Saturday, August 28, 2010

Songs of Enchantment by Ben Okri

I first encountered Ben Okri in a post-colonial fiction class in grad school – oh how I miss those days of nothing but reading, writing, and discussing great literature! We read The Famished Road, which won the Booker Prize in 1991. I really loved that book of magic spirit children and an interesting West African culture. Road currently sits on my list of books read long ago and due for a re-read.

Songs of Enchantment also has the magic of spirit children, -- and many of the same characters from The Famished Road -- but this novel goes way over the top. It reads like magic realism on steroids. Virtually the entire novel has visions, dreams, spirits, and all sorts of supernatural doings.

Reading Okri's work requires getting accustomed to the style, but it does take on a lyrical flow. Unfortunately, the symbolism, cultural references, and allegorical elements of Nigerian history eluded me. This book needs to be read in a group setting – a graduate school class, for example – or with a dictionary of West African mythology.

Songs tells the story of Azara, a spirit-child, and his family in a Nigerian village. This example of a passage represents the style of almost the entire novel. Azara and his father have walked into the forest. The child’s father comments, “The forest is dreaming” (24), and they decide to go home. Suddenly they find themselves beset by strange sounds.

“We ran into a quivering universe, into resplendent and secret worlds. We ran through an abode of spirits, through the disconsolate forms of mesmeric dreams of hidden gods, through a sepia fog thick with hybrid beings, through the yellow village of invisible crows, past susurrant marketplaces of the unborn, and into the sprawling ghomind-infested alabaster landscapes of the recently dead. We kept pushing on through the inscrutable resistance of the moon-scented air, trying to find the road back into our familiar reality. But the road eluded us and we troubled the invisible forms of great trees with our breathing, and the spirits of extinct animals with our fear. Our heads pulsated with an infernal violet heat” (25).

I think I might do some research and give this one another try, but right now, only the poetic language and the flow save it. 3 stars

--Chiron, 8/27/10

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards

Sometimes a book we read loses something over the years, and sometimes, a book loses nothing. However, once in a great while, a book comes along which ages like a fine wine kept at exactly the right temperature. Since I first read The Book of Ebenezer Le Page back in the early 80s, I have thought about it many times – when I worked with my friend Bob (this was the first book he recommended I read), both times when I saw the PBS special, Island at War (a fictional account of the German occupation of the Channel islands from 1940 to 1945), and when my book club recently read The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society (a memoir of a woman who lived through the occupation). Many of the incidents in the last two appear in Edwards’ fictional memoir. The patience, independence, and cleverness of the islanders showed through in all these works, but G.B. Edwards’ work has the distinction of the voice of an islander who uses his own patois – mixed in with some German, French, and curious phonetic transcriptions. A helpful glossary appears at the end of editions I have seen.

I loved this book then, and I am even fonder of it now. My book club meets this coming Thursday (8/26/10), and I can’t wait to hear what the others thought of it.

Not much information about Edwards has survived. He was a teacher of literature, and no one knew about this novel until the manuscript turned up after his death. Edwards is seated in the picture at left.

Ebenezer Le Page was born and spent his entire life on the Island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands group off the coast of France, which became the only British territory occupied by the Germans during World War II. He tells the story of the island as it struggled with World War I and its aftermath, through World War II and the occupation, and on into the 60s and the changes wrought by that turbulent period. Ebenezer is a kindly gent, but he does edge toward the curmudgeon in his later years, trying to deal with automobiles, tourists, banks, and television.

I did not so much read this book, but rather sat and listened by the fire as an old timer told me of his life. He says, as he explains his book to a friend, “‘I have tried to put down the worst as well as the best, but you got to read between the lines’” (374). The honesty, the humor, the passion, the folly, the hard work, the play, all have the feel of immediacy and truth found in few books. Ebenezer writes, “I didn’t want to wake up and find myself dead” (369), and “‘It take all sorts to make a world, my boy; or you, for one, wouldn’t be allowed to live in it’” (335).

Ebenezer has and recalls opinions of others on everything, and one of his funnier moments came in a talk with his friend, Paddy, who worked as a tour guide for the islands. “The most to be dreaded was widows on the loose. Once her husband is dead, a woman gets a new lease of life,’ he said: ‘and she knows all the tricks. Middle-aged couples was easy: the husband did what he was told, or she had to keep watch on him. In either case the woman had her hands full. The lonely hearts was a bloody nuisance’” (311). Ebenezer has his opinion of women, too. “A man got to be careful what he say to a woman; or she will turn it upside-down and inside-out and use it as evidence against him” (186).

Ebenezer always had a thoughtful streak, and really kept his cards close to his chest. But he did pour everything into his book. He writes, “I doubt everything I hear, even if I say it myself; and, after things I have been through and seen happen to other people on this island and known to have happened in the world, I sometimes wonder about the existence of God: but I know I am Ebenezer Le Page” (143).

This novel requires a leisurely read. The prose is mesmerizing, and a reader can easily become lost in the mind of Ebenezer. I forced myself to put it down at critical periods to relax and reflect on what happened in the last section I read. Sometimes, I would go back a few pages and re-read before jumping into the next chapter. I will read the story of Ebenezer Le Page again one of these days, and I am sure it will only continue to improve. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 8/22/10

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Last Estate by Conor Bowman

One of my favorite works from the Middle Ages is the poem “Lanval” by Marie de France. Lanval, a handsome, courageous, but penniless knight of King Arthurs’s Round Table, has been ignored by his fellow knights. One day, he meets an incredibly beautiful, fabulously wealthy woman, who has traveled for the sole purpose of making Lanval her lover. She also has magic, and grants Lanval anything he wants or needs, on one condition: he must not reveal their love for each other.

Conor Bowman’s novel, The Last Estate, has almost this same situation set in France before, during, and after World War I. Christian Aragon lives on an ancient vineyard with his parents and older brother, Eugene. Hopes for the success and continuation of the vineyard lie with Eugene, who volunteers for the French army and is killed in the early days of the war. Christian is a studious boy but a poor imitation of his older brother in the father’s eyes. Christian does not want to work in the vineyard -- he wants to go to school and study. Then he meets Vivienne, an incredibly beautiful woman.

Bowman has captured James Joyce’s cynicism of religion along with Albert Camus’ deep introspection into basic existential questions.

Many passages reminded me of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, especially when Christian struggles with fire and brimstone religion and the desires of the flesh as he teeters on the edge of adulthood.

Christian’s relationship with his father and mother and his school mates – girls and boys – recall many of the scenes of emotional turmoil found in Camus’ A Happy Death and a posthumously published, unfinished novel, The First Man.

Now, add into this mix a thrilling trial and a completely unexpected climax, and the reader becomes immersed in a story that is touching, passionate, erotic, and thoroughly fulfilling in every respect. This is one of the finest novels I have read this year, and believe me, I am having one tremendous year of reading!

The Last Estate is due for publication this month. Do whatever you have to do to get a copy of this novel. 10 stars out of five

--Chiron, 8/15/10

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Homer's Odyssey by Gwen Cooper

One of my all-time favorite books is Homer’s Odyssey. Unfortunately, I thought this might be a book about that foundation stone of Western literature. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love cats – I have two now, along with three predecessors now in kitty heaven.

This book is really dull. The prose is stilted and awkward, and I got the point from the “Prologue.”

I was also annoyed by some rather careless errors. For example, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Homer of ancient Greece was blind. Also, Grizzly bears are not black, but rather a variety of shades of brown. These kinds of errors really annoy me. Don’t waste your time. 1 star for a cute cover.

--Chiron, 8/10/10