Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Ten Best Reads of 2008

This started out as a list of five, but I could not decide. The stars indicate the best three, but these were all truly outstanding books.

The Sea by John Banville

America America by Ethan Canin

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

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

*The Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Kusamakura by Natsume Sōseki

Terrorist by John Updike

**The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White

Happy New Year and great reading to all of my faithful readers.

--Chiron, 12/31/08 -- 2hours, 40 minutes to 2009 (it has GOT to be a better year!)

Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 by Annie Proulx

This Christmas present was an immediate choice for my last book of the year. Annie Proulx’s prose is clear, sharp, and witty. An example of her vivid prose can be found on every page, but one line that stands out was in a humorous story about a traveling salesman, “Family Man.” In describing the wandering philanderer’s wife, Proulx wrote, “She seemed soft and sagging, somehow like a candle standing in the sun” (17). Dozens of lines like this are underlined in my copy.

This collection of “Wyoming Stories” differed from earlier collections in several respects. Most were about tough, hard-working men and women desperately attempting to scrape together a life out of the hard scrabble soil and sagebrush of the Wyoming wilderness. However a couple with new wrinkles appeared. Two stories featured the Devil planning renovations in Hell and playing mischief with an ornithologist. These were pretty funny in Proulx’s understated sort of way.

Another featured a tough, outdoorsy woman who breaks up with her adventurous, boyfriend who can stay in any one place to long. She decides to take a hike over the mountains on a closed trail. Gradually, Caitlin comes to terms with her decision to break up with Marc.

The stories with the most power involved homesteaders fighting weather, wolves, coyotes, and falling crop and cattle prices. Seemingly minor accidents had permanent, disastrous effects.

An excellent addition to Proulx’s oeuvre, this third in her series “Wyoming Stories” will not disappoint. Five stars

--Chiron, 12/31/08

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing Translation and Commentraies by Coleman Barks

I have been dipping into this volume of Rumi’s more obscure love poetry at night in the quiet moments before I turned out the light. This volume was an anniversary present from my wife back in April. I decided to finish it tonight.

These poems are exquisite, profound, simple, lovely, enchanting, mysterious, warm, and full of surprises. I could probably list another dozen adjectives if I thought long and hard enough!

Barks has written 22 short essays or meditations on different aspects of love and then provided anywhere from 6 to 14 poems to illustrate the points. My favorite was Chapter Five, “Escaping into Silence.” He challenges the reader to “try a day of silence with someone. Just one day!” (32). One of the poems he uses here, “The Waterwheel,” is also one of my favorites.

“Stay together friends.
Don’t scatter and sleep.

Our friendship is made
of being awake.

The waterwheel accepts water
and turns and gives it away,

That way it stays in the garden,
whereas another roundness rolls
through a dry riverbed looking
for what it thinks it wants.

Stay here, quivering with each moment
like a drop of mercury.

This marriage be wine with halvah,
honey dissolving in milk.

This marriage be the leaves and fruit
of a date tree. This marriage

be women laughing together for days
on end. This marriage a sign

for us to study. This marriage
beauty. This marriage, a moon

in a light blue sky. This marriage,
this silence, fully mixed with spirit.”

On Saturday, January 3rd, we are going to try and go as long as we can without making any sounds. We will turn off all our phones, no TV or radio, no micro wave, no timers or drawers opening – just pure and complete silence as long as we can.

If you think you are in love, Rumi will confirm it. If you are not in love, Rumi will confirm it. If you want to know and understand love, Rumi is the vehicle, the candle, the gentle breeze that will lead you to understanding.

Here is one more poem from Chapter Four, “Sudden Wholeness” (30).

“A thousand half loves
must be forsaken to take
one whole heart home.”

--Chiron, 12/30/08

Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

Roth’s first novel is another book I read years ago and did not like. I also remember seeing the film with Ali McGraw (which was released ten years after the book), and I didn’t really like it that much either. But I was a vastly different person 40 years ago than I am now.

Still, I am only lukewarm about this dated tale of a poor boy from the city who falls for the rich girl from the suburbs. The affair ends disastrously when her mother finds her diaphragm. Brenda left it in her drawer at home when she returned to Boston for college. I think she wanted her mother to find it as a convenient way to end the relationship with Neil. Been there, had that done to me! Maybe that is why I did not like it.

I am sorry I waited so long to rediscover Roth. His recent books have been spectacular. His newest novel, Indignation, found its way under a Christmas tree, so I am looking forward to that.

This volume also some early short stories by Roth, but I am saving those for another day. Three stars

--Chiron, 12/30/08

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Stranger by Albert Camus

I read this book years ago, when I first began to explore rationalism, and I liked most of it, except for Camus’ idea that nothing matters and nothing makes any difference. The idea of an afterlife is irrational in my view, but I believe we each create our own meaning and purpose to life. Our lives can be as rich and meaningful as we choose to make them.

For me, the crucial sentence is in the last paragraph on page 122: "For the first time in a long time I thought about Maman. I felt as if I understood why at the end of her life she had taken a “fiance,” why she had played at beginning again. Even there, in that home where lives were fading out, evening was a kind of wistful respite. So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again. Nobody, nobody had the right to cry over her. And I felt ready to live it all again too."

Powerful stuff. Mersault's mother lived her life. Her last years were happy and comfortable. Why should anyone regret that life with tears? As Camus wrote in his posthumously published note books, A Happy Death, “Your duty is to live and be happy.” Profound and deceptively simple.

This is a new translation by Matthew Ward. What I did not know, was that Camus intended to write this novel in “the American style” -- mostly adjective free and a simple subject-verb-object structure. I enjoyed, and had a much better understanding, this time around, and I am glad I read it again as we come to the end of 2008. Five stars

--Chiron, 12/29/08

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

A friend from grad school, Charlie, loved Italo Calvino. He talked about him all the time and dropped references in the oddest places. So, Calvino has been on my reading list for quite a while. I decided to start with Invisible Cities, because that was the title I remember Charlie mentioning the most.

Calvino has been described as a fabulist, or writer of fables, which by definition, impart some moral lesson to the reader. The word fabulous has the same root and implies a wildly imaginative story. Both these ideas are present in this novel.

The story has Marco Polo, the well-known world traveler of the 13th century, visiting Kubla Khan (which he did). Khan had sent emissaries all over the known world to collect stories, objects, and descriptions of the cities he sent them to visit. Khan kept a map of these places, so that, according to Calvino, he could “possess his empire.” Marco knows he must do something different to set himself apart from these common, ordinary travelers.

He begins relating a list of cities he has visited with all their peculiarities. Each has a different name – many with women’s names – and each has some important defining feature. MINOR SPOLIER ALERT! Polo admits, about two-thirds of the way through his tale, that all the cities he describes are Venice.

Curiously, his tales are full of anachronisms – airplanes, trains, tobacco, telescopes, electricity, and so forth. Another curiosity is the organization. Calvino has divided the novel into nine unnamed parts. Each part contains five named and numbered chapters. In parts one through eight, the chapter numbers descend from five to one. In part 9, the pattern is this: 5, 4, 3, 2, 5, 4, 3, 5, 4, 5, ***. Interspersed among the city stories are fragments of conversations between Polo and Khan.

The moral? The story most definitely has one, but I won’t spoil that. This novel has peaked my interest in Calvino, and I have going to do some research and find some more titles to explore his fascinating world. Four stars

--Chiron, 12/29/08

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Flying at Night and Sure Signs by Ted Kooser

These two collections are interesting. Someone described them to me as a reminder of Billy Collins, my favorite poem, and I am afraid I have to disagree. The poems do capture simple moments, and “snap photographs” of images, as Collins does, but there is a little less humor, and a bit less easily flowing language. Furthermore, many of the poems while not depressing, are sad. “Abandoned Farmhouse,” for example, recounts the shades of lives lived in an old house. Several recall moments of remembering at a funeral or a cemetery.

I liked these poems, though; the simplicity of language and ideas was pleasing. One good example is “Daddy Longlegs” from Flying by Night:

Here, on fine long legs springy as steel
a life rides, sealed in a small brown pill
that skims along over the basement floor
wrapped up in a simple obsession.
Eight legs reach out like the master ribs
of a web in which some thought is caught
dead center in its own small world,
a thought so far from the touch of things
that we can only guess at it. If mine,
it would be the secret dream
of walking alone across the floor of my life
with an easy grace, and with love enough
to live on at the center of myself. (108)

Another short poem from the same volume, and which is probably my favorite, is “At the Center”

In Kansas, on top
of an old piano,
a starfish, dry
as a fancy pastry
left sitting there
during a wedding,
spreads its brown arms
over the foam
of a white lace doily,
reaching for water
in five directions. (122)

Most of the poems in Sure Signs can also be found in Flying, so start with that, because it also contains about 40 poems from One World at a Time, including the two I mentioned here. Four stars

--Chiron, 12/28/08

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Forgetting Room by Nick Bantock

Years ago, I read Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine tetralogy and was thoroughly enchanted by their long-distance courtship. The drawings and postcards and letters provided an air of mystery and a sense of peeking into the private lives of Griffin and Sabine. I lost touch with Bantock, until I came across this volume at a used book sale.

I read it in one sitting – interrupted only by a steaming bowl of Southwestern Stew my wife made last weekend. The Spanish connection was mildly eerie.

This book tells the story of Armin Hurt who travels to Rondo, Spain to dispose of his grandfather’s house, which he inherited on the old man’s death. He was close to his grandfather, but when Armin’s family moved to Chicago, they lost touch. Grandfather put a game inside the house with clues, so Armin could, in the words of Rafael’s will, “find his belonging.”

Enchanting, absorbing, full of surprises and neat tricks of the mind, spirit, and body. Bantock has at least two other books, and I must find them. Five stars

--Chiron, 12/27/08

Birchwood by John Banville

John Banville writes exquisite, lyrical prose, while telling an enthralling story. This novel, set in Ireland in the days of the potato famines, is divided into two parts. Gabriel Godkin returns to his ancestral home after the death of his father, and while cleaning up the broken glass and repairing windows, he begins to recall his childhood. As part two begins, the young Gabriel has run away and joined a circus in an attempt to find what he believes to be his lost twin sister. Eventually, the story comes full circle and he returns to Birchwood.

At first glance the two parts of the story seem disjointed, but Banville ties things up neatly at the end. The reality I envisioned in part one, clashed with the reality in part two, but the brief part three resolved all these threads into a neat package.

This is my second Banville (after the Booker prize winning, The Sea). I have four more of his books, so I will be working my way through them in 2009. He has written 13 titles in all, so I will have to track down those others.

If you have never read Banville, start with The Sea. You will be hooked. Five stars

-Chiron, 12/27/08

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Onitsha by J.M.G. LeClézio

The 2008 Nobel Prize winner for literature was a complete surprise. I had never heard the name or any of his novels. I checked with a colleague from France, and she had heard of him but had read only one of his novels. Onitsha appears to be the only work translated into English.

The story tells of Maou and her son Fintan who travel to Nigeria to meet up with Geoffrey, Maou’s husband and Fintan’s father. They arrive as the British colonial system is collapsing – Nigeria is about to be plunged into civil war.

This marvelous novel has a couple of peculiar features which make it unique and absorbing. First, it is almost entirely told through description. The author limits dialogue to only a few lines at a time, and only on rare occasions. The description, on the other hand, is so rich it defies its own description.

For example, when Fintan first sets foot in the village of Onitsha, he surveys the scene from the veranda of the family home. “At sunset the sky darkened to the west, towards Asaba, above Brokkedon Island. From the height of the terrace Fintan could survey the entire breadth of the river, could see places where the tributaries – Anambara, Omerun – joined the river, and the large flat island of Jersey, covered with reeds and trees. Downstream the river inscribed a slow curving line to the south, as vast as an arm of the sea, with the hesitant traces of small islands, like rafts adrift. The storm swirled. There were bloodied streaks in the sky, gaps in the clouds. Then very rapidly, the black cloud went back up the river, chasing before it the flying ibises still lit by the sun” (47).

Page after page the reader rides along the river in a pirogue, or walks through a grassy field, or struggles through jungle growth.

The other peculiarity involves Geoffrey’s obsession with a legend of a young queen of Meroë, who led her people to the interior of the continent to find a new land to begin their civilization anew. This portion of the story has been set into a slightly different font, and the legend becomes entangled with Geoffrey’s dreams.

The impassioned Maou causes trouble among the colonial community, and Geoffrey is forced to take his family back to Europe. They try and erase the memory of Onitsha, its people, myths, and the legend of Meroë, the last descendent of the Pharaohs. But too much of Africa and its legends has penetrated the family. It will remain with them forever.

LeClézio’s novel intertwines, colonialism, legends, and the destructive force of white invaders. I surely hope more of his work will find its way into English translations. I only hope a more professional publisher will pick up the task. This was a poorly printed, poorly bound book by The University of Nebraska Press. Five stars

--Chiron, 12/24/08

Saturday, December 20, 2008

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

When this novel came out in paperback in 1993, amid a lot of hype, a copy quickly found its way onto my TBR shelf. However, a bookmark in page 20 evidenced the early invocation of the “rule of fifty.” When it showed up on a reading list for a graduate English class, dismay overcame me, but I figured a lot of time had passed, and maybe a different attitude would prevail.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. These characters are boring. They have boring conversations about horses, which I neither care about nor understand. To make matters worse, the characters conduct conversations in Spanish, which sometimes go on for pages. Maybe one in five lines could be resolved through context clues or actions. A simple Spanish dictionary was not much help. The “rule” was not an option this time, so page after page I suffered and slogged.

Then I arrived at page 227 (of 302), and a fascinating conversation between John Grady Cole and the duenna of the hacienda “La Purisima” began. The entire thing, to page 241, had only an occasional word in Spanish. The woman provided a great deal of background of the Mexican characters, and answered quite a few puzzles of the plot. Towards the end of this conversation, several lines of Spanish appeared, but this time several context clues permitted an understanding.

The question of why Cole and Rawlins went to Mexico is still a mystery. Why the duenna bailed these cowboys out of prison, and gave them money and horses to get home, is likewise unresolved.

Clues as to the time of these events were also confusing. Sometimes, it appeared to be the 1990s, and other times the 40s or 50s or 60s.

Recently, I read McCarthy’s novel The Road, and I thought it was a great read, so I intended to try his Horses again. But the rule of fifty is an excellent guide. More often than not, my instincts prove to be accurate. 2 stars (only for pages 227 to 241)

--Chiron, 12/20/08

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens was awarded the second Mann Booker prize in 1970 for The Elected Member. Assembling a complete collection of every award-winner since 1969 was fun. A few titles were tough and had to be ordered from England, but as this novel shows, it was well-worth the effort.

Rubens tells the story of a Jewish couple who immigrated to England from Lithuania. They had three children, a son, Norman, and two daughters, Esther and Bella. Norman was a brilliant child, learning a dozen languages by the time he was ten. He was headed for a brilliant law career until circumstances caused his fall into insanity. With his wife, Sarah, dead from cancer, Rabbi Zweck was forced to cope with his son’s mental illness alone with Bella. Esther had left the family home after a dispute about her marriage plans. All these characters have secrets, and in a series of skillfully unfolded flashbacks, we begin to piece together the struggles this family has endured.

The intensely detailed characters make this novel more than deserving of the then newly-founded prize. The descriptions of Norman’s illness are frightening, sad, and gripping. Only the week of finals grading delayed my finishing this novel until today.

Rubens is a writer I will seek out for other titles. She was able to infuse episodes of real humor among those of tragedy and sorrow. One example is when Mrs. Goldberg comes into Rabbi Zweck’s shop after witnessing Norman’s removal to a mental institution. Abie, as Sarah called her husband, does not want to talk to Mrs. Goldberg out of embarrassment, but as she silently enters the shop, makes a purchase, and opens the door to leave, Abie suddenly wants to talk to her. She immediately turns around, sits down, and spends the rest of the afternoon consoling her friend.

Rubens used quite a few Yiddish words. Some could be figured out from the context, but a few could not. I wonder if a Yiddish dictionary is available.

An interesting aspect of the novel was figuring out who the “elected member” was and for what purpose. As the lives of the family members are laid bare, the answer to this puzzle becomes evident.

The Elected Member was one of the more difficult Booker Prize titles to locate, but if you can track down a copy, you will not be disappointed. Five stars

--Chiron, 12/14/08

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Bride of Anguished English by Richard Lederer

This was the wrong book to read after grading about 80 research papers from four sections of Freshman Composition.

Students these days do not read. The first day of every class i have them fill out an index card as a sort of ice breaker. One of the questions is "What was the last book you have read for fun?"

The last semester or two, more than half have said they do not read or hate to read. Another third reads car, hunting, or fashion/gossip magazines. A precious few read a real novel, and it shows in their writing. They simply have no feel for the language. The humor in this book would be completely lost on them.

Here is an example from a late paper I graded today. "The war in Iraq has caused more warfare than any war we have ever fought in or not." Going over the paper, I read her that sentence and asked her if it sounded okay. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "Yes."

So I was not in any mood to laugh at these sorts of things.

That aside, many, many of the slips he lists I have heard on the Internet or from colleagues down the hall. Some had the feel of written jokes. For example, a student explains his report card as being "under water" -- "below 'C' level."

Maybe next semester will be better. Probably not.

--Chiron, 12/8/08