Sunday, July 27, 2008

Terrorist by John Updike

Updike is one of my favorite authors of all time. I have 323 books by, about, or containing a work by him and literally thousands of magazines in which he has appeared. The fact that I have not read anything, except magazine appearances, by him in a while desperately needed remedying. I will not be away so long again.

No one writing today can fashion and shape language the way John Updike can. To me, he is The Master wordsmith of the last fifty years. His essays, his book reviews, his poetry, his short stories, and his novels spin webs of incredible beauty with deep insights and characters as finely drawn and accurate as any ever written. His prose is so graceful, the reader is carried along to places never visited, to characters never met, to situations unimaginable, with the ease of an early morning walk as the eastern sky grows pink and a soft breeze cools the face.

Terrorist is such a story. The reader is taken on a ride in a truck driven by a misguided, manipulated young man, who is determined to wreak vengeance on people he does not know, because he has been convinced the strangers he kills have stolen his God.

Early in the novel, the third-person narrator reveals something about the angry young man. Updike writes:

"Ahmad knows it is a sin to be vain of his appearance: self-love is a form of competition with God, and competition is what He cannot abide. But how can the boy not cherish his ripened manhood, his lengthened limbs, the upright, dense, and wavy crown of his hair, his flawless dun skin, paler than his father’s but not freckled, blotchy pink of his red-haired mother and those peroxided blondes who in white-bread America are considered the acme of beauty?” (18).

In the unlikely event that nothing else happens while reading this novel, it will force any one with a shred of heart or soul to closely examine our culture, what it values, and how we treat each other.

Updike also anoints unlikely characters as heroes in the epic sense -- disillusioned, semi-failed, lost souls searching for some light at the end of the dark tunnels which are their lives. At first, these individuals seem to be mere dressing, a bit of bright ribbon on a dull coat or shirt. But Updike brings them along with the reader, and in the end they all find something, even if it was not what they were seeking.

In the early pages of the novel, I felt a bit frustrated because of the many Arabic words and phrases which were not translated. Only a few could be worked out from the context; however, as I read on, I realized Updike was deliberately wrapping Islam in a shroud to keep it as mysterious as it is in real life. How can we understand the anger, the hatred of the fanatical jihadist who believes in a God that will welcome a martyr with 72 “houris” at the instant of death. They believe this God is as close to them as the veins in their necks.

I don’t pretend to understand any of this after reading Terrorist, but I could feel the anger, the hatred, and the devout belief in a religion that promises the best of everything after a life that offers the worst of everything. This is the same message which fixed the grip of the Catholic Church on the hapless, ignorant peasants of the Middle Ages. The scary thing is these characters are not ignorant and not hapless. Perhaps that is the greatest danger of all. A perfect novel! Unqualified five stars.

--Chiron, 7/27/08

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fire in the Blood by Iréne Némirovsky

Iréne Némirovsky was born in Russia, but her family fled to Finland after the Russian Revolution in 1917. From there, they emigrated to France where she lived until she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942. She died at Auschwitz in 1943. She published nine books between 1928 and 1937. She was working on Fire in the Blood when she was arrested. Her notes and manuscripts were scattered among her family members, and this novel has finally been assembled for the first time.

My first experience with Némirovsky was Suite Française -- a great story of rural villagers trying to survive the early days of the German occupation as refugees streamed through their land trying to reach free France. Originally planned for three parts, it was never finished. I was hoping Fire approached, even slightly, the power of that narrative.

I have not been disappointed, and I would even say my expectations have been exceeded.

Fire is a story of an insular French village in the days between the World Wars. Anyone who has ever visited the French countryside will instantly recognize the slow, measured pace of life. “The farmers around here don’t gossip and would rather walk through fire than get involved in other people’s business” (74). When tragedy strikes a newly married young man, it is marked up as fate, an error of judgment, or simply an accident, and the reader only gradually hears the quiet murmurs as the truth is passed from farmhouse to tavern to kitchen.

The story is narrated by Silvio, a retired gentleman farmer who, because he has no wife and no heirs, has gradually sold off his land and now lives alone, except for an occasional visitor and the company of his housekeeper. One night he writes,

“I was desperate for her to leave, as if I were expecting someone. And, in fact, I was: I was expecting my youth. Memories of the past would return to us more often if only we sought them out, sought their intense sweetness. But we let them slumber within us and, worse, we let them die, rot, so much so that the generous impulses that sweep through our souls when we are twenty we later call naive, foolish…Our purest, most passionate loves take on the depraved appearance of sordid pleasure” (105-6).

Prose like that is not nearly common enough. How can anyone not let the mind wander back to days of care-free youth when there was fire in the blood?

The secret visitor that Silvio awaits comes barging in to turn upside down this quiet little place. Although I guessed part of the secret early on, the end is a stunner, and the full story really took the wind out of me.

All the characters are searching for their own form of happiness, some in the past, some in dreams of the future. Practically every page has the word happy, happiness, unhappy, or some other variation on that theme. Silvio says, “I don’t want to get involved in your problems…all I want is a quiet life” (84-5).

Only a few works of Némirovsky’s have been translated, but I am going to keep a weather eye out for any more that come along. She is a hidden treasure waiting to be rediscovered by all fans of serious fiction. Five stars

--Chiron, 7/24/08

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes) by Alain-Fournier

I never heard of this novel nor this author. After completing a survey for a publisher, they offered me a free Penguin Classic edition for my time. Of the six books on the list, I already had five, so I took this one. It was a lucky draw, because this is definitely an interesting novel.

Alain-Fournier (Henri Alban) was born in France in 1886. His parents were teachers, and he received a fine education. Le Grand Meaulnes was published in 1912, and he was killed on the Meuse in 1914. A second novel was published posthumously.

François Seurel is a student at his parents’ school when Augustin Meaulnes, a tall, handsome boy arrives. The two form an instant bond. A few days after his arrival, Augustin tries a practical joke which goes awry, and he is lost far from school. He stumbles onto an estate in the midst of preparations for a wedding. He is welcomed as a guest and given a costume. He glimpses a beautiful young girl and immediately falls in love. At the last minute, the wedding is canceled, and the guests disperse. Augustin’s horse and cart have disappeared, so he accepts a ride back to school and stumbles in late one night -- three days after he left the school. He is reticent about his adventures, but eventually he tells François all the details, including his plan to return to the chateau and find the beautiful maiden and marry her.

At first glance, this seems to be a “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy reunites with girl” story; however, this is only the beginning of the tale. It also seems to be some sort of dream or hallucination, but it is all too real.

An informative Introduction by the acclaimed New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, warns the reader of “roller coaster turns of the narration, at what Dr. Johnson might have called the improbability of the incidents and the extremity of the experiences” (ix). He is right about that, I found myself scratching my head on more than many occasions. But the prose is so detailed and so visual, as Gopnik later writes, “Once read, Le Grand Meaulnes is forever after seen” (x). The twists and turns of plot are a small price to play for 223 pages of magical, lyrical prose.

Meaulnes is a wonderful character, a little bit of Holden Caulfield in his rebelliousness, and a little bit of the dare-devil Phineas from Knowles’ A Separate Peace, while François neatly fills the role of Gene from the same novel.

Lots of other interesting characters populate the story as well. Frantz, brother of Yvonne, the beautiful maiden, suffers from “extravagant fantasies.” François refers to his mother as “Millie,” and a mysterious gypsy arrives to complicate Augustin’s plans to find Yvonne.

The story is more than interesting -- I was so absorbed I read it in a little more than two afternoons. This not to say it was an easy read. There are lots of passages which require savoring. Sometimes I found my mind wandering in the gardens and woods, so I had to stop, retrace the words, and pick up again. I was drawn into this story in an almost magical way -- as though while staring at an impressionist painting, I felt myself bathed in the light amidst the haystacks.

Adults seem to have limited authority in Alain-Fournier’s world, perhaps because he was still a young man when he was killed in World War I. The insanity of war! What might he have written had he lived to full maturity? Four stars because the ending was too sudden, too final. I would rather the story be extended another 200 pages.

--Chiron, 7/21/08

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Some Church by David Romtvedt

A cup of tea, a warm scone, a cat purring softly beside me, and a slim volume of verse – right out of the 19th century! This is a wonderful collection of poems! Most are sweet, some slightly sour, many with humor, and none with the angst and anger that permeates much of modern poetry. Romtvedt has written an almost perfect little book of poems. There were none here that I did not like.

He uses reflection and observation to create his little stories in verse. An example of what I mean is in “Buddha with a Cell Phone”

The dark sky opens and it starts to rain. I go outside
to stand in the stream, the longed-for gift of water
where it hasn’t rained for so long. I shout and dance
with the dog, who puts his ears back and licks my nose.
When we come back in, he shakes and I do too,
a few drops flying off my hair. I notice the Buddha
sitting on my desk. He’s a rubber Buddha
in a yellow robe. If you squeeze him he squeaks. (5)

Not in the class of Billy Collins, but Romtvedt is mighty close. This is the kind of poetry I aspire to write myself: fun, insightful, clever phrases, and detailed observations. Four and a half stars.

--Chiron, 7/20/08

Saturday, July 19, 2008

March by Geraldine Brooks

Near the end of the first chapter, I nearly flung this book against the wall in disgust. How could an Australian immigrant tell such a fetid, disgusting story about the most horrible episode in American history -- slavery. More importantly, how could such a tale of happy, well-cared for slaves win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction? My own disbelief in the answers to these two questions is the only thing that kept me reading.

When I finished, my disgust was even greater -- for an entirely different reason. I continue to marvel at the brutality, the horror, the inhumanity of one human being against another, simply because of skin color. After Cold Mountain, after Mudbound, after The Life of Frederick Douglas, after slave narratives I have read, I simply cannot get my mind around the capacity of sentient human beings for torture, murder, rape, and mutilation.

What started out as a pleasant little tale about Mr. March, who built his fortune as an itinerant peddler in Virginia in the 1840s, quickly descended into the maelstrom of slavery in the antebellum, and Civil War-ravaged, South.

I can’t help reflecting on the death last week of Jesse Helms. Some allegedly good people of North Carolina voted this man into Congress and Senate election after election, despite his openly bigoted and racist views. Then I remember Strom Thurmond, David Duke, and others too numerous to list. Unfortunately, no one, who shares the views of these despicable individuals, is likely to read this novel, or if they did, would they be moved by it in the slightest. I can hear them now, “Propaganda!” “Nonsense!” and “Bull shit!” Even more ominously, “Who cares?” and “Get over it.”

I hope we never forget.

The first two-thirds of the story is a first person account told by Mr. March (of Little Women fame), who leaves his family to join soldiers, as a chaplain, and heads south as the Civil War begins. March recalls his adventures as a young man in Virginia. These memories startlingly return to him following a battle in the early days of the war. Confederate troops rout some Union soldiers, who cross a river and come to Oak Landing, a plantation March once visited on his travels. Although the place is physically changed, Grace, one of the slaves he knew then, is still there, caring for Mr. Clement, the owner of the plantation and Grace.

Loosely based on the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Brooks also drew on real life experiences of Alcott’s abolitionist father, Bronson, recounted in his letters and journals. In an afterword, Brooks explains the shift in time from the journals to the novel. LMA sets her story in the early days of the war, but Brooks advances her novel about a year.

March struggles with ideals and principles, while desperately trying to do some good in the chaos of the retreat near Oak Landing. Sometimes his principles work; sometimes they don’t, but his mixed results are overshadowed time and again by tragedy.

It is hard to believe the horror that must have been the Civil War, but Brooks does a masterful job of telling this story in a 19th century voice complete with semi-colons. March compares favorably with the tone provided by Ken Burns’ quoting of letters and diaries in his marvelous documentary on the Civil War. In one typical passage, Brooks writes,

“I found her in the pleasance, pacing the muddy brookside, ruining what I knew to be her last pair of decent boots. I saw to my dismay that the storm had not yet broken. I had learned the meteorology of Marmee’s temper: the plunging air pressure as a black cloud gathered, blotting out the radiance of her true nature; the noisy thunder of her rage; and finally relief of a wild and heavy rain – tears, in copious cataracts, followed by a slew of resolutions to reform. But the dark cast of her expression told me we were still within the thunderhead, and as I approached she confirmed this by raising her voice to me” (130).

Nineteenth century novels are always a favorite of mine, so I was at home in these pages. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and, a runaway slave, who I suspect may have been Harriet Tubman, all make cameo appearances.

Not as intense as Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, but a great story, I read it in about two afternoons. As the story sped to the end, I could not put it down. This story needs to be remembered, and everyone should read it. Five stars.

--Chiron, 7/19/08

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Mysteries by Lisa Randall

In his best selling book, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking quipped that a friend told him each equation in his book “would halve the sales.” Fortunately, Lisa Randall collected hundreds of equations as endnotes, so I could happily ignore all those superscript numbers and only worry about the asterisks which took me to the bottom of the pages.

Wow! Warped Passages is for serious amateurs with an interest in esoteric science. At one time, I read a lot more of this stuff than I do now, so I will admit to being a little rusty. The interview I heard on NPR mentioned string theory, which I find endlessly fascinating, if not entirely understandable. Randall’s fluid prose added to my knowledge there, but I was lost when she started talking about “branes.” She defines these as “A membrane-like object in higher-dimensional space that can carry energy and confine particles and forces” (460). Branes are an extension of string theory, and the idea is that they hold the key to extra dimensions in space. Maybe all those UFOs have found a way to pass between branes and enter our plane of existence. This gives you some idea of what I was up against. Still I slogged on, and I am glad I did.

I know I will come back to this book in the future, because it makes an excellent reference work. A handy glossary and summaries at the end of each chapter are extremely helpful. Her line drawings were also good for illustrating some of her ideas. Fascinating reading and more than worth the extra effort! Four gold stars!

--Chiron, 7/17/08

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Poetry of Robert Frost Edited by Edward Connery Lathem

The poetry of Robert Frost has always been fascinating, but beyond a handful of poems frequently anthologized, most of the rest of his work was a mystery. A complete collection of his work has long been on my list of books to acquire and read, and I have finally accomplished both.

It is astounding that most of the well-known Frost poems were written in the second and third decades of the 20th century. Also, his poetry seems heavily influenced by the Romantics in that he uses common language, ordinary people, and ordinary events, although, on occasion, his language is slightly elevated.

Many of his early poems are long, dialogue-filled stories that lean more to prose than poetry. I didn’t care that much for those, and I began skipping them after the first few, but his short poems on odd topics were wonderful. A good example of all this is:

VI. Waspish

On glossy wings artistically bent
He draws himself up to his full extent.
His natty wings with self-assurance perk.
His stinging quarters menacingly work.
Poor egotist, he has no way of knowing
But he’s as good as anybody going. (309)

This is one of those books I will go back to over and over. I have marked my favorites, but I am sure others will be added during later reads.

--Chiron, 7/9/08

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Moy Sand and Gravel and Horse Latitudes by Paul Muldoon

I had the opportunity to hear Paul Muldoon read some of his poetry at a conference in Louisville, KY. I also bought these two volumes there, but I must have gotten the wrong ones, because nothing I read even remotely resembled the humorous verse he read that night.

Paul Muldoon teaches poetry at Princeton University and is also a professor of poetry at Oxford University. Whodathunkit?

First, Moy. These poems are largely based on his experiences in Ireland and with Irish people in New Jersey. There was quite a bit of Gaelic in there, as well as names and places names that were lost on me. I would have appreciated some notes and translations on exactly what he was talking about in 2/3s of these Pulitzer Prize-winning poems.

In fact, I had the same problem in Horse. I found myself shaking my head, scratching my stubble, and wondering what it was all about. Furthermore, some of the rhymes seemed so forced as to actually be jarring. For example:

“…a knight could still cause a ruction
by direct-charging his rouncy,
when an Englishman’s home was his bouncy
castle, when abduction and seduction
went hand in glove. …” (7)

My dictionary does not include “rouncy,” so I have no way of knowing what he means.

Maybe Muldoon is trying to be cute, but when supposed cuteness causes a skritch of the scalp and not a smile, it ceases to be cute.

-Chiron, 7/8/08

Tomato Girl by Jane Pupek

Review for Early Reviewers program of

This is one intense novel. Not since I read Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons (also from Algonquin Press) have I read a story so terrible, so graphic, so intense, and so absorbing. I started to read on Sunday, but had to stop after the first chapter for an unexpected short trip for lunch with some family members. On Monday afternoon, I started over, and could hardly put it down. With 40 (of 300 pages) left, I stopped at 11 last night completely exhausted. To say this novel is a “page-turner” is to elevate the term beyond the meaning I always associated with it – an interesting, thrilling beach read where the hero gets the girl/guy, and they sail off into the sunset putting some hair-breadth escapes behind them. Tomato Girl has none of those elements.

This novel is like a vacuum – not the Hoover kind, but the absolute space vacuum that sucks all the breath, blood, and life right out of the reader. True, I could not put it down, but I did hold my breath as I turned many pages.

Eleven-year old Ellie lives with her father and mother in, what at first seems to be a “white-picket fence” existence. Only a few hints of dark clouds float in that first chapter, but the story builds like a distant hurricane that approaches the shore. Rupert, Ellie’s dad, manages a local general store. Something seems not right with Julie, Ellie’s mother, and when she falls down the cellar stairs, she is hospitalized for a few days. This is when the family unravels, and Ellie is forced to handle too much, to keep too many secrets, to witness much more than any 11-year-old ought to.

The novel is told from Ellie’s point of view, and she grows into a woman in a matter of weeks. Her decisions and choices always seem right, but somehow fate or circumstances sometimes interfere. Pupek has captured, in a consistent and completely believable manner, the mind of a young girl on the cusp of her teen years.

The only sour note for me was the character Clara, a local woman, who lives in the “wrong” part of town and befriends Ellie. This woman has magic, clairvoyance, and the ability to raise a dead chicken. She does comfort Ellie, and she imparts some important lessons, but she could easily have done all that without candles, sprinkled salt, or buried menstrual blood.

Jayne Pupek has written an incredible first novel. Definitely not for children, the squeamish, or the faint of heart, but I give this novel 5 solid gold stars.

--Chiron, 7/8/08

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Sea by John Banville

For many years, I have been buying Man Booker Prize-winning novels. This recently added title to the collection was my first by Banville, and I knew almost nothing about him. I have to say I was bowled over by this book.

The Sea is a psychological excursion through memory, first love, loss, aging, and trying not to forget. Banville has written a masterful novel, with elegant and lyrical language so rich it takes the breath away. Reading this novel will introduce at least a dozen new vocabulary words. Keep a dictionary handy!

The narrator, Max, has lost his wife, and he returns to the scene of his childhood summers to recapture his youth, perhaps even to try and start his life over again. The prose ebbs and flows like the sea – the ocean is everywhere and in every sentence. The salt air wafts off the page; the sun and sand are all around the reader -- the writing is that vivid.

The psychological insights are, at times profound, and at other times mistaken, but they are all human. Some surprises at the end also make the reader sprint to the end of the story as if trying to escape the pounding surf.

I have already bought four more titles by Banville, and I hope they are even close to this novel. Five stars, without any reservation at all.

--Chiron, 7/4/08

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee was born in South Africa and educated there, in England, and at the University of Texas in Austin. He taught at SUNY Buffalo for three years, but when he was denied permanent residency status, he returned to South Africa. He continued to teach all around the US, and in 2002 he immigrated to Australia. He now holds a position at the University of Adelaide. For further information, see the Nobel Prize website for an extensive biography:

Slow Man details the story of Paul Rayment, a retired photographer, who is severely injured when an auto strikes him while he is riding his bicycle. He has a succession of caregivers, until he develops an attachment to one, Marijana. Then Coetzee’s novel veers into postmodernism when Elizabeth Costello appears at his door, and forces herself on him. Elizabeth, the title character of an earlier Coetzee novel, is a writer, and she knows all about Paul’s life, loves, hopes, dreams, and failures.

Paul refuses a prosthesis which will give him a measure of self-sufficiency, and as he reflects on his life, Elizabeth explains his feelings and prompts his future actions. Her strange role in the novel appears to be that of Coetzee’s alter ego. She engages Paul in a series of exasperating discussions after leaving her home in Melbourne to live on the streets of Adelaide.

Coetzee seems to be examining the role of the writer in creating a character, and the way a character takes on a life of his or her own. Often writers, when explaining their process will say “characters or stories write themselves.” Here Coetzee struggles with a character and situation which is not to his liking. Perhaps he is showing how a writer handles this struggle.

If this all sounds confusing, do not let it deter any reader from tackling this novel. Coetzee’s prose is absorbing, and it will create many reactions in the reader. I found myself thinking on more than one occasion that Paul should take, or not take, some course of action. Sometimes I agreed with Elizabeth’s advice to Paul, but curiously, in the end, even Elizabeth regrets one piece of advice she gave. Maybe Coetzee wants his readers to join in the creation of Paul’s story. Or maybe not.

Four stars only because I am not sure I completely understand this novel. I think I will create a new shelf in my library called, "Needs Another Read."

--Chiron, 6/30/08