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 clich├ęs. 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