Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Appointment by Herta Müller

As my faithful readers know, I always read the major prize-winners when announced. As is the case with most recent Nobel Prize awardees, I had never heard of Herta Müller. At first I thought, well yes, Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Soviet Union – secret police, long lines and empty shelves, spying neighbors, frequent and seemingly pointless interrogations to root out dissatisfied citizens – I had heard, seen, and read this plot many times.

The difference with Müller’s take on this story involves, lyrical, graceful, simple prose that lulls the reader into a false sense of “been-there, done-that.” I nearly gave up several times and even had to struggle to get through the last 40 pages as the descriptions became more detailed, more bizarre, and the mind of the un-named narrator becomes more and more disjointed. Then I read the last line: “The trick is not to go mad.”

So, like Kafka, and Lu Hsun’s “Diary of a Madman,” Müller’s novel relates the descent into madness as a result of paranoia of a dictatorship run wild with maintaining absolute power and control over its citizens. How close we came to that precipice! The novel is a warning. Unbridled police powers will inevitably lead to abuse and oppression.

With that last line – almost a Joycean epiphany – the novel made sense. It became harrowing, exasperating, and I understood completely how madness did result. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 12/31/09

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg

Around 1986, I took off for The New England Writer’s Conference in Boston. The conference was held at Simmons College near Fenway Park. John Updike was the keynote speaker, and his son David led a class in the short story. Those early days of my first attempts at writing drew me there for a chance to see and hear and meet John Updike and attend his son’s class.

Little did I know that another person I would meet would also have a lasting effect on my reading and writing life. One of the students in the class was a young woman who wrote tips for mothers of toddlers who read Parent’s Magazine. I believe she had just been appointed an associate editor, and was then writing a monthly column. Since then, I have avidly followed the career of Elizabeth Berg. She has written nearly 20 novels, a book of non-fiction, and adapted one of her novels for the stage.

While some might characterize her fiction as oriented toward women readers, I thoroughly enjoy the humor, the psychological insights, and the finely drawn characters in every one of her books.

I first received a copy of this work as an audio book through the early reviewer’s program of Incidentally, this website is a great resource for readers and collectors. On a long drive, we listened to Elizabeth Berg read this collection. The strong women characters and their relationships, enthralled me from beginning to end. As soon as I could, I purchased a copy of the book, and re-read the stories, to savor them again. As you might expect, again I could hear Elizabeth’s voice. The actual reading allowed me to spend more time pouring over the finer pieces of prose Berg has written.

Most of the stories revolve around food and eating. In the title story, Berg wrote, “Here is my favorite recipe: Buy two boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese. Make one box of macaroni but use both cheeses. Telling you this, I just remembered this woman I really liked a lot who died and she loved egg salad more than anything and didn’t eat it for years because it was bad for her and then when she was on her deathbed and could have anything she wanted, she was given an egg salad sandwich and she couldn’t eat it anymore” (11). This mixture of reflection and clever prose can be found on any page of this collection. I think I'll have another piece of chocolate.

The most poignant story, however, is “Rain.” This story tells about a platonic relationship between the un-named narrator and Michael, an old friend. Michael has invited her to see a house he has built himself in rural Massachusetts. With a certain amount of reluctance, her husband urges her to visit him. She remembers how she and Michael together when they were younger and reflects on why they never developed a close relationship. Berg writes, “I told myself it was because we were never between relationships at the same time, but I also sensed that, if I moved too close to Michael, I’d lose him” (77).

This remote cabin happened after Michael threw off the shackles that tied him to corporate America, and he opted for a Thoreauesque existence in the woods, replacing a pay check with odd jobs, making his own furniture, and growing his own food. The narrator thinks, “Seeing Michael’s place filled me with conflicting emotions. I was happy for him, glad he’d stood in the middle of his kitchen one random day and pulled the veil from his heart’s desire” (80). Lovely, lovely prose. All these stories are priceless nuggets of gold to polish over and over with slow re-reading.

During the class, I took a picture of all the students, and I promised Elizabeth – and the other students – I would not share those photos. I have kept my promise, and now I have a wonderful collection of her work, her voice, and her image from that class.

--Chiron, 12/28/09

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

The normally reliable Ian McEwan has disappointed me in this peculiar and oddly constructed fifth novel published in 1992. I found the prose nearly as powerful as his later work, such as Atonement, Saturday, and Amsterdam, for which he won the Booker Prize, but Black Dogs left me unsatisfied at the end.

Jeremy lost his parents when he was a child, and began to have an inordinate amount of interest in the parents of friends, adopting them for his own. When he married, he continued this practice and became close to his in-laws. He takes on the task of writing a memoir of June, his dying mother-in-law. She recounts a pivotal event in her life involving three large, black dogs that threatened her when she was on her honeymoon in France shortly after World War II. Jeremy compares her account with that of his father-in-law, Bernard, and resolves the differences in a philosophical manner. He uses the incident to explain the world view of both, and the memoir becomes a meditation on the conflict between good and evil, rationalism and spirituality, thinking and action.

The novel is short – only 149 pages -- and that may be its principle flaw. McEwan tumbles over the waterfall in the barrel of his version and explanation of the event. I wish there was more meat on these bones to give me a better understanding of how he arrived at his conclusions.

I am glad I read this after his later work, so it has little effect on my opinion of this excellent writer, and I will work my way through his first four novels. 4 stars for the prose.

--Chiron, 12/24/09

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

My desert island shelf contains all my favorite books which I have encountered since I began reading decades ago. I would want these books if I could have no others.

Cold Mountain has a prominent place in this collection, since it is one of the most beautifully written novels I have read from the 20th century. Everyone who reads it has a favorite passage or line. My list of favorite lines includes dozens, but here are two examples of this wonderful author’s talent:

"All Inman remembered of another days march was the white sky and that sometime during it a crow had died in flight, falling with a puff of dust into the road before him, its black beak open and its grey tongue out as if to taste the dirt." (115).

Then, while Ada and Ruby, a local farm girl who comes to help Ada run the farm, take a walk on the property, Ruby points out animals and plants Ada never noticed.

"Off in the river stood a great blue heron. It was a tall bird to begin with, but something about the angle from which they viewed it and the cast of low sun made it seem even taller. It looked high as a man in the slant light with its long shadow blown out across the water. Its legs and the tips of its wings were as black as the river. The beak of it was black on top and yellow underneath, and the light shone off it with muted sheen as from satin or chipped flint. The heron stared down into the water with fierce concentration. At wide intervals it took delicate slow steps, lifting a foot from out the water and pausing, as if waiting for it to quit dripping, and then placing it back on the river bottom in a new spot apparently chosen only after deep reflection." (149-150)

On a long drive for the holidays, we listened to the author read Cold Mountain. This actually represented my third read of this lovely, intense, entrancing story. Ada Monroe, and her father, a preacher from Charleston, SC, move to Black Cove, near Cold Mountain, just west of Asheville in the days before the Civil War. This tiny, remote town is the opposite of Charleston with its mansions and society. Ada meets Inman, a local farmer, and the attraction is immediate and complete. Then the war breaks out. Inman gives Ada a tintype and promises to come back to her. We learn all this through numerous flashbacks, because the novel actually begins with Inman recovering from a almost fatal wound at the battle of Petersburg in Virginia. He is given up for dead, but he lingers on, and when nearly recovered – fearing a return to the front lines – walks away from the hospital. He heads back to Cold Mountain.

The chapters alternate between Inman’s difficult and epic journey home, and Ada’s attempt to survive alone after the death of her father. If you have never read this novel, you have missed a wonderful, enthralling treat, which you will return to again and again. 10 stars!

--Chiron, 12/31/09

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer

Only rarely does a book come along that allows me to instantly connect with its main character. I could probably name a half a dozen with chapters that rang true, but I cannot think of another novel which convinced me that my life – with all its foibles and peculiarities -- fit into the mainstream of 20th century America. In Kermit Moyer’s first novel, The Chester Chronicles, only the epilogue stands outside my experience. However, I know that experience lay all before me.

Chester Patterson’s birth occurred only a few years before mine. So we grew up during the 50s, attended college in the 60s, experienced the tragedy of November 22, 1963, learned to drive, dealt with the obsession for girls, and tiptoed through first experiments with our earliest heart throbs.

This novel is a Künstlerroman of the first order. Except for the clearly 20th century American idioms, it compares favorably with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. From the first pages, the reader recognizes this is a tale of Chester’s growth into an artist – a writer. Literary references abound in Chet’s college classes, his interactions and discussions with friends, and his attempt to make sense of the world.

His relationship with his father remained close until the final pages of the novel in most respects, but with a healthy dash of distance so common in those days. I especially appreciated the scenes of Chet’s father giving driving lessons, although, I must admit, my Dad yelled a bit more than his. Chet’s transgressions also paralleled mine – frightening while in the midst, but laughable even days later.

This novel should arrive in bookstores in February, 2010. Make a note. Pre-order a copy, camp out if you have to, but make sure you get this novel, and savor it as much as I did. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/15/09

Monday, December 07, 2009

Brooklyn: A Novel by Colm Tóibín

I have a number of sources for discovering new writers. One fertile source is the Booker Prize, given annually to the best novel of the year. I have come to know many fine authors – Anne Enright, John Banville, and Ian McEwan to name a few. These prize-winning authors have given me many hours of pleasure, but the “also-rans” should not be neglected. One such author frequently short-listed for the prize is Colm Tóibín. Blackwater Lightship became my first experience with this wonderful Irish writer, who is currently a visiting professor at Princeton University. I have read three of his books, and Brooklyn represents a 180 degree shift from the tone and story-line of his previous works.

Eilis Lacey has just finished vocational school, and she has a knack for figures. She helps out in a small shop in Enniscorthy, Ireland. Eilis lives with her mother and older sister Rose. Unfortunately, she cannot find a permanent job in her town, so when a priest visits the Laceys, Rose tells him about Eilis’ plight. He offers to get her emigration papers for America, with a promise of a job and a room in a respectable boarding house. Eilis seems unsure, but she knows her options are limited, so she decides to take the plunge and leave the Olde Sod for the new world.

“New” is quite an understatement for Eilis. She finds herself on her own for the first time in a strange and wonderful land. She adapts well to her land lady, Mrs. Kehoe, and her roommates, who take her dancing. She makes new friends, and gets along well in her position as a counter girl at a department store. Set in the early 50s, she has all the innocence and sense of peace and happiness of that decade. A short bout of homesickness hardly slows her down at all.

Unlike some of his other work, Tóibín does not delve into the dark underside of life and its difficulties here. Rather, his warm prose weaves a serene tale of life in rural Ireland and Brooklyn, NY. Eilis matures quickly, and develops a relationship with young man she meets at a dance.

Tony is a gentleman in every sense of the word. On page 148 the first negative thing happens to Eilis. While walking Eilis home from her night classes, he spins a tale of American Baseball and his love for a particular team. Tóibín writes, “’You know what I really want ?’ he asked. ‘I want our kids to be Dodger fans.’ He was so pleased and excited at the idea, she thought, that he did not notice her face freezing.” Eilis is shocked at the speed Tony had pushed the relationship. As she does throughout the novel, Eilis turns the situation over and over in her mind, figuring from every angle how she should respond. When she does confront Tony, she does so perfectly. He understands, and he backs off.

The best thing about Tóibín’s novels, however, is what can only be described as lovely prose. Eilis returns to Ireland for a visit, leaving a distraught Tony behind. Eilis thinks of him often, but doesn't tell anyone. Tóibín writes, “not telling her mother or her friends made every day she had spent in America a sort of fantasy, something she could not match with the time she was spending at home. It made her feel strangely as though she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew” (226).

Don’t mistake this novel for a romance. It is a sensitive and detailed portrait of a young woman coming of age and dealing with many changes in her life. Will she go back to Tony? Or stay with Jim Farrell in Enniscorthy? I won’t tell. You will have to float through this beautiful novel to find out. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 12/7/09

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition by Ernest Hemingway

Part One: The Original

I love Paris in the summer, in the spring, and in the winter. Before each and every trip there, I re-read Hemingway’s great work on his years in Paris between the wars. When I heard about the restored edition, I could not wait to compare it to the version I know and love. First, I re-read the original.

This memoir never grows old. Someday I want to spend a long period of time in Paris, and wander through the streets and visit the cafes Hemingway mentions. Some of them I have sat in and watched the boulevardiers pass along with strolling musicians, magicians, and mimes. I always made time to have a drink at Aux du Magots – a favorite hangout of writers, artists, and philosophers. Montmartre, the artist’s quarter, also played a role in his story. I still love this book.

Part Two: The Restored Edition

Two chapters have been moved another two deleted and replaced with another two. Other than that not many changes to the book. A casual reader might barely notice the differences. The additional chapter on F. Scott Fitzgerald added another incident to that tragic life. The chapter entitled “The Education of Mr. Brumby,” Hemingway and Hadley’s son, was interesting, because it revealed something of Hemingway as the doting father.

The best part of the revisions, however, came in a collection of fragments not included in the earlier version. One involved Hemingway’s assignment to follow a young Canadian boxer fighting for the first time in France. Another involved numerous fragments of a preface, which he never finished. The stops and starts and restarts of these show an interesting insight into the process of writing. The introduction provides a history of the manuscript. Apparently, Hemingway worked on this while he was in Paris between the wars, then lost track of it until the late 50s. He was still revising the manuscript when he died in 1961.

As I said, one of my all-time favorites, and the new material hasn’t changed my mind about that. If you plan on visiting Paris, read it on the plane to France. Make some notes and visit some of the places which are still there, visit some new spots, and you can create your own “Moveable Feast.” 5 stars

--Chiron, 11/29/09

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Be Happy by Monica Sheehan

My World Lit class gave me this little book the last day of class along with a thank you card. This is quite unusual, but the sign of good chemistry among dedicated students.

Happily, most of the sixty, simple line drawings and words of inspiration confirm my life style and things I do on a routine basis.

One of the pages says, "Read." Five stars

-Chiron, 11/20/09

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Another book I have often read, but this time I have a clearer purpose: I am reading it to a group of senior citizens as the entertainment portion of their annual Christmas banquet.

This book embodies what Annie Dillard meant in the paragraph I quoted from The Writing Life. This is literature, and the characters come to life – each time a bit different – but more than wonderful every time. It never grows old. It always has something I want and need – it exemplifies and justifies my reasons for reading.

Maybe I need a new shelf in my library. I will call it “Evergreens.”

--Chiron, 11/25/09 (Reading aloud 12/5/09)

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

I read this book ages ago, and its quiet simplicity makes it one I return to again and again. If you like reading and writing, this slim volume will surprise and please you to no end.

Here is an example of Dillard’s delightful style: “Why would anyone read a book instead of watching big people move on a screen? Because a book can be literature. It is a subtle thing – a poor thing, but our own. In my view, the more literary the book -- the more purely verbal, crafted sentence by sentence, the more imaginative, reasoned, and deep – the more likely people are to read it. The people who read are the people who like literature, after all, whatever that might be. They like, or require, what books alone have” (19).

You need this book. You need to sit down some quiet afternoon and read it. Then, keep it close by and read it again when the fancy strikes you! 5 stars

--Chiron, 11/24/09

Windflower by Nick Bantock

Nick Bantock has a mysterious originality in his work. His series beginning with Griffin and Sabine, allowed the reader to peek into the private correspondence of a designer of stamps who lives in the South Pacific and an artist who lives in London. By “peek,” I mean that literally – some pages have envelopes pasted to the page, and the reader must lift the flap, remove the sheet and read the letter. Fascinating, thrilling, mysterious, and completely absorbing.

In Windflower, he has written a more conventional tale about Ana, a young woman forced into marriage for economic reasons by her parents. As the ceremony is about to reach its conclusion, a violent wind sweeps in, and Ana takes the opportunity to run away. Her grandfather has told Ana her destiny lies in another direction.

This adult fantasy has the feel of something placed in the middle ages, but a few times we are reminded it is firmly in the present, or at least the near past. Ana suddenly has a “torch” or flashlight, and she sees then flies in an airplane. His characters are as interesting and mysterious as the story itself.

Along with the wonderful mesmerizing prose, Bantock’s illustrations have a warmth and beauty all their own. His illustrations alone make his books collectible.

Except for some instances hokey, clichéd dialogue, an almost perfect piece of literature. 4-1/2 stars.

--Chiron, 11/22/09

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Humbling by Philip Roth

No one dissects, probes, and analyses a character’s angst, fears, hopes, and dreams like Philip Roth. This “three-act play” involves three stages in the life of Simon Axler, a well-known, well-respected actor of stage and screen.

This novella might compare well to an epic tale in the mold of Joseph Campbell’s theory of a hero’s journey. In Act One, Axler separates from his talent; in Act Two, a helper tries to smooth the path to the climax of the tale; and Act Three is the “return,” the denouement of his life. Roth has skillfully taken the reader on a close examination of the later stages of Simon’s life when all seems lost.

This work of fiction contains graphic scenes of sexually activity – in one case, the scene disturbed me a great deal. In another, only the most tender words and images found their way onto the page. Another scene perplexed me, but, at the same time, titillated me just a bit. These scenes are definitely rated NC-17. Roth always has some sexual activity in his novels, but these are more intense than most others he has written. I won’t offer a sample, but take my word for it – Philip Roth is a master of description, and his skills are nearly at the top in this tight, brief story. Four stars

--Chiron, 11/09/09

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Interrogation by J.M.G. Le Clézio

My second read by the 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature has as many peculiarities as Onitsha, which I read last year. I have little interest in detective novels or murder mysteries, but that does not mean I do not enjoy a good puzzler.

Le Clézio has provided me with a mysterious story of a young man in the form of experimental fiction with alternating narrators and viewpoints, gaps in the narrative with only brackets to mark the beginning and the end – sometimes a paragraph, and in one instance, more than a page. The 18 chapters are lettered from A through P, then R. A news paper, inserted after 17, fills in some of the details of the main character’s story, but bears no letter. Why did Le Clézio skip the letter Q? My first thought led me to think he wanted to write a novel without using the letter Q, but several words in “R” had that letter.

Adam Pollo, by his own admission, has either escaped from an insane asylum or deserted from the army – he is not sure. Adam lives alone in an empty house on the shore of the Mediterranean near Marseille. He spends a lot of time scrounging for discarded newspapers and magazines. Adam also writes letters in a notebook to a woman named Michelle. He seems to have some sort of relationship with her, but the details are as murky as the rest of Adam’s life, and as difficult as his relationship with his parents. He may have amnesia, he may be hallucinating, he may be depressed, he may be hypochondriac, he may be obsessive-compulsive, he may be a pack rat at best, or a disposaphobe at worst, and he may be schizophrenic. The eponymous interrogation in Chapter “R” may or may not eliminate some, or any, or all of these possibilities.

I can only describe Le Clézio’s prose as “hypermicrocosmic.” He doesn’t only mention Adam seeing his reflection in a store window, he sees “two eyes, one nose, one mouth, ears, a trunk, four limbs, shoulders and hips” (185). His descriptions verge on the hypnotic. At one point, Adam sees a young woman, and he notices her beauty: “she had the soft cheeks of a little girl in quite good health, nut-brown hair, and her best feature was a pair of full lips, not made up but very red, which were now parting silently so that a pearly drop sparkled in the middle of the warm cavity of her mouth; her voice would certainly flow from deep down in her throat and, with four vibrations in the upper vocal chords, put an end to that faint quivering at the corners of her mouth, complete the most recent of human apotheoses, half desire, half habit” (102).

One line particularly caught my attention. Le Clézio wrote, “He who writes is shaping a destiny for himself” (116). That line might need to be my new e-mail signature. If you enjoy a novel which requires heavy concentration, and if you enjoy deep and thorough psychological journeys in search of the self, then The Interrogation is a must read. 5 stars

--Chiron, 11/6/09

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Twenty some years ago, my admiration for Doctorow rose to quite a high level, then, for some unknown reason, I lost touch with his work. I really enjoyed Ragtime, Welcome to Hard Times, and Lives of the Poets. While at an American Library Association Convention, I grabbed an advance reader’s edition of his latest work. Why I lost track of him is now an even a greater mystery.

Doctorow has a wonderful talent for telling interesting stories really well. Homer and Langley Collyer, real-life brothers, live alone in their childhood home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Homer narrates the story, which takes place over the course of most of the 20th century. In this fictionalized account, Doctorow weaves numerous historical events into the lives of these fascinating characters.

Langley, a World War I veteran, suffers from the effects of a mustard gas attack in the trenches. His younger brother, Homer, suffers from blindness, which began when he was a child. Together, these two manage to survive the vagaries of big city life, including the inevitable problems with neighbors, the city, the press, and the police.

Homer, the much more perceptive of the two, provides lots of details about their life, loves, and philosophy. One particularly poignant revelation came from a discussion during World War II. Doctorow wrote, “So for a day or two I did feel as Langley felt about warmaking: your enemy brought out your dormant primal instincts, he lit up the primitive circuits of your brain” (90).

The two brothers also interact with a large cast of odd and disparate characters. One, a writer from France, who travels about America “trying to get” America so she can “understand it” (184-85) inspires the blind Homer (yes, I noticed that little detail) by urging him to write their story. She tells him, “You think a word and you can hear its sound. I am telling you what I know – words have music and if you are a musician you will write to hear them” (202).

This lyrical, interesting, engrossing novel never fails to delight. Rush out and get a copy – you won’t be disappointed! I liked this book so much, I went out and bought a hardcover copy this morning. Five stars

--Chiron, 10/23/09

Seducing the Spirits by Louise Young

I have a serious conflict regarding my opinion of this novel. Jenny, a graduate student in ornithology, travels to Panama to study eagles. She has contact with a group of native peoples known as the Kuna. The story held my interest, and I never thought of giving up, but I kept tripping over several things which lessened my enjoyment.

I saw four parts to this novel – each with strengths and weaknesses.

Jenny seemed an interesting and resourceful character, but her obsession with sex and romance did not fit the personality Young draws. Many parts of her narrative appeared frantic, as if she had to yell at the reader to get her point across.

Second, the missionary story troubled me. While I agree with the portrayal and Jenny’s attitude toward this slimy character, her response to, and fear of him puzzled me. Mysteriously, she also seriously misinterprets the reaction of the Kuna to his leaving.

Third, the jacket notes tell us Young wanted to write a “National Geographic style travelogue.” She seems to learn the customs of the Kuna haphazardly, almost accidentally, yet she becomes one of them. Her predecessor, Brian, warns her not to “piss off the natives,” and she becomes so worried about this advice, she jeopardizes her good relationship with the Kuna. She follows his advice, despite the fact she has a deep-seated skepticism about Brian.

Lastly, her job as an ornithologist and her status as a graduate student seemed the weakest part of the novel. Jenny is frequently bored and surprisingly ill-informed. Her use of language doesn’t fit a graduate student, since her speech is littered with clichés. She questions the species of the eagle she watches, and fears no one would believe her. Did she never hear of a camera?

I like realistic characters and situations in my novels, and these details bothered me. If you are not as picky as I am, and you like an interesting adventure/romance novel, I strongly recommend this first effort by Young. But for me -- Three stars

--Chiron, 10/19/09

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Goldengrove by Francine Prose

My third read by Francine Prose bore some resemblance to Blue Angel, which was a disturbing book for an English professor to read. It involves a sexy, manipulative student who plunges an instructor into a world of chaos. Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, the first I read, had so much clarity and good sense, it drove me to her fiction. I foresee another dozen titles by Prose on my bookshelves.

The narrator, Nico, lives in an idyllic, lake-side cottage with her father, who owns a book store named Goldengrove, her mother -- a piano teacher -- and her sister, Margaret. Margaret has a secret life, and after a tragedy, Nico seems headed into secrets of her own. I felt the same sense of foreboding I experienced with Blue Angel while reading Goldengrove, but her spectacular, lyrical prose has an element of poetry in every line, and that alone drove me on to the tense ending.

I underlined numerous wonderful lines, for example: “Now we acted as if the tiniest pressure could shatter our eggshell selves” (84) and “That Sunday, that first Sunday in May, was so warm I couldn’t help wondering: Was it simply a beautiful day, or a symptom of global warming? Even the trees looked uncomfortable, naked and embarrassed, as if they were all simultaneously having that dream in which you look down and realize you’ve forgotten to put on your clothes” (2). Well, I have had that dream, and I know exactly how Nico feels in this scene.

This psychological portrait of a family dealing with loss calls to mind Tolstoy’s opening line of Anna Karenina. To paraphrase, all members of an unhappy family handle their unhappiness in different ways. However, this book never really strikes a sustained depressing note. 5 stars

--Chiron, 10/11/09

Monday, October 05, 2009

Bla Bla: 600 Incredibly Useless Facts by Fredrik Colting & Carl-Johan Gadd

Sometimes, the weather, the mood, the moment require an otherwise discriminating reader to pick up a piece of shear fluff. I felt like this yesterday after grading some really depressingly awful essays. This book was fun, and here are some of my favorites:

“In 1970, Soviet scientists tried to train cats to control robots. The attempt failed.”

No kidding.

“All polar bears are left handed.”

How did they determine this fact?

“The earth weighs about 5,924,000,000,000,000,000,000 metric tons.

Ditto, and why metric? Don’t they know the US is the last stubborn hold out for the English system? Time for a diet, no?

“There are over 500 recognized phobias. One of the most rare is sciophobia – the fear of shadows.”

Who knew? Is this how shadow boxing came to be invented? Does The Shadow know this?

“If a squid is extremely hungry, it can eat its own arms.”

I don’t even know what to say about this one.

“Kangaroos are lactose intolerant.”

Soy what? (So what?) Pun. Intended.

--Chiron, 10/4/09

Friday, October 02, 2009

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

Many of us are lucky to have a friend who shares our love of books and is a reliable source for authors, novels, biographies, and good reads in general. Some of us are most fortunate to have two. I have three – four if you count NPR. Richard Russo came to my attention through all of my sources in his 1998 novel, Straight Man. Straight Man recounts the hilarious story of William Devereaux, the reluctant chair of an English Department of a small college in rural Pennsylvania. With an English Department, Pennsylvania, and humor going for it, what could possibly go wrong? Absolutely nothing – I became thoroughly hooked on Russo.

On the other hand, several of his other novels describe the struggles of life in the small towns of rust-belt America among blue collar workers and small business owners. Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls were made into moderately successful films. This masterful writer always creates interesting, quirky, stubborn, and well-drawn characters. That Old Cape Magic has all of these traits, and it marks his return to academia as a back drop.

Jack and his wife, Joy, approach the final days of the semester so they can head out for an annual getaway to New England. Jack teaches English and Joy is a dean at the same college. Both try to untangle themselves – while protecting each other – from their respective families. Clearly this novel demonstrates that we are our parents’ children. Jack and Joy Griffin – yes, all the names do have a significance I will allow each reader to puzzle out alone – also have a daughter, Laura. Jack has to deal with his mother and deceased father, while Joy has a father, a deceased mother, and four siblings complicating their lives. All four parents have a secure and important place in the story.

One of the things I most enjoyed concerned Jack’s relationship with his students. Anyone who has ever taught English will understand and chuckle when Russo writes, Jack “offered his students far more comment and advice than they wanted, and the vast majority paid it exactly no attention whatsoever, given that their subsequent efforts were riddled with the same mistakes” (44). Jack also struggles with a career change he reluctantly accepted. This novel has images, ideas, words, and phrases that seem taken from my own academic life. Echoes and shadows of Straight Man.

The only problem with That Old Cape Magic stemmed from some imaginary conversations Jack has, and sometimes I had to stop and remind myself who was talking to whom. Nevertheless, a first-rate read, and this will send you scurrying for Straight Man and the other six novels he has written. 4-1/2 stars.

--Chiron, 9/28/09

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

A blurb on the title page describes this book as “One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.” Doesn’t sound too exciting, and I admit I had some trepidation, but if ever the warning not to judge a book by its cover should be heeded, this one provides a perfect example.

Eric Weiner, a foreign correspondent for NPR, traveled the world visiting places indexed by a Dutch researcher as “the happiest places on earth.” For control, he visits one country near the bottom of the list. At each place he stopped, he gathered some clues as to what makes those inhabitants feel a certain level of euphoria about their country. One interesting feature of this journey concerns the wide variety of terms he uses to express happiness. Needless to say, he comes to some rather unusual conclusions. For example, Eric must have some personal bias toward chocolate, since it pops up over and over.

The delightful style of Weiner’s (pronounced “Whiner” he tells us) reminds me of so many detailed stories on NPR, although some of these might be rated PG-13. This wonderful book will make you want to pack up and head off to your idea of a happy place. Also, have your PC warmed up and ready to Google many of the places, food, restaurants, coffee houses, and museums he mentions. One member of our book club said Weiner needed pictures. She then proceeded to pass around a dozen or so images associated with the book. “Bliss” will give your reading group as much fun as ours had last night. 6 stars out of 5

--Chiron, 9/24/09

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey

Admirers and students of John Cheever’s fiction will find this biography engrossing, thoughtfully detailed, and sprinkled throughout with wonderful quotes from his family, friends, editors, peers, and even former teachers. For those not familiar with his novels and spectacular short stories, it may seem to plod and drag in spots. I have admired Cheever for over 35 years, and actually met him at his home in Ossining, NY. I wrote the following profile of John Cheever last year. I believe it tells much about the man and the writer.

The first obituary appeared in the June 19, 1982 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The shock prevented me from reading it carefully, but one sentence leaped from the page: “Mr. Cheever called confinement ‘one of the principal themes of my work’.” That sentence percolated through my memories of our meeting and all his books I had read.

Several letters in 1978 and 1979 finally resulted in a meeting one chilly November day in 1979. John was dressed as if he were about to sit for another dust jacket photo – slacks, white button-down shirt, no tie, and bedroom slippers.

His desk was an ordinary dining room table and the room held floor to ceiling shelves overflowing with books in every possible space. They spread across the floor like a paper glacier. There wasn’t any wall space, but he did have several pictures hanging from shelves, which seemed as haphazard as the books on the floor.

According to the obit, John believed, that “discovering the liberties one can enjoy within the confinement of one’s own mortality is basically the nature of life on this planet.” His room was confining in a physical sense, but the pathways through books gave him the freedom to explore the universe.

John asked his wife for some tea, as he bulldozed the clutter to one side clearing room for a stack of treasures. As he sat in a rattan chair, he reached back into the clutter for a pen and tried several before he found one that wasn’t dry. “I have a thousand pens here, but not one in ten works.”

The cigarette that he lit in his frustration was a distant descendent of the one that got him expelled from Thayer Academy and provided the inspiration for his first published short story, “Expelled,” which appeared in The Nation magazine, which rarely, if ever, published fiction.

A golden retriever padded in slowly and put his head on John’s lap for the gentle stroking he expected and received. Just then, an obviously jealous cat jumped up into his lap and purred loud enough to drown the scratching of his pen.

John signed the books and talked about his fiction. The steam from the tea rose like the remnants of fog on the Hudson River just outside his window. The conversation wandered through Bullet Park, among the Wapshot family, and stopped at “The Enormous Radio,” a popular Cheever story.

His mind traveled over a landscape dotted with his characters’ families, their heartbreak and happiness. He remembered them all – treasures of his life, fondly recalled.

Clearly there was actual confinement in his life. His daughter, in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer on the publication of her biography of her father, Home Before Dark, published two years after his death, told of his “confinement” by alcoholism, bisexuality, and depression. Perhaps his novels and stories were a means to manage the imprisonment of “the nature of life on this planet.”*

The interview over, I sadly gathered the books. I wanted to stay and listen to this charismatic writer for hours, but I had intruded enough. As I walked down the driveway to my car, I turned and saw him waving one last time.

*Interview with Susan Cheever. The Philadelphia Inquirer. 2 Dec. 1984: 11K.

For those without a unique personal experience like this, the book will fill out the nooks and crannies of a man who lived a difficult life, yet added so much pleasure to so many of his readers around the world.

--Chiron, 9/30/09

Magic City by Yusef Komunyakaa

This dark and slightly grim collection of poetry had only a few poems that struck me as only a little more than interesting. Had this book not found its way onto a reading list for my class, I surely would not have stumbled onto those few poems I did enjoy.

One of my favorites, “The Whistle,” had some nice tone and diction that I did admire. Komunyakaa writes,

“The seven o’clock whistle
Made the morning air fulvous
With a metallic syncopation
A key to a door in the sky – opening
& closing flesh. The melody
Men & women built lives around,
Sonorous as the queen bee’s fat
Hum drawing workers from flowers,
Back to the colonized heart.

I find it curious he uses an ampersand and he capitalizes the first word of every line. It’s almost as if he did not know how to turn off the formatting function in Word, but the book was first published in 1992, so that can’t be the case.

Komunyakaa has won a number of awards, including a Pulitzer in 1994. That poetry like this can win such an award puzzles me. I guess my tastes in poetry run counter to that of all the prize-givers. Thumb through it in a bookstore before buying. See whose side you are in for this one – he must have a devoted following. 3 stars

--Chiron, 9/21/09

Monday, September 07, 2009

Beloved Infidel by Dean Young

My favorite poet is Billy Collins for three reasons: 1. simple language, 2. clever metaphors and images, and 3. a dash of humor along with some profound truths. His poem, “Shoveling Snow with the Buddha,” is my favorite of his works, and you can easily find it on line.

At the other end of the spectrum is Dean Young. He uses pretentious language – “cothurni” (boots) – which might be pleasing to his ear, but not to mine. He tortures words and leaves me with images I cannot fathom no matter how hard I try. In a recent interview on NPR, he was asked to explicate a line, and he said, "I have no idea what I meant." Tony Hoagland, a well-known scholar and poet, expressed a similar sentiment when when describing another poem by Young.

Poetry shouldn’t be a struggle. 2 stars for a handful of interesting lines.

--Chiron, 9/7/09

Allegheny, Monongahela by Erinn Batykefer

This pleasing volume of poetry arrived in the mail as part of LibraryThing’s early reviewer program. Unlike others in the series, this is not a galley, but a first edition.

Her first book of poetry, I have to say, hit at least a triple, and a few feet higher at that left fence would have made it a homerun. Most of the poems have sparkling language and great metaphors, but a few seemed strained to me. My favorite is “Sky with Flat White Cloud” inspired by a 1962 painting by Georgia O’Keefe. Several other poems had the same genesis. Batykefer writes,

“I remember us through a haze of white.
Flat clouds pressing down like summer,
the botanical gardens steaming.” (76)

Anyone familiar with O’Keefe’s work will recognize the clever melding of weather, the painting, and themes that run through many of her paintings. This painting is rather plain, with bands of white (a sandy stretch of desert without any vegetation?), then a band of yellow-green at the horizon, then layers of flat white clouds at the top. The painting feels like an oppressively hot, dry summer day, and Batykefer has captured that same feeling.

All her poems ring true like this. Only a few tortured lines cost her half a star. 4-1/2 stars.

--Chiron, 9/7/09

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The English Major by Jim Harrison

I picked this book strictly for the title and the cover. I never heard of Jim Harrison, despite the fact that he has written over 25 books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. He has also won a Guggenhiem and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Conspicuously absent are a Pulitzer, a PEN/Faulkner Award, and a National Book Award.

The story he tells holds a lot of interest for me, even though this is my third recent read involving aging teachers undergoing a mid/late-life crisis. Cliff’s wife Viv has left him for a high-school flame. As part of the divorce, she has sold their farm out from under him and turned him out. He takes his share of the divorce money, and hits the road. Along the way (from Michigan to Washington, down through California, Arizona, New Mexico, then back up to Montana and home to Michigan) he meets a variety of characters from his past and some new ones. While it is not riotously funny, it does have its moments with some sassy, snappy prose.

One thing that annoyed me was Harrison penchant for parenthetically explaining some pretty ordinary things. For example, he writes, “I had been a chaperone and driver for a bunch of 4-H (Head, Heart, Health, and Hands) kids going to a big meeting” (6). Later he provides the same service for “ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)” (28). Maybe his teacherly hat fell down while he was typing.

A pretty decent road novel worth a couple of lazy afternoons. 4 stars

--Chiron, 9/3/09

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Year of Cats and Dogs by Margaret Hawkins

This rather interesting novel delves into the life of Maryanne, who has recently found herself abandoned by her “ex,” Phillip, and now lives alone with a dog, Bob, and a cat Clement. Maryanne is, to say the very least, an interesting character. She is strong, confident, reflective, and able to take care of herself -- after a fashion. While she is not the best housekeeper in the world, she does manage reasonably well.

Hawkins’s prose flows nicely in and around the vicissitudes of Maryanne’s life. The relationship has died, and she faces “death” in a variety of forms, handling each with a calm grace and an attitude that recognizes the inevitability of loss.

Numerous events in Maryanne’s life also involve food, and she supplies recipes for many of life’s turning points. All the recipes seem to include bacon, well-done, and crumbled into the recipe. The I-Ching also figures in the plot, as the 64 chapters each reflects a sentiment expressed by one of the 64 I-Ching tiles. As the author’s note tells us, the I-Ching has been around for several thousand years and advocates reflection and passive acceptance. Maryanne’s calm demeanor follows this spiritual guide.

Of course, her relationship with pets will appeal to anyone who has ever had the good fortune to accept an invitation to reside with a cat and dog. Maryanne has a special relationship with her “family” members, as the title suggests. Don’t miss out on this wonderful experience.

Permanent Press will publish this novel in October, 2009. Five Stars

--Chiron, 8/30/09

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Book of Light by Lucille Clifton

I found Lucille Clifton’s The Book of Light interesting, moving, and thought-provoking. Her simple language and clear, clever metaphors delighted the mind and the tongue. Many of her poems touched me personally. Clifton won numerous prizes and two Pulitzer nominations. She clearly deserves all her accolades, in my opinion.

The first poem in the collection which really struck me was “june 20.” Clifton wrote in lines 3-4,

“i will be born in one week
to a frowned forehead of a woman
and a man whose fingers will itch
to enter me.” (Clifton 12)

In a horrific image, the poet, as a fetus, knows what will happen after she is born. The “temporary joy” (line 14) will end because of looming tragedy.

Clifton marked her life, as portrayed in her poems, by tragedy. In “sam,” she moans in lines 12-14,

“oh stars
and stripes forever,
what did you do to my father?” (Clifton 14)

The next poem in lines 7-8, Clifton laments his passing into “the company / of husbands fathers sons (Clifton 15). So her father represents a double-edged tragedy for her – his abuse and his death.

Some of the sweet metaphors she uses include one in “thel.” When referring to her friend, the eponymous “thel,” she describes her as a “sweet attic of a woman” (16). This image conjures up a cozy place filled with memories. She packed so much into that one word, “attic.” Another example occurs in “further note to clark.” She refers to this man (Clark Kent, aka Superman) as a “tourist” – from another planet, but also she hints at a man who comes for a visit to her home, but never stays for long.

Interestingly enough, Clifton makes her title part of the first line numerous times, including “thel” (16) “she lived” (20) “if I should” (41).

Two poems that touched me personally were “move” (35-36) and “samson predicts from gaza the philadelphia fire” (37). I lived in Philadelphia when Wilson Goode, the first black mayor of the “City of Brotherly Love” bombed the house Clifton describes. I can still see the helicopter flying over the house, the satchel containing the explosive dropping, the strap waving like some crazed battle flag, as it hit a shed on the roof and exploded in flames. Only one woman survived the fire, and Clifton addresses the second of these poems to her.

In the first of these poems, “move,” I especially appreciate the repetition of the word move as a link between stanzas. “Move” was the name of the back to nature African cult which became the victims of a horrible police action. Each stanza ends with “away” then the link “move.” The final two lines she reverses this order with “move / away” (36). The terror and the horror these men, women, and children must have experienced clearly comes through in Clifton’s simple language.

If I had another 500 words, I could easily list another dozen poems of this thoroughly enjoyable collection. Clifton has all the things I admire in poetry: simple language, clear and concise metaphors, and grains of humor sprinkled through the tragedies she has seen in her life. Five stars

--Chiron, 8/27/09

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle

When I first began collecting fiction published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, two things attracted me: Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster and the small format (5x7 inches) of their books. Jill McCorkle ranks number three. Ferris Beach and Tending to Virginia are high on my list of favorite novels. This seems like a year of reacquainting myself with favorite writers I have neglected lately (see Anita Brookner’s Strangers).

This fine collection of quirky stories mostly revolves around the theme of entrapment. Some of the characters find themselves cornered by parents, children, grandchildren, or relationships, and even a lie that takes on a whole life of its own. McCorkle’s easy, quiet prose subtly leads the reader through complex situations with humor and even a touch of biting satire.

My favorite story is “PS” – a letter from a dumped spouse to her therapist reviewing all the failures of her marriage and the attempts to mend the relationship. Unfortunately, this book will not be published until September 22, 2009, so I can’t quote from it, but take my word, you could find many, many worse ways to spend some quiet hours rather than read this collection. I highly recommend McCorkle, and if you have never heard of her, this is a great place to start. 5 stars

--Chiron, 8/27/09

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville, who lives in Sydney, is yet another Australian writer. Soon, I am going to need a separate bookcase just for fiction from down-under. This story more than held my interest. In fact, I had a hard time stopping, and only a busy week preparing for the Fall semester prevented me from reading it in one long sitting. A good story, well-told.

Grenville tells the story of a young lieutenant in the Royal Marines who finds himself assigned as a navigator on the first ship sent with a colony of prisoners to New South Wales in 1777. His mission, once he arrived in the new colony, included setting up an observatory to confirm the reappearance of a comet expected sometime between October and March. This re-telling of the Pilgrims first winter in Plymouth has a somewhat different outcome.

While not a great literary work, the writing is smooth and, as I said above, extremely interesting. I do want to gather her other seven books, which include a volume of short fiction. Publication scheduled for September 2009, so I can't quote from the text.

--Chiron, 8/23/09

Human Wishes by Robert Hass

Postmodern poetry presents a fragmented vision of life. Generally, I abhor the stretched and difficult metaphors that signify this kind of poetry. Hass appeared on the reading list for a class I am taking, so ignoring it or not reading was not an option. I read some of these poems several times, and many of the metaphors did not make any sense to me. I could not even find one poem I really liked, that was memorable, or that I would want to pin to a bulletin board. He served as poet laureate of the US in the late 90s, but guess what? Sometimes the emperor has no clothes. Don’t waste you time or your money. Read Billy Collins. 1 star for one poem, “Spring Drawing,” which did have some nice, intelligible images.

--Chiron, 8/23/09

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Dying Animal by Philip Roth

First of all, a disclaimer: as a college professor, I believe personal relationships with students have always been absolutely out of bounds. Not everyone agrees with me, but for the 20-some years I have been teaching, this has been a hard and fast rule. Of course, the number of women who flirt -- believing this will help their grade -- is astounding. Recently, a woman tried this trick, and I knew exactly what she was up to, so I reported her actions to the dean, and kept him informed. When she was unhappy with her grade, she appealed the matter to that same dean and tried the same trick with him. So, I was vindicated in all respects.

Then, along comes Philip Roth and another of his vintage, raw stories of sexual relationships -- this time set in academia. Of course, David carefully cultivates these women all semester, and after the grades have been entered, he begins a campaign to bed the woman chosen from the year's students. As the book opens, he recounts one such student, with whom he begins a passionate affair described in the minutest detail. That about ends where I can go with the description of the plot.

While Roth writes with his usual talent for delving deep into the minds of his characters to ferret out the motivations and emotions they are experiencing, this novel definitely rates an NC-17 rating. If you can get past the frank descriptions, Roth offers a marvelous portrayal of an aging professor still searching for some answers to life's most enduring questions about love and relationships.

Actually, I don't mean to imply that every page has a graphic scene, but the ones that do occur are so powerful, they might as well come with soft lights and slow, smoky jazz. Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz portray David and Consuela in the film version titled Elegy. Netflix will allow me to compare the book and the movie. 4 stars for a rather unsatisfying ending.

--Chiron, 8/19/09

Monday, August 10, 2009

Journey to the Stone Country by Alex Miller

A friend recommended this novel and warned me it was “nothing special.” I beg to differ. Miller’s descriptions of the natural settings of Queensland remind me of Peter Mathiesson. His characters – stoic, wise, chain-smoking ringers (cowboys) – spring right out of Cormac McCarthy’s, All the Pretty Horses.

Annabelle Beck, abandoned by her philandering husband, escapes to Queensland to see her sister and an old friend. She meets Bo Rennie, part Jangga (aborigine) and part white. Together they explore the area, but a visit to Bo’s aunt turns things upside down. Leaving the home, Annabelle is confused, and must reevaluate her plans. I won’t say anymore, because the ending completely surprised me.

This absorbing story is not without its faults. Some of the dialogue seems a little stiff and artificial, but the descriptions are marvelous – almost Zen-like. Miller also tends to be a bit repetitious. He tells us three or four times, in a short span, that “sandlewood is the incense of the bush,” and he mentions “road kill wallabies along the verge” (shoulder of the road) numerous times.

I also picked up quite a bit of Aussie slang, which was a lot of fun, like “billy,” “swag,” “agistment,” and “rort.” Miller also has a fine touch evident in quite a few of his sentences. For example, “The dry groundcover crackling beneath Bo’s boots, realeasing the musty odours of dead time” (55); “Her memories of Mount Coolon had not been memories at all, but the unreliable inventions of nostalgia” (282). He also uses a lot of fragments – broken pieces of description, much like the landscape with rocks and clumps of grass and weeds.

The U.S. is not the only country that horribly treated the native peoples it found in a new land. It sounds as if Australia madkes a good-faith effort to mend some of those injustices, but bitter hatred remains in some hearts. This idea is central to this story.

Journey to the Stone Country draws the reader in quietly, softly, and makes the reader part of the story. I call these “message” books, because someone is speaking to me – an extremely rare kind of novel. 4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 8/15/09

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner

Searching for a word to describe this book, many flood my mind – peculiar, odd, quirky, interesting (yes, most definitely interesting), and, well, I guess they all fit.

The story is of three people: an unnamed narrator who works in a book shop, who only occasionally pops into view; a man named Noah, who has lived most of his life in a trailer wandering all over Canada with his mother, wondering about his father who disappeared shortly after his birth, leaving behind a plastic compass (the “Nikolski Compass”) and a handful of letters; and a woman named Joyce who runs away to Montreal in search of her pirate ancestors, lands a job in a fish shop, and becomes a pirate (of sorts) herself.

These three characters intersect in odd (there’s that word again) but decidedly interesting ways. Each seems to have a piece of a giant puzzle which centers around a book with no covers. The book store clerk calls it a “unicum” – a term which does not appear in any dictionary or book about books I have. He describes it as a book cobbled together from three different sources and sewn together.

I am going to leave it at that. If this isn’t enough to whet your appetite, you need a new appetite. And, why are you reading a book blog? 5 stars

--Chiron, 8/10/09

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Selected Poems of Anne Sexton edited by Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diana Hume George

I found Sexton depressing and difficult to read for more than 15-20 minutes at a time. While her poetry did show occasional flashes of humor, her verse did not appeal to me at all. I am really sorry she could not use her poetry to exorcise the demons tormenting her. We often hear of the cathartic effect of writing about personal difficulties, but apparently that effect was not at work in Sexton’s psyche. I can offer personal testimony to the positive effect writing can have when dealing with traumatic events in my past; however, Sexton must have been completely overwhelmed by her marital problems and her depression, compounded with her addiction.

Clearly, she had a great deal of talent. Quite a few of her poems struck me as more than interesting. For example, two of her recollection poems – “I Remember” (51) and “One for My Dame” (73) – showed me some flashes of humor, while holding my attention with her word choice, structure, and clever images. These undoubtedly were my favorites. Unfortunately, a half-dozen or so nuggets appeared far too infrequently to make me any sort of fan of Sexton’s.

Her religious poetry – regardless of some negative imagery – did not appeal to me at all. Her cries for help seemed desperate and (we now know) hopeless. Even her faith could not give her the comfort and support she so anxiously sought.

Her popularity among young women in the 60s and 70s puzzles me. I can imagine their feeling a connection with her anxieties and difficulties dealing with day to day existence. However, did that many women share her experiences? Was it merely a matter of sympathy and solidarity? Perhaps some larger issue works among her readers creating a connection which enables them to plod on, since, in comparison, their lives were so much better.

Only a couple of Anne’s poems have crossed my desk over the years. None of them urged me to explore her work further, and now I am convinced I made the right choice then.

Maybe I am wrong by a wide margin. I would love to hear from some Sexton fans about this.

--Chiron, 8/6/09

Monday, July 27, 2009

Strangers by Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner won the Booker prize in 1984 for Hotel du Lac. As with many of her books, the main character runs (in that case, to Switzerland) to escape and struggle with demons in the present or past. I have read all but six of her 24 novels. Her is Strangers.

Now, this might seem boring – mining the same plot line over and over, but she draws her characters as finely as a detailed, realistic painting. Not surprisingly, Brookner spent years teaching art history in England. Furthermore, each of these characters deals with the escape and resolution in an entirely different manner.

Paul Sturgis has retired from a responsible position at a bank, and gradually, he is shucking off all his old associations. Several women inhabit his real and imagined world at the moment. Brookner writes, “The illusion once again, proved superior to the reality” (214). This sums up Paul’s problems with indecisiveness and an inability to put his foot down when he knows he should and, in fact, planned to do so. “Air was his element, weightlessness his ideal condition” (173).

Reflecting on the memory of a childhood friend, Paul recalls waving to a woman every day as he passed her father’s shop, “they had lost touch, had lost sight of each other, and would never meet again, never raise their hands in acknowledgement as they passed each other on the street. That was what growing up did to some friendships, and growing older failed to redeem them. But somehow the memory persisted, in the strangest of ways, and she would appear to him in dreams, unaltered, much as she had been when first encountered, on her way to school” (51).

Paul enjoys reading and mentions Henry James on numerous occasions. That connection carries a lot of weight, since I could not help thinking of James’ story, “The Beast in the Jungle.” In this long, marvelous story, John Marcher has difficulty communicating his feelings, and loses an opportunity for a relationship with a woman who loved him. Finally, late in life, he has a chance to make amends, but he reverts to his old behavior and loses her again. Brookner delves as deeply into Paul Sturgis’s psyche as James does Marcher’s -- only she composes her sentences to a much more manageable length.

I have been a long time away from Brookner, but I have remedied that situation. Now I need to find those missing six novels and fill in the gaps. If you have never read Brookner, or never heard of her, start with Hotel du Lac. If you like psychological fiction and interesting characters in absorbing situations, you will be hooked. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/2/09

Great Expectations: The Graphic Novel Text adapted from Charles Dickens

My Signet Classic paperback copy of the full text of Great Expectations runs to a little over 500 pages. While I am not a great Dickens fan, I do have my favorites, and I have read this one a couple of times. So, imagine my surprise when I sat down Sunday afternoon to read the graphic version published by “Classical Comics” and finished in time to cook dinner. There is no way I could possibly read this great story in a couple hours.

Now, this may seem a benefit to some people who see reading as a waste of time. True, the illustrations have a lot of creativity, and they match, to a small degree, my idea of what the characters look like, but any serious reader will agree that the pleasure of assembling this cast of characters from the imagination is far more rewarding than adopting some other person’s ideas.

Wait, it gets better. Inside the back cover, Classical Comics is now issuing books in three formats: full text, “plain text” (wherein all the language has been modernized), and “quick text” for, as the ad says, “a fast-paced read.”

How much faster could anyone possibly want to skim through a great novel than an afternoon? What’s next, novels on Twitter? Oh, sorry, I forgot about the article I read a couple of weeks ago about “twitterature” – novels and plays reduced to 140 characters.

We are going backwards. Soon we will have novels only in pictures -- all that will be missing will be the cave wall. Graphic novels are comic books for adults without the patience or the attention span to sit down and read words. When I was a kid, I loved “Classic Comics.” I had dozens of them, but I also read many, many books. Fortunately, my curiosity about what lay “between the panels” drove me to read the texts of the stories. I doubt graphic novels will do that to today’s non-reading young people.

One star for the great drawings.

--Chiron, 7/26/09

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

This novel won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award and a friend recommended it after a discussion of some of its post-modern qualities. Although well-written, I am not entirely convinced it deserves the accolades showered upon it.

First of all, it flips back and forth between first and third person, much like the narrative flips back and forth between present, future, and past. This book most definitely will require another read, so I can track these changes and see if some narrative justification exists for these shifts.

O'Neill has written a fine, interesting story of a Dutch financial analyst, Hans, who travels with his wife, Rachel, to New York from London. The reason for these job changes does not come out in the early chapters, but only much further along. Had I had this information, my understanding of the events in the "present" would have made more sense, and the "future" events would have been more logical. Because O'Neill jumped around, following the motivations of these characters became a chore.

Also, the early parts of the book -- the prose seems a bit stiff -- possesses a voice different from later parts, which seem more natural, like this passage, when Hans describes an incident from his childhood in the Netherlands:

"The old visual domain was unchanged: a long series of unlit back gardens leading to the almost indiscernible silhouette of dunes. To the north, which was to my right, the Scheveningen lighthouse twinkled for a second, then fell dark, then suddenly produced its beam, a skittish mile of light that became lost somewhere in the blue and black above the dunes. These sand hills had been my idea of wilderness. Pheasants, rabbits, and small birds of prey lived and died there. On escapades with a friend or two, we would urge our twelve-year-old bodies under the barbed wire lining the footpaths and run through the sand-grass into the wooded depths of the dunes." (86)

I got the impression this represented the height of mischief and rebellion for the young boy. This passage also reminds me of young Stephen Daedalus coping with the vagaries of Clongowes in Poratrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The novel contains long paragraphs that seem ever so slightly organized to prevent the conclusion that Hans is day dreaming or we are experiencing his stream of consciousness, I found myself frequently back-tracking to find out where I was.

Despite these drawbacks, I could not bring myself to abandon the story. I cared about Hans, and took his side in the discussions with Rachel. Fortunately, I have a large book of cricket rules, so I could make sense of some of the many references to the sport. However, some deeper connection between life and cricket must lie buried in all this, but I do not know enough about the sport to figure that out. Four stars

--Chiron, 7/25/09

dancing in odessa by Ilya Kaminsky

In the introduction to his website,, Ilya Kaminsky quotes the first poem of this collection: “at the age of four I became deaf. When I lost my hearing I began to see voices.” This explains a lot of the images and sonics of his collection, Dancing in Odessa. Many of his images and word choices have a visual and sound quality which impacts the reader’s appreciation of the poems, as well as affecting the visuals created in the mind.

As his website relates, he was born in the former Soviet Union in 1977 and came to the US in 1993. He lost his hearing when he was four and his father a year after coming to America. Dancing has won several awards, and he has a collection of 20th century poetry in translation from Ecco press coming out next year.

Kaminsky’s website provides quite a few excerpts from interviews. Perhaps one key to his poetry might be found in a remark he made during an interview with Colleen Marie Ryor of the Adirondack Review. While describing the situation of his family when they first came to the US in 1993, he said, “none of us spoke English -- I myself hardly knew the alphabet.” Could his strange poetic diction be the result of some lack of understanding of the nuances of English? Has something been lost in the translation? The publication date for Dancing is 2004 – barely ten years to master a difficult language with an almost infinite variety of shades of meaning of countless words.

After reading this collection four times, and pouring over some of the lines literally dozens of times, attempts to make sense of some of his images have failed. A search for patterns shed little light on his meaning. One pattern easily discernable flows from the title. The thread of dancing recurs throughout the collection. The opening line of “In Praise of Laughter,” offers a clever image which conjures an image of dancing when Kaminsky writes, “Where days bend and straighten / in a city that belongs to no nation” (6). The sound quality of both these lines has the rhythm of music to them, and provides a sonic effect in addition to the visual quality of his diction. This line recalls Robert Herrick’s ode, “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” when he writes,

“Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free ;
O how that glittering taketh me !

The relatively simple language (for the time) conveys the movement of a woman in an elaborate silk gown. The “frou-frou” of her swishing silks clearly comes into the consciousness.

Several stanzas later Kaminsky writes, “He ran after a train with tomatoes in his coat // and danced naked on the table in front of our house” (6). The surreal nature of the connection of disparate images in the second example here might describe Kaminsky’s poetry, and it might even make for an interesting experience, but it does nothing to further understanding of his intentions or his verses.

A careful reader can find these tortured lines on almost any page. For example, in “American Tourist,” Kaminsky wrote, “In a city made of seaweed we danced on a rooftop,” (11). Odessa is near the shores of the Black Sea, but does this mean the house was financed by an occupation involving seaweed? Surely he cannot mean a house literally made of seaweed. In Global Coastal Change, Ivan Valiela reports a study of the ecology of the Black Sea which reveals in the 1960s and 1970s, an “anoxic” episode killed over half the population of fish, plankton, and seaweed. By the 1990s, the viable area of the sea floor had been reduced to about 5% of the original habitat (8). How deep does a reader need to dig to understand a poem? The trail to understanding this particular line dead-ended here.

However, Kaminsky does have his moments. Although much rarer, the collection has some memorable lines and images sprinkled throughout. For example, in “American Tourist,” he writes,

“When Moses
broke the sacred tablets on Sinai, the rich

picked the pieces carved with:
‘adultery’ and ‘kill’ and ‘theft,’
the poor got only ‘No’ ‘No’ No.’ (11)

These powerful lines also have the sonic and rhythmic qualities mentioned previously. The repletion of “no” gives this poem feel of a song along with the sense of movement.

In the prose poem “Traveling Musicians,” he writes, “In the beginning was the sea – we heard the surf in our breathing, certain that we carried seawater in our veins” (39). Strong, memorable lines like these require a lot of digging to unearth. Each reader must decide whether they are real diamonds or glass; that is, are they worth the effort?

Another example of peculiar but strong imagery occurs in “A Farewell to Friends,” “you have for sisters wild carnations, / nipples of lilacs, splinters of chickens” (41). Mysterious, unfathomable connections abound in his poetry.

The simple language of these examples deserving of admiration may have made for an easy transition from Russian to English, but some of the more complicated lines might have lost the nuances of his mother tongue in translation.

Sometimes, the emperor is not wearing any clothes, and sometimes a poet tortures a word into a line for the purpose of shock and surprise with the intent of perplexing, at best, or confusing, at worst. I simply do not understand why any poetry – modern or otherwise -- must be tortuous, or why the diction must sound forced. No doubt, Kaminsky has his fans; unfortunately, I am not one of them.

--Chiron, 7/25/09

Friday, July 17, 2009

Leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess

Tyehimba Jess has mined the agony and suffering that flows through the Blues. Someone once told me, “The Blues are not about feeling good; they’re about feeling bad.” Reading these poems the “feeling bad” aspect comes through almost every line.

No question these poems are tied together by the chains of suffering in the African-American community. The poems are filled with clever images, however, unfortunately, most of them are lost on me. For example, in “John Wesley Ledbetter,” he writes, “it shrieks up a crop of cancelled debt into your wagon” (Jess 14), and in “Colt Protection Special,” the poem seems to be about a gun, or a visit to a prostitute, or, possibly even suicide.

his daddy brings him to me
fresh and fifteen, a boy beggin’
to know me like a virgin
wind risin’ to fuck a hurricane.

While his fist cloaks me
with the hush of broken youth,
I singe my bullet-toothed birth-
right into his fingertips. he hefts
my black powdered blue steel
mass, aims high to heaven,
wonders how easy it is to slip
into god’s dirty clothes. (15)

After a couple of dozen readings – literally – I feel the agony, and frustration, but what is this poem about? Too many of Jess’ poems leave me bewildered.

My confusion might have abated some, had the book contained an introduction to the poet and the characters mentioned. For example, I figured out that “Stella” was his guitar, but who is Martha Promise? Exactly who is John Lomax? Perhaps more knowledge of the Blues, jazz guitarist Leadbelly, and Lomax might have made this volume more enjoyable.

I recently reviewed Meadowlands by Louise Glück, which I really enjoyed. The difference between these two volumes is enormous. The fact of my familiarity with Homer’s Odyssey widens that chasm. Since I know the story, the characters, the epithets and images of Homer’s epic work, I can bridge the gap between Homer and Glück. However, when it comes to Jess, I can only stare across the great divide and wonder what he meant and what he must have suffered to cause him such agony.

Poetry should not, in my opinion, involve such a struggle; it should not require so much effort. I simply could not get my mind around Jess’ work. I felt the sadness, the anger, the hurt, the frustration, but that arose from the lack of clear, positive images. The constant struggle, the negative words and ideas – while absolutely real to the poet, and, I might add, more than justified – made connecting to them on any more than a thin, cursory level not possible for me at the moment. I will save this book, and when I have some time, I will research Leadbelly, the Blues, and John Lomax and try again. Hopefully, I can then cross the space dividing me from this work. 3 stars

--Chiron, 7/16/09

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Centaur by John Updike

My favorite Updike novel and the second of his I read (the first was Couples). It has been a while since I sat down and read it cover-to-cover, although I frequently open to random pages and read a few lines, or paragraphs, or pages. I still love it. This novel sparked my 40+ year love affair with the work of John Updike. I liked Couples, but it did no bowl me over the way Centaur did.

One thing I had forgotten about the book involved the warm relationship between Peter and his father. George Caldwell has a bit of the clumsy about him, and he suffers from a serious lack of self-esteem, but he does love Peter and tries to take care of him.

The word choice and the descriptions, however, sparkle throughout this peculiar novel that mixes mythology and reality in clever slides from one to the other. One of my favorite passages recounts a trip to New York Peter and George took. Peter wanted to see some paintings.

“Though we walked and walked, we never reached any of the museums I had read of. The one called the Frick contained the Vermeer of the man in the big hat and the laughing woman whose lazily upturned palm unconsciously accepts the light, and the one called the Metropolitan contained the girl in the starched headdress bent reverently above the brass jug whose vertical blue gleam was the Holy Ghost of my adolescence. That these paintings, which I had worshipped in reproduction, had a simple physical existence seemed a profound mystery to me: to come within touching distance of their surfaces, to see with my eyes the truth of their color, the tracery of cracks whereby time had inserted itself like a mystery within a mystery, would have been for me to enter a Real Presence so ultimate I would not be surprised to die in the encounter” (68).

Anyone who has walked into a room of a museum and confronted a well-known, favorite work of art understands this passage completely. Last weekend, while in Chicago, I put all things aside to spend an all too brief afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago. I remember the first time I walked into the gallery and saw six versions of “The Haystacks” by Monet. I felt so overcome with the beauty of these six views at different times of day in different seasons, I could barely move. When I entered the museum on Sunday afternoon, I headed straight there and sat for a long time simply staring. Those moments more than made the price of admission worthwhile.

I met John Updike on several occasions, and once I told him The Centaur was my favorite of his books. He told me, “Well, yes, it is the warmest book I wrote.” Yes, warm, emotional, interesting, curious, and I book I will come back to again and again and again. 10 stars

--Chiron, 7/13/09

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Runaway by Alice Munro

Alice Munro won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for her fiction. I have occasionally come across one of her stories in an anthology or The New Yorker, but I have never actually read an entire volume of her work. I understand why she deserves this prize.

These stories have a smoothness to them: no rough edges, nothing unusual, simply people living ordinary lives. Of these eight stories, five stand alone, but the most absorbing and the most interesting are three involving a character named Juliet. This set lies so close to the border of a novel, I wish with all my heart it comes out finished and complete. The ends are tied up too quickly, because I did not want the series to end.

This is not to say that I did not enjoy all of them – I absolutely did! But I found myself deep into Juliet, because Munro’s prose is that clever, that clear and bright. Here is a passage from the first in the series, “Chance”

“Juliet cleaned up the stroller, and Penelope, and herself, and set off on a walk into town. She had the excuse that she needed a certain brand of mild disinfectant soap with which to wash the diapers—if she used ordinary soap the baby would get a rash. But she had other reasons, irresistible though embarrassing.

“This was the way she had walked to school for years of her life. Even when she was going to college, and came home on a visit, she was still the same—a girl going to school. Would she never be done going to school? Somebody asked Sam [her father] that at a time when she had just won the Intercollegiate Latin Translation Prize, and he had said, “’Fraid not.” (101).

Munro shows us the overarching theme of these stories in the title. Each story has a character trying to escape, but most often, -- even when they do get away – ties that bind hold them to the past. As Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” And you can’t get away from home either. Five stars

--Chiron, 7/5/09

Meadowlands by Louise Glück

This volume of poetry is part of my reading assignments for a graduate poetry seminar. These connected poems weave through Homer’s Odyssey with appearances by Penelope, Telemachus, Odysseus, Circe, the Sirens, Greek soldiers, along with a few references to the Bible. The overarching theme is loss and separation and sadness.

Glück connects these serial poems (the subject of the assignment) with a variety of threads – birds, flowers, music – and a series of parables on the king, hostages, a trellis, a beast, a dove, flight, swans, faith, and a gift.

Quoting individual poems in the series will not give the flavor or the unity of this collection, but there were a few outstanding lines that especially struck me. For example, “from this point on, the silence through which you move/is my voice pursuing you” (5); “change your form and you change your nature/And time does this to us” (32); and “if I am in her head forever/I am in your life forever” (46).

Part of the fun of this collection is piecing together these individual poems and seeing how they fit into the overall narrative of Homer’s epic poem.

A great collection of poetry – even for those who do not read a lot of poetry. 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/2/09