Sunday, February 28, 2010

Old Girlfriends by David Updike

David Updike led a class in short fiction at The New England Writer’s Conference I attended back in the 80s. Recently, I heard David read from his latest book, Old Girlfriends. “Adjunct” tells the story of a part-time college instructor. Having spent a couple of years in this position, I was drawn to this story and his description of several experiences we shared. Little did I know the book held many, many more associations for me than a temporary teaching assignment.

All the stories have a high degree of craftsmanship. The diction flows smoothly and neatly, conveying vivid images, thoughts, and emotions. These stories provide the reader with serious, thought-provoking situations. For example, “Shining So Nicely in the Sun” is the most poignant story, telling of the narrator’s last visit with his grandmother. Many memories of my own grandmother came to mind.

In the first story of the collection, “Geraniums,” the narrator has rented two rooms in a house with two other borders. The story ends with an epiphany about his landlord, a fellow tenant, and Sashi, his girlfriend, all of whom are at a party:

“As they stood there talking, something finally left him, and he could feel himself smiling back, all four smiling, and for once he saw the beauty and sadness of their love, the loneliness of circumstance, the hardship of things to come. He could see, too, that they had wanted him to know all along: all love needs an audience, and he had become theirs. Without his even knowing, they had adopted him their son” (15).

This passage reminds me of the epiphanies in James Joyce’s Dubliners. Furthermore, this story really sets the tone for the collection. I had such a warm feeling, I immediately read it again – something I did with several stories in Old Girlfriends.

The title story was my favorite, however. The narrator, Trevor, is in therapy, and he examines his relationships with past and current girlfriends. After a long, difficult drive in a snow storm, Trevor arrives at his parent’s home with his latest love interest. She has a certain amount of caution about the visit, but when they arrive, Trevor has some hesitation:

“He turned off the car and it spluttered to silence, just a few odd ticks of it cooling. He could hear the individual snowflakes landing on the windshield and roof, gathering, thrumming with motion, momentum, a million tiny explosions that had powered them there. He took his bag from the back and started to get out, then stopped. He slipped the key back into the ignition and turned, but nothing happened – not even the tick, tick, tick of the starter motor, trying. There was only the sound of snowflakes on the windshield, adding to the whiteness. He turned the key again, and again, but still there was no other sound – only the snowflakes and the silence, silence all around” (151).

I can’t remember a better description of silence since the closing lines of Joyce’s final story in Dubliners, “The Dead.” The parallels with the great Irish writer are all there for the careful reader to enjoy. 5 stars

--Chiron, 2/27/10

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

This novel by Larsson is the first book I have read upon a recommendation of a student – and a good student at that! But I am afraid for the second time in three reads, I have had to invoke the rule of 50. After a two page explanation of Fermat’s Last Theorem and how Salander solved it in seven weeks, I felt a severe math migraine coming on. The prose suffers from a weakness of spirit, infected with clichés and stiff, awkward prose. I should have known better. Two stars.

--Chiron, 2/23/10

Monday, February 22, 2010

Easy for You by Shannan Rouss

I met Shannan Rouss at ALA in Boston this past January. Her reading had a certain rhythm that became more evident as she worked through her initial nervousness. When I approached her for a signature, I found out my copy of her first book would be the first she ever signed.

The collection of stories have varying levels of amusement, pathos, dry humor, and near belly laughs. I can’t quote from the stories, because I only have an Advance Uncorrected Reader’s Proof, but I can assure you, faithful reader, I will buy a hard cover of Easy for You when it comes out in March.

My favorite of the collection relates the story of an elderly man protesting the construction of a mansion opposite his nondescript home, which he has occupied for more than several decades. Max finds himself on a one-man crusade. “Beverly Hills Adjacent” has a voice I can hear of an elderly man, alone, missing his wife, his children, and his youth. He takes on this protest in an attempt to fill in some of these holes in his life.

Six of the ten stories have a woman narrator, and the four narrated by men lose nothing in the telling. The most poignant story is “Neither Here Nor There.” This slightly suspenseful story has an eerie feeling about a dead child.

I thoroughly enjoyed every one of these stories. 5 stars

--Chiron, 2/22/10

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Eleventh Man by Ivan Doig

I hereby invoke the “Rule of 50”! I found this book slow and plodding with way too many clichéd characters – the sassy woman pilot, who has to prove every minute she is as tough as the men, the cigar chomping, scowling general who has to deal with the brass in DC, and the other young men just into the war. I have read it all before, and I can’t waste time on these 406 pages. The prose is ordinary and dull. Two stars.

--Chiron, 2/22/10

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"It All Changed in an Instant": More Six-Word Memoirs by the Editors of Smith Magazine

This fun book takes its place on my shelf among many others of the genre. John Train’s “Remarkable” series heads the list – True Remarkable Occurrences and Remarkable Names of Real People, for example, have a hilarity about them, which sometimes causes roars of laughter or a bout of goose bumps. This little volume does all that and more.

The premise is simple: famous and unknown writers submitted six-word biographies to Smith Magazine. I have so many favorites, but here are a few:

“Books then. Books now. Occasionally life.” –Nancy Pearl
“Heard some Shakespeare. Never went back.” –Casey O’Toole
“Everything I touch turns to mold.” –Lisa Anne Auerbach
“I have to constantly reinvent myself.” –Terry McMillan

And, of course, I could not resist making up one of my own: “Read, write, listen, love, and live.”

Lots of fun for a rainy afternoon. 5 stars

--Chiron, 2/18/10

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is one of those unusual writers nearly everyone loves. His prose is smooth and calm, with interesting characters mixed into a deceptively simple plot. I am tempted to throw away all my scruples about revealing too much of the story, since McEwan fooled me so thoroughly, but I won’t.

His prose pulls the reader along, like a lazy day on the river. And even though we might hear a dull roar ahead, we are two closely bound into his story to pay any attention. Then, when it’s too late, the end comes and we are flying over the waterfall in shock – and delight!

Clive and Vernon have been friends for a long time. They both had a relationship – at different times – with Molly. Clive is a composer who has been commissioned to compose a symphony for the celebration of the millennium. Vernon is the editor of a newspaper teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and closure. The both have a tense relationship with the wealthy George, widower of Molly. The story opens at Molly’s funeral. That is all you get.

This typical scene has Clive working on his symphony as the deadline approaches. Constant interruptions prevent him from piecing together fragments of the ending:

"At nine-thirty he stood and decided to pull himself together, drink some red wine and get on with the work. There was his beautiful theme, his song, spread out on the page, craving his attention, needing one inspired modification, and here he was, alive with focused energy, ready to make it. But downstairs he lingered in the kitchen over his rediscovered supper, listening to a history of the nomadic Morroccan Tuareg people on the radio, and then he took his third glass of Bandol for a wander about the house, an anthropologist to his own existence." (150)

I put down the novel after reading this passage, and wandered through my house looking at paintings, carvings, drawings, photos, and books that spelled out the interests of my life. I tried to imagine what someone who did not know me might think. Then, I understood what Clive was doing.

If you have never read McEwan, many of his novels are good places to start – Atonement, or A Child in Time, or Saturday, or Black Dogs, or, of course, Amsterdam, which won the Booker Prize in 1998. I am working my way through his 12 novels – this is my fifth, and it is about time I went on a spending spree and completed my collection. Five Stars

--Chiron, 2/18/10

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I hardly know where to begin with this review. Every once in a great while – ten years? twenty? – a book comes along that combines all the best things about literature: characters who are interesting, sympathetic, emotionally complex, with intelligence, élan, and a clear perspective on the world around them, and a story that won’t allow the reader to put down the book, all the while making the approaching end something to be delayed. My only regret is that I cannot read Barbery in the original language.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the story of Renée Michel, who says of herself, “I am a widow, I am short, ugly, and plump, I have bunions on my feet” with “the breath of a mammoth” (19). She has served as concierge for an upscale condo building in Paris for twenty-seven years. Renée also refers to herself as “poor, discreet, and insignificant” (18). Despite all this, she is extremely intelligent and incredibly well-read across an amazingly eclectic selection of literature, philosophy, history, art, and politics.

Living with her parents and an older sister in one of the eight luxury apartments is Paloma Josse, a precocious twelve-year-old who has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday, June 16th. Paloma describes herself as “Exceptionally intelligent” (23). Paloma likes few things more than reading, and she, too, is incredibly well-read for someone her age.

What these two share amounts to an obsessive desire to hide their intelligence from the world. Renée does so because of her position as a concierge, “since it has been written somewhere that concierges are old, ugly and sour” (19), and Paloma does so because “an exceptionally gifted child would never have a moment’s peace” (23).

The lives of these two characters intersect in a surprising and unforgettable way. Elegance represents one of the finest examples of the psychological novel I have ever read. This complicated genre examines the “invisible life” of a character, who employs an interior monologue to describe her unspoken and subconscious existence. The list of practitioners of this form of the novel date back to Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad up to James Joyce and William Faulkner. If this sounds dry and dull, I will admit it can be. But Barbery has defied that stereotype and written a magnificent, wonderful, and lovely book.

The story abounds with literary and cultural references. It does take a fair amount of concentration, but I can list ten or twelve chapters that I immediately re-read to absorb the full impact of the prose. When thinking about a cup of tea, Renée muses,

“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment” (91).

What a wonderful line – “a jewel of infinity in a single moment.” Breathtaking prose like this occurs on nearly every page.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, or the original title, L’Élégance du Hérisson, is clearly one of the finest novels I have read in many years. If you call yourself a reader, you must read this book. Now. Without delay. 10 stars. The highest possible rating.

--Chiron, 2/11/10

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

Every once in a while, a book comes along that has a certain feeling of joy, and comfort, and fun. Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society clearly fits that bill – this book has enormous fun and appeal about it.

The story begins simply. Juliet Ashton is a young woman living in London shortly after World War II. She wrote a column during the war, and those pieces were collected into a book. She has become exasperated during a book tour, and is struggling to recall her muse, when she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands occupied by the Germans during the war). He has read a book which once belonged to Juliet and hopes she can connect him with a reputable bookseller in London. You will get no more out of me about this story.

The title intrigues, the characters charm, the story delights. I could barely put it down, and if I had started a bit earlier on Sunday, I would have finished it in a day! If I had more than about 60 pages when I turned out the lights, I might have been tempted to call in sick. However, I didn’t, and I let Juliet, Dawsey, and all their friends and adventures wander with me on Monday until I could get home and finish it off.

Guernsey reminds me of a book I read a while ago – and need to re-read soon! The title character of G.B. Edwards’s The Book of Ebenezer LePage resembles Dawsey Adams. I highly recommend LePage, which is also set in Guernsey before and after WWII. Even though it might be hard to find, it will prove more that worth the effort.

I can hardly wait until my book club Thursday night to see how the others felt. To my mind, a perfect little read. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/1/10