Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Appointment by Herta Müller

As my faithful readers know, I always read the major prize-winners when announced. As is the case with most recent Nobel Prize awardees, I had never heard of Herta Müller. At first I thought, well yes, Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Soviet Union – secret police, long lines and empty shelves, spying neighbors, frequent and seemingly pointless interrogations to root out dissatisfied citizens – I had heard, seen, and read this plot many times.

The difference with Müller’s take on this story involves, lyrical, graceful, simple prose that lulls the reader into a false sense of “been-there, done-that.” I nearly gave up several times and even had to struggle to get through the last 40 pages as the descriptions became more detailed, more bizarre, and the mind of the un-named narrator becomes more and more disjointed. Then I read the last line: “The trick is not to go mad.”

So, like Kafka, and Lu Hsun’s “Diary of a Madman,” Müller’s novel relates the descent into madness as a result of paranoia of a dictatorship run wild with maintaining absolute power and control over its citizens. How close we came to that precipice! The novel is a warning. Unbridled police powers will inevitably lead to abuse and oppression.

With that last line – almost a Joycean epiphany – the novel made sense. It became harrowing, exasperating, and I understood completely how madness did result. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 12/31/09

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg

Around 1986, I took off for The New England Writer’s Conference in Boston. The conference was held at Simmons College near Fenway Park. John Updike was the keynote speaker, and his son David led a class in the short story. Those early days of my first attempts at writing drew me there for a chance to see and hear and meet John Updike and attend his son’s class.

Little did I know that another person I would meet would also have a lasting effect on my reading and writing life. One of the students in the class was a young woman who wrote tips for mothers of toddlers who read Parent’s Magazine. I believe she had just been appointed an associate editor, and was then writing a monthly column. Since then, I have avidly followed the career of Elizabeth Berg. She has written nearly 20 novels, a book of non-fiction, and adapted one of her novels for the stage.

While some might characterize her fiction as oriented toward women readers, I thoroughly enjoy the humor, the psychological insights, and the finely drawn characters in every one of her books.

I first received a copy of this work as an audio book through the early reviewer’s program of Incidentally, this website is a great resource for readers and collectors. On a long drive, we listened to Elizabeth Berg read this collection. The strong women characters and their relationships, enthralled me from beginning to end. As soon as I could, I purchased a copy of the book, and re-read the stories, to savor them again. As you might expect, again I could hear Elizabeth’s voice. The actual reading allowed me to spend more time pouring over the finer pieces of prose Berg has written.

Most of the stories revolve around food and eating. In the title story, Berg wrote, “Here is my favorite recipe: Buy two boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese. Make one box of macaroni but use both cheeses. Telling you this, I just remembered this woman I really liked a lot who died and she loved egg salad more than anything and didn’t eat it for years because it was bad for her and then when she was on her deathbed and could have anything she wanted, she was given an egg salad sandwich and she couldn’t eat it anymore” (11). This mixture of reflection and clever prose can be found on any page of this collection. I think I'll have another piece of chocolate.

The most poignant story, however, is “Rain.” This story tells about a platonic relationship between the un-named narrator and Michael, an old friend. Michael has invited her to see a house he has built himself in rural Massachusetts. With a certain amount of reluctance, her husband urges her to visit him. She remembers how she and Michael together when they were younger and reflects on why they never developed a close relationship. Berg writes, “I told myself it was because we were never between relationships at the same time, but I also sensed that, if I moved too close to Michael, I’d lose him” (77).

This remote cabin happened after Michael threw off the shackles that tied him to corporate America, and he opted for a Thoreauesque existence in the woods, replacing a pay check with odd jobs, making his own furniture, and growing his own food. The narrator thinks, “Seeing Michael’s place filled me with conflicting emotions. I was happy for him, glad he’d stood in the middle of his kitchen one random day and pulled the veil from his heart’s desire” (80). Lovely, lovely prose. All these stories are priceless nuggets of gold to polish over and over with slow re-reading.

During the class, I took a picture of all the students, and I promised Elizabeth – and the other students – I would not share those photos. I have kept my promise, and now I have a wonderful collection of her work, her voice, and her image from that class.

--Chiron, 12/28/09

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

The normally reliable Ian McEwan has disappointed me in this peculiar and oddly constructed fifth novel published in 1992. I found the prose nearly as powerful as his later work, such as Atonement, Saturday, and Amsterdam, for which he won the Booker Prize, but Black Dogs left me unsatisfied at the end.

Jeremy lost his parents when he was a child, and began to have an inordinate amount of interest in the parents of friends, adopting them for his own. When he married, he continued this practice and became close to his in-laws. He takes on the task of writing a memoir of June, his dying mother-in-law. She recounts a pivotal event in her life involving three large, black dogs that threatened her when she was on her honeymoon in France shortly after World War II. Jeremy compares her account with that of his father-in-law, Bernard, and resolves the differences in a philosophical manner. He uses the incident to explain the world view of both, and the memoir becomes a meditation on the conflict between good and evil, rationalism and spirituality, thinking and action.

The novel is short – only 149 pages -- and that may be its principle flaw. McEwan tumbles over the waterfall in the barrel of his version and explanation of the event. I wish there was more meat on these bones to give me a better understanding of how he arrived at his conclusions.

I am glad I read this after his later work, so it has little effect on my opinion of this excellent writer, and I will work my way through his first four novels. 4 stars for the prose.

--Chiron, 12/24/09

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

My desert island shelf contains all my favorite books which I have encountered since I began reading decades ago. I would want these books if I could have no others.

Cold Mountain has a prominent place in this collection, since it is one of the most beautifully written novels I have read from the 20th century. Everyone who reads it has a favorite passage or line. My list of favorite lines includes dozens, but here are two examples of this wonderful author’s talent:

"All Inman remembered of another days march was the white sky and that sometime during it a crow had died in flight, falling with a puff of dust into the road before him, its black beak open and its grey tongue out as if to taste the dirt." (115).

Then, while Ada and Ruby, a local farm girl who comes to help Ada run the farm, take a walk on the property, Ruby points out animals and plants Ada never noticed.

"Off in the river stood a great blue heron. It was a tall bird to begin with, but something about the angle from which they viewed it and the cast of low sun made it seem even taller. It looked high as a man in the slant light with its long shadow blown out across the water. Its legs and the tips of its wings were as black as the river. The beak of it was black on top and yellow underneath, and the light shone off it with muted sheen as from satin or chipped flint. The heron stared down into the water with fierce concentration. At wide intervals it took delicate slow steps, lifting a foot from out the water and pausing, as if waiting for it to quit dripping, and then placing it back on the river bottom in a new spot apparently chosen only after deep reflection." (149-150)

On a long drive for the holidays, we listened to the author read Cold Mountain. This actually represented my third read of this lovely, intense, entrancing story. Ada Monroe, and her father, a preacher from Charleston, SC, move to Black Cove, near Cold Mountain, just west of Asheville in the days before the Civil War. This tiny, remote town is the opposite of Charleston with its mansions and society. Ada meets Inman, a local farmer, and the attraction is immediate and complete. Then the war breaks out. Inman gives Ada a tintype and promises to come back to her. We learn all this through numerous flashbacks, because the novel actually begins with Inman recovering from a almost fatal wound at the battle of Petersburg in Virginia. He is given up for dead, but he lingers on, and when nearly recovered – fearing a return to the front lines – walks away from the hospital. He heads back to Cold Mountain.

The chapters alternate between Inman’s difficult and epic journey home, and Ada’s attempt to survive alone after the death of her father. If you have never read this novel, you have missed a wonderful, enthralling treat, which you will return to again and again. 10 stars!

--Chiron, 12/31/09

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer

Only rarely does a book come along that allows me to instantly connect with its main character. I could probably name a half a dozen with chapters that rang true, but I cannot think of another novel which convinced me that my life – with all its foibles and peculiarities -- fit into the mainstream of 20th century America. In Kermit Moyer’s first novel, The Chester Chronicles, only the epilogue stands outside my experience. However, I know that experience lay all before me.

Chester Patterson’s birth occurred only a few years before mine. So we grew up during the 50s, attended college in the 60s, experienced the tragedy of November 22, 1963, learned to drive, dealt with the obsession for girls, and tiptoed through first experiments with our earliest heart throbs.

This novel is a Künstlerroman of the first order. Except for the clearly 20th century American idioms, it compares favorably with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. From the first pages, the reader recognizes this is a tale of Chester’s growth into an artist – a writer. Literary references abound in Chet’s college classes, his interactions and discussions with friends, and his attempt to make sense of the world.

His relationship with his father remained close until the final pages of the novel in most respects, but with a healthy dash of distance so common in those days. I especially appreciated the scenes of Chet’s father giving driving lessons, although, I must admit, my Dad yelled a bit more than his. Chet’s transgressions also paralleled mine – frightening while in the midst, but laughable even days later.

This novel should arrive in bookstores in February, 2010. Make a note. Pre-order a copy, camp out if you have to, but make sure you get this novel, and savor it as much as I did. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/15/09

Monday, December 07, 2009

Brooklyn: A Novel by Colm Tóibín

I have a number of sources for discovering new writers. One fertile source is the Booker Prize, given annually to the best novel of the year. I have come to know many fine authors – Anne Enright, John Banville, and Ian McEwan to name a few. These prize-winning authors have given me many hours of pleasure, but the “also-rans” should not be neglected. One such author frequently short-listed for the prize is Colm Tóibín. Blackwater Lightship became my first experience with this wonderful Irish writer, who is currently a visiting professor at Princeton University. I have read three of his books, and Brooklyn represents a 180 degree shift from the tone and story-line of his previous works.

Eilis Lacey has just finished vocational school, and she has a knack for figures. She helps out in a small shop in Enniscorthy, Ireland. Eilis lives with her mother and older sister Rose. Unfortunately, she cannot find a permanent job in her town, so when a priest visits the Laceys, Rose tells him about Eilis’ plight. He offers to get her emigration papers for America, with a promise of a job and a room in a respectable boarding house. Eilis seems unsure, but she knows her options are limited, so she decides to take the plunge and leave the Olde Sod for the new world.

“New” is quite an understatement for Eilis. She finds herself on her own for the first time in a strange and wonderful land. She adapts well to her land lady, Mrs. Kehoe, and her roommates, who take her dancing. She makes new friends, and gets along well in her position as a counter girl at a department store. Set in the early 50s, she has all the innocence and sense of peace and happiness of that decade. A short bout of homesickness hardly slows her down at all.

Unlike some of his other work, Tóibín does not delve into the dark underside of life and its difficulties here. Rather, his warm prose weaves a serene tale of life in rural Ireland and Brooklyn, NY. Eilis matures quickly, and develops a relationship with young man she meets at a dance.

Tony is a gentleman in every sense of the word. On page 148 the first negative thing happens to Eilis. While walking Eilis home from her night classes, he spins a tale of American Baseball and his love for a particular team. Tóibín writes, “’You know what I really want ?’ he asked. ‘I want our kids to be Dodger fans.’ He was so pleased and excited at the idea, she thought, that he did not notice her face freezing.” Eilis is shocked at the speed Tony had pushed the relationship. As she does throughout the novel, Eilis turns the situation over and over in her mind, figuring from every angle how she should respond. When she does confront Tony, she does so perfectly. He understands, and he backs off.

The best thing about Tóibín’s novels, however, is what can only be described as lovely prose. Eilis returns to Ireland for a visit, leaving a distraught Tony behind. Eilis thinks of him often, but doesn't tell anyone. Tóibín writes, “not telling her mother or her friends made every day she had spent in America a sort of fantasy, something she could not match with the time she was spending at home. It made her feel strangely as though she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew” (226).

Don’t mistake this novel for a romance. It is a sensitive and detailed portrait of a young woman coming of age and dealing with many changes in her life. Will she go back to Tony? Or stay with Jim Farrell in Enniscorthy? I won’t tell. You will have to float through this beautiful novel to find out. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 12/7/09