Saturday, August 30, 2008

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

The novel got a lot of buzz when it came out, and this was compounded when Oprah choose it for her book club. Normally, I am skeptical of over-hyped novels, but my wife read this, and she knows what I like.

This epic novel of three generations of a Greek family begins with a brother and sister escaping from the ethnic cleansing of Greeks by the Turks living in Smyrna in 1922. They came to Detroit, after marrying on the ship from Athens, and began the long journey narrated by their grand daughter, Calliope.

Calliope is one of the nine muses – daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus – and she is associated with epic poetry. Aristotle tells us that an epic is a long narrative poem about the travels and adventures of a hero. The call on the muse is first, and here the muse tells her own story. The epic also contains a catalogue of heros and heroines, and Eugenides has certainly filled his story with those. The epic simile (an extended metaphor) is next, and Middlesex abounds in those. Here is a fine example, "I’d never been this close to the Obscure Object before. It was hard on my organism. My nervous system launched into “Flight of the Bumblebee.” The violins were sawing away in my spine. The timpani were banging in my chest. At the same time, trying to conceal all this, I didn’t move a muscle. I hardly breathed. That was the deal basically: catatonia without; frenzy within" (326).

Finally, the epic question posed by the author, answered by the story: Calliope or Cal?

Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, builds on Aristotle, by adding elements of the hero’s journey. The call to adventure was Calliope’s need to fulfill the destiny of her grandparents who planted the seed of Calliope’s misfortune when they decided to marry. She had many helpers in the Greek community, which insulated her family from the changing environment of the New World. She embraces atonement with her father when she returns (another element of the hero’s journey) and plays the role of her father. The trip to New York and the visit to the “Sexual Disorders and Gender Identity Clinic” is a descent to the underworld where Calliope must confront the terrible secrets of her family's past while embracing her future.

Lest I reveal too much more of the plot, I will let the reader discover more parallels with Campbell’s theory. But this is a must read. The descriptions are vivid, the poetry of the story is enchanting. Calliope tells her story, siren-like, and pulls the reader onto the rocks of disbelief. But in the end, Calliope is the hero of this story. Cal does come back, and his life is made better by the elixir of self-knowledge and realization of his place in the world. The ending is sweet without being sappy. Five stars.

--Chiron, 8/30/08

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Raw Shark Texts Steven Hall

This first novel appeared to be some version of experimental fiction. I kept a firm hand on the “Rule of 50,” and now I am activating the rule.

At first, this seemed like an interesting premise, but it quickly disintegrated into the ravings of a psychotic goof ball. Think of Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, only add steroids, acid, primo hydro hemp, crack, and speed. I did not care in the least about this character or what was happening to him. ½ a star.

--Chiron, 8/11/08

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Excellence Award!

Many thanks to my dear niece and friend Bibliolotrist over at nominating my blog for an excellence award. After looking at her nominees (all of which I have listed below) I am not sure plain old RabbitReader belongs in such august company! I confess I am a Luddite when it comes to reading book reviews on the Internet. I cling to the old fashioned paper journals and book reviews that arrive in my mailbox weekly – always with a tingling sensation of what new books and authors I might find.

However, I have bookmarked all these, and I will give them a go.

Lots of interesting posts on topics not well-covered in the main stream press.

The Erasmus quote is all over my home and office. I ran my mad money account down to 63 cents yesterday to buy a novel by Paul Scott for my Man Booker Prize collection.

Wow! You sure put my paltry 75+ books a year to shame! Teaching six classes for 30 weeks out of the year, plus three more for an additional seven weeks, really puts a crimp in my reading! Can you guess how many essays I grade in a year?

Great short reviews, the same kind I favor and write, although lately, I have been getting a bit longer-winded. Great visuals, too. I need to get off Blogspot or find some other way to jazz up my site.

Love the question approach to reviewing. I always tell my students reading and writing should raise questions in their minds or they are not really reading and writing.

Another great site. I loved the “hangman” game.

Well, these sites are all great, but I guess I do not have the time to devote to mine, so I appreciate every one of you, and hope you will come and visit me once in a while.

I have my favorites, and they certainly do not need any endorsement from me. In no particular order, here they are:

The New York Times Book Review (Weekly -- Sunday) – The grand old lady of book reviews. I have nearly every issue back to 1970 in my office closet at home.

The New Yorker Magazine (Weekly -- Monday) – Another old reliable. I have discovered too many authors to list them all, but Patrick White, Lars Gustaffson, James Salter, and Anne Beattie come to mind. That closet also bulges with every issue back to the 70s, and about a hundred or so I have found at yard sales from its founding in 1925 to 1970. A great source for obscure and serious fiction, poetry, biography, and non-fiction. I also love the cartoons, the profiles, and the articles on current events.

The New York Review of Books (Bi-monthly) – Quirky with long erudite reviews that many times cover five or six related titles, or a review of significant works by a single author, or long articles about art, history, current events. Lots of great advertising, too by small and independent presses.

The Times (London) Literary Supplement (Weekly – Sunday) An expensive subscription, but more than worth it. This keeps me up to date on publishing in the rest of the English-speaking world. The peculiar columns are also a hoot as only the British can produce. Even the letters are worth my time. Each issue devoted to a particular topic, although fiction and poetry are there every week.

The Atlantic Monthly – One of the best written magazines available. Lots of good reviews, but more non-fiction than fiction. The articles are in-depth studies of current affairs and trends. Good poetry, too.

So, Bibliolatrist, thanks so much again, and we will see each other on the web.

--Chiron, 8/10/08

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Holiday by Stanley Middleton

One shelf of my library now holds a nearly complete collection of Booker Prize-winning novels which date back to 1969. The short list for the 40th award for 2008 has just been announced, and Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence is there. I have never been disappointed in the Man Booker Prize, awarded annually for English-language novels from the British Commonwealth and Ireland. This 1974 prize winner bears a striking resemblance to the 2005 winner, The Sea by John Banville, so I catapulted it to the top of my TBR list.

This was a tough read. The style is difficult, largely due to strange word order and comments dropped at the end of a line of dialogue. It took a while to become accustomed to this strange wording, but the story was absorbing; however, it was nothing at all like Banville’s “elegant and lyrical language so rich it takes the breath away” as I wrote in my review of The Sea. After about 100 pages, comfort set in, and it was no longer a problem. There were occasional flashes of brilliance, for example: “The sun-bars angled down packed wild with dust-specks so that the air danced alive with energy between the areas of dim cleanliness” (2).

Perhaps Middleton has matched his language to the confused state of mind of the main character, Edwin Fisher, who has escaped from his wife, whom he now detests. Before leaving, Edwin seemed genuinely to have tried to smooth things over and save his marriage – at least from his version of the story told in a series of brief flashbacks. Like the character in The Sea, Edwin travels to a seashore vacation resort of his youth to grapple with a life-changing event, but Edwin also has to contend with the memory of a stormy relationship with his father.

The ridiculously formal meeting of Meg and Edwin at the end seemed too contrived to be realistic. I did not get the impression that this meeting was “in character” for either of them. Placing this novel in time was difficult, assigning an age to the characters even more so. This might all be attributed to a setting in the middle to late 50s. An annoyingly intrusive father-in-law seems to sympathize with Edwin, but his condescension should have caused Edwin to send him packing.

The novel was also peppered with words and phrases I have never heard. My library contains a lot of British fiction – old and new – and this is not usually a problem for me. One intriguing word (biro, biroing) appeared quite a few times. After three, I surmised it was some sort of writing instrument, but I could not be sure. It was not in my large Random House Dictionary, nor was it in the O.E.D. 3-1/2 stars because I had to work so hard without much reward.

--Chiron, 8/9/08

Friday, August 08, 2008

Love Poems edited by C.N. Edwards

An excellent collection with lots of old favorites and plenty of new names and voices, this is an all-occasion volume. Shakespeare, Marvell, Emerson, Rilke, and Poe are well-represented.

Included are marvelous illustrations. Lots of Pre-Raphaelites, some modern (the "The Kiss" by Klimt on the cover is a good example).

Some of my favorites are the real short ones. For example, this one by Ranier Marie Rilke, “Time and Again”:

“Time and again, however well we know the landscape of love,
and the little church-yard with lamenting names,
and the frightfully silent ravine wherein all the others end:
time and again we go out two together,
under the old trees, lie down again and again
between the flowers, face to face with the sky.” (148)

Buy a copy and dazzle your lover. 5 stars

--Chiron, 8/8/08

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; Illustrated by Robert Ingpen

2008 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of this classic of children’s literature, and I have never read it. This wonderfully illustrated edition fixed that up nicely!

This collection of tales about Rat, Mole, Mr. Toad, Mr. Badger, Otter, and all the characters that inhabit the river and "The Wild Woods," is nothing less than enchanting. My favorites are all of them, but I especially liked "Dulce Domum." In this tale, Mole smells an old house he lived in long ago. He is traveling with Rat, who neither smells nor understands Mole's reluctance to continue. The ever patient Rat consoles his friend, and together they retrace their steps and find the old house. The spend the night, even entertaining a group of mice who are out caroling.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn." Determined to find a lost baby otter, Rat and Mole paddle a boat upstream, and find the lost boy after following some mysterious and haunting music. When they find him, he is alone except for some cloven hoof tracks in the sand. Here is a passage typical of the pastoral style of Grahame:

"The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings;" (119)

A relaxing, comforting, delightful read. I am sorry I missed this as a child. Perfect for a hot summer's day. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/3/08

The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings edited by Rajiv Mehrota

The writings of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, form an important part of my philosophy collection. His simple, smooth style relaxes the mind while challenging the intellect. Samples from all his works are here, and I highly recommend this as an introduction to his philosophy.

At one time, there were several individuals I loathed with a seething passion for what they had done to me, to my loved ones, or to my friends. Reading his book, The Art of Happiness, showed me the folly of the energy wasted on hatred. For that simple lesson alone, I owe him a debt of gratitude. Now, I hardly think of those individuals at all. In fact, as I sit here typing this, I doubt I could name all six of them.

Anyone can read this most accessible explanation of Buddhist perspective. There is no need to convert; in fact, Buddhists discourage conversion, believing, rightly so, that Buddhist principles can fit into any philosophy of life, religion, or world-view without disturbing anything in the process. This volume contains perspectives on the teachings of Jesus. 5 stars

--Chiron, 8/3/08

A Family of Poems selected by Caroline Kennedy; Illustrated with watercolors by Jon J. Muth

I bought this book solely because of the illustrator. My library has several of his books, and my favorite is The Three Questions, based on a short story of the same name by Leo Tolstoy. His watercolors are nothing less than enchanting and match perfectly the text.

After enjoying the paintings, I turned to the poems. Numerous favorites by Frost, Lear, Carroll, Neruda, Yeats, Nash, and Langston Hughes are here. Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” may have been the first poem I memorized.

Once, I was in Paris, France riding the Metro, when a shabbily dressed man stood up and began reciting poetry by Verlaine. When he was finished, he walked around with a cup and a few people dropped in some coins. I thought this was a splendid idea, so I stood and recited "Owl." I got some applause and bowed. One man offered some coins, I laughed and thanked him, but he insisted. I bought a crepe with apricot butter on the street that night, and it was the best I ever tasted.

This book of poetry will take all readers back to their childhood. 4-1/2 stars because she left out “The Duel” (The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat) by Eugene Field.

-Chiron, 8/3/08