Friday, December 31, 2010

Old Heart by Stanley Plumly

These are the kinds of poems I do not like. Awkward constructions, twisted odd metaphors, minimal punctuation, dense imagery all prevent me from enjoying this book of poetry. Unfortunately, the poems he read were not in any of the books he had for sale – at least none in the ones I bought sound even vaguely familiar.

Maybe the poet, reading this kind of poetry, knows where the commas should be. But the casual reader is lost. I read a couple I mildly liked, but most of these were less than enjoyable. 2 stars

--Chiron, 12/31/10

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Usually, for some unknown reason, I do not follow the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but a good friend recommended Tinkers, so I thought I would give it a go. This peculiar novel recounts the last couple hundred hours in the life of George Washington Crosby as he lay dying. During this time, he reminisces, hallucinates, and briefly becomes lucid as to his surroundings.

Most of the prose has a smooth, dreamlike quality, but I was puzzled by frequent shifts in viewpoint from George, to his father Howard, and to George’s grandfather. Harding tells some of these flashbacks and memories in first person and some in third person. This seemed confusing at times.

George’s hobby concerned clocks – collecting and repairing them. He made lots of money which he squirreled all over the place. Many of the images of people getting sick and dying resembled the winding down of a clocks works. George and Howard both had missing fathers.

The psychological aspects of this novel, however, really stand out. The hallucinations, the memories floating in and out, all punctuated with those moments of lucidity when George had to recollect where he was, who all the people around his bed were, and why he couldn’t wind his clocks.

A decent novel, a worthy addition to the Pulitzer Prize canon, but the confusing bits bothered me. 4 stars

--Chiron, 12/31/10

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Clam Lake Papers by Edward Lueders

Margaret Hawkins, author of The Year of Cats and Dogs and How to Survive a Natural Disaster, told me I have to read this book. And who am I to argue with a writer I admire so much? Not surprisingly, she was right.

This short novel/poetry/philosophy/meditation volume has a quirkiness all its own. The author/narrator is a college professor who spends his summers in his cabin on Clam lake in Northern Wisconsin. He arrives one year to find his food depleted, his bed slept in, and a letter from a mysterious stranger who has spent the winter writing and meditating on language, literature, life, and the flora and fauna in his snowbound cabin.

I have often fantasized about such a hiatus from the world. The silence pervades the pages, and I could not hear the stranger’s voice. Some of his musings are serious and some comic, but all have an air of a man seriously grappling with the large and small details of life.

The stranger is most concerned with metaphors, and he reduces much of human existence to the wide variety of ways we use metaphor. I am not sure I bought into this idea entirely, but it certainly is intriguing.

Winter on Clam Lake

I will nominate The Clam Lakes Papers for candidacy on my “Desert Island Shelf.” It certainly needs another read after I have thought about it a little more. The author has penned a restful, relaxing, serene story, and Lueders has revived my fantasy of a getaway vacation without cell phones, radios, TVs – only paper, pencils, books, and a supply of food. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/29/10

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Snapper by Roddy Doyle

I first discovered Paddy Doyle with Paddy Clarke Ha, Ha, Ha, his Booker Prize winning novel from 1993. Doyle has a level of humor that rivals any writer today. He has an understated tone – much like the English – but with a wild Irish flare.

Twenty-year old Sharon Rabbitte finds herself pregnant after an unfortunate encounter following a marathon drinking bout in a local pub. She refuses to reveal the name of the father, but it leaks out when the father leaves his wife and proclaims his love for Sharon. It takes all Sharon’s wiles to convince her family and her friends the man is lying. Her flimsy explanation doesn’t fool many, but the force of her personality brings them around – eventually.

This novel of family, friends, enemies, and especially father and daughter not only has wonderful humor, but many poignant moments as well. Unfortunately, the language is peppered with four-letter words uttered incessantly by and among all the friends and family members, so I won’t quote any of my favorite passages here. Forewarned is forearmed. The best jokes are the dirtiest, and the worst Doyle delivers in an amazingly comic dead-pan style. I have a few more of Doyle’s novels, and I can’t wait to see what else he has in store for me. (Five Stars)

--Chiron, 12/26/10

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sestets by Charles Wright

A publisher sent me this book for some reason – perhaps he or she had my address and some empty envelopes and nothing to do on a quiet afternoon. I am ambivalent about Charles Wright. Sometimes I like his poems – quite a few in this collection actually – and sometimes I like them until the end. These poems have a discordant, unexpected twist at the end that jars my vision of the poem. He probably intends that reaction in a reader. Twists and turns inhabit the ends of many, many poems, and I don’t mind those. Wright’s just happen to cross over the line. For example, here is “‘Well, Get up Rounder, Let a Working Man Lay Down’” [Note: structure lost when transfered to blog]:

The kingdom of minutiae,
that tight place where the most of us live,
Is the kingdom of the saved,
Those who exist between the cracks,
those just under the details.

When the hand comes down, the wing-white hand,
We are the heads of hair
and finger bones yanked out of their shoes,
We are the Rapture’s children. (19)

If this doesn’t make sense to you, that’s poetry. I can only suggest each reader must decide for him or herself. Here’s a poem – my favorite in this collection – that is perfect and complete in my view, “‘It’s Sweet to Be Remembered’”:

No one’s remembered much longer than a rock
is remembered beside the road
If he’s lucky or
Some tune or harsh word
uttered in childhood or back in the day.

Still how nice to imagine some kid someday
picking that rock up and holding it in his hand
Briefly before he chucks it
Deep in the woods in a sunny spot in the tall grass. (32)

How many times have I picked up random stones and tossed them into the woods, a ravine, a lake, a stream, or the ocean? Have I altered the course of history? Have I ever so slightly unbalanced the delicate scales of existence? This is what I love about poetry -- the images, the memories, the connections to my own existence. 4 stars

--Chiron, 12/20/2010 (The Winter Solstice)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Long Lankin by John Banville

On my annual trip to Charleston and The Blue Bicycle Book Shop, I stumbled on this slim paperback of John Banville’s first book. Although changed from the 1970 original – one story and a novella were deleted, and one story added – this collection has an atmospheric air about it that reminds me of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

Each of these stories has wonderful prose wrapped about a mysterious person, perhaps a ghost, perhaps a murderer, perhaps a fleeting shadow in the woods. Most of the characters have anxieties, passions, and secrets. Banville deftly builds to the climax of each story.

Curiously -- there is no title story – but they all have a psychological probing into the characters. In “Summer Voices,” Banville’s prose elucidates the characters of a brother and a sister who have escaped from their aunt’s daily prayer session for a swim.

“The boy did not move. Sunlight fell through the tiny window above the stove. The radiance of the summer afternoon wove shadows about him. Beyond the window a dead tree stood like a crazy old naked man, a blackbird hopping among the twisted branches. The boy stood up and went into what had once been the farmyard – the barn and the sties had long since crumbled. After the dimness of the kitchen the light burned his eyes. He moved across to stand under the elm tree and listen to the leaves. Light glinted gold through the branches. He stood motionless, his arms hanging at his sides, listening, and slowly from the far fields, the strange cry floated to his ears, a needle of sound that pierced the stillness. He held his breath. The voice hung poised a moment in the upper airs, a single liquid note then slowly faded back into the fields, and died away, leaving the silence deeper than before.” (65)

I only wish I had discovered this writer 40 years ago! I am making my way through his 15 published works, and it is a journey of sublime delight. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 12/19/10

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

I picked this short novel as my next read, because I thought it might be a respite from the last few long and intense works on my reading list. Well, my streak is now at four. McEwan is one of my favorite authors. His fluid and brilliant prose has consistently reinforced my belief in him as one of the masters of 20th--century fiction.

The Cement Garden tells the story of a family nearly alone in a run-down area of abandoned and crumbling apartment blocks. One day, the father dies of a heart attack while working in the garden. Almost immediately, the mother takes to her bed and dies – apparently of cancer. This leaves Julia, Jack, Sue, and Tom to fend for themselves. The family had no relatives to check on the four youngsters and no neighbors who showed any interest in what was going on in a house McEwan describes as gothic.

Julia, the oldest, begins dating and her boyfriend becomes curious about the secrets the house contains. This story has the air of The Lord of the Flies in miniature. The children play games, fantasize, and more or less take care of the house and each other.

This intense novel is not for the squeamish or faint of heart, but it does have a mysterious air throughout the 140 pages. McEwan runs the race to the last word of the last page. The climax at the end has as much shock as any suspense story I have read in a long time. If this book were a movie – faithful to the text – I cannot see it getting anything less than an NC-17 rating. Nevertheless, I have to give this brilliant psychological novel five stars.

--Chiron, 12/12/10

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra is arguably, as Stacy Schiff stated in a recent interview, the most famous woman we know so little about. I would add the most famous woman about whom so many myths and misperceptions swirl about her. Schiff has set down a detailed biography drawn from contemporary sources, including Plutarch, Dio, and Josephus. She carefully points out inconsistencies in these accounts, and deftly explains the political and social reasons her history appears as it does today.

Schiff disposes of several myths. She was not Egyptian, or even African – she was Greek through and through. She was not beautiful. Some Romans chided Julius Caesar for his liaison with her, because, “she’s not even beautiful. Lastly, she did not take her life by the bite of an asp. Alexandria held a reputation as a center for the finest poisons in the known world. Their potions acted quickly, irreversibly, and with no pain.

The Romans – great admirers and imitators of the Greeks – seem to have taken a cue from Euripides, who wrote, “Clever woman were dangerous” (qtd. in Schiff 4). She had an impressive education – the finest anyone could receive at the time. She spoke nine languages, and routinely negotiated difficult agreements and treaties with foreign kings without the aid of an interpreter. Even her contemporary critics “gave her high marks for her verbal dexterity. Her ‘sparkling eyes’ are never mentioned without equal tribute to her eloquence and charisma” (33).

The Romans treated their women as little more than personal objects to be bought, sold, traded, or discarded on the slightest whim. Cleopatra’s world, however, provided an environment in which women thrived socially, politically, financially, and educationally. According to Schiff, “as much as one-third of Ptolemaic Egypt may have been in female hands” (24). After her death, “a golden age of women dawned in Rome” (295). Suddenly, they enjoyed unprecedented freedom and political power.

The Romans respected Cleopatra, after all her fields and stores of grain fed the Roman Empire. But they also feared her wealth and her position as a queen with unparalleled support of her people. During her 22 year reign, not a single revolt or attempt on her life ever occurred. Rough estimates of her personal fortune place her among the wealthiest people of all time – over $100 billion dollars in today’s money. Kings would routinely give her a gift of thousands of silver talents, when 220 of the coins could feed and equip a Roman Legion for a year. Favored Court officials might be paid a single talent a year and believe themselves well-compensated. Yet her generosity with her people and her guests was legendary at the time.

Near the end. Schiff writes, “In the match between the lady and the legend there is no contest.

The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all: We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty. She remains on the map for having seduced two of the greatest men of her time, while her crime was to have entered into those same ‘wily and suspicious’ marital partnerships that every man in power enjoyed.” (299)

The only problem I had with the text came in the lack of connection to quotes and over 40 pages of notes. She opts for endnotes marked only by the page they reference. However, the notes have a detail, and at times a touch of humor, absent in such a vast undertaking. Schiff tells the true story of one of the great love stories of all times. She cites dozens of versions of her story, including Shakespeare’s, perhaps his greatest love story. Even if a reader’s grasp of Roman and Ptolemaic history resides in a dim college classroom, this biography will enthrall and amaze. The slight inconvenience in searching out and reading notes is well more than worth the effort to shine a brilliant light on those memories. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 12/12/10

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Some books make me laugh, some make me cry, some fill me with anger, and some with wonder and amazement. Every once in a great while, a book will do all of these things to me. The Help is one of those books.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent grad from Ole Miss, has a degree in English and Journalism. With a great deal of optimism, she applies for a senior executive editing job at a major New York publishing house. A sympathetic editor advises her to get some experience first and asks her for story ideas she has to tell. None of them have any value beyond her local community, until she decides to tell the stories of black maids working for white families. The editor likes the idea and tells her to start writing. Skeeter’s naiveté exposes itself, when she wishes Editor Elaine Stein a Merry Christmas. Her deadpan reply, “We call it Hannukah.”

The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi with a back drop of the murder of Medgar Evers, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passage of the Civil Rights laws of the 60s. Stockett uses three voices: Skeeter, Aibileen, the first maid to talk to Skeeter, and Minny, a powerful personality in the Black community and the first to join Aibileen in telling her story.

These women cook, clean, shop, and, most importantly, raise the children of these women whose main occupations seem to be gossip, bridge, and keeping the servants in their place. The parenting issues this novel raises alone make this a great and absorbing work of fiction. I get the feeling of a true story with only the names changed to protect the brave women who volunteered to open up to public view the ugly side of their lives.

At first, the maids are too terrified to talk to a white women, let alone tell the stories of Skeeter’s friends. Gradually – when one of the housekeepers has been brutally treated by her employer – her friends that work in white households all over the city come around and begin telling the tales of their difficult lives.

This sometimes grim tale, does have its moments of humor. When Minny gets a job in the suburbs, she wants to take the car, while her husband who works the night shift at a local factory wants it. Minny says, “She paying me seventy dollars cash every Friday, Leroy.” He responds, “Maybe I take Sugar’s bike.”

These strong women bear inconceivable burdens dealing with the prejudice of their employers while holding their own families together. Incredibly, they prepare food for the families, but they cannot use the same utensils to eat lunch, and thanks to one particularly obnoxious woman, can no longer use the toilets in the houses they spend all day cleaning. Once again, the inhumanity of one set of people against another – simply because of the color of their skin – baffles me.

One of the most poignant moments occurs near the end of the book at a church meeting called by the maids who told Skeeter their stories. This community demonstrates amazing strength in the face of threats to their homes, their jobs, and their lives. To anyone who thinks the servants in the “Jim Crow South” led happy and pleasant lives, The Help will come as quite a shock. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/2/10

Monday, November 22, 2010

Catherine Howard by Michael Glenne

Portrait of Catherine

Tudor history and biography have long been passions of mine, and this represents my first biography of the fifth wife of Henry VIII. Catherine Howard, cousin to Anne Boleyn, was the one wife I knew virtually nothing about. After seeing the depiction of this young girl on the Showtime cable series, The Tudors, I knew I needed to get some facts about her short reign as Henry’s queen.

Her Coat of Arms

The book has three distinct characteristics:

First, excessive detail, particularly in listing names of attendees at parties, coronations, and official progresses of the court around England. Without any explanation of the who and the why, these lists became tedious, and when confronted with a half a page of names, I began skipping to the end.

Second, excessively detailed conversations among the various players in this tragic drama of what, to me, is the singularly most interesting period of English history. The extent and detail of these frequently private conversations can only come from Glenne’s imagination.

Third, obviously historical information that overlaps what I know about the period and some of the other players in Henry’s Court. This part made the search most worthwhile. The intrigue, the maneuvers, the deals whispered in corridors, the treachery, the treason, the love, hate, and fawning courtiers are all here. Until I find something better, this will have to fill in the gap of my collection.

Tamzin Merchant as Catherine in The Tudors

Glenne can’t decide whether he is writing history or historical fiction. Perhaps the lack of direct information about Catherine required this additional information so that he could publish more than a pamphlet. However, even the abridged version of the massive collection of The Lisle Letters, which runs to almost 4,000 pages in six volumes, has quite a bit of information on Katherine. (I one day hope to own the full set, but that is way out of my budget right now.)

The Great King, Henry VIII

So, how do I rate this book? Should I take of 1-2/3 stars for each of the annoying portions? Well, I did notice the name of my maternal grandfather in Catherine’s household, so I think I will remit 1/3 of a star and rate this as Two Stars.

--Chiron, 11/21/10

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Dissemblers by Liza Campbell

Ivy Wilkes wanted to paint since she was 12 years old. She finishes her degree, and because of a fascination for Georgia O’Keeffe, moves to Santa Fe and takes a job at the O’Keeffe museum. She meets a guard, Jake, who also works at the museum and coincidentally lives in the apartment above Ivy with his partner, Maya. Then she meets Omar, the proprietor of a local coffee shop who is Jake’s cousin. Jake and Maya are musicians and play with the local orchestra, while Omar is a dedicated bird watcher and photographer. The four of them begin relationships as interesting as they are complicated.

Ivy finds herself on a journey or two. Not only does she want to find her own style as a painter, but she wants to get as close to her beloved idol as she can. The relationships that develop among Maya, Jake, Ivy, and Omar have all the depth and angst and moments of fleeting joy a reader might expect from four individuals with artistic sensibilities thrown together by fate.

I recently finished an MFA in creative writing, and Ivy’s musings about art captured my imagination from the first page. I could take this story and substitute writing for painting, a pen for a brush, and a poem for a painting ready for public display. Campbell’s prose is fluid and dreamlike as she wanders around the hills, adobe buildings, and spectacular sky that so beautifully inspired O’Keeffe. She dreams of doing something great, something important. I had a hard time laying this book aside, but I couldn’t help myself getting out a volume of O’Keeffe’s paintings and pouring over them to try and visualize what Ivy saw on her journey.

The Dissemblers is Campbell’s first novel and suffers only from its length – I wish I had another 50 pages to linger over. I felt the heat of a Santa Fe summer, the dry wind in the desert, and that first moment of anxiety when I stare at a blank computer screen as I sit down to write. Ivy finds a cottonwood twig, and examines it for a couple of days before she begins to draw. Then a stroke or two a day in charcoal allows her to ease into the painting. How often I have done that with an idea for a poem or a story. As far as I am concerned, Liza Campbell has captured my creative process perfectly. 5 stars

--Chiron, 11/14/10

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar...Understanding Philosophy through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein

When I mentioned this book in my “Next UP” feature to the left, I wrote, “If nothing else, I might get some good jokes.” Well I got a lot more than some good jokes – I got a LOT of good jokes. So many, in fact, I am having a hard time picking out my favorite as an example of what this little book has to offer.

Okay, so here goes. This joke illustrates “Absolute Relativity.” In other words, when two opposing points of view are treated by each person as true, some interesting results are possible. Here is the joke:

“The lookout on a battleship spies a light ahead off the starboard bow. The captain tells him to signal the other vessel. ‘Advise you change course 20 degrees immediately!’

The answer comes back, ‘Advise you change course 20 degrees immediately!’

The captain is furious. He signals, ‘I am a captain. We are on a collision course. Alter your course 20 degrees now!’

The answer comes back, ‘I am a seaman second class, and I strongly urge you to alter your course 20 degrees.”

Now the captain is beside himself with rage. He signals. ‘I am a battleship!’

The answer comes back, ‘I am a lighthouse.’” (179)

I think I might have heard this joke before, but I still laughed out loud when I read it. The book has dozens more along with lots of plain-language explanations of various branches of philosophy. The next time I have a question about philosophy, I think I will check here first! Five stars

PS: The old guy with the beard is not the platypus.

--Chiron, 11/7/10

Friday, November 05, 2010

Nemesis by Philip Roth

Back in the 60s, Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth’s first novel, had everybody buzzing. I read it, but did not like it at all. The “rule of 50” lay years in my future, so I struggled to the end. This turned me off Roth until I read Everyman several years ago. Then, I read a few of his recent novels, and tried Goodbye again. This time, the rule of 50 played an important role – I still did not like that novel.

Without any trepidation, however, I dove into Nemesis published a short time ago. Am I glad I did! Now, Roth is my front runner for the Nobel Prize for Literature, because of the way he chronicles life in America in the last half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries.

This novel is unlike anything I have read by Roth. Nothing put pure, young, innocent love set during a tragic episode in American history.

Bucky Cantor’s mother died in childbirth, and his father ended up in prison. Raised by his grandparents, they taught him self-reliance, the value of hard work, and he became quite an athlete. When Pearl Harbor suffered an attack, he tried to enlist with his friends, but poor eyesight earned him a classification of 4-F. These misfortunes haunted him for most of his life. Upon graduation from the ironically named “Panzer College,” he landed a job at a local elementary school as a physical education teacher. There he met Marcia, a new first grade teacher. The two instantly fell in love, but Cantor’s depression over his misfortunes shadowed him throughout his life. When a polio epidemic hits Newark in the summer of 1944, Bucky searches for an explanation in a world controlled by God. He spends much of the rest of his life wondering why God lets bad things happen to innocent children.

Roth has penned an absorbing and tightly drawn story of not only a man, but of a community and a tragedy of terrible proportions. In A Distant Mirror, the late historian, Barbara Tuchman, draws parallels between the 14th and 20th centuries. The bubonic plague which swept through Europe six centuries ago killed tens of millions of people. Superstition, and lack of basic understanding of infections and how they spread through a population, fueled panic, anti-Semitism, and incidents of violence against communities viewed as likely scapegoats. Roth demonstrates Tuchman’s thesis had more parallels than she mentioned, since her book mainly focused on the flu epidemic of 1918, in which tens of millions died world-wide. This pattern was repeated with the polio epidemic of the 40s and again with the A.I.D.S. epidemic which began in the 80s. Fortunately, modern science took the reins with explanations and treatments for both 20th century plagues. History does repeat itself.

Nemesis is the fourth in a series of short novels grouped under the heading Nemeses. If you haven’t read Roth in a while, start with this slim volume and work your way back to something near the beginning. Then try Goodbye, Columbus again. I believe the careful reader will discover a clear distinction between the early Roth and the master novelist of today. (5 Stars)

--Chiron, 11/5/10

Monday, November 01, 2010

Seeing Things by Seamus Heaney

I am still mad at Mr. Heaney for what he did to Beowulf. He turned it into an Irish poem, when it has a clear Germanic pedigree. I find his poetry turgid and thoroughly un-enjoyable. His poems seem as disconnected, random, thoughts. It does not even possess the clarity of stream of consciousness. So there. Read it yourself, and disagree, but I won’t change my mind. Only an occasional interesting lines enable me to give it any stars at all. (2 stars) --Chiron, 10/26/10

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

I really like Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and To the Lighthouse number among my favorite novels. Her letters and diaries also provide wonderful insights into this troubled but brilliant author. Michael Cunningham’s gripping novel, The Hours, weaves together Woolf’s writing of Mrs. Dalloway, and a housewife reading the novel in the 50s, and a 90s woman planning a party for a friend who has won a poetry prize. Between the Acts – along with Dalloway and Lighthouse -- also found their way into Edward Mendelson’s interesting work, The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life. (See my review elsewhere). So, I have a strong connection with Woolf. Acts is the only one of her novels I have never read.

That was a long introduction to get to what I wanted to say -- I was somewhat disappointed in this story. I found the plot confusing, which only exacerbated the difficulty of keeping the characters straight. Some characters were referred to by name, but I had to guess who was whom when unnamed characters appeared.

The novel relates the events of a single day in the life of the Oliver family who host a village pageant at their country estate. Beneath the surface, the villagers suffer from sorrow, boredom, angst, and confusion about the pageant, which tells the story of a number of episodes from English history. The play reveals the inner conflicts and dissatisfactions they all share.

Woolf’s wonderful prose flowed over every page, but the interruptions to clear up confusions diluted my enjoyment. True, I did have a lot on my mind last week, so I will try this one again later. Also, this was her last novel before she walked into the River Ouse, so perhaps it needed much more work, she knew it, and was exhausted to the point of giving up. (3-1/2 Stars)

--Chiron, 10/23/10

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

This fun read – with the subtitle as neat little pun – gave me, in a few hours, long-lasting pleasure. This satiric story tells of a fictional island off the coast of South Carolina devoted to the memory of Nevin Nollop, the supposed author of the shortest sentence containing all 26 letters of the alphabet. One day, a letter falls from his monument, and the island’s governing committee decides this constitutes a message from the dearly departed Nollop.

Their interpretation of the message leads them to ban use of the fallen letter in all written and oral communications. The first letter to drop is “Z,” and no one seems to mind the loss of this rarely used letter. The first offense merits a warning, the second a lashing or several hours in the stocks, and the third offense results in banishment with death for those who refuse or return. Of course, once banished, the property of the departed citizen becomes the property of one of the island’s administrators. However, as more tiles fall, communication becomes rather sticky.

Dunn manages to cover nearly every institution deserving of satire. A cult slowly grows around Nollop, and when confronted with scientific evidence of the weakness of the adhesive holding the letters to the monument, the council dismisses the explanation. They then assert Nollop uses chemistry to convey his messages – an intelligent de-signer as it were.

If it weren’t so scarily akin to current book banners, birthers, and young earth advocates, it would actually be hilarious. Well-worth a quiet afternoon of reading. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 10/25/10

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds Edited by Billy Collins, Paintings by David Allen Sibley

This fun volume has given me much pleasure over the last month. Bright Wings travels easy and makes a good companion when even only a few minutes become available for reading. Many of the birds come to my feeders, and I found myself thumbing through the book to read the poem.

One of my favorite birds to visit is the Northern Cardinal. The poem Collins selected has a grace and beauty to match the bird: “The Cardinal” by Henry Carlile:

“Not to conform to any other color
is the secret of being colorful.

He shocks us when he flies
like a red verb over the snow.

He sifts through the blue evenings
to his roost.

He is turning purple.
Soon he’ll be black.

In the bar’s dark I think of him
There are no cardinals here.

Only a woman in a red dress.” (203)

Fans of birds, poetry, and Billy Collins’ tastes in poetry will love this book. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 10/20/10

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

I first encountered Sam Harris in a review of The End of Faith in The New York Times a little over six years ago in September of 2004. My journey to rationalism covered many years, much reading, over a difficult path. Sam Harris became the first of the “new atheists” who explicated my mental turmoil in a logical and common sense manner. A little over two years later, he followed this work with Letter to a Christian Nation. In this book, he answered many of the criticisms leveled at End of Faith. Many of his critics had not even the slightest taint of rationalism. Since then, I have followed Harris through his blog,, which provides e-mail updates of publications and appearances. I knew Harris spent much of his time working on a dissertation in neuroscience from UCLA. This book is an off shoot of that dissertation.

Harris’ thesis runs like this: “…the split between facts and values – and, therefore, between science and morality – is an illusion” (179). He posits that human morality arose because it provided a value to early hominids. “…values actually are – the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being, as well as that of other conscious minds” (22). The contradictions among religions arose because of narrow interests of small tribes in conflict with neighboring groups. Thus, the commandments proscribe murder and theft, yet the God of Moses directed the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child in the way of this particular group’s takeover of large areas of the Middle East. Belief enables individuals to bridge the gap between facts and values.

Harris states, “Science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want – and therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible” (28). Imagine what the world would be like if everyone lived by the “Golden Rule.”

The idea of a “moral Landscape guarantees that many people will have flawed conceptions of morality, just as many people have flawed conceptions of physics” (53). Recent polls have shown that an astounding number of people in the US believe the universe is only about 7,000 years old, and therefore expect, that if evolution were true, we should be able to see monkeys evolving into humans before our eyes. Harris adds, “the fact that millions of people use the term “morality” as a synonym for religious dogmatism, racism, sexism, or other failures of insight and compassion should not oblige us to merely accept their terminology until the end of time” (53).

The chapters entitled “Belief” and “Religion” offer particularly complicated lines of reasoning, but the conclusion remains the same: “For nearly a century, the moral relativism of science has given faith-based religion -- that great engine of ignorance and bigotry – a nearly uncontested claim to being the only universal framework for moral wisdom. As a result, the most powerful societies on earth spend their time debating issues like gay marriage when they should be focused on problems like nuclear proliferation, genocide, energy security, climate change, poverty, and failing schools” (191).

At times, The Moral Landscape is not an easy read. I found myself going back over some key passages in order to fully digest Harris’ lines of reasoning. However, the challenge is extremely worthwhile in the long run. The author devoted nearly 100 pages – one-third of the book – to detailed footnotes, references, and an index. This work represents scholarship of the first order. This book belongs on the shelf of every person concerned with rationalism and the moral and ethical problems of the dangerous world in which we live. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 10/16/10

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach

I found this September read for my book club mildly interesting with a few annoyances. Perhaps the teacher in me came on too strong, but I think the “adventures” she recounts were more an excuse for paid vacations and free travel than learning things as she proclaimed in her preface. Steinbach had an idea for a book, and convinced the publisher to bankroll these trips. If not, she got in a lot of traveling on the tax payers dime.

After all, how much could she learn arriving halfway through an eight-week course on cooking in Paris – missing all the basics – and then leaving a week before the class concluded? The trip to Havana was another example. She went there to study the art and architecture of Cuba, but spent most of her time in clubs and bars dancing and listening to local musicians.

Not that the book is entirely without merit. I loved the chapter on her visit to Winchester and a gathering of aficionados of Jane Austen. She really did learn something, and so did I. Even this adventure had a minor annoyance. She proclaimed she loved Austen, whom she had read since she was twelve. Then she frets about matching Emma with Mr. Darcy – too big a mistake for anyone who read Austen more than once to make! She did become adept and turning away questions about arcane details in Austen’s novels.

If I had never visited Florence, Italy, her chapter on this magnificent city would have done nothing to make me start planning a trip there.

Another chapter I really enjoyed was the adventure set in Prague. Mostly this one revolved around Czech literature and writers. I also got a tip on an interesting novel, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal. This novel is one long sentence. I also picked up some ideas for exercises in my creative writing class.

Her relationship with a Japanese man also intruded a bit too much into the story for my tastes. Not only did he show up twice, but she felt compelled to include letters updating him on her adventures, as well as some comments which hinted that the relationship was more than mere pen pals.

If I were reading this book on my own, I would have skipped some of the chapters after a couple of pages. But, since my book club was reading it, I felt I should slog through. The opinion of the club members seemed decidedly mixed. (3 stars)

--Chiron, 10/3/10

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell by Ellen Douglas

Ellen Douglas wrote eight novels when she published this memoir in 1998. As the dust jacket says, “Douglas is the pseudonym for Josephine Haxton, whose family roots extend back to the earliest days in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. These four tales describe her search for details of her ancestors. Sometimes she meets with talkative relatives who surprise her with some interesting information. Others stonewall her search, because she used the information from previous interviews in her novels and changed some important details.

This work should interest those who enjoy the historical aspects of fiction. Douglas talks about how she could use some people and incidents from her investigation in her next novel. Her meticulous search of records and memories of her family – and those who knew her family – adds a lot of weight to these tales. She readily admits when she will have to fill in gaps.

The most interesting of the four stories – “Julia and Nellie” – tells the history of her paternal grandmother, Nellie, and her friend, Julia, and a cousin, Dunbar (Dunny). Her prose has a soft and gentle quality – musical, enchanting, and absorbing. “I am sure now that I remember my grandmother and Julia—and Dunny, too—on the gallery at The Forest on a long, hot summer afternoon. I recall an embrace and then the two women in intimate, quiet conversation. I hear their soft voices, Julia’s pitched a shade lower than my grandmother’s, the voices, it seems to me now, of ghosts, alive only in my head and only for the time left to me to remember them. I remember the call and response of those voices as I might remember music—the oboe making room for the flute and then meditatively answering—and, like oboe and flute, they speak with deep emotion, but wordlessly.” (81)

One incident in particular eluded her best efforts to uncover details. In 1861, an unknown number of slaves were tortured and whipped, and some were executed, because of a plot to kill slave owners as soon as “Mr. Lincoln and his army” came to Mississippi. Several “gentlemen of the county” served as judges, jury, and executioners. No newspapers reported the event, no record of any burials exist. The only evidence Douglas uncovered involved lists of slaves “interviewed” about the plot.

I most definitely need to track down some of those novels. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 9/26/10

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Chef by Jaspreet Singh

Confusion best explains my feelings about this novel. Chef tells the story of Kip, a retired soldier in the Indian army, who served as a chef for General Kumar, a hero of the Wars between India and Pakistan. Kip is the son of a military hero, and Kumar named him as an apprentice cook to fast-track him to a military career as an officer. At first he learns from the General’s cook, Chef Kishen, but after Kishen’s suicide, he takes over General Kumar’s kitchen. Most of the story involves flashbacks. The novel opens fourteen years after Kip leaves the army. He recounts his memories as he travels by train to prepare a wedding feast for the daughter of General Kumar.

Food plays an integral role in this story – Jaspreet compares almost everything to ingredients, recipes, and dishes. Kishen and Kip find particular delight in adapting Indian, Pakistani, and foreign dishes to the tastes of Kumar and his staff. Jaspreet writes, “Most important things in our lives, like recipes, cannot be shared. They remain within us with a dash of this and a whiff of that and trouble our bones” (4). This pretty much sums up the novel, since Kip – and most of the characters -- carry secrets all over the map of the disputed territory of Kashmir.

It has always been my custom to circle words I do not know when I am reading. Then, when I come to a stopping point, I look them up and write the definition in the margin. I started doing this in Chef on the first page, but after a dozen pages or so, I gave this up.

If this novel has a flaw – one common among many “ethnic” novels – it is because of many, many terms completely unfamiliar to me. I could only work out a few from the context. I gathered most were ingredients and dishes peculiar to the Indian sub-continent and the area of the Kashmir/Pakistan border. Other than that, I had no idea how those ingredients fit into the story.

If I decide to read this novel again, I think I will try and find a dictionary of food for the Indian Sub-continent. (4 stars?)

--Chiron, 9/20/10

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Blind Descent by James M. Tabor

I heard about this book on NPR, and it sounded like another Wild Trees by Robert Preston (see my review here), but it did have a few differences. Tabor has an interesting subject about a place and activity I could never hope or want to experience. With my fear of heights and tight spaces, extreme cave diving and giant redwood climbing are definitely not for me.

Blind Descent tells the story of two teams of cave explorers searching for the deepest cave on earth. Tabor reminds us that the tallest mountains, both poles, and the deepest depths of the ocean have been explored, while the subterranean world presents an “eighth continent,” which remains virtually unexamined. He compares “cave divers” to all these great adventurers – Scott, Amundsen, Neil Armstrong, Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay.

The American team, led by Bill Stone, explores Cheve Cave in Mexico, while a Russian team, led by Alexander Klimchouk, tackles Krubera on the Arabika Mastiff in Georgia, the former Soviet Republic. These two men have diametrically opposite personalities, and both teams believe their respective caves are the deepest. The story starts slowly – spending a bit too many pages on the personality and relationships of Bill Stone, to my mind – but it does pick up once we get past all the quirks of the two team leaders.

These men and women face incredible obstacles – raging waters, strange microbes, falling rocks, water-filled “sumps” (flooded tunnels), and darkness for weeks at a time. Also, even minor injuries often prove fatal, because it might take days to return to the cave entrance. Furthermore, these two caves were in remote areas, so help was not nearby. Even if a rescue could be attempted, stretchers carrying injured cavers often don’t fit through small spaces and cracks in the cave walls.

James Tabor is not Robert Preston, who has experience writing for The New Yorker. This interesting story could benefit from some detailed drawings of some of the equipment they used to descend into these “super caves.” Preston supplies a few drawings of the giant trees.

The idea of climbing mountains and diving these dangerous caves might appeal to some – but most definitely not me. The great mountaineer George Leigh Mallory said he climbed, “Because it’s there.” He attempted to scale Mt. Everest three times, and may or may not have reached the summit in 1924. He never came back from that attempt. I do not understand this sentiment, but thanks to Preston and Tabor, readers – even timid ones like me! -- can vicariously experience these great adventures. (4-1/2 stars)

--Chiron, 9/17/10