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