Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Henry VIII by J.J. Scarisbrick

The Tudor period has long held a fascination in my life, and the shelves of books I have on the period range from the truly thorough and scholarly to historic/romantic fiction. Scarisbrick clearly falls into the category of the former. When it came out, a lost review touted it as the definitive biography of King Henry the VIII. I began to read it some forty years ago, but found it too technical for my limited knowledge of the period at the time. In conjunction with the Showtime special, The Tudors, the time seemed right to have another go.

Scarisbrick has written a definitive, detailed, heavily annotated biography, with an extensive bibliography, which is probably out of date now. The work is organized around the major events of Henry’s reign, rather than a straight chronological rendering of his life and times.

A great deal of information was added to my store of knowledge. For example, the divorce from Catherine of Aragon took up much more time and effort and became much more complicated than I thought. Likewise, Henry’s diplomatic maneuvers with Charles I of Spain (aka Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire) and Francis I of France filled literally hundreds of pages of this 500+ page volume.

Despite the length, the text is eminently readable, and sometimes I would begin and end a 60-page chapter in a sitting.

The parallels between Henry of the 16th century and America in the 21st, never failed to astound me. For example, when Henry became King in 1509, he could have followed in his father’s footsteps, but he choose to “reject his father’s notion of a king’s function, quickly dissipate his inherited treasure, set Scotland once more at violent odds with England and pay so little attention to the Americas and Asia that, when overseas exploration was resumed over forty years later, his country would find that Iberian ships had meanwhile gained an advantage which it would take her generations to rival” (21).

Substitute Middle East for Scotland, the US for England, industrial might for exploration, and Chinese for Iberian, and the parallels become even clearer. To paraphrase the quote from Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it, because they have been overcome by megalomania and/or greed.” 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/30/09

The Odyssey by Homer, trans Robert Fagles and read by Ian McKellan & Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, read by George Guidall

We recently took our annual road trip to Tennessee (to visit the grand kids), Kentucky (to grade the AP English Literature exam), and to Philadelphia to visit my family. The first stop was Knoxville, about 18 hours from home, then 4 hours to Louisville, then 11 to Philly, then about 30 back to Waco. So we had about 60+ hours in the car over two weeks. Last year we tried audio books for the first time, and this year we did it again.

I count this as a read for two reasons: first, I have read The Odyssey many times, and, since it is part of my syllabus for the fall, I am reading it again in print. I also include Crime and Punishment, because I read it about thirty years ago, and I am still pretty familiar with the story.

Both these readers did outstanding jobs. McKellan had a suitably classical voice and did an admirable job changing up the voices in long passages without clues to the identity of the speaker. His soft and lovely tones perfectly fulfilled my idea of my favorite character from Greek mythology – Athena, sea-green-eyed goddess. I found myself making notes of passages I had forgotten since the last time I read it (the Fitzgerald translation, about ten years ago). The chapter clues on the CDs made this relatively easy. I carried the Fagles paperback with me and marked passages when we stopped at night.

The Dostoevsky was another matter. Many of the details and characters escaped me, but Guidall’s voice made following this intense psychological portrait quite enjoyable. He had a whole arsenal of voices for the different characters, and he kept them at a consistent rhythm and pitch throughout.

Despite my enjoyment, I steadfastly maintain an audio book will never substitute for reading – especially for a book I have not read. However, I will say it made the miles flew by! The trip turned out a lot less stressful than some others we have taken. So, I think this will become a tradition on our road trips. That and Starbuck’s! Five stars each.

--Chiron, 6/23/09

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fly Away Peter by David Malouf

Originally posted 6/20/2008. Update posted 6/22/09.

This lyrical book has lost none of its charm for its absence of a year to the day. David Malouf is a treasure, and I am so glad I had the good fortune to discover this fine, fine writer. The novel reads so lyrically, I can hear music as I read along. Something haunting with rises and falls, perhaps the soundtrack from “Out of Africa” or “The English Patient.

I found a few interesting facts. The title comes from an English children’s nursery rhyme, “Two Little Dicky Birds.”

“Two little dicky birds sitting on a wall,
One named Peter, one named Paul.
Fly away Peter, fly away Paul,
Come back Peter, come back Paul.”*


As I re-read this novel for my book club, I became curious about all the birds and the title, especially since no character named Peter appears in the book. I also kept track of the birds mentioned, and found photos of all 37 species as a nice visual for my book club.

The birds and the nursery rhyme together fits nicely in with the plot. I can’t say anymore, because it would give away the ending. Still 5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/22/09

Is there anything better on a lazy Sunday afternoon than a newly purchased book of a new author recently recommended by a trusted friend? Yes, if the novel in question is lyrical, poetic, and so wonderful it can scarcely be put aside for dinner.

David Malouf is of Lebanese and English descent. His family moved to Australia in 1884, and he was born there in 1934. Like one of the main characters in Fly Away Peter, he left Australia for 11 years of study in England. He returned and taught at the University of Sydney until 1977. He now writes full-time, dividing his year between Australia and Tuscany. He has won numerous literary awards, including the first International Dublin Literary prize, and he has been short-listed for the Booker Prize.

Malouf is clearly in touch with nature, as this passage illustrates:

"They were so graceful, these creatures, turning their slow heads as the boat glided past and doubled where the water was clear: marsh terns, spotted crake, spur-winged plover, Lewen water rails. And Jim’s voice also held them with its low excitement. He was awkward and rough-looking till they got into the boat. Then he too was light, delicately balanced, and when it was a question of the birds, he could be poetic. They looked at him in a new light and with a respect he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to command" (31).

In stark contrast to the nature scenes in Australia are the graphic and frightening scenes in the trenches of France during World War I. I marvel at Malouf’s ability to describe the dreadful conditions of trench warfare – the rats, the mud, the lice, the stink, the urine, the corpses, the blood, always the blood – and the insanity of war. This passage only hints at the depth of Malouf’s vision when the novel is read as a whole:

"Packed again into a cattletruck, pushed in hard against the wall, in the smell of what he now understood, Jim had a fearful vision. It would go on forever. The war, or something like it with a different name, would go on growing out from here till the whole earth was involved; the immense and murderous machine what was in operation up ahead would require more and more men to work it, more and more blood to keep it running; it was no longer in control. The cattletrucks would keep on right across the century, […] They had fallen, he and his contemporaries, into a dark pocket of time from which there was no escape" (102-3).

Throughout this madness, Jim had the birds to ground him in reality. He kept a notebook of the birds he saw and the songs he heard.

If this is any indication of Malouf’s talents and power as a writer, I can’t wait to get into the rest of his novels, short stories, and poetry. Now I can eat dinner!

--Chiron, 6/22/08

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Tent by Margaret Atwood

A publisher’s blurb on the back cover of the paperback edition calls this book “A delightfully pointed mélange of fictional pieces.” But I disagree. These short – sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always poignant – pieces are far too poetic to deserve the title of “fictional pieces.”

I love Margaret Atwood. I have loved her since I read The Handmaid’s Tale some 20 plus years ago. I loved her when I drove six hours in an old, beat-up Chevy toting a pile of books to hear her read at the Harvard Book Store Café in Boston. She graciously signed all eight, and she smiled, and she thanked me, and I loved her more.

Shamefully, I have not read much by her the last couple of years, but The Tent is the first step in remedying that situation. This slim volume contains so many of her thoughts and musings, her streams of consciousness, so much of her humor, her intelligence, I hardly know where to begin describing anything on these pages.

My favorite piece is the eponymous entry, and it begins:

“You’re in a tent. It’s vast and cold outside, very vast, very cold. It’s a howling wilderness…But you have a candle in your tent. You can keep warm” (143).

“The trouble is, your tent is made of paper. Paper won’t keep anything out. You know you must right on the walls, on the paper walls, on the inside of your tent. You must write upside down and backwards, you must cover every available space on the paper with writing” (144).

“Wind comes in, your candle tips over and flares up, and a loose tent-flap catches fire, and through the widening black-edged gap you can see the eyes of the howlers, red and shining in the light from your burning paper shelter, but you keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?” (146).

I guess the paper tent could not protect her from fans toting bags of books either. Get this book and read it now. That’s an order! 5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/21/09

Zen Ties written and illustrated by John Muth

John Muth is my favorite children’s book author/illustrator. His tales are simple, delightful, and full of meaning for the discerning reader.

I am on a quest to complete my Muth collection, and I can only imagine the treasures that await me. The Three Questions remains my all-time favorite of his or any children’s picture books.

Pick up one, or better yet, both these titles and see what I mean.

Without reading the introduction, see if you can find the pun cleverly hidden in the pages of dialogue. 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/20/09