Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Things That Matter by Edward Mendelson

This book illustrates perfectly, the virtues of independently owned bookstores! I bought this last November at one of my favorite indie bookstores – The Blue Bicycle in Charleston, SC. On our annual visit to this wonderful city, we always make plans to spend a couple of hours there. Jonathan and Lauren Sanchez are everything book lovers want in a book store. Their knowledge of their stacks is encyclopedic, and when they recommend a book, I know I can rely on them. The next time you are in Charleston, make this a must stop on your tour. They are on King Street a couple blocks down from the Francis Marion Hotel. Every time I pass a large chain store, I ask if they have this title – so far those stores are 0-6. How else could I have come across this book so easily? Now, back to the stacks!

Two things struck me when I picked up the book – the dust jacket has a photo of six of my favorite novels, and a seventh I had never read. Then there was the subtitle: “What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life.” How could I NOT buy this book?

Well, I was only a tiny bit disappointed. The chapters took me back to my grad school days, when this sort of reading was 90% of my book fare. Here are the seven novels and the topic Mendelson discusses in each chapter: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (birth); Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (childhood); Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (growth); Middlemarch by George Eliot (marriage); Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (love); To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (parenthood); and Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf (the future). Does anyone need any more convincing?

Okay, just a few more words. Completely unfamiliar with Between the Acts, I was at sea in the last chapter, which reminds me to warn anyone interested in this book, that the author assumes at least a passing familiarity with these novels. Of course, no serious reader would not have read most of these books. I plan on hunting down a copy of Between the Acts, and then re-reading that final chapter.

As far as Wuthering Heights is concerned, I have loved this story for a very long time, yet Mendelson has given me an entirely new perspective on this monument of 19th century literature. I won’t spoil by revealing any of Mendelson’s ideas, but if you love these novels as much as I do, this book is a must read.

Most of the Chapter/Essays were incisive and clear, except for To the Lighthouse, but then again, the novel can also be confusing to first time readers. I have only read Lighthouse once, and perhaps a better grasp of the story might have solved this problem. 4-1/2 stars.

--Chiron, 1/30/10

Monday, January 25, 2010

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

Now for some fun. Once upon a time, I was an assistant manager of a book store. Our manager assigned each employee a section of the store to keep straight, order replacements, and be able to make recommendations. To help us with the last, we had to read one book from the assigned section each week. He rotated sections monthly. Nobody liked the children’s section, because it was always a mess. I, however, really
looked forward to my stint there (I even traded romance novels for it once), because I got to re-experience many of the books from my childhood as well as discover new ones. Shel Silverstein was probably my best discovery from those days. I could write a dozem but just two short ones. “Drats” first,

Can anyone lend me
Two-eighty-pound rats?
I want to rid my house of cats. (72)

And, “The Bloath,”

In the undergrowth
There dwells a Bloath
Who feeds upon poets and tea
Luckily, I know this about him
While he knows almost nothing of me! (108)

Fun! Simple, smile-inducing, belly-laughing, tear-bringing fun. I love fun poetry.

--Chiron, 1/25/10

Friday, January 22, 2010

Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is, arguably, the best 19th century novel, and I am a big fan. I teach it nearly every semester so I can read it again and again. This volume contains a most interesting Foreword by Margaret Drabble, another of my favorite novelists.

The three stories are set in reverse chronological order: the early 19th century, the Middle Ages, and during the height of the Roman Empire. The first two represent spectacular examples of Flaubert at his best as a realist writing a story with not the minutest detail omitted. The Introduction, written by Howard Curtis, advises the reader to “think of each sentence less as an element of a smooth narrative sequence than as a description of a separate image in a shooting script” (xvi). Excellent advice for the reader unfamiliar with this master of 19th century realism and naturalism.

I thoroughly and completely enjoyed the first two stories. “A Simple Heart” tells an enchanting story of Félicité who spends her life in service to others. Acting as a nurse to her employer’s young daughter, she has developed a close relationship with the child when she is whisked away to a convent for her education. “In the mornings, out of habit, Félicité would go into Virginie’s room and look at the walls. She missed combing her hair, lacing her ankle boots, tucking her up in bed, seeing her lovely face at all times, holding her hand when they went out together. In her idleness, she tried to take up lace-making, but she broke the threads with her heavy fingers. She could not put her mind to anything. She had not been sleeping well, and she felt ‘drained,’ as she put it” (16). Curtis could have had this sentence in mind when he wrote the Introduction.

The second story was an interesting hagiography of Julian the Hospitaller. I thought Flaubert represented the Middle Ages well. The last story I found confusing and difficult to follow. It seemed written in a different voice than the other two, as if Flaubert tried to imitate writers from that period. I much preferred the voices of the first two stories.

Nevertheless excellent examples of Flaubert in his last years – still at the height of his powers. 4 stars.

--Chiron, 1/18/10

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

I am always wary of a book that receives a lot of hype, especially if we are talking about an author with whom I have only a slight familiarity. Such is the case with Lorrie Moore. I know some of her short stories and a few essays, but A Gate at the Stairs is the first of her novels I have read. The cover of the “advanced reader’s edition” claims this is “a book of stunning power.” Hardly.

Tassie Keltjin is a twenty-something college student who responds to an ad for child care, and winds up in tangled webs between her job and her boyfriend. Okay, everybody has a secret – some darker than others – but that has been done to death.

While I will not deny the book was well-written – the prose is lyrical and many nice and even wonderful images abound – I think this cover praise is a bit excessive. I will also admit the characters are a bit interesting, but one, at least, remains dangling at the end of the story. The ending contains quite a surprise, but I cannot figure, with any certainty, how it fits into this coming of age novel. Tassie seems remarkably insightful and mature for someone who goes from a potato farm run by her father to a large university, yet she is still “coming of age,” as the cover also tells us.

This is not a book I will buy in hardcover. If you have never read her, I would wait for the paperback or try some of the short stories first. 3 stars.

--Chiron, 1/17/10

Saturday, January 09, 2010

My Best Reads of 2009

I simply could not limit myself to ten books. I tried, I really did! My original "long list" had 25. Then I got my short list down to 15. I could not go any lower. This was a great year for reading! Lots of new books -- and a few oldies thrown in for good measure.

My Best Reads of 2009

1. Brooklyn: A Novel by Colm Tóibín
1. Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey
1. Year of Cats and Dogs by Margaret Hawkins
2. Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer
3. Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg
4. Endpoint by John Updike
5. Fly Away Peter by David Malouf
6. Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow
7. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
7. Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
7. Shroud by John Banville
8. That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
9. Strangers by Anita Brookner
9. Goldengrove by Francine Prose
10. Defining Moment by Jonathan Alter