Saturday, March 28, 2009

News of the World and The Company of Horses by Peter Fallon

Poetry lovers all over Central Texas look forward to the annual Beall Poetry Festival at Baylor University -- a really special treat. Some of the foremost poets in America attend every year for readings, lectures, and panel discussions. This year’s class included Peter Fallon, the well-known Irish poet, C.D. Wright, David Lehman, and Donald Hall.

The festival always presents a great opportunity for signed editions, which I took full advantage of this year. Peter Fallon’s work is my favorite so far, and I am looking forward to readings by Donald Hall on Saturday, March 28th.

These two slim volumes contain some of the sparest, most compact poetry I have read in a long while. Many of the poems deal with nature – Fallon spent many years as a shepherd – while some others describe some ordinary events and observations. For example, “Gravities” from “News”:

“A ewe moves northward
to a gate, her lambs in tow.
Another follows and again
the night’s migration

is begun. Thin lines of sheep
approach a slope, the frantic calls
resume, the mothers’ for lambs,
the lambs’ for milk.

And I’ve known men
tell weather by this moment. (31)

From The Company of Horses, a brief elegy for Michael Hartnett (1941-1999):

End of sureness
end of doubt –

when the darkness
like a light
went out. (50)

We have already gone onto Amazon and his website to add to our collection. These neat, sweet, and petite collections belong in every poetry lover’s library. 5 stars

--Chiron, 3/28/09

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Silence by Christopher Brookhouse

I never read a complete review before reading a novel, and I am glad I did not read any of the reviews of this fine story. If I had, I might have been misled.

Admittedly in two or three places in its 150 pages, I did have to pause to see who the omniscient narrator was talking about, but little else confused me. The italicized passages were clearly Harriet’s thoughts, and I will not give away any more than that.

Yankee stoicism rings loud and clear in this aptly named novel of the characters’ inability to communicate. So many times they creep to the edge, look over into the chasm below, but turn and leave without uttering a word. But that is not all. The novel has an air of mystery in the silences of people walking, driving, performing ordinary, and not so ordinary, everyday tasks.

Brookhouse has written lots of good character development along with his descriptions of places and events. 5 stars, even though I wanted more -- I will read more of his work.

--Chiron, 3/27/09

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Best American Humorous Short Stories edited by Robert N. Linscott

When I was in 6th grade, Sr. Marina, SSND (Catholic school survivors will recognize those initials), asked me to read a story aloud from our class reader. My test was to pronounce the word “zephyr,” and when I got it right, she asked me if I knew what it meant. I must have read it somewhere, because I said, “a warm wind.” I loved reading aloud, and the story was so funny, I had a hard time reading over the class’ laughter. I have tried to find that story, and this Modern Library edition published in 1945 represents my latest effort in that search.

Many of the stories include dialect and slang difficult to decipher. A few I knew well, such as “Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry. All the great humorists of the first half of the 20th century are here. A lot of dated and “un-PC” humor but good laughs still abound. Some sound like routines from an old Marx Brothers’ film, and some are downright hilarious. The two by Ring Lardner, “Mr. and Mrs. Fix It” and “Three Without Doubled,” had me in stitches. I had forgotten how funny Lardner’s stories could be.

My story involving a camping trip, mosquitoes, and bears (alas, all I remember) does not live in this book. The search continues. 4 stars

--Chiron, 3/24/09

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ballistics by Billy Collins

I went to the bookstore today -- not to buy anything, just to have a look around. I came away with my fourth copy of Mudbound, the new paperback, and I was surprised at the amber cover. I also got another novel and a collection of humorous travel stories.

Billy Collins' poetry makes me look at the ordinary, the every day, and see symmetrical beauty in the simple things of everyday life. I sailed through this new volume -- twice already -- and I am not the least bit disappointed.

His simple language, clever phrases, and delightful, humorous, and thought-provoking images give me more pleasure than any poetry I have ever read.

I needed this pick-me-up, because I finished teaching King Lear in class today, and the students were bored. I know they didn't read it. They could not see the power of the language, the depth of the characters, the intense fractured relationships.

They would declare the poems too simple and Hillary Jordan's Mudbound too long. They would miss the power of the language, the descriptions, the intense fractured society of Jim Crow Mississippi in 1945. They would be the poorer for it.

But I have another Billy Collins on my shelf, and I can take him and his words for a voyage to a wonderful place -- simple, quiet, reflective. Or I can hunker down with Laura, and Hap, and Ronsel on that mudbound farm in the Mississippi delta anytime I want.

Billy Collins has done it again. I am only going to tease you with a few stanzas from the first poem in the book, "August in Paris." The poet pauses to look over the shoulder of a sidewalk painter and wonders,

"But where are you, reader,
who have not paused in your walk
to look over my shoulder
to see what I am jotting in this notebook?

Alone in this city,
I sometimes wonder what you look like,
if you are wearing a flannel shirt
or a wraparound blue skirt held together with a pin.

But every time I turn around
you have fled through a crease in the air
to a quiet room where the shutters are closed
against the heat of the afternoon,
where there is only the sound of your breathing
and every so often, the tuning of a page" (3).

Now go get your own, because I am looking over Billy's shoulder, seeing the memories of my trips to Paris, stopping to watch a mime, a street performer, or a painter on a folding chair, delicately daubing paint on a small canvas. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 3/20/09

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The History of Now by Daniel Klein

The letter accompanying this early reviewers copy mentions that 38 publishers turned this novel down as “too philosophical.” Of course, the list of novels rejected by numerous publishers, which later became blockbuster, best sellers, is long. A recent example – J.K. Rowling and the seven-volume Harry Potter series.

Daniel Klein has spun a remarkable philosophical tale, which reminds me a little of Richard Russo and his small town cast of characters. Personally, I can’t wait for the next two volumes in the “Grandville Trilogy” to piece together a complete picture of this Massachusetts town, its history, and the interesting cast of characters that populated it from its founding several hundred years ago up to the months following 9/11.

Philosophical novels that delve deeply into the psyche of the characters enthrall me every time, and Klein’s novel is no exception.

This novel, scheduled for publication in March 2009, is a must read for all students of fiction. I am going to get a copy, and I will update this reviews with some quotes from the published version. 5 stars

--Chiron, 3/15/09

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickam, Jr.

This rather juvenile autobiography of a group of boys in a West Virginia coal mining town tells the story of their fascination with space in the days of Sputnik. One Book, One Waco picked this story for its spring 2009 read.

I enjoy literary and historical biographies when they relate to literature, for example Iris, the recent outstanding biography by Peter Conradi and Juliet Barker’s bio of Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt. But teen bios are not my thing. This story is amusing – to 14-year olds -- but not to me. I have an obligation to read it, but I would gladly invoke the rule of 50 here. Furthermore, I do not enjoy “fictionalized” biography.

To begin with the book has about 100 or more pages than necessary. All the stuff about unionizing mines and “Sonny’s” older brother’s football problems lack relevance to the rest of the story. Two pages on Homer getting a new kitten, pages and pages about the culture of football and how the players dated all the cute girls and ruled the school likewise detracted from the story of the rockets. A tighter focus on the rockets would have pleased me more.

Admittedly, the book is well written, and an interesting story. The final chapters on the last rocket designs, the boys learning calculus, and the science fair experiences are first rate. Had the entire book focused on the rocket boys, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. 3 stars

--Chiron, 3/12/09

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Byron in Love by Edna O'Brien

Lady Caroline Lamb wrote in her journal that Byron was, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” I tried to use a gentler variation of this line in my younger days when a woman began making matrimonial sounds. However, I had no idea exactly how bad, how mad, and how dangerous Byron was!

The generally reliable O’Brien has spun an absorbing tale of a man who literally had to drive women away from him with insults, protestations that he loved someone else, and transcripts of love letters he received from other women.

O’Brien’s occasionally witty narrative has a lot of interesting information. Unfortunately this “uncorrected proof” has errors typical of galleys, so I plan on getting a copy when Norton publishes it in June. O’Brien’s prose enchants on every page, it flows with the lyricism characteristic of her fiction. Even a reader not a fan of the Romantic poets, who knows little of Byron but cares about poetry, literature, and the psyche of a writer, must place this slim volume high up on a list of books “to be read.”

My biggest criticism concerns the lack of attributions to quoted material. Not even a bibliography appears at the end. Four stars because of this minor lapse.

I think I will read more of her novels and her biography of James Joyce.

--Chiron, 3/10/09

Monday, March 09, 2009

Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England by Juliet Barker

Shakespeare’s Henry V has always held a high place as one of my favorite plays by the Bard of Avon. Furthermore, the Battle of Agincourt depicted in the film version of the play by Kenneth Branagh, has been a fun, if not entirely historically accurate account of this pivotal and remarkable victory by a shabby, sick, under-provisioned band of invaders.

Juliet Barker has provided a detailed account of Henry’s rise to the throne of England, including his unique preparation in political, military, and diplomatic arenas. His vow to reform corrupt feudal officials, defend the church, and ultimately to recapture English lands in France, made him a beloved and effective monarch.

English history from the fourteenth century through the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, has always held a great deal of fascination for me. I have an extensive collection of biographies and histories from this period of English History. Barker has brought much of this time period into sharp focus.

Regardless of the admiration I have for Shakespeare’s version of the campaign, I always knew some exaggerations, deletions, and additions must have slipped into his account. I have always felt the play was propaganda to bolster the ego of Elizabeth the first, a descendent of Henry V, who was known for his ability to achieve consensus and motivate grumbling nobles, peasants, and merchants into supporting him. The rousing speeches Henry delivers before the walls of Harfleur and the “St. Crispian’s Day” speech immediately before the battle never happened.

The slaughter was unimaginable. The miracle of the English victory, largely attributed to the intervention of St. George and God himself, was due largely to French over-confidence, infighting among various factions of the French nobility, poor planning, and refusal to begin the battle. Each side wanted the other to attack first. Henry, who was concerned with his sick and demoralized men, decided to reform his battle lines, and attack. This opportunity, clearly visible to the French, was ignored.

One interesting point I never consider involved the consequences had the English lost the battle at Agincourt. The financial, political, and military disaster that would have resulted would have drastically altered English history.

This wonderful book contains more detail than the casual reader may want, but Barker has put together a gripping read. I sailed through this volume in two days. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 3/8/09

Friday, March 06, 2009

Jane Eyre: The Graphic Novel by Charlotte Bronte

I really detest the idea of graphic novels. True, I read the “Classic Comics” series when I was younger, but even at that age I sensed something was missing. They inevitably led me to seek out the full text version of those great works – Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, and so forth. So, I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to those forerunners of the graphic novel, but I know many students who read only these watered-down, thin, and poor excuses for great literature.

One important example will suffice. In chapter eleven, Jane arrives at the inn of Millcote, a few miles from Thornfield Hall on the first leg of her adventure. Imagine a 16-year old girl – alone and away from all and everyone she knew for the first time. She was terrified. At the inn, no one met her, and she sat alone bearing the leers and sneers of men and women as they saw her sitting alone. She questioned the wisdom of leaving Lowood, and she feared for her future. This chapter examines in depth, Jane’s mental state after the terrible years spent at Lowood.

This graphic novel treats this important moment like this: “I was collected from the George Inn at Millcote by a plain servant in a plain carriage. Thornfield was a short six miles away” (39). I will admit that this passage has a few more words than the treatment rendered by the Cliff’s Notes version. Not for me!

The mediocre illustrations frequently do not match the emotions conveyed by the text. For example, Bessie, the kindly servant who tried to help Jane at Gateshead Hall, looks like a raving maniac in some of the panels. Never again! 1 star for sometimes mildly interesting artwork

--Chiron, 3/6/09

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

After a recent read of March by Brooks, which I thoroughly enjoyed, People of the Book seemed like a real treat. After all, it was about books and librarians – two of my favorite topics.

Essentially, the book has two parts. One, the story of Hanna Heath, a rare book conservator who specializes in ancient Semitic manuscripts, and her relationship with her mother woven into a commission to examine and repair a 15th century haggadah known as the Sarejevo Haggadah. The other part of the book tells a fictionalized account of the book’s provenance.

The second part was interesting, but the first part was cheesy and smarmy. Hanna, at times, acted like a bitch, a femme fatale, a big baby, and an egotistical brat. She often made comments like, “Even in crummy establishments in London, you can generally get proper tea, in a pot, unlike the bag on the side of a cup of tepid water that you often get even in high-end American places” (268). Now the comment about “crummy establishments in London” might ring true, but I have eaten in numerous “high-end American” restaurants, and I frequently order hot tea, and it always comes in a pot with water just off the boiling point.

Another instance finds our heroine sobbing on the floor of the Tate Gallery in London when she sees one of her father’s paintings, yet a few pages later, she declares, “I am not a soggy Kleenex kind of person” (271).

The history of the book fascinated me, particularly some harrowing scenes during the Spanish Inquisition involving waterboarding, yes that waterboarding. Only a moron or a liar would not answer a resounding “Yes!” to the question, “Is waterboarding torture?”

When I read it again, and I might do that, I think I will skip the pages of the drama queen, and focus on the book. 4 stars – 1 star penalty to Hanna, you are out of the game!

--Chiron, 3/6/09

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

I recently made a trip to the movie theater to see Kate Winslet in The Reader. I have always liked her as an actress, and I thought she more than deserved the Oscar. The movie had a quality about it that absorbed me into the plot as few films do. I felt myself in Michael’s place, and I saw women I knew as Hanna. When I left the theater, I wanted the soundtrack and the book.

My principle reason for wanting to read the book lay in the fact that some details of the story puzzled me. I did realize early on that Hanna could not read, but other more important details of her conduct in running away from Michael and her answers to questions at the trial bewildered me. I also felt unclear about Michael’s motivations.

The book answered all these questions. New questions which remain include why the director and writer added some plot details to the film and deleted others.

The decades old conflict of book versus film rages within me. However, I fully recognize that films and books live in two different sections of the media. Comparisons are difficult, but in this case, the film represents an excellent piece of work, as does the book. I feel both can stand alone and give enjoyment of a different sort.

Someone who has not seen the film might want to read the novel first – that would be my preference. As I read, I tried to form my own picture of Hanna, but Kate kept slipping into my consciousness. In the end, I surrendered and kept her in my mind. She played the part well, she looked the part, and she gave voice to the part. I am happy with the result of all those things.

The combination of the book and the film have given me a better understanding of those times, those people, and that trial. This powerful psychological portrait of characters forced to deal with their past actions is exactly the kind of novel I love to read. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 3/1/09