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