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