Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

This novel has a sad origin. Toole was a young writer, unable to place this novel for publication, so he committed suicide at 38. His mother was determined to see it published. She pestered Walker Percy to read it, and he loved it. It was through his intercession the book was published in the late 70s. Percy was not a reliable recommender to my mind.

I was working in a bookstore at the time and decided to see what all the hub-bub was about. I read the book, but, frankly, I was not impressed. It was neither funny, nor poignant, nor grave. I re-shelved it with hardly a backward glance.

Then, one of the members of our book club suggested it for a read. My first thought was, "Ugh!" but then I remembered numerous other books that improved with age, and which I actually came to admire on a second reading.

This book is not one of them. Sorry Thelma (Toole's mother), but I still do not understand all the hype. I invoked the rule of 50 on this one as I got dangerously close to my limit. "Too many books; not enough time." I am on to something better. 1 star

--Chiron, 4/26/08

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Dangerous Age by Ellen Gilchrist

One word describes this novel: frenetic. The dialogue, the characters, and, I am afraid to say, the writing all flit around at something approaching the speed of light.

Ellen Gilchrist has written a number of stories and novels I have enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one due out in June of 2008. In addition, this one is to be published by Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill, my favorite publisher and a usually reliable source of fiction.

To begin with the dialogue is dizzying. It reminds me of one of those cell phone commercials where the family frantically try and squeeze huge chunks of information into a brief call to save precious minutes. In places, it seems overwrought and artificial.

The characters are doing 20 things at once and all at an impossibly high level. For example, one character becomes pregnant, at five months almost loses the baby, but her obstetrician orders to bed for six months. At eight months, she goes on a three-and-a-half mile walk with the doctor.

These people are also frenetic drivers. I live in Waco, TX, and I have driven many times to New Orleans. It takes me eight hours, provided I do not run into any traffic problems around Houston. The trip from Waco to the South edge Dallas is an hour and a half. If it is near rush hour, it can take another hour to get out of the city on the north side. Dallas is about two and a-half hours to Oklahoma City, and Tulsa is a couple of hours further on. One character in A Dangerous Age drove from New Orleans to Tulsa in eight hours.

Gilchrist must have rushed this book because of these lapses. In another situation, one character is called to active duty in the Marines. He goes to great pains to tell his wife he is on some top secret mission and he can’t tell her about it. He then proceeds to tell, in great detail, all about is job – on the phone and in e-mails. Maybe Gilchrist was on a secret mission, too, but darned if I know what it was.

All in all, a disappointing effort from a fine writer. 2 stars

--Chiron, 4/24/08

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Sum of Our Days by Isabelle Allende

Her previous memoir, Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses was thoroughly enjoyable with a sensuous and erotic tone. I have been away from Allende for a long time, so I was looking forward to this book.

Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this one as much as her other works. Not that there was anything terribly wrong with it, but I did find it to be a self-conscious letter to her deceased daughter. The Allende language was there -- fluid and conversational, but this mix of New Age clap trap, Buddhist philosophy, Chinese alternative medicine, and airing of family squabbles wore thin.

I need to read something else by her soon -- I don't want this book to press itself on my memory. Maybe I will go back to Aphrodite for a second read.

--Chiron, 4/20/08

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Door by Margaret Atwood

I have most of Atwood’s fiction – it has a certain charm: sometimes humorous, sometimes cautionary, almost always nostalgic. I have enjoyed all her work, particularly Cat’s Eye, my clear-cut favorite. This is my first volume of her poetry, and I have to say they all share a consistent voice, sometimes discordant and jarring, sometimes with mildly disturbing images, sometimes (rarely) lyrical. Several of the poems I liked a lot, and most others were okay.

This collection needs going over several more times before I can rate it. Atwood’s voice comes out clear, though, and something makes me want to crawl inside these poems and see what is really there. A few are obscure to me. About 40 of the fifty poems are collected on a CD read by Atwood.

--Chiron, 4/6/08

Still Life with Elephant by Judy Reene Singer

I am not sure how to classify this novel. Let me tell you some things about it that might shed some light on where it falls between To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

First the characters. Neelie, the main character, strikes me as a dope with several annoying habits. One habit is mangling the words she hears from her family and friends into incomprehensible phrases, which she then has to translate – sometimes successfully, most often not. This “habit,” or perhaps more accurately “affectation,” as it seems to become, predictably disappears when she meets Tom. For someone with a Master’s degree in psychology, her vocabulary seems woefully inadequate – numerous, slightly less than common words, elude her. It is not cute, and it wears thin in the first twenty pages.

Speaking of Tom, he is completely one-dimensional, and I scratch my head at how he achieved his place in the novel.

Maybe I suffer from a life strewn with mistakes that have sometimes merited forgiveness and other times not. When a character (Neelie) suffers because of a mistake by a loved one (Matt), and that loved one almost immediately shows remorse, and begs for a pardon, doesn’t love require another chance? Is there anything so terrible that true lovers can not forgive, even if only once? How about if that mistake occurred because both lovers were real big dopes? How about if the mistake was partly caused by Neelie? Except in the case of a severe pathology (sex addiction), I firmly believe that responsibilty for adultery can be placed on a continuum from 10-90% to 50-50% percent. This is not to excuse it, but I do not think Matt has a sexual pathology. The author's note says she has a degree in psychology, but I think a character suffering from sex addition would be beyond her literary powers.

I found this plot situation entirely unbelievable, along with the circumstances of the first trip to Africa. The dialogue was banal, annoying, and full of clich├ęs. Several other key situations simply did not ring true.

Maybe a new classification is in order. How about a “novel of delusion”? These characters are delusional about life, relationships, politics, foreign countries, travel, just to name a few items on an extremely long list. Since this is an advanced reader’s copy, I can’t list exact quotes, and I won’t be buying the published edition to make comparisons. I would also add predictability to this work’s list of faults. Two stars for a mildly interesting sequence in Africa.

--Chiron, 4/6/08