers, who may love Beethoven’s music but do not necessarily have a knowledge of music theory” [Note before “The Prologue”].
Edmund Morris wrote a terrific biography of Theodore Roosevelt which I greatly admired, so I trusted his description of his life of, to my mind, the greatest composer of the greatest single piece of music ever written – the Ninth Symphony.
I could not have been more disappointed. From the beginning to the end, Morris constantly uses strings of technical terms to describe Beethoven’s music. He talks about keys, chords, and genres of music as if I had a PhD in music theory. Not only that, he inadequately identifies most of the music he writes about, with a few exceptions.
For example, here is a typical passage on page 102:
"Just the opening bars of the three new sonatas showed how much Beethoven’s style had changed. The first, in G major, started with a spasmodic disjunction between right hand and left, as if one (but which?) had come down too soon on the keyboard. The soft A major haze introducing the second sonata turned out to be a mirage that burned off the hard landscape in D minor. The third sonata seemed so uncertain of itself that its initial three-note phrase belonged to no key whatever."
This might be theory 101, but I never had any music theory class, so I am lost. After reading this passage, I played my recordings of the three sonatas, but I could not make any connection with the sounds I heard and the words I read.
Another thing that annoyed me was Morris injecting his right-wing politics in the first sentence. He repeats that old canard about abortion. I could (and have) constructed a similar anecdote, got the same response, and said, "You just missed a chance to abort Adolf Hitler." Fortunately, this is the only instance of this kind of nonsense. Geez.
One last thing: there is no definitive listing of the works of Beethoven with opus numbers and popular names -- something essential, to my mind, for this sort of biography.
Four stars. Mr. Morris: I am taking one star away for fibbing to me in your note, and you are darn lucky I didn’t take more! --Chiron, 12/15/07

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Everyman by Philip Roth

I read this book in one afternoon it was that good.
Goodbye Columbus was my only experience with Roth and I didn’t care for it at all. This was way back in college, so, despite the fact that John Updike listed him as one of his important influences, I never read anything else by Mr. Roth. Silly me. I have moved Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint to my “To Be Read” shelf.
Before I began this book I was apprehensive. I knew what it was about – the deterioration of the human body – and since I am fast approaching the age of aches and pains myself, I did not want to be depressed.
My fears were unfounded. This novel reminded me of those pleasant voices that provide back ground at the beginning of a film. Never maudlin, never sentimental but realistic in all aspects, the author spins an absorbing tale of the physical and mental deterioration we all must face. As “Everyman” (the character is never named) declines, he reviews past decisions and mistakes and triumphs, and he has some regrets – “Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes. There’s no other way.” He first received this advice from his father, and he passed it on to anyone who would at least listen to him for advice. Five stars.
--Chiron, 12/12/07

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Fall by Albert Camus

We all have secrets. Sometimes we are dying to tell somebody. Most of the time we should keep our mouths shut. The unnamed narrator is one such person. He spends the first third of the book inflating his personality, integrity, intellect, and accomplishments. Then he slowly deconstructs himself in the last two-thirds.
I was completely unfamiliar with this work by Camus, even though I am a big fan. I have read The Plague, The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and A Happy Death, which was my introduction to the great French existentialist. It has been over ten years since I read the first two on the list, and maybe it is time to go back and have another look.
The Fall is a bit dense at times, and requires a good deal of concentration as you might imagine, but it is worth the effort. Threads of humor streak every page – even if the reader only laughs at the foolishness of the narrator, and Camus mixes in plenty of biting commentary in the tradition of Voltaire and Chaucer. I really enjoyed this. Five stars.
--Chiron, 12/12/07

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bring 'em Back Alive by Frank Buck and Edward Anthony

I remember reading this in about 6th grade, and I loved it then. Unfortunately, this one has aged faster than I have! The prose sounds like the narrator on those old Pathé Newsreels that came with the movies in the 30s and 40s. Back then, I read all I could about animals, especially Africa, India, the Jungles of Asia, and Australia. Somehow, this one has lost its luster. Three stars – just for nostalgia.
--Chiron, 12/11/07

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

This nifty little novel reminds me of a cross between the 1998 Samuel L. Jackson film, The Red Violin and a novel, The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, also made into a film starring Scarlet Johansson and Colin Firth in 2003. I highly recommend both flicks and the book!
Hyacinth Blue revolves around a painting, some people believe it to be a lost/unknown Vermeer, while others think it is a forgery done in the 1930s. Vreeland traces the provenance of the work that, real or not, enchants everyone who sees it. I have seen three Vermeers, and I understand that emotional response completely.
Vreeland’s novel is an easy read, and only research papers and preparation for finals prevented me from finishing it in a day or two. Not as good as Chevalier by any means, but still a worthwhile read.
Not every author can work their name into his or her own novel, but Vreeland has done that. A clever little marker which sets her work apart. My name happens to be in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but I had nothing to do with that! Four stars--Chiron, 12/ 09/2007

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fahrenheit 451 [50th Anniversary Edition] by Ray Bradbury

Another banned book, and another book from my youth. I first read this in high school, and I remember feeling perplexed -- why would anyone want to burn books? Reading it now, considering the lack of reading skills of today’s millenials, considering the state of public education, considering the attempts by the radical, religious right to censor all sorts of literature and drive them from libraries and school curricula, we are dangerously close to the dystopia Bradbury describes here.
Bradbury writes, “School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored, life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?” (56). Chilling. Terrifyingly prophetic.
This 50th anniversary edition includes an interview with Bradbury. In response to the question, “How important is reading to the health of a democracy like ours?” he says, “Let’s imagine there’s an earthquake tomorrow in the average university town. If only two buildings remained intact at the end of the earthquake, what would they have to be in order to rebuild everything that had been lost? Number one would be the medical building, because you need that to help people survive, to heal injuries and sickness. The other building would be the library. All the other buildings are contained in that one. People could go into the library and get all the books they needed in literature or social economics or politics or engineering and take the books out on the lawn and sit down and read. Reading is at the center of our lives. The library is our brain. Without the library you have no civilization” (183-84). Read! Five stars.--Chiron, 12/05/2007

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer

On Wednesday, September 5th of this year, I was reading my “Books—A-Million, Page-A-Day, Book Lover’s Calendar,” and I read the entry for this book. It sounded like an interesting premise – a man is born in 1871 at the age of 70 years old. As his body grows, his age declines. Of course, the blurb by John Updike didn’t hurt one bit. I bought the book, and finally got around to reading it this weekend.
At first, I was confused. The narrator (of the title) kept referring to different ages, and I was unsure where we were in time. I almost gave up, but I kept at it, and I am glad I did. Updike was right, it is an “enchanting” story of love lost, found, lost, and found again.
Greer has a penchant for embedding literary references in his story. The first time I saw one, I “harrumphed” at the obvious borrowing, but then I began to look for more little nuggets buried in the brain of a 60/10 year-old man/boy. For example, he writes, “Reader, she married me” and “the creature had to stay in the attic” as homages to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. We also have a “Gordian knot” and a reverse of Scarlet O’Hara when Alice redecorates the bedrooms “from old dress material.” The novel deserves another read to search for more references.
Max Tivoli was, at times confusing, but it all becomes clear in the end. A sad story, but one told with a strange sense of humor, and I could not help but feel sorry for Max. If you have ever loved and lost, you will enjoy this book. It has a decided 19th century feel to it. Four stars.
--Chiron, 12/4/2007

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert

I am adding this to my annual list late – I read it last spring as part of my World Literature II class. I assign and read, this novel every time I teach this class, because I love it so much. To me, Bovary is one of the best, most important, and most interesting novels of the 19th century. I put it up there with all the big ones – Middlemarch by George Eliot, Jane Eyre and Villette by Charlotte Bronte, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
Flaubert has captured all the great movements of the 19th century in telling this tale of romance, fantasy, love, hate, greed, rejection, and desperation. Naturalism, realism, and symbolism can be found woven throughout the story of Emma Bovary, trapped by the conventions and sex roles then imposed on women. Her flaw is an inability to separate reality from fantasy. She can’t see through the men who want to use her, until the end, by which time it is too late.
If you have never read this classic piece of literature, run out and get a copy. Flaubert once said, “I am Emma Bovary,” and this remark has caused a great deal of controversy. However, I think he was right; furthermore, I believe, at times, there is a little bit of Emma in all of us.
By the way, the Isabelle Hubert film version of the book did not receive critical acclaim, but I like it – a LOT!
6 stars – this is the first time I have awarded this rating. Reserved for only the absolute best of the best.
--Chiron, 12/1/07

Pontoon by Garrison Keillor

I have been listening to “A Prairie Home Companion” since the 70s. I missed it when Garrison moved to Denmark with his wife for a short period, and I was happy when he returned and restarted his weekly show on NPR. (In the event you have never heard the show, today is a good day to start.) Over the past few years, the show has become increasingly more religious – a lot more gospel music, and a lot more reverence for religion. I have successfully ignored this for the rest of the show which is radio at its best.
Pontoon is vintage Keillor, with an extra measure of earthiness thrown in. The writing sounds exactly like Keillor’s voice, and all the familiar characters and places are here.
A smooth read, I could easily have finished it in one sitting if it weren’t for that pesky job I have to go to everyday! I do not mean this as a criticism – after the last two I read, I desperately needed a dose of lightheartedness. I really could not see anything wrong with this book. The story is slow, but so is life in Lake Wobegon. If you are a fan of the show, you will love Pontoon. Five Stars.
--Chiron, 11/30/2007

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

Several years ago – yikes! It was actually twenty years ago! – I discovered Kaye Gibbons and Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill. I loved the small format books they had then, and I loved the consistent high quality of the writing. Mudbound does not disappoint me in the least. This novel is one terrific story. Two decorated war heroes – one white, the other black – return from World War II to a small town in the Mississippi Delta. The brother of the white soldier owns a farm, and one family of tenants includes the parents of the black soldier. Pappy, the father of the white soldier is involved in the local Ku Klux Klan. The soldiers form a bond based on the horrors they witnessed in Europe, and, as you can well imagine, this does not sit well with “Pappy,” a miserable, nasty, old man.I was raised in the inner city of Philadelphia, and it wasn’t until I spent three years in Mississippi that I saw racism for the first time. I was bewildered, helpless, and disgusted. Jordan has completely captured those feelings in this story told by the six principal characters. Not only that, she has captured the voice of each person. Each chapter has a distinctive feel. I could tell which character was speaking without looking at the title. Sometimes, this device of intertwining characters telling a story can be poorly connected, but not here. Jordan has masterfully woven a tapestry of love, hate, class, hard work, loyalty, racism, and betrayal. I wholeheartedly recommend this novel. Five stars.
--Chiron, 11/28/07

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Kite Runner

Kite Runner is one of those books that everyone reads, nearly everyone loves, and almost everyone gets angry, sad, furious, and/or tearful. I thought the story was interesting, I liked the characters, but I found it far less than perfect. There were two things wrong with it – one minor, and the other involving some significant details.
The minor flaw was the way he kept inserting Farsi/Pashtun words and then immediately translating the word, even though, in the vast majority of cases, the meaning was perfectly clear from the context. This minor annoyance seemed to increase as the story progressed, and my familiarity with his characters made it slightly more aggravating.
The larger flaws involved plot. I found the chance meeting with Assef at the end completely improbable, as well as Amir’s escape from Afghanistan. I found Amir’s recovery from the beating he took also unbelievable. That aside, I did enjoy it, and I would recommend this book without the warnings. 4 stars.--Chiron, 11/24/07

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ten Things about Reading

I stole this from Bibliolatrist. See
1. Do you remember learning to read? How old were you?
I was probably around 6 or 7. I vividly remember my mother reading stories to me, and there was one book in particular of scary stories. I only wish I could remember more than the orange cover. I remember being called on to read in second grade. One time, the nun (Sr. Rosaline) pointed to a word in a really funny story, and asked me to pronounce it. The word was “zephyr”; she asked me what it meant, and I told her, “A warm wind.” She was old, and she stared at me a few seconds, then asked me to read the story to the class. This was a pivotal experience in my life, and my first clear vision of reading.
2. What do you find most challenging to read?
Business books. I have read three in my life, including two in the past year for my book club – The World is Flat and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The third was 20 years ago, The One-Minute Manager. As a fearsome hater of meetings, I actually liked that one, but this is my fill for quite a while.
3. What are your library habits?
I frequently use the library to search for books I want to buy. My wife is a librarian, and sometimes she will bring home books to examine so we can purchase the correct one. A good example of this is a book of the paintings of Remedios Varo. The one I want is out of print, and we could not find it for sale anywhere. She found one at her library that had most of the paintings I wanted, so we ordered that one.
4. Have your library habits changed since you were younger?
Oh, yes. When I was in grade school, high school, and college, I lived at the library. I almost always took out the maximum number of books they would allow. When I was in academic hiatus (1975 to 1992), my library visits were sparse – I was much more likely to buy my books. When I returned to school in 1992 through to 2003, I was a pretty regular visitor to the library for research and reading periodicals for research purposes. On many occasions, I would borrow a book, read it, then search for a copy on line. Now, I only visit the library to have lunch with my wife. I do frequently search several library catalogues over the web.
5. How has blogging changed your reading life?
It has stimulated me to be a more constant reader. Teaching five or six classes left me with little spare time during the 30 weeks a year I was in class, but blogging has invigorated me to find time to read even then. Now, I do not go anywhere without a book.
6. What percentage of your books do you get from: New book stores, second hand book stores, the library, online exchange sites, online retailers, other?
This is tough. I would have to guess, and a rough guess at that, but I would say new book stores, 50%, second hand stores 10% (mainly because there are no good ones in Central Texas, and I have to find some when I travel), and the balance 38% from On-line retailers. I keep 2% aside, because occasionally I will buy books from friends.
7. How often do you read a book and NOT review it in your blog? What are your reasons for not blogging about books?
Since I started RabbitReader, I have reviewed every book I have read.
8. What are your pet peeves about ways people abuse books? Dog-earing pages? Reading in the bath?
This is a hilarious story. One night we were having dinner at a local restaurant, and we saw a woman sitting alone at a nearby table, and she was reading a paperback. Her friend arrived, and she bent the page down and closed her book. There were cards on the table to sign up for e-mail, and I wrote on the back, “Please don’t bend down the page. It hurts the book. Use this for a book mark, and smile every time you see it.” She laughed, and I went home and made some bookmarks with this saying and a clip art picture of a book and a reader. Yesterday, we were at the airport, and a woman sat down next to us, and opened her book to a dog-eared page. I finally had a chance to use my new book marks. No, she did not slap me, she laughed, and as we boarded the plane, my bookmark was sticking out of her book. Well, I guess it was hilarious to me!
I don’t even want to think about reading in a bathtub.
9. Do you ever read for pleasure at work?
My work makes me a professional reader, and almost everything I read at work is for pleasure. However, reading essays for “millennials” makes me want to tear my hair out and run screaming into the night.
10. When you give people books as gifts, how do you decide what to give them?
I always spend a lot of time thinking about the person I want to give a book to. The match must be perfect!
--Chiron, 11/21/07

Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell

I am not sure where this book came from, but I recently found it in my office when I was packing up to vacate for summer renovations. I had read a few short things by Russell, but never an entire book. This collection of essays was, to my mind, uneven. However, the ones I liked I read and thoroughly enjoyed. The others I skipped after a few paragraphs.
The first is “Philosophy and Politics.” It was a bit too political for me. I haven’t read much PP since college back in the 60s, and I don’t plan to read much more. This essay reminded me why.
A really good one was “Philosophy for the Laymen.” Russell could take some arcane ideas and boil them down to a clearly understandable sentence. I won’t even try and summarize Hegel’s theory of “The Absolute Idea,” but Russell explains it as “pure thought about pure thought.” That makes sense, to me at least.
My favorite, however, was “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish.” Russell takes on everything here – religion, astrology, sex, history, politics, et al. This is the longest essay in the collection and well worth the price of admission.
Not for everyone, but it will take a proud place on my rationalist book shelf. 4 stars.
--Chiron 11/21/07

The Snow Leopard by Peter Mattheissen

Several, no quite a few years ago, I tried reading Far Tortuga by Mattheissen, but the style was so odd I gave up. Lately, I have had The Snow Leopard come to my attention by way of passing remarks in a couple of things I have read.
While at The Blue Bicycle in Charleston, SC, I came across a first edition of TSL, and decided to buy it. I began reading it on the plane ride home, and I was hooked.
Part travelogue, part adventure, and part spiritual journey, Mattheissen’s attention to detail – physical and psychological – is nothing less than enchanting. I have a fear of heights, and believe me, there were times I felt a sucking feeling that I was being pulled over the edge of a cliff. I would love to see the Himalayas – from the foot of the mountains!
The author accompanies George Schaller on an expedition to Dolpo in the Himalayas of Northern Tibet to study “bharal” or the Himalayan Blue Goat. The pair also hopes to see the rare and elusive snow leopard. Peter never sees one, but after they separate, (Mattheissen had promised his children he would be home by Christmas), Schaller encounters a pair of leopards quite by accident.
At times, Mattheissen gets sidetracked by local myths of ancient deities and zen masters the local people revere. The names are completely unfamiliar, and the stories convoluted. I could not remember these from one page to the next.
Overall, this book is mesmerizing – I could hardly put it down. 4-1/2 stars.
--Chiron, 11/21/07

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book Store Traveler, Part One

I spent the past weekend in Charleston, SC and found a wonderful bookstore. The Blue Bicycle at 420 King Street (just down the block from the Francis Marion Hotel) is a wonderful place. I spent several hours there on Friday, and I went back Saturday. [I have not accepted any considerations for either of these mentions.]
They claim over 50,000 books, and I do not, for a minute doubt it. Their selection of literature is wide ranging, and in most cases, extremely reasonably priced. They happened to have a half-price sale on current fiction. I found a first hardback edition of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, Peter Matheissen's The Snow Leopard, a signed preview edition of Elizabeth Berg's Joy School, and Carl Hiassen's Lucky You. I also picked up a copy of a selection of Yeat's poetry, Walter Farley's Island Stallion Races for my childhood collection, and a few other minor things. I spent less than $75.00. Their website is The staff was friendly , helpful, and knowledgeable about their stock. Five stars!
Charleston is a wonderful town, with lots of great restaurants, shops, parks, and friendly people. Add it to your list of travel destinations.
--Chiron, 11/11/2007

Atheism: A Reader Edited by S.T. Joshi

This volume is a must for all rationalists. As Joshi says in the Introduction, “This book…is intended only for those who profess an open mind on the subject of religion and religious belief” (10). No candy-ass stuff here – this is the real deal. Every rationalist, atheist, agnostic, and free-thinker I have ever heard of (and many I have not) are represented. Joshi has collected an excellent gateway to the literature of rationalism – one that also includes an extensive list for “Further Reading.” I always love these lists, and have built my library of rationalism over many years using these resources.
He has divided the collection into the usual sections, and presents the best of Thomas Huxley, Leslie Stephen, Emma Goldman, Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, Antony Flew, David Hume, George Eliot, Carl Sagan, Thomas Paine, and Clarence Darrow. These make up a brief list of some of my favorites.
Only one author has two essays – Robert Ingersoll. I have a couple of Ingersoll’s works, but I had forgotten what a wonderful writer he was – especially when compared with some of the stiffs from the 18th century. Back in the ‘80s, I attended an American Humanist Association conference in Scarsdale, NY. I met Gloria Steinem and Corliss Lamont the father of 20th Century humanism. The entertainment at the banquet on Saturday night was Roger Greeley, who performed a series of monologues from the writings of Ingersoll. He sold first editions of Ingersoll’s works, and I bought one along with a signed poster of the event. I highly recommend Ingersoll for your philosophy/religion/rationalist bookshelf.
--Chiron, 11/8/07

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

This is an incredible book. Powerful, absorbing, interesting, smooth – all those clichéd words that we apply to books live in this novel. I could hardly put it down.
The story of the author is sad. Némirovsky was born in Russia in 1903 and emigrated to Paris during the October revolution, studied at the Sorbonne, and began to write. She was an immediate success. She was working on Suite when she was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942.
Suite was hidden and completely unknown for 65 years. She originally intended to include five books, according to the appendices. The appendices include extensive notes for the two books here and her plans for the other three. They also include correspondence with her husband and daughters the day she was arrested. His pathetic, hopeless attempts to rescue her were tragic. He begged and groveled before every friend and official he could button hole. His desperation and sense of panic comes through – even in the telegrams.
The first book involves the braided stories of a group of people fleeing Paris ahead of the advancing German army in 1940. They include a snooty aristocrat, a bank auditor and his secretary wife, the bank president, who is trying to rescue his wife and his mistress without them meeting, an obnoxious writer who cares only about his manuscripts, and saddest of all, an effeminate man who collects fine porcelain which he quietly and tenderly packs for the journey.
The second book shifts to a small village in the occupied zone near the demarcation line with Vichy France. The Germans have occupied the town and the class consciousness of both sides comes to the surface. The tone of this book is serene and placid. Only the occasional abrasive interactions threaten to upset the peacefulness of the narrative.
The characters are subtly and finely drawn. They move the story, which leaves the plot in the background, probably because it would have been as well known to her readers then as it is today. I recently finished watching Ken Burn’s brilliant documentary on World War II, which also focused on ordinary families and soldiers. The book ends with the German invasion of Russia in 1941 – the last scene is the German army marching out of the village.
When I got to the end of the second book I was devastated that there was no more. What could Némirovsky have planned, what wonderful insights into war and the psyche of invaders and conquerors might she have revealed. This is probably the first time I have been so directly affected by the unspeakable tragedy of the holocaust. God surely was asleep at the wheel from 1932 to 1945. A second novel, Fire in the Blood, has recently been published.
--Chiron, 11/7/07

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Every once in a while, I like to go back and read a Newbery or a Caldicott winner, and other times I like to read a book that has been banned. We keep a running list of prize winners and banned books, and we clip newspaper articles about the latest pieces of literature (children’s and adult) that threaten the fabric of civilization. We always buy a copy of these fountains of degradation and immorality to support the authors under scrutiny.
This time I got a “twofer.” Lowry’s book won a Newbery and was banned for social reasons.
The story is intriguing, and I enjoyed the first two-thirds, but it began slipping into a rather preachy mode that I found quite annoying. The story is simple: society has devolved into something the Giver refers to as “the sameness.” No weather, no problems, no excitement. Everyone is a perfectly behaved little cog in the machine that passes for society. Young Jonas is selected as the next “Receiver” of the collective memories of humanity (such as it is), who will then examine memories to advise the council of elders which runs this hell-hole. Babies are routinely euthanized because they are the wrong weight, or they cry too much, or because the mother has had the temerity to have twins. Likewise the elderly, the infirm, and the useless.
The Giver is an intriguing story, but it does tend to the incredulous, since no explanation is ever given for the passivity and submission of the inhabitants of the “community.” If I wanted to read an attempt at a utopia of conformity, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is light years better. Considering the desires of the lunatic fringe on the religious right, Atwood’s story is frightening enough, and, if those fundies had their way, much more likely to happen. Three stars.
--Chiron, 10/28/2007

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Our Kind by Kate Walbert

How on earth this book made it as a finalist of the National Book Awards is a mystery to me. I found it on my “Book Lovers Page-a-Day Calendar.” Usually these books that sound interesting, are, but this was a dud.
The calendar told me these stories can be read along side Updike and Cheever. Bull shit! Her sentences are tortured, with many, many sentence fragments from a third-person narrator, who seems somewhat as bored as I was reading it. Walbert places way too much emphasis on clothes, and way too many fashion terms for my taste. I simply did not care about these 50-something women who all lost their husbands, children, pets, and intolerance for alcohol. Two stars.-
-Chiron, 10/28/07

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice is one of my top five all-time novels. Elizabeth Bennett is in my top three favorite women characters in all of literature. She is also in my top five favorite characters…period!
I can not count the number of times I have read P&P, nor can I count the books and articles I have read about Jane Austen and her work.
Despite the distance, this story is still absorbing, the characters engaging, the dialogue sparkles, and the settings and sounds transport the reader directly to Regency England. My only regret is that it has been a few years since I last read it, and I must keep it “closer to hand,” as Mr. Bennett might say.
The version I read this time is a new one for me. Anchor Books has published an annotated edition this year, and it even feels good to the touch. The text is on the left, and extensive, detailed annotations on the right. Even though I knew what most of the notes were going to say, I could not help myself from reading those as well. This relatively short novel has ballooned to well over 600 pages with a great introduction, maps, chronology, and an excellent bibliography. This particular version is a must for any Austen lover.
--Chiron, 10/25/2007

Peter Rabbit’s Giant Storybook by Beatrix Potter

One of the essays in Clive James’ Cultural Amnesty focused on Beatrix Potter and her wonderful tales. It had been decades since I read any of them, so, off to Books-a-Million to buy a collection. They had many to choose from, but this one with fourteen tales, and all the original illustrations, was perfect. I remembered most of them, but a couple were completely new. The stories are as wonderful now as ever. Each a perfect little gem with subtle lessons on behavior and manners.
I collect books I recall reading as a child, and I can not remember the exact edition of the tales I read then. This collection is a more than adequate substitution. I enjoy going back to those days and re-reading stories and poems that made me the reader I am today. James was right – five stars!
--Chiron, 10 26/07

Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry selected and with an introduction by Billy Collins

Normally, I read the first volume in a set, then go onto the second. Many times, the second is a disappointment after the first. However, this collection of poems (the first of two), is not as good as the second -- by that I mean not as many poems made me smile as the second volume (180 More) did. Collins did open the collection with one of my favorite of his poems: "An Introduction to Poetry," and another, "Did I Miss Anything?" by Tom Wayman, has been on my office door for a couple of years. After that it was pretty thin sailing. Collins also wrote the introduction to this one, and he has a little more of a stern tone to it than the gentle prodding to "give poetry another chance" of the second introduction. I shared the second intro with my creative writing class, I doubt I will do the same with this one.
--Chiron, 10/16/2007

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Heart Songs and Other Stories by Annie Proulx

Heart Songs is Ms Proulx's first collection of stories, and it is a lot different from her later two, Wyoming Stories and Bad Dirt. She has set these stories in Vermont, rather than the western ranches and plains of the later collections. In a brief documentary on Ovation, she recounted the travels and research she undertook to write her most recent novel, That Old Ace in the Hole. At the end, she said she would not write another novel, because she much preferred writing short stories. I love her novels (Ace, The Shipping News, Accordion Crimes and Postcards), but her stories are wonderful, solid nuggets of artistic prose with the most careful attention to even the smallest details.
Like the stories set in Wyoming, these stories are concerned with nature and how people grow up, in, around, and with the rural settings she skillfully describes. Her prose is lyrical, poetic, and brimming with wonderful images. These stories differ from the Wyoming ones, because she does not strain to catch the slightest nuances of speech she captures in Wyoming. These New Englanders could be in any rural area of the US.
I could only hope to be a paltry imitator of her. If you have not read Annie Proulx, run out and get something of hers today. Five stars.
--Chiron, 10/21/2007

Monday, October 15, 2007

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

This is one complex novel – but don’t let that stop you! Pamuk has told an intricate tale with lots of interesting characters. The mystery narrator of the novel, reveals himself at the end, and that is a surprise. The story is absorbing, and while the history, politics, and names of Turkey are a little confusing, enough background is provided for the reader to follow nearly all the twists and turns.
I can understand why Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2006. I always try and read the latest winner. I have discovered many great writers this way—Saramago, Kurtesz, Achebe, and a few others. Coincidentally, the 2007 winner, Doris Lessing, was announced last week. I have read quite a few of her books, but some important ones are on my TBR shelf.
At first, I thought I might not get through Snow, but something kept pulling me along. I began to build up speed, and, about a third of the way through, I was captivated. I could barely put it down over the last 150 pages. I also thought, early on, that this would be my only foray into Pamuk, but one of the descriptions of another of his novels intrigued me enough to order a copy. I probably won’t read it soon, but I will get to it.
I did notice a couple of minor problems that may be entirely in my head. I felt left out of some of the conversations, because I did not understand comments some of the characters made as well as some of the reactions of those characters. Perhaps there is a piece of the cultural puzzle missing that would help me better appreciate what was going on. Are Turkish men REALLY that chauvinistic? Neither was I clear that the issue of the head scarves for women was ironic or a serious issue. I also could not tell whether the main character, (Ka, an exiled poet who has returned to his home village with three pretexts), was serious or manipulative when talking to students, the police, his friends, or the newspaper editor. Four and ½ stars out of five.
--Chiron, 10/14/07

Thursday, October 11, 2007


The winner of the Noble Prize for Literature in 2007 is Doris Lessing.

Finally! Someone I have heard of and read extensively.

I never cared much for her science fiction, but her "Children of Violence" series, beginning with Martha Quest, is outstanding. In the archives for February 2007, you will find my review of her most recent book, The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels, which is also more than worth a read.

Now, I want to see John Updike win in 2008!
--Chiron, 10/11/07

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys by Janet Kaplan

About 12 years ago, a fellow grad student found an art book at a used book sale. The artist was Remedios Varo, and the paintings were enchanting: wispy figures whose mustaches grew into handle bars, and whose beards wound down to their feet and became wheels ; willowy women who floated through magical landscapes with threads connecting them to wings and wheels. I especially liked ten or so of the paintings. Immediately, I began a search for a copy of the book. This was, of course, the days before Amazon and Google, so I had no luck. I kept at it, and about three weeks ago, I found a copy of this book. It came from England via ABEbooks (another favorite website for hard to find volumes). I was surprised I had not come across this before, but here it is. I guess my search had some holes in it!
Kaplan is a Professor of Art History at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, and on the graduate faculty of The University of Vermont. This volume grew out of her dissertation.
Of the ten paintings I admired from the original collection, numbers 8 and 10 are here, but not the rest – so the search continues.
Despite this disappointment, Kaplan has written an excellent biography and survey of surrealism. I was surprised to learn Varo was born in Spain, spent time in Paris, and only later immigrated to Mexico. For some reason. I always thought she was Mexican.
If you like surrealism, Varo is a little known artist, but in her paintings, “The familiar becomes extraordinary,” as Kaplan writes. 4-1/2 stars – only for lack of more of my favorites.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biographyby Christopher Hitchens [Books That Changed the World]

Paine’s great work was required reading in several classes for my BA in Political Science, but I have not read it since. I only wish I had this handy biography of Paine and the extensive commentary of The Rights of Man, Common Sense, and The Age of Reason. Hitchens does a good job of explicating the connections between Paine and the events in England, France, and America during his life. I also found particularly interesting the elucidation of the conflicts and concurrences with Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
I would recommend this as an excellent introduction to an actual reading of Paine’s works. We certainly can use a dose of Paine now, considering the state of our nation. An inclusion of all Paine's texts would have made this book perfect. 4-1/2 stars
--Chiron, 10/5/2007

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Two by Lars Gustafsson: Elegies and The Stillness of the World Before Bach

I discovered Lars Gustafsson at a writer’s conference in Boston around 1985. John Updike (my all time favorite author) was the speaker, and I asked him something about discovering new authors. He told me he was on a trip and picked up a book by Mr. Gustafsson for the plane ride home. He was immediately drawn to the sparse prose, and wrote a review for The New Yorker. I purchased Death of a Beekeeper (simply for the title) and The Tennis Players, because I liked the cover. I eventually acquired the rest of his fiction. Recently I discovered that he had several volumes of poetry, and these are the first two to arrive.
Maybe I should have stuck to the fiction. Obviously the same author wrote both volumes, and while the spare, bleak, “Bergmanesque” style works for me in a novel, these powerfully crafted poems are a little too overwhelming. Example from Elegies, “Elegy: On the Surface”:

I still recall the Swedish summer night,
not without being amazed at the actual

existence of a thing. All the clocks stop,
and the “fretty Chervil,” so solemn it is,

so still, it might be meaning to apologize
for the few short weeks of its presence

in the dark integrity of this world. (23)

If you like dark, somber poetry, these are the books for you. I don’t deny the mastery of the language and imagery, just not the tone and the mood I feel when reading them.
--Chiron, 10/02/2007

180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day Selected and with an Introduction by Billy Collins

A wonderful collection by my favorite poet. Two things: Collins did not include any of his own poems – mighty unusual for this sort of collection. Second, the introduction, wherein Collins explains his ideas of a “good” poem, and, thereby, his rationale for selecting the poems he includes, is wonderful.
The premise of the volume is simple. When he was poet laureate (2000-2001), he promoted the idea of 180 poems – one for each day of the school year, to “bring back to poetry those readers who have lost interest or who have had the poetry scared out of them by bad teaching or the wrong menu of poems to choose from” (xviii). I would add: those readers who were subjected to the horrific memorization of every poem in the book. That makes me a prime candidate for this collection.
Don’t be afraid. These poems are all accessible, fun, and, while some are serious, none require a literature degree.
--Chiron, 10/01/07

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James

Next up!
--Chiron, 8/27/07

I am up to the letter "F" -- hard to spend much time on this since school started, but I devote every spare minute to it. More later!
--Chiron, 9/12/07

"R" hang on! Almost finished!
--Chiron, 9/23/2007

Finally! Teaching full time takes up huge chunks of time that I could otherwise spend reading. Those few precious moments must not be wasted. Clive James' newest book is definitely worth the investment of lots of small pieces of reading time.
Cultural Amnesia consists of 106 essays of figures, from the last 100 years or so, who have had a significant impact on culture. James includes a disparate selection of individuals from Beatrix Potter to Adolf Hitler, Louis Armstrong to Franz Kafka, and Charlie Chaplin to Albert Einstein.
Sometimes James examines the writings of his subjects directly, and sometimes he spreads a wider net to include those around the subject of a particular essay. I found the essay on Louis Armstrong to be one of my favorites. I know who he is, and I like his music, but I was not aware of the profound influence he had on jazz and American pop culture.
James has forced me to the bookstore, Amazon, and ABEBooks, or other vendors, dozens of times to fill in gaps in my library. I bought a complete set of the tales of Beatrix Potter, Keats' poetry, and I am going to take another look at F. Scott Fitzgerald. James spends a lot of ink and paper on the French left between the wars, and I skipped some of those essays (so many books, so little time). And he does drop an occasional crazy comment: "[Kafka] has influenced almost everything written since [his death]: not even James Joyce had such an impact" (343). Sorry, have to disagree here. Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man killed the 19th century as T.S. Eliot said. Most stream of consciousness traces itself to Joyce.
On the whole, however, it was a more than worthwhile read. I encountered many interesting people I had never heard of, and a few I wish I still had not heard of. But this buffet has more than enough to satisfy even the most discriminating tastes.
--Chiron, 9/25/07

The Maytrees and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

I really love Annie Dillard’s prose. Lyrical, poetic, and sensuous are too weak to fully describe her style. Her new novel, The Maytrees is one of those stories that drops the reader right onto Cape Cod, into Provincetown, and on the beach in a “clam shack.” I imagine the “shack” as the characters call it, to be like the clam shacks that dot the Jersey shore on the mainland and the bay side of the barrier islands. I spent many years down there, and I still hanker to be nearer the ocean, or at least the Gulf of Mexico. There is something about the sounds, the smell of salt spray, the sun, the breeze off the ocean that is mystical and magical. Dillard takes me right back to those childhood days on the boardwalks and beaches of South Jersey.
I must admit, however, that some (a few, not too many) sentences seemed tortured and forced me to re-read to parse out the meaning. Those were like sudden waves that came crashing down without warning, few enough to be only a minor distraction.
This book also inspired me to re-read Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I read this many years ago, but recently discovered I had lost my copy. I am glad I replaced so I had it within easy reach. I find this the best part of buying and keeping, lots of books, right?
If you don’t know Dillard, start with Pilgrim, go onto to A Writer’s Life, then dive into Maytrees. You won’t be disappointed, and I think you will find a new favorite author.
--Chiron, 9/29/07

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens

A saint? Give me a break! This woman was a hypocrite, a conniver, a shameless panderer from the wealthy, corrupt, and tyrannical, among whom are included Baby Doc Duvalier, Enver Hoxha of Albania, the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, and Charles Keating. This last “donated” $125 million to Mother Theresa from funds he looted from Lincoln Savings and Loan. The majority of shareholders in this scandal were the working poor and middle class families. Prior to his sentencing, Mother Theresa wrote a letter to the judge asking for mercy for Keating, “as Jesus would do.” When one of the prosecutors pointed out the source of the donation, and turned the tables and asked her “would Jesus keep a gift stolen from the poor?” he received no reply and no refund. A former employee of Mother Theresa reported that one checking account for the convent in Brooklyn contained over $50 million. The money was not to be used for the poor. MT frequently said poverty was a gift and to be born cheerfully. Instead of using the untold hundreds of millions of dollars to alleviate the suffering of the poor and dying, MT used the money to build and outfit convents to attract more members to her order. Most of these buildings boast gold ornaments, gold altar implements, and expensive vestments. When her order was offered an empty building to house the poor, she refused it, because regulations required the installation of an elevator to accommodate the handicapped. MT said that no such convenience should not be available to those that bore a gift from God. The city offered to pay for all renovation, including the elevator, but she refused and the project was abandoned.
Christopher Hitchens testified before the Vatican commission to determine whether or not MT should be moved along toward sainthood with beatification. The purported miracle was debunked by the photographer who shot some footage in a darkened room. He explained that some new, ultra-sensitive film was used.
Her establishments are nothing more than houses of death. They contain the barest of furnishings and rarely provide any pain medication, even aspirin, for those dying of cancer, plague, AIDS, leprosy, and other dreadful illnesses. Suffering, after all, is a gift from God and not to be shortened or alleviated. Interestingly enough, when MT was suffering from heart problems, she checked herself into the finest clinics in the world.
--Chiron, 9/23/07

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I thought it would be appropriate to add a comment about On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s counter-culture classic of the beat generation of the late 50s and 60s, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication.
I first read it as a rebellious college freshman in 1966. It was considered hip and dangerous. Of course, I didn't really "get" it then – we all snickered at the casual pot references. Most of us (some truthfully) claimed to have tried weed, but, as the saying went, "it did nothing for me."
Reading it again, about two years ago, I had a totally different perspective. I saw the angst and the searching in the 60s for something besides the "Ozzie and Harriet, two kids, a dog, and white picket fence" that was everyone's ideal in the 50s. I also saw, for the first time, a person's life laid out as a literal and figurative journey. This second read was much more serious than the first, and I think it is a metaphor for the searching that all of us do -- some with pot, some with religion, some with alcohol. Is it a great book? Nah, but it is a great book about the 60s. I am glad I read it, but it won't go on my "desert island shelf."
--Chiron, 09/12/07

Monday, August 27, 2007

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

My introduction to DeLillo was Underworld. I loved that story, I loved those characters, and I loved the smooth, easy style. I couldn’t bear to put it down. Then I moved onto The Body Artist, and I was disappointed. The style was different, the story was disjointed, and I could not understand why.
Falling Man is something between those two books. There are flashes of wonderful writing. The description of Keith in his office as the first tower was struck is riveting. Other portions of the book are difficult to follow. I read part of one chapter -- thinking it was a continuation of the same character’s story – when I suddenly discovered it was different characters, a different story, and a different place.
The idea is interesting and true to life – 9/11 did change people’s lives, and attitudes, and relationships, and I can understand how the narrative form reinforces those themes, but I was not entralled, I was not drawn into the narrative until the very end. I am not sure why I did not invoke the rule of fifty – something kept me going – but I will be darned if I know what it was.
--Chiron, 8/27/07

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ten Questions for Book Bloggers

I've seen this posted on a friend’s bookblog, so herewith is my farthings worth.

What are you reading right now?
Don Delillo’s Falling Man; Herodotus [I am always dipping in and out of this), John Updike’s best [IMHO] novel, The Centaur and Homer’s Odyssey both of which I read at least annually, and whatever Al Franken book I happen to have handy; oh yes, I almost forgot: an amazing non-fiction book.

Do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that?
No, I wander through my shelves and find something that looks like the next book I am supposed to read.

What magazines do you have in your bathroom right now?
None in the bathroom – it is too damp, makes the pages curl. But, on my coffee table, I have The New Yorker, Newsweek, Atlantic, Times (London) Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and a National Geographic issue on Zebras.

What’s the worst thing you were ever forced to read?
American Literature from 1492 to 1840 or so. This was the only lit class I ever took that I really hated. It has permanently damaged my tastes for American Literature.

Admit it, the librarians at your library know you on a first name basis, don’t they?
No. My wife is a librarian, so on the extremely rare occasions when I borrow books, she does it for me. Buying books, saving books, being able to write in the margins, underline, annotate is delicious.

What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone?
The Centaur, Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, Ulysses, Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, and Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story. How could any serious, committed reader have only one?

Is there a book you absolutely love, but for some reason, people never think it sounds interesting, or maybe they read it and don’t like it at all?
Anything by Joyce, Stones of Summer, and The Aunt's Story by Patrick White.

Do you read books while you eat? While you bathe? While you watch movies or TV? While you listen to music? While you’re on the computer? While you’re having sex? While you’re driving?
This is a huge question with lots of depends. When I am alone (not often anymore), I always read when I eat. Shower, no baths, so out of the question (see bathroom/magazine question above). Sometimes I read magazines and/or newspapers when I watch TV. Computer too important to my work, so I take reading breaks when I am working. NEVER when I am having sex – my focus is laser-like then! Not when I am driving, but when I am riding on long trips.

When you were little, did other children tease you about your reading habits?
Yes. Every summer I joined the “Vacation Reading Club” at my local branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. From 5th grade on, the librarian came to school every September to give me a certificate for reading ten books over the summer (as if that was some trick for me. I usually finished the ten books by the fourth of July). As years passed, there were fewer and fewer certificate winners. Finally, in 8th grade, I was the only one. They teased me all those years, but thankfully, I ignored them. I still am suspicious of anything that even begins to smell like peer pressure.

What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down?
Dow Mossman’s The Stones of Summer. The book is over 700 pages, and as I got deeper and deeper it sucked me in like quicksand. I think I read the last 150 pages in one night.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

An amazing book!

I am reading a wonderful non-fiction book of case studies, which contain real stories, accurate descriptions, and unbiased commentary by the sociologist who conducted a study of 208 middle-class adults.
The descriptions by the subjects of the study are dead-on, 100% accurate. This is one of the most life-affirming books I have ever read.
More about this later. Sorry, but I can’t tell you the title or the author.
--Chiron, 6/22/07

I am now deeper into this book, and hardly a character inhabits the pages that does not share something with me. The further I read the more I see I am not alone.
--Chiron, 6/27/07

Friday, August 17, 2007

Tipperary by Frank Delaney

N.B. -- I wrote this review for Random House and the Early Reviewer program of See the website for details.

Historic fiction is one of the many “phases” I went through in my reading life. Cecilia Holland was my favorite along with a few others. My favorite periods were medieval England, ancient Greece and Rome, and 19th century England.
In all of that reading, however, I never encountered anything quite like Frank Delaney’s Tipperary. Neither have I ever read any book along with another person leaning over my shoulder and commenting on the story or providing additional background which mostly confirms the story Charles O’Brien spins.
And spin he does. O’Brien (and, of course Delaney) prove the value of Tolstoy’s advice that “nothing should escape the notice of the writer.” The detail they provide draws the reader into late 19th and early 20th century Ireland. This of course is the heyday of James Joyce, one of my favorite writers. While Joyce focused on the city, Delaney covers the country.
However, I find the characters and situations somewhat unbelievable – even with the validation of a “modern day narrator.” It strikes me as most improbable that a country herbalist would meet the cast of characters that populate the turbulent times in early 20th century Ireland.
The problem is compounded in the brief meeting with James Joyce. As a Joyce scholar (my master’s thesis was on Joyce), I find it entirely incredible that Charles would offer a passing comment to “make them [Joyce’s novels] complicated.” The house of cards falls flat for me on this one incident. Furthermore, Delaney has a character quote John Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” out of context and completely inappropriately.
The story is interesting, but not enough to suspend disbelief to the extent Delaney asks the reader to do. Could Charles have really walked into Dublin during the middle of the Easter 1916 uprising, and as easily have walked out? Remember Dr. Mudd? He was the surgeon who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg on the fateful night in April of 1865. He was tried and convicted despite some pretty convincing evidence of his innocence; his name continues to be smeared to this day. Considering the brutality of the English response to the Easter uprising, as correctly reported by Charles, I find it implausible that he could have simply walked away from Bolands Mill following the surrender of the Sinn Fein volunteers.
In my opinion, historical fiction must carry the reader into a distant time and culture without any nagging doubts as to the plausibility of the characters or events. Forrest Gump did it, and I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t buy it now. Three of five stars.
--Chiron, 8/16/07

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

God's Pocket by Pete Dexter

I remember Pete Dexter when he was a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News in the late seventies. His columns were always enjoyable, and I was puzzled why he gave them up to write fiction. I missed this novel then, his first, which came out in 1984. I did read Paris Trout when that came out, but, somehow I lost track of Dexter, until a journalist friend of mine, knowing I was from Philadelphia, asked me if I had ever heard of Dexter. He recommended Paper Boy, and that got me started. I now own all Dexter’s novels, and I have two more to read.
The prose is an easy read -- especially after some of the difficult things I have been reading – but Dexter writes well. I could not help finishing this soon after I started, despite the fact I was teaching a “grading-intensive” summer class, which limits my reading time.
I have been a fan of Carl Hiaasen for some time [haven’t read anything by him lately, but I have a couple of his novels on my teettering TBR pile]. I also like another old time Philadelphia journalist-turned-novelist, Christopher Morley. I think I see a pattern here.
Anyway, Dexter’s first novel is a lot of fun for someone who knows Philly well. He moves Holy Redeemer Hospital to South Philadelphia. It is actually in a suburb, Huntingdon Valley; my son was born there, and he renames his old paper the Daily Times. But I loved moving through the neighborhoods, streets, and highways in and around Philly with Mickey and Richard. A great story, with great characters – simply a good read.
--Chiron, 8/8/07

Beethoven: His Life and Music by Jeremy Siepmann and The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg

I was disappointed with the Seipman biography of Beethoven. It focused much more on the technical aspects of the music, which, frankly, I don’t understand. I will have to find something else.
In the meantime, I read the essay about Beethoven in Schonberg. This was not terribly detailed, but it got me started. I think I will search out a good, full-length biography. After, Ludwig is the voice of god! As one 19th century critic Adolf Bernhard Marx wrote, Beethoven’s music was “a manifestation of the divine” (Schonberg 103). Yes, I must get a full length biography.
--Chiron, 8/5/07

Friday, July 27, 2007

Lion's Honey: The Myth of Samson by David Grossman

This story is from the same “Myths Series from Canongate” as Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad. I knew of Mr. Grossman from Bill Moyer’s Faith and Reason series on PBS last year. Lion’s Honey is a detailed (should I say tediously detailed) explication of the Samson myth from the Old Testament Book of Judges.
When I first saw this book, I expected an interesting retelling from Delilah’s point of view. But, as I said, it became tedious.
Grossman recounts the story from Judges on pages from xi to xxix. The explication is 145 pages. The author summarizes his explication, and I could have stopped there – about page ten. Two stars.
--Chiron, 7/27/07

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

When I first heard of this title from a fellow book club member, I thought we were talking about Boethius’ medieval work on philosophy. When the book was described, I made that low, throttling sound in my throat, because it sounded boring. But, I had more than my share of books picked for the club, so, I swallowed and said okay.
The first chapter was about Socrates, and that was enough – I was bound, hooked, and bundled up for the complete ride. The chapters were uneven (I didn’t care for the chapter on Nietzsche, and mildly dissatisfied with Schopenhauer), but on the whole the book was lively and well-written.
The illustrations – most unusual for a philosophy book – were entertaining. I especially liked the picture of a large, clunky sports watch the author has a character in an anecdote wearing. I will let you get a copy and discover the significance of that!
My favorite chapter, however, was the one on Montaigne. I had read some of his essays in grad school, but I had no idea what an interesting character he was. I am going to dig out my copy of Montaigne’s complete essays. Four & 1/2 stars
--Chiron, 7/25/07

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Wild Trees by Richard Preston

The Wild Trees is an incredibly interesting book. I had heard a couple of interviews on NPR and TV. It amazes me that this book is not more widely known – so far, no appearance on any best seller lists I follow.
I had absolutely no idea that giant trees (redwoods, douglas firs, and mountain ash [found in Australia]) were anything more than, well, giant trees. The men and women of this book who explore the largest living organisms on earth are brave individuals. The danger of climbing a 350 foot tree with only a thin line between them and death by “cratering” is described in exciting detail.
If the book has any flaws, it contains some facts that are explained as if the reader were completely unfamiliar with some basic scientific terms. For example, on page 24, Preston writes, “Lichens (sounds like ‘liken’) is a fungus growing in association with a species of alga…” Maybe this will not annoy the average reader, but I think anyone who would be interested in Wild Trees would have at least some rudimentary background knowledge. I don’t mean this happens on every page, but it did happen often enough for me to notice. 4-1/2 stars
--Chiron, 7/22/07

Monday, July 16, 2007

Osprey Island by Thisbe Nissen

I don’t know about this book. Several times I tried to invoke the “rule of 50,” but something made me read a couple more pages. Then about half way through, a diary was found hidden in a refrigerator which survived a fire. The characters treated it as if it contained some horrible secret, so I kept going. I found the secret at the end (YAWN)! Except for a fight scene, which was pretty exciting, I found this book only three shades above boring.
First off, unless I am reading George Eliot, chapter titles annoy me. These had lots to do with ospreys, as did each chapter’s epigram. Normally, these things interest me, and I will try and find the source, but, in this case, I couldn’t be bothered. I am also suspicious of novels that list all the characters, their relationships, and ages up front – unless, however, I am reading War and Peace. I guarantee this is in no way anywhere near Tolstoy. Normally, I find Random House a reliable publisher of fiction – I guess every house is entitled to an occasional slip up.
The characters were flat, dull, and uninteresting. Some characters were not described in enough detail to make them even remotely memorable and interesting. The ones that were described in detail, seemed so to the point of being clichés. Two stars.
--Chiron, 7/15/07

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz

Katz’s story is interesting, but not as good as some of the “dog stories” I have read. For example: “At some point I’d begun to enter the murky area where the boundary between the human’s issues and dog’s trouble blurs” (120). Maybe it’s just me, but I hate the kind of repetition in this sentence. If an area is already “murky,” how could you see something “blurry”?
The story is amusing (they are making a movie of his life), but it simply did not affect me as much as the recent Marley & Me by John Grogan. Katz focuses on the one-way relationship between him and his dogs, and does not look too deeply into the actions of the dogs and the motivation of their relationships with owners and other animals. Worth a read.
--Chiron, 7/8/07, Three stars

Friday, June 29, 2007

Voss by Patrick White

This space under construction. I have embarked upon my second White novel, so stay tuned for updates.
--Chiron, 6/23/07

This is one terrific story, but it is much deeper than that for several reasons.

First of all these are extremely complex characters. The omniscient narrator peels each one a layer at a time, and seems to learn more about each character as he unfolds the story.
Second, two stories are told in two voices. The story of Laura Trevelyan and the society she inhabits in 1845 Sydney, Australia is every bit as vivid and enchanting as Jane Austen’s best drawing room and ball scenes. The other story is of the title character, Ulrich Voss, who leads an expedition to cross the Australian outback with a few horses, some cattle, sheep, and goats. He gathers a disparate variety of individuals on this quasi-scientific expedition. This part of the novel descends from the best adventure writing of the 40s and 50s.
The personalities of all these people clash, and cling to one another while undergoing extraordinary changes. I thought of comparing this novel to something else I have read, and settled on Cold Mountain for the beauty of the prose and the epic quality of the stories, and, of course, Sense and Sensibility for beauty and grace of society as the two best candidates.
The writing is wonderful, but, at times, it can be a struggle. Here is an example of White’s style:

"The Bonner’s garden was a natural setting for young ladies, observers were aware, particularly for the niece, who was of a more solitary nature, and given to dabbling in flowers, in a lady-like manner, of course, when the climate permitted. In the mornings and the evenings she would be seen to cut the spring roses, and lay them in the long, open-ended basket, which the maid would be carrying for that purpose. The maid was almost always at her heels. People said that Miss [Laura] Trevelyan demanded many little, often unreasonable services, which was only to be expected of such an imperious young person, and a snob" (152).

Henry James (writing longer sentences) in Portrait of a Lady, also comes to mind. The style requires a great deal of concentration. If you like a challenging novel, the book may be hard to find, but it is well-worth the effort. I found an excellent reading copy on Amazon. Five stars
--Chiron, 7/5/07

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

First of all, I have to say that Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is one of my all time, top ten, favorite novels. The heroic, epic spiritual journey of Jane Eyre, from passionate, wild young girl to a wise, sensible, loving wife and mother is, to quote many of my students, awesome. Brontë captures all the elements of Campbell’s profile of the hero’s journey (Hero with a Thousand Faces). The emotions, the characters, the moral dilemmas, the love the hate, the strength and weakness, the courage and fear are remarkable, and, to my mind, overwhelming.
So, when I first heard of Rhys’ last novel as a “prequel” to Jane Eyre, I was a bit tentative. Didn’t I know all I needed to know about Rochester and Bertha from Brontë?
I must confess, I first read this in the fall of 1993 – my first semester in graduate school, so I did not have much choice. Rereading it for my book club was a special treat, and I was not the least bit disappointed. In fact, I noticed several things I had not noticed on the first reading 14 (YIKES!) years ago.
But I loved the story of the young (Antoinette, later Bertha) and her family. The parallels between WSS and JE are remarkable and fun to make. Rhys puts a feminist spin on the story, and I am glad she did. This is clearly a modern novel (written in 1966), but she has firmly anchored the story in the middle decades of the 19th century.
If you love Jane Eyre, I urge you to read this book. If you have never read Brontë’s best-known novel, read that first. You will not be disappointed.
--Chiron, 6/29/07

The Atheist's Bible: An Illustrious Collection of Irreverent Thoughts, edited by Joan Konner

Some one asked me what church I went to, and I told them I was an atheist. With a horrified look, he asked me, “So you think you know better than all the smart people in the world?” I did not want to insult him or anyone else, so my answer was a subdued, “No, but I know what is better for me.”
I have to admit, that my first few years of non-belief were secretive, and a little shy for fear of having to answer this exact question. Lately, I have been reading a TON of rational stuff about god(s) and religion, and they have all strengthened my resolve.
This little book, however, has gone all those others one (or two, or three) better. Konner has collected hundreds of quotes from scholars, scientists, philosophers, writers, activists, comedians, and even a few religious figures.
So many of these quotes were vaguely in my mind – sometimes without an exact source – but, now I have a handy little volume to carry around. I will give two (of dozens) of my favorites:
“The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there is little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides” (Carl Sagan, p 169).
And, “Not one man in ten thousand has the goodness of heart or strength of mind to be an atheist” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, p 91).
So, if I was asked that question now, I would firmly and proudly say, “Yes!”
--Chiron, 6/29/07

Friday, June 22, 2007

Blue Angel by Francine Prose

I read this book because of how much I admired Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. As I began, I was reminded of a favorite novel by Richard Russo, Straight Man. That book was also about an English teacher in a small college in rural Pennsylvania. But as I was drawn, or should I say sucked into Prose’s story, they quickly diverged. I do not mean that in a pejorative sense – I mean I was pulled, dragged, forced to read on and on. I read the first third on Wednesday, and I read the last two-thirds on a plane to DC on Thursday. I literally could not stop reading. Ted, the creative writing teacher, was a LOT like me. His thoughts as he read horrendous stories by wannabe, talent-starved students were right out of my head. His attempts at fairness and balance and moderation in the writing workshop were right out of my classroom. It was spooky, I want to tell you.
But, the similarity ends there. I have always believed that no matter what the circumstances, students are forbidden fruit, off limits, no-way-no-how relationship material. Ted believed the same thing. Until… I kept hoping for a happy ending. I pleaded and begged that Prose would let this turn out well.
Her writing is terrific. The story is sensationally good. The male teacher is dead on accurate. The students are so real, they frightened me.
Prose has written 14 novels. If the other thirteen are this good, I am in for a treat. I will get through them all. Prose is da bomb, and da bomdadier!!
Incidentally, the book mentions a website: At this site, you can select authors from a huge list. HarperCollins makes recommendation of similar authors, and you can set up e-mail alerts for author appearances and new books.
--Chiron, 6/22/07

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

My feelings about Ian McEwan are complicated. I really enjoy his characters – that is the most important element of a good story to me. However, his sometimes tedious attention to details irks me. He spent several pages describing the sensation of a wayward pubic hair. On the other hand, his description of love as “not a steady state, but a matter of fresh surges or waves” (152) was spot on. I had the same feeling after reading Atonement and Saturday. This week I received no less than three journals which gave this novel “mixed” reviews. Maybe I am in the mainstream after all. According to my usual method, I will go back and read those reviews in their entirety.
These reviews were in The Times (London) Literary Supplement, The London Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review. I know what I am going to see there, and it will leave me perplexed as usual. The funny thing is, I can not stop reading McEwan no matter what. This novel reminds me of the short story by Henry James, “The Beast in the Jungle.” Lives and loves wasted by inaction and an inability to express the deepest, innermost feelings. Been there, done that, and I am glad I learned the lesson and had a second chance to get it right!
PS: Reading was made even more difficult because I spilled a particularly fine bottle of Bordeaux and stained the bottom edge of most of the pages. I think a return trip to the bookstore for another copy is in order. Go figure.
--Chiron, 6/19/07

Friday, June 15, 2007

This Is My Best: Great Writers Share Their Favorite Work edited by Retha Powers and Kathy Kiernan

I have been dipping in and out of this volume for nearly a year. Yesterday I sat down determined to finish. There are quite a few well-known authors represented, and also some I never heard of. This reminds me of my favorite music CDs – movie soundtracks. I get a nice sampling of an extremely wide-ranging variety of music. Many times, it pushes me back to the music store to get more CDs by a single artist. Sometimes it reminds me how much I detest certain styles (read Country Western).
There were also some odd selections. Al Franken reprinted a NYT review blasting his book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot. He also included a letter he wrote to the NYT responding to the review and Jean Kirkpatrick’s response to his letter. Pretty funny.
The entry by Joyce Carol Oates (one of my all-time favorite writers) was chilling and her head note offered some insight into the spate of books revolving around violence. Natalie Angier’s “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist” was wonderful, as were selections by Anne Tyler, Doris Lessing, David Sedaris, and Arianna Huffington, along with many others. Five stars!
--Chiron, 6/15/07

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee

This was a quirky novel, but a really enjoyable read. Rather than “Chapters,” the book is divided into “Lessons.” It is the story of last years of an Australian author, living off the reputation of an early, award winning novel, The House on Eccles Street. This work is a retelling of the story of Molly Bloom (of Joyce’s Ulysses).
Coetzee writes, “Isn’t that what is most important about fiction: that it takes us out of ourselves, into other lives?” (23). Coetzee more than practices what he preaches here. I felt her aches and pains, her emotions, anguished moments, and struggles with sons and a daughter-in-law. All were vivid and drew me into the life of this interesting woman. Elizabeth Costello brims with discussions about literature, reading, writing, but as her life progresses, it spirals down to some rather confusing discussions about animal rights. The last “Lesson” is really worth working your way towards. I haven’t read much Coetzee, and, I admit, I only bought this because he won the Nobel Prize, but that is my custom. In this case, I am glad I did! I will be searching for more of his work.
By the way, he is listed as a South African writer, but he lives in Australia now. Elizabeth Costello was born in Africa, but moved to Australia. Hmmm. Definitely five stars –- despite the PETA stuff!
--Chiron, 6/14/2007

Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

Another collection by the author of The Shipping News and Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories II (See below). I just noticed, while reshelving this book, that Proulx has dropped the initial “E.” before “Annie.” All her early books have it, but even the reissues of older works show the name change. I would love to know what that is all about.
Anyway, these stories are good, but I noticed something in this early collection that I did not notice in her other works. She has the attention to detail, the vivid descriptions, and the ear for colloquialisms, but here, her narrator also uses the local color language. Somehow, it seems forced and artificial.
This collection contains “Brokeback Mountain,” and I now see what a fine film it was – by that I mean true to the author’s story. It was almost exact. I read the story before seeing the film, and I liked it. Now, reading it after two viewings of the film, I have a deeper appreciation for both. I could not help hearing Heath Ledger and Jake Gylenhaal as I followed their lives up and down Brokeback Mountain. All in all, I would have to say Proulx fans would only be slightly disappointed. Four stars.
--Chiron, 6/6/07

Thursday, May 31, 2007

God: the Failed Hypothesis by Victor J. Stenger

Another excellent entry in the spate of rationalist literature that has come out over the last couple of years. Stenger’s book is pure science, although he does dip into philosophy on occasion, especially with his chapter on “The Problem of Evil.” There he only has a nodding reference to empirical data. The last few chapters, which summarize the entire book, are excellent. Again, true believers will not be swayed, but rationalists will be affirmed in their non-belief. Four and a half stars, only because some of the esoteric science is not well-explained.
--Chiron, 5/31/07

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Only Revolutions by Mark Danielewski

I once knew a young man who got hooked on speed long before it became the scourge of society and the ubiquitious subject of the nightly news that it is today. He wrote me notes – rambling, chaotic in shape, full of meaningless drivel. I could not help remembering that young man and his notes of nearly thirty years ago as I read this book.
Actually, I enjoyed Danielewski’s first novel, House of Leaves, which was experimental, but with the semblence of structure in the main text, and a reasonably recognizable structure in the footnotes. Very clever!
Mark, we got it from House. You are questioning the meaning of a text, the meaning and method of reading. But, I am afraid you have gone off the deep end. Your experimentation here seems to have grown into an affectation -- chaos for the sake of chaos.
If ever a book was meant to exemplify the benefits of the “Rule of 50,” this is it. Don’t waste your time or your money.
-Chiron, 5/29/07

Monday, May 28, 2007

Two by Jeanette Winterson

If you are not familiar with Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping is a great introduction. Her style is quirky and none of her narratives are linear, but she has a wonderful poetic way of describing even the most ordinary scenes. For example, one day the main character steps out into the sunshine of Athens, Greece. "I went outside, tripping over slabs of sunshine the size of towns. The sun was like a crowd of people, it was a party, it was music. The sun was blaring through the walls of the houses and beating down the steps. The sun was drumming time into the stone. The sun was rhythming the day."
The story is an allegory about love, life, and knowledge, and story telling, and dreams of past and present and future. I haven't read much Winterson since graduate school, but I am glad I came back to her.
The second title is Weight: the Myth of Atlas and Heracles. I have mixed feelings about this philosophical retelling of the Atlas and Heracles myth (I hesitate to call it a novel). It was clever, thought provoking, and well-written as usual for Winterson.
But something holds me back from unqualified and enthusiastic praise. I guess it relates to my distaste for modern versions of Mozart, Puccini, or Verdi operas (I once had the misfortune to see Cosi Fan Tutti set in a bowling alley).
I also LOVE the old myths. They have a beauty of their own closely connected with the culture that created them. When the stories are twisted and reshaped to fit our culture, something is gained, but, in my opinion, far more is lost. See also my recent posting of Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad.
-Chiron, 5/28/07

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Apple That Astonished Paris by Billy Collins

I am eating my hat here!
For years, I have railed against poetry, which I now trace to the nuns of my grammar school days who made us memorize a poem every Friday for recitation on Monday. Classics like “The Duel” by Eugene Field or “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear, still lurk in my mind.
Then I discovered a Billy Collins' poem, “Introduction to Poetry.” I loved the humor, the simple language, and the clever associations. I now own all his books and am awaiting delivery of a book not listed anywhere in any of the books I do have: “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.” I am not sure what this is, but I hope to find out in the next couple of days.
This “Apple” collection contains a number of poems published outside his regularly listed books. Some are from his early days and reflect a strikingly different style. I can’t say I like all the poems here, but there are more than enough to make this volume from the University of Arkansas Press worthwhile. 4-1/2 stars.
--Chiron, 5/20/07

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

This warm and intimate biography of one of the great and iconic figures of the 20th century is a must read for anyone interested in science, creativity, or simply the lives of interesting people.
I read the great biography of Einstein by Ronald Clark in the early '70s, and I enjoyed that a lot, so I was, at first, a bit hesitant to take on this work. However, every time I saw Isaacson interviewed on TV, my interest went up a notch. Finally, I gave in and bought a copy -- I am glad I did!
The personal and (almost) secret information uncovered by a treasure trove of new documents recently released by Hebrew University in Israel about his mind, life, and experiences is awe-inspiring. Some of the inspirational things I learned about him include: an understanding of the quote "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Einstein's knowledge of math was limited and he frequently needed help, but his "thought experiments" formed the basis for most of his ground-breaking theories that almost single-handedly allowed him to invent the science of theoretical physics.
Another Einsteinian trait was his incredible power of concentration. He was able to juggle dense and complicated scientific concepts and simple tasks, such as occupying his infant child or walking alongside a friend and engaging in meaningless banter.
I first thought of this book as a candidate for my book club, but I am not so sure for a couple of reasons: it is long and might not appeal to those who do not enjoy reading about esoteric concepts of science. Although Isaacson's style make the latter accessible to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of science, I can imagine it would be off-putting for many people.
I found several quotes particularly compelling. Repression of free thought was one of the social issues that engaged Einstein throughout his life. He wrote, "Any government is evil if it carries within it the tendency to deteriorate into tyranny. The danger of such deterioration is more acute in a country in which the government has authority not only over the armed forces but also every channel of education and information as well as over the existence of every single citizen" (Isaacson 497).
Another: "...unrestrained capitalism produced great disparities of wealth, cycles of boom and depression, and festering levels of unemployment. The system encouraged selfishness instead of cooperation, and acquiring wealth rather than serving others. People were educated for careers rather than for a love of work and creativity. And political parties became corrupted by political contributions from owners of great capital" (Isaacson 504).
Finally, in a speech quoted by Isaacson, Einstein said, "If we want to resist the powers that threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom, we must be clear what is at stake. Without such freedom, there would be no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Faraday, no Pasteur, no Lister" (423). As Isaacson says here, for Einstein, "Freedom was a foundation for creativity" (423)
5 stars!
--Chiron, 5/28/07

The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman

This chaotic and random collection of humor is hilarious. If you are a fan of the character in the PC vs Mac commercials and the “resident expert” of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” you will love this collection. No need to read all in one sitting. In fact, I have been dipping into it at random over the past couple of weeks at odd moments while readig more serious stuff. Highly recommended! 5 stars.
--Chiron, 5/20/07

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble

I am ambivalent about Margaret Drabble. I know she is a respected writer with a wide variety of published works. Her stories are absorbing, and I have no trouble finishing anything of hers I start. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, which she edits, is a treasured and trusted resource. But…
Something always stops me from being an enthusiastic fan. I recently got a copy of this novel published in 2004 (paperback in 2005) and have had it on my TBR pile for a couple of months. I started it the other day, and almost invoked my “rule of 50.”
However, something was drawing me in deeper, and I kept going. Maybe it was the spirit of Lady Hong hovering over my shoulder as she hovered over Drabble’s and her main character Barbara Halliwell.
Drabble's overly apologetic forward put me off a bit, and the (sometimes) clumsy and repetitious first section was annoying. I also saw a minor error or two. None of this mattered -- I couldn't stop.
The second section was a different story – it really hooked me and I am glad I stayed for the ride. The story is atmospheric and engaging, and even a bit haunting. You really have to read it to understand what I mean here.
Last night, I went to Amazon and bought the actual memoirs that gave birth to the novel, so we will see. I have to say this is the best Drabble novel I have read.

--Chiron, 5/10/07

Sunday, May 06, 2007


I have been so busy lately, and I have had problems with my desktop PC, so I have been writing these posts on a laptop. A great tool, but different from a desktop, so I am not entirely comfortable with it yet. Anyway, I was transferring my postings to a Word document, and I noticed quite a few typos. Hardly good advertising for an English teacher! I believe I have fixed them all, and I will be more careful in the future!
--Chiron, 5/6/07

Friday, May 04, 2007

Flaws in the Glass: A Self Portrait by Patrick White

If you have read my post below of The Aunt's Story, you know of my discovery of Patrick White. Before reading the rest of his novels, I decided to read his autobiography. I also have his letters which I will read during the reading frenzy I am starting today now that I am finished the Spring semester.
This episodic and charming autobiography reveals a lot about White's life, and loves, and relationships. I have a much better understanding of Aunt's Story.
White's novels are quirky, and so is this biography. He reveals a lot of extremely sensitive information about his family and especially his relationship with his parents. I imagine the letters will be equally revealing.
Stay tuned for more on this wonderful novelist.
--Chiron, 5/5/07

god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens

First there was Sam Harris and The End of Faith and his argument that religion does more harm than good. The there appeared Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion arguing that belief in god is irrational and also has done far more harm than good. Now we have Christopher Hitchens weighing in with his book subtitled, "...How Religion Poisons Everything."
These three books, read together, form a solid foundation for a rational view of existence free of the scourge of religion in general and fundamentalism in particular. It is comforting and empowering to read that so many others have raised the same questions, and come to the same conclusions I have over the last 35 years or so.
Hitchens mentions getting himself in hot water by questioning a particularly silly statement in a religious school at a young age. I was punished for answering the rhetorical question, "How can you explain the amazing growth and continuity of the Roman Catholic Church?" with the simple answer: "Infant Baptism!"
If you have even the slightest lingering doubt about the efficacy of religion or your beliefs in the fantastic, I would strongly recommend these three books. The arguments can only be answered with: "I don't care; I believe." No longer good enough for me!
-Chiron, 5/4/07