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