Thursday, June 26, 2008

Me of Little Faith by Lewis Black

I only purchased this book last weekend, and I had not planned to read it so soon, but with the death of George Carlin, my favorite comedian, Lewis Black has been elevated. His comedy routines and appearances on The Daily Show keep me in stitches.

This short examination of Black’s religious odyssey definitely has its moments. I read it at the airport and on the plane, and there were times I would laugh uncontrollably. Like his comedy routines, some of the jokes require long setups, and, for the most part, they are worth the effort.

His serious thoughts on religion are also worthy, though not always funny. Example:

"Each and every one of us has our own way of relating to the universe. We beseech or hosanna or meditate. Some of us feel nature is the governing principle. Some of us feel there is no governing principle.

It is what makes this country rich. It is also what undermines America. In a land that should take great joy in the differences of its people – and in the knowledge that those differences are what make us strong – we generally choose to fear diversity while wallowing in our own stupidity. For a country where so many believe in some sort of God, we seem, as a whole, to have more faith in our ignorance. We seem to find a shared comfort in our fear of those who don’t share our beliefs." (180)

A pretty serious observation for a comedian, and furthermore, his rants on religious fundamentalists and televangelists are more than worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, a rather lame “play” Black co-wrote and co-performed with college friends, Mark Linn-Baker and William Peters, seemed to be nothing more than filler. Some seriously bad language, but he does not hit all of Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words.” 4 stars

--Chiron, 6/26/08

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

For some reason, I avoided Roth early on -- it might have had something to do with the fact that I hated the film, "Goodbye, Columbus." I was less discriminating between books and films than I am now. When Everyman came to me, I loved it. This is his latest, and I do believe I am becoming a Roth fan.

This novel is the last in a series known as the “Zuckerman Books.” According to the official Philip Roth website, Nathan Zuckerman represents Roth’s “alter brain.” Roth takes the reader on a serious trip through the mind of a writer as he deals with aging and its attendant physical ailments. He reviews his life and loves and experiences. As the dust jacket tells us, Zuckerman, a modern day Rip van Winkle, returns to New York City after an eleven-year self exile in rural western Massachusetts. Three seemingly random encounters reconnect Zuckerman to his past in ways that cause him to make rash decisions.

The novel is set in the days before and after the 2004 election stolen by Shrub 43 and Karl Rove. Roth, an unabashed liberal, tells us exactly what he thinks of that election:

"That a right-wing administration motivated by insatiable greed and sustained by murderous lies and led by a privileged dope should answer America’s infantile idea of morality – how do we live with something so grotesque? How do you manage to insulate your self from stupidity so bottomless?" (97)

How true, and how did we make it this close to the end of this abominable administration?

This is my kind of novel: complex characters with complex psyches and complex motivations mull over the meaning of life, literature, writing, reading. They delve into complex relationships and sometimes come up confused. But, in the end, Nathan figures out what is real and what is imaginary, what is possible, and what is only a dream.

I will go back and read all the other Zuckerman novels. Maybe even Good bye Columbus. 5 stars

-- Chiron, 6/25/08

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

America America by Ethan Canin

Reviewed for "Early Reviewer Program" Publication scheduled for July 2008.

This is a fine novel, and a wonderful read. I had no trouble finishing it in two days. Not because I couldn’t put it down – I did frequently for a variety of reasons – but because I wanted to know what would happen. Much of what I expected failed to materialize, and I was, most often, pleased – I enjoy being misled on occasions.

But it is not a great novel, especially when I compare it to another bildungsroman I read at the beginning of this year: Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs. Except for the politics, the novels do share some similarities of plot. A small town, hard-working, middle class people, with children who aspire to something better. However, America has a feel of ordinariness of language.

This is a kind of All the Kings Men told through the eyes of a hard-working, intelligent young man, Corey Sifter, who is taken under the wing of Liam Metarey, a wealthy land owner in Western New York in the late 60s and early 70s. It also serves as an allegory of political elections since Nixon won in 1968.

Liam is the patriarch of a family with mining, railroad, and timber interests. He is not an ordinary capitalist, because he takes care of all his employees and their families even when times are hard. He becomes politically connected, and spearheads the campaign of a Senator from New York in a bid to unseat Richard Nixon in 1972.

Henry Bonwiller was too good to be true as a candidate. He had a pristine voting record for the working people of his state and on ending the Viet Nam War. He was tripped up by his own foibles and predilections for pleasure, which he placed above the importance of his campaign. He was, in fact, too good to be true.

All the corruption and evil of those days before Watergate came back to me, and I began making comparisons with Ted Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Ed Muskie, Bill Clinton, and now, Barack Obama. We have been so many times disappointed in our leaders over the past 50 years or so, because they are human, and they do have faults, which this country seems unable to abide in its leaders. I can only hope that the next few years will not turn out as this novel does. When we invest hope in a candidate, we are hoping for a better future. When they let us down, the crash is horrific. Maybe this time will be better.

Canin has put together a fine, complicated story, but some of the characters seem unnecessarily flat. Some characters came and went, but left an important presence behind. I wanted to know more about them. Some of the characters, even though crucial to the story, were also pretty vague. The surprise of Corey’s wife at the end was pretty obvious, and almost a cliché.

But I still highly recommend America America. Maybe I am still in the clouds with Malouf. 4 stars

--Chiron, 6/24/08

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Fly Away Peter by David Malouf

Is there anything better on a lazy Sunday afternoon than a newly purchased book of a new author recently recommended by a trusted friend? Yes, if the novel in question is lyrical, poetic, and so wonderful it can scarcely be put aside for dinner.

David Malouf is of Lebanese and English descent. His family moved to Australia in 1884, and he was born there in 1934. Like one of the main characters in Fly Away Peter, he left Australia for 11 years of study in England. He returned and taught at the University of Sydney until 1977. He now writes full-time, dividing his year between Australia and Tuscany. He has won numerous literary awards, including the first International Dublin Literary prize, and he has been short-listed for the Booker Prize.

Malouf is clearly in touch with nature, as this passage illustrates:

"They were so graceful, these creatures, turning their slow heads as the boat glide past and doubled where the water was clear: marsh terns, spotted crake, spur-winged plover, Lewen water rails. And Jim’s voice also held them with its low excitement. He was awkward and rough-looking till they got into the boat. Then he too was light, delicately balanced, and when it was a question of the birds, he could be poetic. They looked at him in a new light and with a respect he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to command" (31).

In stark contrast to the nature scenes in Australia are the graphic and frightening scenes in the trenches of France during World War I. I marvel at Malouf’s ability to describe the dreadful conditions of trench warfare – the rats, the mud, the lice, the stink, the urine, the corpses, the blood, always the blood – and the insanity of war. This passage only hints at the depth of Malouf’s vision when the novel is read as a whole:

"Packed again into a cattletruck, pushed in hard against the wall, in the smell of what he now understood, Jim had a fearful vision. It would go on forever. The war, or something like it with a different name, would go on growing out from here till the whole earth was involved; the immense and murderous machine what was in operation up ahead would require more and more men to work it, more and more blood to keep it running; it was no longer in control. The cattletrucks would keep on right across the century, […] They had fallen, he and his contemporaries, into a dark pocket of time from which there was no escape" (102-3).

Throughout this madness, Jim had the birds to ground him in reality. He kept a notebook of the birds he saw and the songs he heard.

If this is any indication of Malouf’s talents and power as a writer, I can’t wait to get into the rest of his novels, short stories, and poetry. Now I can eat dinner!

--Chiron, 6/22/08

Deadwood by Pete Dexter

This concludes my reading of the novels of Dexter, a former columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News. I can't believe this is the source of the HBO Series of the same name. If you loved the HBO series, you may not like this novel; if you hated the HBO series for its darkness and constant streams of foul language, you may love this novel. Deadwood took me much longer to read that it should have – I was ambushed by ETS grading (1200 essays in 6-1/2 days) and some minor surgery.

Many of the characters are there – Wild Bill Hickok, Charlie Utter, Calamity Jane Cannary, Seth Bullock, Solomon Star, Al Swearingen – but some of these were so distorted in the series as to be almost unrecognizable. For instance, Swearingen is not nearly the mean, nasty, violent character as that played by Ian McShane, neither was Seth Bullock the upstanding, principled man played by Timothy Olyphant. The preacher was there for Dexter, but in a much reduced role. Charlie, Jane, the theater actors were the same, but I wanted to see more of E.B. Farnum, Joanie, Trixie, and something of Alma Garret and George Hearst who were completely absent from the book.

The bottom line is the book and series were a draw. I think both can be enjoyed, but I wish I had read the book first. The series would have expanded my mental picture of Deadwood in 1876. One character never mentioned in the series (as far as I can remember) was “the bottle fiend.” He was interesting, and added some contrast to the rest of the story.

If you are unfamiliar with Pete Dexter, don’t start with Deadwood. Rather begin with Paris Trout, The Paperboy, God’s Pocket, or his latest, The Train. All his work is well written, loaded with interesting characters, and are all fine reads. Dexter takes me back to my high school days when I read his columns in The Daily News.

--Chiron, 6/22/08

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (audiobook)

If faithful readers recall, I mentioned the purchase of two audio books for long car rides. One was a novel I had never read (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens) and this one which I have read and loved. I am, as you can well imagine, an inveterate bibliophile, and I cringe at the thoughts of e-books and audio books. If you care to read my comments on Dickens, it was posted 12/26/07.

Essentially, I said it did help to pass the time, but it was not as enjoyable because of the inability to stop and savor and review especially good passages. This may be limited to a book with which I am unfamiliar.

Anna is another story entirely. The reading by Davina Porter was wonderful, although most all of the men sounded like miserly old curmudgeons. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the 38-1/2 hours (on 30 discs) it took to cover the book. The reading reminded me of passages I had underscored when I first read it.

I am not about to be in the habit of listening to audio books while driving, but I will surely try another. I also plan to go back and re-read Anna Karenina soon.

--Chiron, 6/22/08

Mother: A Cradle to Hold Me by Maya Angelou

This slim volume of only nine poems is really for Mother’s Day, but the wonderfully simple images of Angelou are appropriate for anyone in love. It is also a wonderful reminder of the debt we owe our mothers, and not only for the gift of life.

Here is my favorite, the last:

Mother I have learned enough now
To know I have learned nearly nothing.
On this day
When mothers are being honored,
Let me thank you
That my selfishness, ignorance, and mockery
Did not bring you to
Discard me like a broken doll
Which had lost its favor.
I thank you that
You still find something in me
To cherish, to admire, and to love.

I thank you, Mother.
I love you.

--Chiron, 6/19/08

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Tale of a Dog by Lars Gustafsson

Excellent short novel by this Swedish writer I really like. This was written during his time at the University of Texas in Austin. It purports to be the diary of a Texas Bankruptcy judge.

Tale of a Dog has an easy-going conversational tone and can easily be digested in a single sitting, or swallowed in small bites between grading sessions, as I did.

The astounding thing about this book was the number of episodes which directly recalled events in my life. The humorous anecdote of a senior judge and his near senility rings true. His view of his neighbors and his grandchildren were also spot-on.

Pervading the novel is a sense of evil, which surrounds the “diarist” in every direction, although it only minimally touches him.

Except for his six-year old grandson, no character is fully formed, especially his wife. We learn a good bit about his step-daughter, but almost nothing about anyone else. (Four stars)

--Chiron, 6/10/08

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Portrait by Iain Pears

The last week of an intense minimester course (3 credits in 10, 4-1/2 hour classes) was the wrong time to begin this book. It is much too intense, like the two of his previous works I have read – An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio – even though those are both several hundred pages longer. This compact novel (211 pages) is as intense as anything I have read since.

This novel is hard to classify. It is part confessional, part psycho-analysis, and part meditation on the world of art, artists, and critics. The language is lyrical and absorbing. I find myself using that description more frequently, lately; I suppose it is the influence of some writing classes I have been taking. Here is an example of a particularly lyrical/meditative/psychological passage:

"They talk, you know, the dead. Not in words, of course; I am not losing my sanity. They talk in the wind and the rain, in the way light falls onto ruined buildings and dilapidated walls. But you have to listen and want to hear what they have to say. And you do not; you are a creature of the present. The modern." (93)

William Nasmyth is an egotistical, power-drunk art critic who travels to a remote island off the coast of Brittany to sit for a portrait by a former friend and self-exiled artist, Henry MacAlpine, the narrator. Henry reviews his life, William’s life, their former relationship, and several of their acquaintances.

This novel resembles a painting. At first, we have a rough sketch of the characters and a broad outline of the plot. Around page 160, we have a pretty good picture of where the story is going, but then we start on the downhill slid of the roller coaster – I could hardly stop reading. My idea of the plot, formed early, still contained some surprises.

This novel belongs on the same shelf with Fingerpost and Dream. 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/4/08