Monday, May 26, 2008

Iris and the Friends: A Year of Memories by John Bayley

This completes a trilogy of biographies about Iris Murdoch. The first I read back in 1999 right around the time of her death. John Bayley also wrote that one, Iris: An Elegy. The second is the outstanding Conradi biography reviewed below.

The third has some photos not in the Conradi, whose work really trails off during the last few months of her life. These “memories” by John Bayley of the last year of Murdoch’s life have the feel of a journal. Sometimes the chapters will overlap with the first 2/3s of a story ending a chapter, and the second 2/3s beginning the next. The detail is extremely frank about Iris’ last days at home with John. I almost wished I had not read this and left only with the images of Iris at the end of Conradi.

But there is still a lot of good stuff here. Only John Bayley could provide insights into his wife’s process. For example, I learned that she never used a typewriter. She conceived her books entirely in her head, and when finished, she announced it was “ready to write.” This makes the loss of her memory even more tragic, if that is possible.

One fun thing is the number of literary quotes and allusions Bayley uses. I get about half of them, but looking up the other half is a hoot. Praise Minerva for Gooogle!

The description of their house sounds frighteningly like our home. It might seem messy and ill-kept to some, but there is a pleasing, comfortable order to it all. For fans of Murdoch, 5 stars; for fans of literary biographies, 4 stars; for all others, 3 stars.

--Chiron, 5/26/08

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread by Don Robertson

The title of this book was intriguing, since I have frequently asked people, “What was the best thing before sliced bread?” Add to that the blurbs and an author I never heard of, and I could not resist.

Don Robertson, who died in 1999, wrote about 18 novels, including three involving the same character as this one – Morris Bird III. Even though this would be considered young adult fiction today, nothing on the book cover indicates the target age group.

The first 166 pages were typical YA fiction. I was reminded of Jean Shepherd and his radio show on WOR in New York in the 60s. Many a night I lay awake listening to him recount stories of his “Old man,” Schultz, and life in Gary, Indiana in the 40s.

Then the whole tenor of the novel changed with the explosion of the East Ohio Gas Company’s natural gas tanks. I had never heard of this disaster, and a few seconds on Google revealed how accurate the narrative was.

A couple of times I almost abandoned the book, but little teasers by Robertson about the impending disaster kept me going. Once the explosion occurred, it was like the down-hill on a roller coaster – there was no getting off then. I Googled Morris’ name but nothing but the book came up. I so wanted him to be real.

I still don’t know what was the best thing before sliced bread, but I sure am glad I read this book.

--Chiron, 5/24/08

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Iris: The Life of Iris Murdoch by Peter J. Conradi

Sometime in 1987, a review of Iris Murdoch’s latest novel, The Book and the Brotherhood, intrigued me. I started to read it, but could not get past the first fifty pages. This was even before the days of the “rule of 50.”

A couple of months later, I was in the hospital for a few days, and I asked my then wife to bring me a couple of books from the table alongside my easy chair. She misheard me, and brought the wrong pile. The only one I had not read was the Murdoch. I decided to give it another try. I was awake all night, finishing it about 8:00 AM the next morning. Since then, I have loved her work, and I am making my way through all of her 26 published novels (about 16 to go!), although after this biography, I see that I missed so much in what I read, I think I will start over and go through all of them in order.

Her novels are complex in characters, plots, relationships, and philosophy, but they are worth every single second I spend with her. From her novels and this biography, I have learned countless new vocabulary words, ideas, historical events, and philosophy. This incredibly detailed and documented biography of the great (-est?) 20th century British novelist does her justice – and then some. There are 60 pages of end notes, 10 pages of selected bibliography organized by chapter, Murdoch’s complete bibliography (5 pages), and an extremely detailed index that runs to 32 pages.

An example of the detail: at one point, Conradi mentions that when World War II broke out, Iris and some friends were evacuated from Oxford, and “Iris was painting a lot; many of her paintings of the time had ladders in them. One survives: a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses – the first UK edition came out in 1936 – lying by a blue pottery jar of coltsfoot” (112). He then endnotes this detail by quoting three letters Iris wrote mentioning the “coltsfoot” growing around the area. I can only presume this is some sort of plant – pity that wasn’t explained in a note! So, to my dictionary, which explained coltsfoot as, “Tussilara farfara, a plant with yellow, daisy-like flowers considered a weed, but used as a cough remedy. Named for the shape of its leaves.” Now, I can truly see that painting.

On another occasion, the author mentions a professor Iris admired, and then he describes photos, hanging in this professor’s office, of his mentors, their names, dates, what and where they taught (118). This was truly a labor of the utmost affection and respect. Conradi was a close friend of Iris and her husband John Bayley.

Much like Murdoch’s novels, there is a lot to absorb here. I have learned so much about her personal life, I know I will have a better understanding of her novels. As I read (or re-read) each novel, I think I will copy the notes from the biography and keep them nearby.

Keep Latin, German, and French dictionaries handy, because not all phrases are translated. Some are explained, some evident from the context with even a smattering of these languages, but I had to puzzle out a least a third of these quotes (usually) from her letters and journals.

This might seem boring and dry, but it is anything but! Iris was a vivacious, funny, brilliant, clever, and popular woman at Oxford in the late 30s, during the war working for the British Treasury Department, at St. Anne’s College in the 50s, and later the Royal College of Art. All this detail comes out in Conradi’s delightful prose. Maybe more that a reader could ever imagine about the life of Murdoch, but if you love her novels as much as I do, it is decidedly NOT too much.

I knew how it would end, since I read John Bayley’s Iris: an Elegy, but I could not help the emotional effect of her loss as I closed the book today. Five stars

--Chiron, 5/17/08

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins

Wallace Stevens once wrote, when discussing the subject matter of poetry, that it is not a “collection of solid, static objects extended in space” but rather the life that is lived in the scene that it composes. He continues, “so reality is not that external scene but the life that is lived in it. Reality is things as they are.” I believe Stevens has touched on an important aspect of poetry for me, and that Billy Collins exemplifies this dictum as well as any poet writing today.

We do not have to look far in Sailing Alone Around the Room, a selection of Collins’ work from several of his books, which also includes some “new poems.” My favorite Collins’ poem is a good place to start. “Shoveling Snow with the Buddha” takes the mundane chore of clearing a driveway of new fallen snow. The narrator is joined in the task by the Buddha. “…here we are working our way down the driveway / one shovelful at a time” (LL 13-14). There is nothing fancy here, no deep meaning, but the gentle language is infused with the reality of two people shoveling. The reader takes up the image and adds the cold, the strenuous nature of the task, as well as the sense of satisfaction that comes as they approach the end of the drive. Hardly anything could be more realistic. Having shoveled many sidewalks for quarters as a young boy, these lines instantly carry me back to my early years.

Another example that strikes me as particularly realistic, is “On Turning Ten,” Collins counts the years with mileposts in a child’s dreams of the future:

…I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince. (LL 12-16)

Those years easily come back to me with Collins’ lyrical and flowing style. I need only substitute other dreams -- an archaeologist, a pilot, a sailboat captain – for transportation to those innocent days.

If you are unfamiliar with Billy Collins, this volume is a great place to start. When I first bought this book, I quickly read through it, but then I started over and read them one at a time. Occasionally, I would linger on a favorite poem for a second, third, or even a fourth read before moving on. You will be as enchanted as I was, and you will go out and buy the rest of Collins’ books for full servings only hinted at in this fine collection. Five stars.

--Chiron, 5/7/08

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Recently I read and loved Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. I have always been an admirer of his style, his stories, and his rationalist philosophy, so I was thrilled when I received an early reviewers copy from LibraryThing. I looked forward to reading Rushdie’s newest work, but I have to say I was perplexed – until I reached the end. Rushdie performs magic with Enchantress.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first is a wonderful, lyrical story told with the voice of a story teller steeped in an oral tradition. Nothing new there for Rushdie; he tells stories with grace, poetry, and detail to transport the reader to any time and place. Part two, on the other hand was confusing. At times, I found it hard to separate the teller of the tale from the subject. Most characters had multiple names, and sometimes names were switched in mid-sentence. However, part three was like a charge of electricity which flooded my mind with understanding.

Rushdie has braided a narrative that mixes, characters – real and imaginary – with mythology and history to reveal the vast interconnectedness of culture across time and the world. Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, compares stories that range from Ancient Mesopotamia, through Greece and Rome to Scandinavia, the Inuit peoples of the Arctic Circle, Native Americans on both New World continents, and across the Pacific to the Orient, through India, and then to Africa. Campbell draws a circle around the world and describes how all these stories indicate a close cultural connection among all humanity. Rushdie performs similar magic with Enchantress.

The Enchantress of Florence
blurs the line between the teller of tales and history, between characters and their real and imagined lives, real and imagined friends, and real and imagined families. He also weaves a web connecting the Mughals of Hindustan and the Medicis of Renaissance Florence. This complicated diorama explains the confusion of part two, which is neatly resolved in part three. Enchantress will most definitely require another read.

While the story is deeply influenced by the literature and events of Renaissance Italy, the history and culture of the Mughal empire (early 16th to the 19th centuries) plays an equally important role. The idea of divine kings, then seriously questioned in Europe, was still alive in Hindustan. The renaissance idea of immortality through written stories was alive among the Mughals, but in oral tales. And there lies the convergence. Both cultures obtain the same result through different routes. Stories are the threads which tie both cultures together. The timelessness of story and myth is on every page.

Philosophy, particularly rationalism, pervades the story. Even Islam does not escape criticism. In direct opposition to the Q’uran, the emperor declares a day of nakedness for women, with the proviso that all men are to be blindfolded. The emperor has been convinced women are unhappy because they mistrust other women. By forcing them to be naked for a day, all things are revealed, and women will see they have nothing to hide, or at least nothing for other women to fear. Only one man disobeys, and, ironically, his punishment is left up to women, who pelt him with sticks and stones. This is a neat parody of the ridiculous medieval idea that women are the source of sin. The theory is that by covering women's bodies, men are protected from evil.

One glaring flaw, however, mars this other wise exquisite story. On a handful of occasions, characters would descend into a stream of obscenities worthy of a 21st century Quentin Tarantino film. I found this jarring and inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the story. Scenes of subtle and sensuous eroticism were suddenly rendered crude by the introduction of the “seven dirty words” of George Carlin fame. I abhor censorship of any kind, but I think the use of obscenities in this situation is purely gratuitous. So I take away ½ of a star from this wonderful novel.

I would not be surprised to see The Enchantress of Florence win a second Booker Prize for Salman Rushdie. It will be published June 3, 2008. 4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 5/4/08