Friday, September 25, 2009

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

A blurb on the title page describes this book as “One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.” Doesn’t sound too exciting, and I admit I had some trepidation, but if ever the warning not to judge a book by its cover should be heeded, this one provides a perfect example.

Eric Weiner, a foreign correspondent for NPR, traveled the world visiting places indexed by a Dutch researcher as “the happiest places on earth.” For control, he visits one country near the bottom of the list. At each place he stopped, he gathered some clues as to what makes those inhabitants feel a certain level of euphoria about their country. One interesting feature of this journey concerns the wide variety of terms he uses to express happiness. Needless to say, he comes to some rather unusual conclusions. For example, Eric must have some personal bias toward chocolate, since it pops up over and over.

The delightful style of Weiner’s (pronounced “Whiner” he tells us) reminds me of so many detailed stories on NPR, although some of these might be rated PG-13. This wonderful book will make you want to pack up and head off to your idea of a happy place. Also, have your PC warmed up and ready to Google many of the places, food, restaurants, coffee houses, and museums he mentions. One member of our book club said Weiner needed pictures. She then proceeded to pass around a dozen or so images associated with the book. “Bliss” will give your reading group as much fun as ours had last night. 6 stars out of 5

--Chiron, 9/24/09

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey

Admirers and students of John Cheever’s fiction will find this biography engrossing, thoughtfully detailed, and sprinkled throughout with wonderful quotes from his family, friends, editors, peers, and even former teachers. For those not familiar with his novels and spectacular short stories, it may seem to plod and drag in spots. I have admired Cheever for over 35 years, and actually met him at his home in Ossining, NY. I wrote the following profile of John Cheever last year. I believe it tells much about the man and the writer.

The first obituary appeared in the June 19, 1982 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The shock prevented me from reading it carefully, but one sentence leaped from the page: “Mr. Cheever called confinement ‘one of the principal themes of my work’.” That sentence percolated through my memories of our meeting and all his books I had read.

Several letters in 1978 and 1979 finally resulted in a meeting one chilly November day in 1979. John was dressed as if he were about to sit for another dust jacket photo – slacks, white button-down shirt, no tie, and bedroom slippers.

His desk was an ordinary dining room table and the room held floor to ceiling shelves overflowing with books in every possible space. They spread across the floor like a paper glacier. There wasn’t any wall space, but he did have several pictures hanging from shelves, which seemed as haphazard as the books on the floor.

According to the obit, John believed, that “discovering the liberties one can enjoy within the confinement of one’s own mortality is basically the nature of life on this planet.” His room was confining in a physical sense, but the pathways through books gave him the freedom to explore the universe.

John asked his wife for some tea, as he bulldozed the clutter to one side clearing room for a stack of treasures. As he sat in a rattan chair, he reached back into the clutter for a pen and tried several before he found one that wasn’t dry. “I have a thousand pens here, but not one in ten works.”

The cigarette that he lit in his frustration was a distant descendent of the one that got him expelled from Thayer Academy and provided the inspiration for his first published short story, “Expelled,” which appeared in The Nation magazine, which rarely, if ever, published fiction.

A golden retriever padded in slowly and put his head on John’s lap for the gentle stroking he expected and received. Just then, an obviously jealous cat jumped up into his lap and purred loud enough to drown the scratching of his pen.

John signed the books and talked about his fiction. The steam from the tea rose like the remnants of fog on the Hudson River just outside his window. The conversation wandered through Bullet Park, among the Wapshot family, and stopped at “The Enormous Radio,” a popular Cheever story.

His mind traveled over a landscape dotted with his characters’ families, their heartbreak and happiness. He remembered them all – treasures of his life, fondly recalled.

Clearly there was actual confinement in his life. His daughter, in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer on the publication of her biography of her father, Home Before Dark, published two years after his death, told of his “confinement” by alcoholism, bisexuality, and depression. Perhaps his novels and stories were a means to manage the imprisonment of “the nature of life on this planet.”*

The interview over, I sadly gathered the books. I wanted to stay and listen to this charismatic writer for hours, but I had intruded enough. As I walked down the driveway to my car, I turned and saw him waving one last time.

*Interview with Susan Cheever. The Philadelphia Inquirer. 2 Dec. 1984: 11K.

For those without a unique personal experience like this, the book will fill out the nooks and crannies of a man who lived a difficult life, yet added so much pleasure to so many of his readers around the world.

--Chiron, 9/30/09

Magic City by Yusef Komunyakaa

This dark and slightly grim collection of poetry had only a few poems that struck me as only a little more than interesting. Had this book not found its way onto a reading list for my class, I surely would not have stumbled onto those few poems I did enjoy.

One of my favorites, “The Whistle,” had some nice tone and diction that I did admire. Komunyakaa writes,

“The seven o’clock whistle
Made the morning air fulvous
With a metallic syncopation
A key to a door in the sky – opening
& closing flesh. The melody
Men & women built lives around,
Sonorous as the queen bee’s fat
Hum drawing workers from flowers,
Back to the colonized heart.

I find it curious he uses an ampersand and he capitalizes the first word of every line. It’s almost as if he did not know how to turn off the formatting function in Word, but the book was first published in 1992, so that can’t be the case.

Komunyakaa has won a number of awards, including a Pulitzer in 1994. That poetry like this can win such an award puzzles me. I guess my tastes in poetry run counter to that of all the prize-givers. Thumb through it in a bookstore before buying. See whose side you are in for this one – he must have a devoted following. 3 stars

--Chiron, 9/21/09

Monday, September 07, 2009

Beloved Infidel by Dean Young

My favorite poet is Billy Collins for three reasons: 1. simple language, 2. clever metaphors and images, and 3. a dash of humor along with some profound truths. His poem, “Shoveling Snow with the Buddha,” is my favorite of his works, and you can easily find it on line.

At the other end of the spectrum is Dean Young. He uses pretentious language – “cothurni” (boots) – which might be pleasing to his ear, but not to mine. He tortures words and leaves me with images I cannot fathom no matter how hard I try. In a recent interview on NPR, he was asked to explicate a line, and he said, "I have no idea what I meant." Tony Hoagland, a well-known scholar and poet, expressed a similar sentiment when when describing another poem by Young.

Poetry shouldn’t be a struggle. 2 stars for a handful of interesting lines.

--Chiron, 9/7/09

Allegheny, Monongahela by Erinn Batykefer

This pleasing volume of poetry arrived in the mail as part of LibraryThing’s early reviewer program. Unlike others in the series, this is not a galley, but a first edition.

Her first book of poetry, I have to say, hit at least a triple, and a few feet higher at that left fence would have made it a homerun. Most of the poems have sparkling language and great metaphors, but a few seemed strained to me. My favorite is “Sky with Flat White Cloud” inspired by a 1962 painting by Georgia O’Keefe. Several other poems had the same genesis. Batykefer writes,

“I remember us through a haze of white.
Flat clouds pressing down like summer,
the botanical gardens steaming.” (76)

Anyone familiar with O’Keefe’s work will recognize the clever melding of weather, the painting, and themes that run through many of her paintings. This painting is rather plain, with bands of white (a sandy stretch of desert without any vegetation?), then a band of yellow-green at the horizon, then layers of flat white clouds at the top. The painting feels like an oppressively hot, dry summer day, and Batykefer has captured that same feeling.

All her poems ring true like this. Only a few tortured lines cost her half a star. 4-1/2 stars.

--Chiron, 9/7/09

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The English Major by Jim Harrison

I picked this book strictly for the title and the cover. I never heard of Jim Harrison, despite the fact that he has written over 25 books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. He has also won a Guggenhiem and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Conspicuously absent are a Pulitzer, a PEN/Faulkner Award, and a National Book Award.

The story he tells holds a lot of interest for me, even though this is my third recent read involving aging teachers undergoing a mid/late-life crisis. Cliff’s wife Viv has left him for a high-school flame. As part of the divorce, she has sold their farm out from under him and turned him out. He takes his share of the divorce money, and hits the road. Along the way (from Michigan to Washington, down through California, Arizona, New Mexico, then back up to Montana and home to Michigan) he meets a variety of characters from his past and some new ones. While it is not riotously funny, it does have its moments with some sassy, snappy prose.

One thing that annoyed me was Harrison penchant for parenthetically explaining some pretty ordinary things. For example, he writes, “I had been a chaperone and driver for a bunch of 4-H (Head, Heart, Health, and Hands) kids going to a big meeting” (6). Later he provides the same service for “ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)” (28). Maybe his teacherly hat fell down while he was typing.

A pretty decent road novel worth a couple of lazy afternoons. 4 stars

--Chiron, 9/3/09