Saturday, July 31, 2010

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

I read this back in the 60s when it was all the rage, and I failed to see the point. Of course, I have undergone countless changes since then, so I thought the time had come to give it another try. Good move. I have an enormous, new-found respect for this novel. It confirmed some things I believed and taught me quite a few new things. Every reader should bring something to the story and take away new insights.

The Siddartha of the title, born into a Brahmin family around the time the Buddha first emerged in the 6th-5th century b.c.e., senses dissatisfaction with his life. Like Gautama Buddha, Siddhartha’s family had amassed great wealth and lived a privileged lifestyle. However, both young men decide to leave all that behind and explore the world. Siddhartha becomes an ascetic and encounters Gautama Buddha shortly after he achieves enlightenment. He reveres the Buddha but does not become a follower. Rather, he leaves on another journey that will have profound effects on his life. Siddhartha meets a number of teachers during his journeys, and each one adds lessons to his life.

Numerous passages struck me, but this one had particular significance. “One can convey knowledge but not wisdom. One can find wisdom, one can live it, one can be borne by it, one can work wonders with it, but one can neither speak it nor teach it” (111). This statement represents Siddhartha’s great discovery. He recognizes the achievement of Gautama Buddha, but he senses each person has to travel the path alone and discover -- for him or herself – Nirvana. This idea mirrors an identical idea of Krishnamurti, who became a great teacher, and then walked away from his followers telling them they did not need him.

My version of the book has extremely helpful introduction and notes by Robert A. F. Thurman, who teaches Buddhist studies at Columbia University. These long end notes provide explanations for some of the more esoteric philosophical terms and ideas expressed by Hesse. Do not skip them!

We all meet people, learn things, gather insights, experience epiphanies, but assembling these into a coherent personal philosophy can be elusive for many of us. Knowing what to accept, what to reject, what to hold for further examination is a complicated process that requires an open mind and a great deal of patience. This central lesson of Hesse’s novel made my reading more than worthwhile. Deep down, I knew this, but seeing the effect it can have is an epiphany in itself. An inspiring and thought-provoking novel everyone can enjoy. 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/30/10

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Walks with men by Ann Beattie

I once pretended to be a stringer for a local paper and wheedled my way into an interview with Ann Beattie an hour or so before a reading. I have always loved her short stories, and this short novel marks my return to her work after another of those inexplicable absences I mention from time to time.

I must say this novella – barely over 100 pages – is quite a disappointment. It is a strange story, with odd characters, moving through life as if in a daze. The narrator, Jane, is an especially egregious violator. She never explains most of her decisions -- even her introspection at the end of the novel left this reader wholly dissatisfied.

Jane lives on a farm with a musician/hippie after graduating from Harvard. She travels to New York City to receive an award and meets Neil, a Svengali of sorts. Neil wants to “teach” Jane to live in the big city and move about in his upper class circle. I will only add to this that Jane learns, and so does Neil. But a lot of unusual things happen along the way.

I am going to have to put this one aside for a while. Let it percolate a bit, and come back later. The prose is vintage Beattie, so it is worth the read. 3 stars

--Chiron, 7/25/10

Saturday, July 24, 2010

All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang

Novels about college English professors hold a special place in my reading life. Richard Russo tops the list with Straight Man, and Jim Harrison’s The English Major has a tight hold on second place. This new novel by the director of the Iowa Writers Workshop will surely find its way onto this list.

The story revolves around an intense professor of poetry at a midwestern college. Students fight to get into her class -- even though many are reduced to tears at her caustic comments or her lack of attention. Roman desperately wanted to be her student and receive her approval.

The novel will hold a great deal of interest for aspiring writers, because it thoroughly examines the psychology of writing poetry and the relationships between writers and readers – especially readers who are close to the writer.

One of the drawbacks of reading and reviewing “advance reading copies” is that I can’t quote from the novel. The prose is so fluid and almost magical, I feel as if the words have become a river and they carry me along on a journey of exploration. Pick it up in a bookstore and begin to read the opening pages. You will walk out with a copy.

The only flaw is an occasional penchant for conversations with a level of intensity that made it hard to follow who said what. When I hit one particularly difficult scene, I began to notate “R” for Roman and “B” for Bernard. Despite this minor inconvenience, I strongly recommend this novel due out in September. Before writing this review, I ordered her first two books, Inheritance, a novel, and Hunger, a novella and collection of stories. I can’t wait to read them. 4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 7/24/10

Friday, July 23, 2010

How to Survive a Natural Disaster by Margaret Hawkins

I love “discovering” new writers, and first novels thrill me. I felt that when I read Hawkins’ The Year of Cats and Dogs. Better yet, every member of my book club loved it, too. However, when I come across a second novel by a writer like Hawkins, a sense of apprehension comes over me. I approached reading How to Survive a Natural Disaster with that sense of foreboding. Oh, me of little faith! Hawkins has equaled her success with this second effort.

The novel has an ensemble cast of quirky and wonderfully interesting characters. Roxanne, a divorced, single mother of the brilliant April, Roxanne’s mother Jacklyn, Roxanne’s second husband Craig and their adopted daughter May, and last, but certainly not least, Phoebe, a neighbor who edits textbooks at home and who has some mild psychological problems. Then, the animals, all with quirks and secrets of their own – Mr. Cosmo, the three-legged weimaraner who seems a bit psychic and Bill, Phoebe’s faithful companion.

Each chapter belongs to a different character, and the star of this series is undoubtedly Roxanne. She has the longest chapter (about 25 pages) a quarter of the way into the story, and when I finished it, I immediately turned back and re-read it. This chapter could almost stand on its own as a short story. The psychological self-examination by Roxanne -- and all these characters – is exactly the kind of novel I love reading. I also thoroughly enjoyed the (sometimes) minor differences in interpretation of events and perceptions regarding the other characters. All the people that inhabit this first-rate story have a solid, realistic quality about them – some are better humans than others – but they all ring true as clear as a digital recording.

The “natural disaster” occurs about three-quarters of the way through the novel. With 50 some pages left, I felt the ending might be a bit too long. But as I made my way through the final chapters, I began to see the importance of those pages describing how the event affected all of them. I began thinking about tragedies – specifically Shakespearean tragedies – and the way he gave the final lines to the most important character, which hints at the future. In this context, most of the ending words and thoughts fall to one person – Phoebe. This epiphany made all the difference, and the ending became powerful for me.

Don’t be tempted to look ahead as you read, because two of the chapters consist of only one line each, and if you read those, it might spoil the ending. Scheduled for publication in early October, move Hawkins to the top of your reading and collection lists. 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/21/10

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The First Man by Albert Camus

When Albert Camus met his tragic end in an automobile accident in 1960, he left behind this unfinished manuscript. His wife, Francine, decided its incomplete state, with lots of marginalia, notes, and interleaved sheets, would tarnish her husband’s reputation, so she decided against publication. When Francine died, responsibility for Camus’ literary estate fell to his daughter Catherine. She struggled with the decision, and rejected the idea of destroying the manuscript of about 144 pages with little or no punctuation, and with only the barest evidence of any revision. In the 1990s, at the urging of some scholars, she agreed to publication. The English translation appeared in 1995. I, for one, offer a most hearty thanks to Catherine for her decision.

This highly autobiographic novel offers many insights into the formative years of Camus. The death of his father -- when he barely passed his first birthday -- his strict upbringing by his timid mother who deferred to his martinet of a grandmother, to his early education and rescue from a life of poverty by a beloved teacher who recommended him for a scholarship to the lycée, and ultimately to his search for information about his father, appear with a warmth and nostalgia I have not experienced in any of Camus’ other works.

In fact, so many things in his early life strike me as startlingly familiar. For example, on his vacation, young Jacques Cormery frequently visits the local library,

“Thursday was also the day Jacques and Pierre would go to the public library. Jacques had always devoured any books that came to hand, and he consumed them with the same appetite he felt for living, playing, or dreaming. But reading enabled him to escape into a world of innocence where wealth and poverty were equally interesting because both were utterly unreal...illustrated stories that he and his friends passed around until the board binding was gray and rough and the pages dog-eared and torn, was the first to transport him to a world of comedy or heroism where his two basic appetites for joy and courage were satisfied” (244).

Jacques sets off for the lycée with the encouragement of a beloved teacher, and he experiences an epiphany similar to that used by James Joyce in the last paragraph of the Dubliners story, “Araby.” Jacques and Joyce’s young boy realized they are on the edge of new experiences and are about to put their childhoods behind them.

The manuscript has numerous passages with a bit of awkwardness, and footnotes hint at Camus’ indecision about diction or deletion, inclusion, or expansion of some information for the final version of the novel. But he deals with all the major issues found in all his works – life, death, religion, punishment, colonialism, prejudice, and family relationships. Camus always makes me think about all these topics.

If you are unfamiliar with Camus, this novel is the perfect place to start – a literary and philosophical buffet of his life and beliefs. The First Man represents a most important addition to the literary canon of existentialism. 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/17/10

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Broken Teaglass by Emily Asenault

Jonathan Sanchez – the owner with his wife of The Blue Bicycle Bookshop in Charleston, SC and a good friend – recommended this book when I was last in his shop about 8 months ago. I am sorry I took so long getting to it! This is the first book I bought on his recommendation, but he is now in that trusted circle of friends from whom I will accept suggestions without question.

Arsenault has written a neat, tidy little who-dun-it. I know! I am contradicting myself! Only four books separate this and the Chandler where I declared I did not like this genre. Without reading the dust jacket too closely – which I usually do – I started reading it. I was intrigued from the first page, and after about 25 I stopped and read the dust jacket. Lucky I swerved from my usual habit on this occasion.

The story involves two 20-something recent college grads who take a job for lack of anything better at a dictionary company as lexicographers. Samuel Johnson defined a lexicographer as, “A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”

The disappointing part of this book is that these young people aren’t more enthusiastic about what surrounds them in their jobs. I think it would be fascinating work. But then I love dictionaries and words. One sentence near the end struck me: “Don’t hate words. Hate the people who misuse them.” (347)

One jacket blurb compared it to A.S. Byatt’s Possession. While I wouldn’t go that far, this was a delightful, witty, and entertaining book. I read it in two afternoons. Arsenault’s prose has a fluidity about it. Only one minor “bend” in the story prevents me from giving it five stars, but I do give it high praise. Excellent reading for a hot, lazy, summer day. 4 stars

--Chiron, 7/12/10

So Long as Men Can Breathe by Clinton Heylin

Not at all what I expected – I guess I should have looked at it a little more carefully before buying. Sometimes those of us who love books and reading as much as I do have our “auto-buy” module switched on when we see a title, an author, or a dust jacket that strikes us in a particular way.

The book was useful, and I am glad I added this bit of arcane knowledge to my bank. Heylin tells the story of the publication of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I always thought they were published under his direction, but apparently not. The author offers a plausible explanation for Shakespeare’s distance from the original collection.

Not for the everyday reader, but certainly for any professional who cares about Shakespeare as the grteat writer he really is. 4 stars.

--Chiron, 7/12/10

Saturday, July 10, 2010

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Imagine a whale – a great blue whale – then imagine examining every cell of the body of that whale. Following the whale is a 20 pound striped bass. Every once in a while, the striper passes near the eye of the whale, but it is hardly noticed. As we approach the tale of the whale, the striper appears and accompanies us during the last of the examination. That striper is the end of 2666. Furthermore, there are all sorts of threads and lines trailing off from the whale. These all lead to other novels by Bolaño.

This massive – 900 page – work is a puzzle of the first order. It begins with the story of four literature professors. Three of them hail from Turin, Italy, Paris, France, and Madrid, Spain. All independently discover and become obsessed with Benno von Archimboldi. They begin to appear at conferences, and slowly gather a tight-knit yet enthusiastic group of followers. Liz Norton, from London England, joins the obsession and becomes a close friend of all three.

Benno von Archimboldi disappears, but remains in contact with his publisher. Eventually, he becomes wealthy and is shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The professors decide to try and track down Archimboldi. They end up visiting a mysterious German in a Mexican prison accused of the murders of six women. This is part one (of five) of the novel.

Part two involves the life story of a Mexican pharmacist who is a book collector and also obsessed with Archimboldi. He appears briefly in part one to help the three critics. This book is his life story.

Part three is about a man named Fate. It details the death of his mother, and his confusion and lack of concern parallels Camus’ The Stranger. I am not sure how this part fits into the overall novel. I will have to read 2666 a second time, and take much more detailed notes. I think this book is an allegory for the whole novel and a philosophical discourse on fate – lower case.

Part four is a catalogue of crimes committed in the fictional town of Santa Theresa, Mexico. During the 1990s, 343 women were strangled, stabbed, raped, and mutilated their bodies dumped in various places around Santa Theresa – actually a stand-in for Juárez, Mexico near the US Border -- where 300 plus actual murders took place. Only a handful were ever solved, largely due to the incompetence, corruption, and lack of concern of the police. This part was difficult to read, and I kept asking myself why I was reading all this horror. However, I could not stop, even though I felt I would only read one more case.

Part five, entitled “The Part about Archimboldi,” details the life of Hans Reiter, born in Germany in 1920, Wehrmacht soldier on the eastern front, who survives the war and becomes a writer. He changes his name to Benno von Archimboldi because he believes the American and German police are looking for him. “Reiter” in German means “riddle.” Archimboldi, Hans Reiter, and Klaus Haas – the prisoner in Mexico -- are all described as tall, blue-eyed, blond Germans.

All these threads are carefully and cleverly woven into a thick, thick hawser that ties this story together. The novel is a gigantic puzzle, and will require at least one more reading to get a full grasp of its true meaning.

Roberto Bolaño died at the age of 50 in 2003. He frantically tried to finish the novel before he died. He considered it his masterpiece. The prose is engaging and the book is difficult to put down. The hyper detail Bolaño employs in his story is also curious. Sometimes he will use three words or phrases to describe something. For example, when Archimboldi began his search for a publisher, he notes one

“in Cologne, a house that from time to time published some novel or volume of poetry or history, but whose catalog mainly consisted of practical manuals that might just as easily provide instruction on the proper care of a garden as on the correct administration of first aid or the reconstruction of the shells of destroyed houses” (793).

The story has many, many digressions that seem to trail off the main story line, but the purpose of some became clear when I finished the novel. One digression is the story of a “shadowy Swabian writer…who knew quite a bit about contemporary German Literature” (18-22). He tells the four professors about meeting Archimboldi. The story is five pages, with only commas for punctuation. Bolaño wrote this in the style of someone trying to piece together the memory of an event he knows is of supreme importance to the listeners. Some of the other digressions trail off into art, literature, mathematics, and even Greek mythology. One interesting digression involves Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a 16th-century painter known for his bizarre portraits entirely formed by fruit, vegetables, plant material, and the occasional insect.

The characters also dream – all of them, all the time. A dissertation might be the best place to explore the significance of these dreams to the story line. Here is a fragment of one of the shorter dreams. Florita Almada is a television psychic who has visions of some of the murders:

“Sometimes she dreamed she was a schoolteacher and she lived in the country. Her school was at the top of a hill with a view of the town, the brown and white houses, the dusky yellow roofs where the old folks sometimes settled to gaze down on the dirt streets. From the schoolyard she could see the girls on their way to class. Black hair gathered in ponytails or held back with bands. Dark-skinned faces and white smiles. In the distance, the peasants worked on the land, reaped fruit from the desert, tended flocks of goats.” (456)

This truly is an epic masterpiece. It ranks up there with Joyce’s Ulysses and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, incidentally by a reclusive writer who only contacts his publisher by mail. I want to read more of Bolaño, but I will need a seriously long break before I dive into more of his work. Ten stars out of five.

--Chiron, 7/10/10

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Mama's Promises by Marilyn Nelson Waniek

I discovered this poet at the AP English Literature grading session in Louisville, KY this past June. The poem “The Century Quilt” had all the qualities of poetry I like to read and emulate. Most of the poems in the collection share these qualities. The poem is long, but the first two stanzas provide a good idea of Waniek’s work:

My sister and I were in love
With Meema’s Indian blanket.
We fell asleep under army green
Issued to Daddy by Supply
When Meema came to live with us
She brought her medicines, her cane,
And the blanket I found on my sister’s bed
The last time I visited her.
I remember how I’d planned to inherit
that blanket, how we used to wrap ourselves
at play in its folds and be chieftains
and princesses.

Now I’ve found a quilt
I’d like to die under;
Six Van Dyke brown squares,
Two white ones, and one square
the yellowbrown of Mama’s cheeks.
Each square holds a sweet gum leaf
Whose fingers I imagine
Would caress me into silence. (37)

Another good example of a clever, humorous poem is “A Strange Beautiful Woman”:

A strange beautiful woman
Met me in the mirror
The other night.
I said,
What are you doing here?
She asked me
The same thing. (1).

A few are a bit obtuse and long, but I think a second reading might repair that view. So, I will hold back a star until I come around to these again. Four Stars

--Chiron, 7/7/10

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

In Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, Remarkable Creatures, she has, once again, set her deft hand to drawing characters, situations, and landscapes to enthrall the reader.

This historical novel tells the story of Mary Anning, a poor girl during the Regency period in England. Her father, a cabinet maker, ekes out the barest of a living for his family. Mary has a unique talent for spotting fossils along the shoreline of southern England. She befriends Elizabeth Philpot, a spinster banished from London to Lyme Regis. Elizabeth, distraught at her removal as a “poor relation,” begins to wander the beaches and finds some interesting fossils.

Creatures is in opposition to Jane Austen’s stories with happy endings. In fact, Elizabeth chides her sister for living in the unreal world of Miss Austen. Elizabeth and her sisters – poor, unattractive, ungainly – have no hope of a good match, but they have learned to live with the disappointment, burying themselves in reading, gardening, and fossil hunting.

Mary and Elizabeth charge into the new, masculine world of paleontology and discover new species. Ironically, these women, “fossilized” by society, become famous for their fossils. The author also uses Brontë’s term, “creature,” to refer to the women in the story lending a double meaning to the title.

In the novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chevalier captured the feeling, atmosphere, and language of 17th-century Holland. She has done the same with England in the opening years of the 1800s. The chapters alternate narrators between Elizabeth and Mary, and Chevalier accurately voices Elizabeth, an upper class woman who is painfully aware of her circumstances and place in society, and Mary, the eldest daughter of a family struggling on the precipice of financial ruin and the workhouse.

Elizabeth says, “‘You must pardon my sister, sir,’ I said now. ‘Just before you arrived she had been complaining of a cough. She would not want to inflict her illness on a visitor’” (74). Right off the pages of Pride and Prejudice!

Mary, on the other hand sounds like this, “It weren’t just the money from selling the croc that changed things. It was knowing there was something to hunt for and I was better at finding it than most – this was what were different.” (111)

Unlike most of Austen’s Regency women, Mary pursues her passion regardless of the whispers of the townspeople, while Elizabeth is a bit more reserved, she does, on occasion, get her hackles up – a bit like Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice.

For fans of Austen and Brontë, or readers interested in the early days of paleontology, or for those interested in period pieces set in 19th century England, or those who simply love a great story, this novel has something for everyone. Five stars.

--Chiron, 7/5/10