Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendahl

After a long hiatus, involving a 3600-mile road trip wrapped around a week grading the AP English Literature exams, which left me little time for reading, I am back.

Stendahl’s The Red and the Black has long been one of my favorite 19th century novels. How I had not read The Charterhouse of Parma in all these years remains a mystery with no further need of resolving. This novel is another masterpiece by Marie Henri Beyle who wrote under the pen name of Stendahl. This novel bears some resemblance of plot to The R & B. The main character, Fabrizio, first tries the military (red), but later settles on the clergy (black), although the results in both cases are dramatically different.

At first I felt some confusion over titles. Some were in French, some in Italian, and some in English. Only once did Stendahl explain names and relationships, and then refer only to these characters by their titles. About half way through, I began to become accustomed to this habit, and I sailed through the rest of this 500+ page story.

The notes in the preface tell us that Stendahl wrote this novel in an amazing 53 days. He kept a journal of his progress, noting each day how many pages he had written. The story has a certain level of complication, but no careful reader will fall off the sled more than a time or two.

Another thing that puzzled me involved money. Francs, livrés, écus, and sequins were flying all over the place – sometimes in the same sentence – and I could not grasp the relative values of these denominations. A trip to my faithful friend and companion, the dictionary, did not help, since it only offered dates, precious metals, and countries that had issued these coins.

Nevertheless, the 19th century represents my old comfortable chair that I return to again and again. It gets more comfortable with each visit. The ending came as a pretty nice surprise, even though Stendahl did tie up all the loose ends in about 16 pages. 4-1/2 stars.

--Chiron, 6/20/09

Friday, May 29, 2009

Every Boat Turns South by J.P. White

Fortune has sent me several excellent reads from Permanent Press, including Klein’s The History of Now and Brookhouse’s Silence, so something which did not appeal to me was inevitable.

This quick read of mishaps on a voyage from Florida to St. Thomas will most definitely appeal to salty, lusty sailors, but the boat jargon soared over my head.

More trouble, however, came in the form of the narrator’s voice. I had a difficult time visualizing him based the words that came out of his mouth. I guess a character, who thinks the same way he or she talks, is the ultimate villain here.

Another problem involved what I call “over the top” prose. It seemed as if White was struggling to put together colorful, original metaphors, but most of the time they didn’t work for me. When describing Jesse, a prospective cook and deck hand, the narrator describes her feet as having “a full fleet of fire-engine toenails” (19).

Lastly, the story of the mysterious death/disappearance of an older brother, for which the younger brother bears the guilt and approbation of his parents, is an old story becoming more worn out by the day. I didn’t really care about any these characters.

If you like gritty, salty tales of the bounding main, the ports with cheap rum, loose women, and shady deals, then you might like Every Boat Turns South. Me, I’ll take the next flight out. 3 stars.

--Chiron, 5/29/09

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Gentle Action by David Peat

Is the attention span of people who read business books really this short? How many times am I going to be able to force myself to read this crap. “Business ethics” is the classification the publisher gives this book, and that is an oxymoron if I ever heard one. The covers and inserts are filled with blurbs from CEOs of “feel-good” companies. Great. I hope they can run their businesses gently. I don’t want to tell my book club, “No more!”

But, as you can imagine, no Exxon, or WalMart, or CitiBank executives here. Oh no, their god is profits, their sacrament is greed, and their mantra is exponential growth, regardless of the consequences to employees, the environment, or the country.

I did a little research on Mr. Peat, and I saw the most bizarre CV I have ever come across, and believe me, I have seen many, many hundreds – from professionals and amateurs.

To give you an example from the text, he leaps from “medieval looms” to Charles Babbage and computers. A simple Google search showed me several sites that listed the late 17th century as the date of the invention of the mechanical loom. He also mentions punch cards, but the prose is so fuzzy and poor, I can’t tell if he means looms or computers with punch cards.

Zero stars -- don't waste your time or your money.

--Chiron, 5/28/09

Cassada by James Salter

This novel represents a perfect example of why the “rule of 50” works. I read two novels and a volume of his short stories years ago and then collected a couple of his other works. The next I read was Cassada. I decided to go back to Salter this week and found a bookmark on page twenty. As I began to read, the unusual names rang a bell, and then I remembered. I began it, but did not like the first chapter. This time I decided to push on, because Salter’s prose is tight and brief without being stingy.

What I did not like about the first chapter was all the military acronyms and lingo, but this time I fought through them, and they became another part of the story even without the meanings. Salter has packed an emotional and thrilling story in just over 200 pages.

About two-thirds of the way through, he begins weaving the ending into the narrative. Then he grips the ending and follows through for the last 40 pages, which I saved it for my morning tea. Wow! What a wallop! Wonderful story, wonderful characters.

If you do not know Salter, try him out. Light Years, Solo Faces, and Dusk and Other Stories would be the best places to start. Save Cassada for the day you are hooked and admire his prose as much as I do.

The New York Times featured him on February 11, 2001 when it reviewed this novel. The link is: Five stars.

--Chiron, 5/28/09

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

This curious book has more of an ethereal quality than any I have read in years. It starts off with an elaborate frame. The unnamed narrator travels from England to Belgium several times on business, and each time he notices a solitary man taking pictures of the train station and writing elaborate notes. Driven by curiosity, he approaches the man, Austerlitz, and the two develop a long-lasting friendship.

Gradually, the novel devolves into Austerlitz’s story of his search for his roots in Prague in the middle of the 1930s. His mother evacuated him to England at the age of 12 to live with a Welsh minister and his wife. Austerlitz remembers nothing of his family and his childhood, but his obsession with architecture provides fleeting glimpses of his past.

It took a while to get use to Sebald’s unusual style. Some paragraphs go on for ten or more pages. Only a few breaks in the narrative occur marked by a single star centered on the page. This proved no problem, because as Austerlitz’s story progressed – with incredible descriptive detail – I could scarcely stop reading this meditation on art, architecture, and psychology.

In addition to long paragraphs, Sebald uses long sentences. Here is an example of his style:

“As I lay down I turned on the radio set standing on the wine crate beside the bed. The names of cities and radio stations with which I used to link the most exotic ideas in my childhood appeared on its round, illuminated dial – Monte Ceneri, Rome, Ljubljana, Stockholm, Beromünster, Hilversum, Prague and others besides. I turned the volume down very low and listened to a language I did not understand drifting in the air from a great distance: a female voice, which was sometimes lost in the ether, but then emerged again and mingled with the performance of two careful hands moving, in some place unknown to me, over the keyboard of a Bösendorfer or Pleyel and playing certain musical passages, I think from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which accompanied me far into the realms of slumber" (165).

This passage, and many others, provide clues to Austerlitz, as he begins to piece his past back together.

In addition, photographs are interspersed throughout the book that relate to people, places, and architecture referred to in the texts. These ghostly images from the past and present add to the ethereal quality I mentioned above.

I see more of Sebald’s works in my future. 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/26/09

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Shroud by John Banville

Axel Vander is angry. He is also a self-described liar. In fact, as this fine novel by Banville unfolds, his entire life of falsehoods unravels. Banville does not disappoint, and he seems to prove himself one of the most consistently fluid and lyrical writers alive today. He has turned his talents to create one of the most despicable characters in all of literature.

Several years ago, I stumbled on a Noel Coward film from 1935 entitled The Scoundrel. Never released on DVD or VHS, I cannot find out much about the film, and I have little hope of ever seeing it again. But I do remember vividly the despicable character Coward played. I always thought him the worst person in all of literature since Milton’s Lucifer. Now I have a new leader in the categories of rudeness, meanness, with an overall despicable character – Axel Vander.

When describing his siblings, Axel says, “my older brothers and sisters, those botched prototypes along the way to producing me” (132). He is also a snob. While visiting Italy, a native does not understand a request, and he thinks, “I learned my Italian from Dante” (22).

Banville has given Axel a voice that drips of egotism, boorishness, and misery. For example, Banville writes when Axel explains why he did not go to the funeral of a friend, he thinks, “in some ancillary ventricle there still lodged a stubborn clot of doubt” (154). Echoes of Noel Coward!

Twenty times or more, I was driven to the dictionary to look up arcane words, such as gallimaufry, instauration, and apocatastasis. Banville is a first-rate wordsmith.

Vander is also a character I call a “topper.” No matter what anyone says, Axel, must top with a better story, a bigger experience, or a more important acquaintance. Boy does THAT get under my skin.

Despite all this, Banville has told a much more than interesting story. On one occasion, about a quarter of a grain of sympathy for Vander crept into my reading, and at one point (page 95 of 257) he does show the tiniest shred of kindness. But I had to find out what happens to him. You will, too. 4-1/2 stars because I can’t give the devil a perfect score.

--Chiron, 5/23/09

Saturday, May 16, 2009

One Big Self: An Investigation by C.D. Wright

I met C.D. Wright at the recent Beall Poetry Festival at Baylor University. I bought this book because Copper Canyon Press published it, and they maintain high quality in the printing and selection of poetry. My first look at this book was disappointing. I thought a collection of random sayings, thoughts, and images from three prisons in Louisiana would not appeal to me. Today is a lazy, rainy Saturday, and the arthritis throbs in my knee, so I decided to read it. I am glad I did.

My taste for poetry usually runs as follows: short, structured (at least a little), and with a tendency toward the humorous. This long poem had none of these characteristics. Nonetheless, I found it absorbing and thought provoking. Wright’s aim was to match personalities and desires of the men and women in these three prisons. She has done a marvelous job.

Once I started reading, I could not stop – except for the occasional pause to re-read a line or two that deserved an extra moment of savoring. This really is poetry at it best – the collection of images, the words from the inmates, the signs on the walls, all came together to draw the reader inside. A sense of claustrophobia and the relentless monotony of their lives came out in Wright’s words. The next item on the agenda is to try and find Deborah Luster’s book of photos from the trip Wright made with her to visit these prisons. One Big Self wants me to read more of Wright’s work. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/16/09

The Museum at Purgatory by Nick Bantock

According to Nick Bantock, Purgatory is a place that “takes a meditative, non-partisan view of reality…thanks to its geographical placement, midway between the earthly community and the region presided over by the Utopian States (those provinces that lay emphasis on recuperation) and the Dystopian States (whose dictum forcibly discourages indulgence and foppery) (viii). Upon arrival in Bantock’s Purgatory, the newly deceased “are faced with the fundamental questions of self-worth” (viii). “Assessing oneself after death is a matter of measuring the information acquired during life” (ix). “In order to travel on from Purgatory, a spectral being must come to terms with those conflicting elements not dealt with previously. No god-like external judge is going to decide the being’s destination” (ix). Through the assemblage of objects collected during life, a person reviews his or her life before moving on.

This may all sound quite strange, and it absolutely will become one of the strangest books you will read -- until your next Bantock. All his novels involve mysterious characters, strange and bizarre stories, and almost all with ambiguous endings. The books are beautifully illustrated with collages, photos, drawings, paintings, and a myriad variety of visual arts. Reading Nick Bantock takes one into the bizarre world of his imagination with invented names, places, professions, and objects.

This got me thinking of my ideal heaven: a small room, two easy chairs, a radio with innumerable stations, each of which plays only one kind of music (no commercials of any kind), with a display panel showing the artist and title. My stations would be classical, opera, Ella Fitzgerald, et al, New Age, and movie sound tracks. The room would have a soft ambient light that reached into every corner. The walls would all be lined with bookshelves -- everyone I ever read – and one special shelf would be empty. When my thoughts turned to authors I liked, the rest of their books would magically appear. Coffee, hot tea, or iced tea would appear upon the presence of thirst. A door would appear when I wanted a walk on the beach, in the woods, at a zoo, or a museum. Ahhhh, that would be paradise.

I originally discovered Bantock back in the 80s with his Griffin and Sabine trilogy. These books contained letters (inside envelopes pasted to the page) and postcards between the titular characters. The drawings and stamps on the post cards and letters enchant endlessly. His books are hard to find, but worth the effort. 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/16/09

The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín

I recently discovered Colm Tóibín (pronounced “Collum Toe-bean”), and this is my second read by him. After reading Blackwater Lightship, I bought several of his books off the shelf of a local bookstore. His prose has a lyrical quality and quite a bit of intensity, but it remains sensitive and absorbing. I was not aware when I bought The Story of the Night that it had won the Ferro-Grumley Award for the best gay novel in 1998, and made On Lambda’s list of the 100 best gay novels of all time. I have read Mann’s Death in Venice, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and Djuna Barnes Nightwood, so the genre is no surprise to me. Tóibín has written a sensitive and moving story of a young man’s coming to terms with his sexual preference, and capped it off with a tender love story. That does not give away the ending.

I do not know what else to write. If the idea of homosexuality disturbs you, then I would advise against reading this book. I am completely, 100% straight, but I have also known a number of people who are gay, and several who have died of AIDS. I know they fall in and out of love, they laugh, they cry, they try and live their lives against varying tides of intolerance and even hatred. If the names and the fact of AIDS were removed from this novel, no one would have any idea it was about gay men.

Maybe I should change my mind about anyone not reading this book. The Story of the Night portrays gay people as living through all the things straight people do: discovering who they are as people, finding their place in the working world, dealing with crises of family and friends, traveling, and having fun. If you are open-minded, then you should read this book; if you are not, maybe this book will open your mind. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/16/09

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

This curious favorite of book clubs has only a tinge of the bizarre. Except for three chapters in which Pi discusses his embrace of all three major religions, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. The prose has a sing-song quality, and I found myself hearing the narrator with a stereotypical Indian accent.

Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi) lives with his family in India. Pi’s father is a zookeeper, and the boy has learned a lot about zoo animals and their care. Facing financial ruin, the zoo animals are sold to North American zoos so the family can emigrate to Canada. The Patels load the creatures onto a rusty freighter piloted by Japanese officers with a Chinese crew. During a storm, the ship sinks, and Pi finds himself alone on a lifeboat with a spotted hyena, an orangutan, a rat, a zebra with a broken leg, and a tiger. For over 200 days, the 16-year-old boy battles the elements and his fellow survivors of the wreck.

The only connection I can make between the religious odyssey, which causes Pi to attend a Hindu Temple, a mosque, and mass at the local Catholic Church, and the story involves a sort of reworking of the Lord of the Flies scenario. None of these religions insulate Pi from abandoning all his values and beliefs. Aside from an occasional epithet, “Jesus, Mary, Mohammed, and Vishnu” the religious part of the story does not directly figure into the rest of the novel.

Pi never addresses the contradictions these three religions present, but rather focuses only on their surface similarities. He worries about violating an injunction of one but does not seem to justify his actions when another religion permits the same behavior.

The ending is quite a surprise, and will leave the reader guessing. All in all, a more than worthwhile read. The story of Pi’s 220 plus days in the boat is exciting – I could barely put the book down then. Maybe another read will reveal more details and a better explanation. 4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 5/10/09

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Death with Interruptions by José Saramago

Satire is the use of humor to promote improvement in an individual, the government, or an institution. I have always considered Saramago’s novels to be satiric, but with a subtle streak of fun. Death with Interruptions is no exception, but the final chapters are really a hoot!

Saramago’s Blindness was a little like Camus’ The Plague, and Death is a little like Blindness in some respects. Like several of his novels, Death is set in an unnamed country, and this time the characters have no names, only titles: president, director, minister, cellist, king, and prime minister. Saramago uses long, complicated sentences with commas, periods, and an occasional apostrophe. He never uses question marks, exclamation points, or colons, semi or otherwise. The only letters capitalized are those following a period, those beginning a new statement in a conversation, and the letter I when death (not capitalized) refers to herself.

Here is an example of what I mean: “Death is sitting there, on a narrow crimson-upholstered chair, and starring fixedly at the first cellist, the one she watched while he was asleep and who wears striped pajamas, the one who owns a dog that is, at this moment, sleeping in the sun in the garden, waiting for his master to return. That is her man, a musician, nothing more, like the almost one hundred other men and women seated in a semicircle around their personal shaman, the conductor, and all of whom will, one day, in some future week or month or year, receive a violet-colored letter and leave the place empty, until some other violinist, flautist or trumpeter comes to sit in the same chair, perhaps with another shaman waving a baton to conjure forth sounds, life is an orchestra which is always playing, in tune or out, a titanic that is always sinking and always rising to the surface, and it is then that it occurs to death that she would be left with nothing to do if the sunken ship never managed to rise again, singing the evocative song sung by the waters as they cascade from her decks, like the watery song, dripping like a murmuring sigh over her undulating body, sung by the goddess amphitrite at her birth, when she becomes she who circles the seas, for that is the meaning of the name she was given” (188-89). Death has decided to send violet colored letters to individuals whom she has scheduled for death in seven days.

This excerpt constitutes two-thirds of a page of a five-page paragraph. Not exactly stream of consciousness, but it does require close attention to stay on Saramago’s wagon.

His dialogue is not broken into individual statements but is simply blended into the paragraph. Here follows a brief example of a conversation between the scythe and death, who has made a mistake and failed to deliver a letter to a man while he was forty-nine. The birthday has passed and he is still alive: “You can’t do that, said the scythe, It’s done, There’ll be consequences, Only one, What’s that, The death, at last, of that wretched cellist who’s been having a laugh at my expense. But the poor man doesn’t know he is supposed to be dead, As far as I’m concerned, he might as well know it, Even so, you don’t have the authority to change an index card, That’s where you’re wrong, I have all the power and authority I need, I’m death,” (184).

Saramago is always great fun. He also wrote The Stone Raft (Spain and Portugal float off into the Atlantic), and All the Names about a clerk in a government ministry in charge of vital statistics, who becomes obsessed with a stranger on a card stuck to one he was updating. Saramago won the Nobel Prize a few years back, and I highly recommend him for some fun, absorbing reading. 5 stars

--Chrion, 5/6/09

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Ransom by David Malouf

A professor once said, “Only one story exists – The Odyssey – and from it all other stories flow.” I thought this a ridiculous statement at the time even though I already knew and loved the story of Odysseus and his wanderings at the end of the Trojan War. I had also read The Iliad, but it did not hold for me the charm of the sequel.

This fall, I will teach a class on Mythology, and the centerpiece will be The Odyssey. However, after reading this story of Achilles, Patrocles, Priam, and Hector, I am going to slowly re-read The Iliad and The Odyssey this summer.

Malouf has taken these four characters and rewoven the tale of Hector’s death and the ransom of his body by Priam. David has simplified the story, cut away much of the flowery, epithet-filled language of Homer to focus on the essential theme of the story – fathers and sons and war.

I don’t think I am giving anything away here, after all, the joy of reading Malouf lies in his use of language and the manipulation of words and phrases. If these details of The Iliad surprise you, shame! Get thee to a book store and read these two foundational blocks of western literature! Then read Malouf and experience the glee of noting which details he has added and which he has deleted.

The important things remain: Hector’s farewell to Andromache and Astyanax, the death of Patrocles, the fight between Achilles and Hector, the grief of Priam, and his humiliating plea for the release of his son’s body.

Malouf’s prose echoes the poetry of Homer, and at times, moves us dreamlike through those thrilling legends more the 2,500 years old. I believe I could have read this slim volume in one sitting, but I deliberately took breaks after each chapter. Before resuming, I thumbed through the previous chapters and re-read some passages that struck me. For example, “Why do we think always the simple things are beneath us?” (59), and "'It seems to me,’ [Priam] says, almost dreamily, ‘that there might be another way of naming what we call fortune and attribute to the will, or the whim, of the gods. Which offers a kind of opening. The opportunity to act for ourselves. To try something that might force events into a different course’” (61). 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/3/09