Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

As my legions of readers know, I have recently rediscovered Philip Roth. Although I still do not appreciate the artistry of Goodbye, Columbus, I have really enjoyed several of his later works. The Human Stain has added greatly to my admiration of this fine writer.

Few writers delve into the psychology of characters the way Roth does. The intense reflection and the detailed examination of motives, actions, and consequences make for absorbing reads. As I have said many times, I believe good characters drive a good story. These characters surprise, alarm, and bring the reader deep into the psychological gymnastics we all go through, sometimes unconsciously, every day. Roth brings all these emotions, fears, joys, prejudices, and hopes right out in the open.

Stain is the second “Zuckerman” novel I have read, and by no means will it be the last. Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator, is a writer, and as revealed in the closing pages, we have read as he writes. We make discoveries along with him.

Some of the passages are long, and this novel requires a great deal of concentration as he meanders among the characters and situations. Many of these ring true on many levels. For example, I know a Delphine Roux. I have seen students complain to administration over harmless, off-hand remarks made in class. I have seen the petty jealousies and political maneuvering in the perpetual turf wars of academia.

Realism is the hallmark of Roth’s novels, and The Human Stain clearly ranks as one of his masterpieces. I see a large shelf, with all his books, in my future. Caution: Raw language throughout with graphic depictions of some sexual situations. Five stars.

--Chiron, 4/29/09

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How Fiction Works by James Wood

This fascinating little volume will require many reads to absorb all the information contained in the 123 short essays on various aspects of writing fiction. At first, I had considered this as a text for my creative writing class, but now, I think not. I asked how many had read Madame Bovary, and none had. They need to read more – much, much more – before tackling this valuable book.

Wood presumes his reader has read world literature widely. He provides an extensive bibliography listed by date of publication. The 98 selections are eclectic and fascinating. He begins with Cervantes and the King James Bible then runs all the way through to Updike’s last novel, Terrorist. Pynchon, Saramago, Joyce, Kafka, Austen, the Brontës, Stendahl, Bellow, Nabokov, Roth (Joseph and Philip), Chekhov, Henry Green, and many, many others of my favorites. Alas, no Patrick White.

I started underlining the best passages, but I found nearly every essay had a memorable line or two. This example discusses Madame Bovary:

“Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modernist narration, and his is almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author’s fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible. You can find some of this in Defoe or Austen or Balzac, but not all of it until Flaubert.” (39)

I think I will add this to my desert island shelf for the future and my nightstand for occasional browsing before bed. It IS that kind of book. 5 stars

--Chiron, 4/22/09

Monday, April 20, 2009

Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry by Donald Hall

Donald Hall delivered the keynote lecturer at the annual Beall Poetry festival at Baylor University this year. I purchased this book and a collection of his poems, which he graciously inscribed to me.

Over the years, I have run into an occasional poem by Hall, but never read him extensively. His lecture had humor and a certain earthiness to it, but I had a hard time understanding chunks of his talk – the sound system failed time and again.

The initial chapters related his childhood and his early desire to become a poet. the story followed him through high school and college to post-graduate studies in England. He related details of his life as he began teaching and finally reached a point in his career where he could devote himself to writing full-time.

Unfortunately, the last three chapters dwell on his wife’s battle with cancer, and his decline, culminating in a stroke a few years ago. He recovered and returned to his desk to finish this book.

These last chapters turned the whole tone of the book around, and it ended on a sour note. Still an interesting life, and I am glad I met him. I look forward to reading the collection of poems. 4 stars

--Chiron, 4/20/09

Thursday, April 16, 2009

American Rust by Philipp Meyer

One might think this book only refers to the decay of heavy industry in the Northeastern and North Central United States – the rust belt – but that would sell this fine debut novel short. The decaying factories, steel mills, and auto plants do have a profound presence in the novel, but the characters that populate Buell, Pennsylvania also find themselves in a state of decline. However, unlike the industrial infrastructure, the people have a streak of toughness that shows itself as loyalty, love, and courage.

The publisher’s note compares this novel to Cormac McCarthy – particularly The Road, I think – but that would be a bit of an overstatement. Nevertheless, Philipp Meyer has woven a tight, absorbing tale in American Rust, which I found difficult to put aside, even for brief moments.

The chapters alternate among six characters, although the author’s voice remains consistent throughout. All the characters spend large chunks of time ruminating on their past lives, their present actions, and future plans. Unfortunately, Meyer has the peculiar style of occasionally slipping from the third person narrator to a second person “conscience” of some of the characters. I think these passages of self-admonishment and reflection might have benefitted from the use of italics.

This example, from a chapter narrated by the town police chief, Harris, who has a crush on Grace, the mother of a young man in trouble:

“It felt different with Grace this time, he didn’t know why, it really seemed the hillbilly was no longer in the picture. The spare tire comes out. The spare tire is you. He was not sure about any of it. There were people meant to die alone, maybe he was one of them. You’re getting a little ahead of yourself, he thought.” p 237 (pp 218-219 in Advanced reading Copy)

Is Harris talking to himself? Is the third person narrator addressing the character directly? Strange.

Despite this minor annoyance, an outstanding, exciting read. 4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 4/15/09

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

Few people are fortunate enough to have a friend who loves reading at the same level. Fewer still have a friend who can be trusted enough to recommend books that “must be read.” I am fortunate enough to have several such friends. My first encounter with Joseph Roth is the result of such a friendship. To say I loved this novel amounts to the greatest understatement I could make about this sprawling epic of the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the outbreak of “the Great War” in 1914.

Roth has reminded me that my heart lies firmly in the 19th century – the Brontës, Austen, Stendahl, Gaskell, Flaubert, and Thackeray, among others, all drove me to graduate school, and I still revel in the lush land of romantic and realistic literature of that period.

This novel of three generations, who revered and served Emperor Franz Joseph, encompasses not only the politics of the era but the relationships among fathers, sons, and even the memory of a deceased grandfather. The prose sparkles, and I am hard pressed to recall more than a few novels with prose so consistently beautiful, lyrical, and engrossing.

Normally, I provide a quote or two, but I could pull a paragraph at random from any page and give the slightest glimmer of the power of Roth’s artistry. The story he weaves holds the reader’s attention from page one through to 331. Even the introductory essay by Nadine Gordimer gushes with praise and allows the reader a glimpse or two into the magical, romantic, and psychological depth of these characters.

At times, I felt as if I were watching a film. The detail of the dress, the food, the carriages, and the houses had such precision and completeness of detail my mind had no trouble calling up clear images as backdrops for the story.

Roth wrote a sequel, The Emperor’s Tomb, and I already have it on my Amazon wish list. 10 stars for one of the finest novels I have ever read.

--Chiron, 4/11/09

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Tree Where Man Was Born by Peter Matthiessen

In September of 1972, this work was serialized in The New Yorker magazine over three issues. Only a few years before, I had discovered what some have described as the best magazine in America. The story of the peoples and the vast herds of animals in the Serengeti fascinated me and cemented forever my love of TNY. Many memories of the images from this sprawling narrative persist 35 years later.

This volume is quite a bit longer than the original article. The early chapters describe Matthiessen’s journey to the interior, along with the patchwork groups of peoples spread over millions of square miles around Lake Victoria, the Rift Valley (of Louis, Mary, and Richard Leakey fame). The author includes long sections stretching back to the origins of colonial East Africa and forward into some of the chaos and lawlessness of the end of the colonial period. His narrative captures the rhythm and flow of life on this exotic continent.

The braided histories of many tribes, clans, customs, beliefs, lifestyles, and feuds among neighbors, can be a bit confusing, but the prose is so lyrical and vivid, I never really minded the extra effort to stay with Matthiessen as he bounced over rugged, arid landscapes in his beat up Land Rover. I wanted to own a Land Rover after reading this absorbing story. Take this example from chapter two:

“Our camp was in the mountain forest, a true forest of great holy trees – the African olive, with its silver gray-green shimmering leaves and hoary twisted trunk – of wild flowers and shafts of light, cool shadows and deep humus smells, moss, ferns, glades, and the ring of unseen birds from the green clerestories. Lying back against one tree, staring up into another, I could watch the olive pigeon and the olive thrush share the black fruit for which neither bird is named; to a forest stream nearby came the paradise fly-catcher, perhaps the most striking of all birds in East Africa. Few forests are so beautiful, so silent, and here the silence is intensified by the apprehended presence of wild beasts – buffalo and elephant, rhino, lion, leopard. Because these creatures are so scarce and shy, the forest paths can be walked in peace; the only fierce animal I saw was a small squirrel pinned to a dead log by a shaft of sun, feet wide, defiant, twitching its tail in time to thin pure squeaking.” (79-80)

Wow. Prose like that rarely appears these days. Even at 400 pages, Matthiessen’s story flows quickly, but languidly through the forest. The best parts, however, involve his descriptions of the Maasai of East Africa, which most interested me then and now.

Admittedly, Matthiessen’s prose requires gaining a level of comfort. Many of the long, rambling sentences could benefit from a few more judiciously placed commas! But in the end, the journey is well worth the effort. 5 stars

--Chiron, 4/7/09

Friday, April 03, 2009

Endpoint by John Updike

I had to drop everything and read John Updike’s last book. First, I saw the dedication – “For Martha, who asked for one last book: here it is, with all my love.” Then it struck me: he really was gone, no more novels or stories, unless some nearly finished manuscript even now wends its way through editors, typesetters, printers, book sellers, eventually to me. One can only hope.

He died this past January. Every year I remembered -- too late – that I wanted to send him a birthday note on March 18th. How much I now regret those lapses.

He wrote the first group of poems each year on his birthday beginning in 2002. Then a few as he went to the hospital for tests, treatments -- never losing his keen sense of observation and that subtle humor I love so much.

Usually, when I review a book of poetry, I include a sample, but not this time. I need to keep these magnificent words, images, and phrases to myself. Believe me, these poems pack emotion in every line. Memories thread their way from one to the other. Quiet references to friends, books, family, and events color the fabric of his last years, months, and days.

Buy this book. Spend an afternoon with Updike at his bedside, near his easy chair. You will be converted to a lover of his talent as the premier wordsmith of 20th century American letters. Marvel at the list of his works – novels, poems, short stories, a play, a memoir, essays – all too wonderful to put down at the last page, but each new book opens up a whole new world.

A perfect little book! Beautiful in type, in words, in images, and even in its dust jacket with John half-turning back to the photographer -- a leaf-shaded country lane and all the world before him. My highest rating – 10 stars.

--Chiron, 4/3/09