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