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