Friday, December 31, 2010

Old Heart by Stanley Plumly

These are the kinds of poems I do not like. Awkward constructions, twisted odd metaphors, minimal punctuation, dense imagery all prevent me from enjoying this book of poetry. Unfortunately, the poems he read were not in any of the books he had for sale – at least none in the ones I bought sound even vaguely familiar.

Maybe the poet, reading this kind of poetry, knows where the commas should be. But the casual reader is lost. I read a couple I mildly liked, but most of these were less than enjoyable. 2 stars

--Chiron, 12/31/10

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Usually, for some unknown reason, I do not follow the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but a good friend recommended Tinkers, so I thought I would give it a go. This peculiar novel recounts the last couple hundred hours in the life of George Washington Crosby as he lay dying. During this time, he reminisces, hallucinates, and briefly becomes lucid as to his surroundings.

Most of the prose has a smooth, dreamlike quality, but I was puzzled by frequent shifts in viewpoint from George, to his father Howard, and to George’s grandfather. Harding tells some of these flashbacks and memories in first person and some in third person. This seemed confusing at times.

George’s hobby concerned clocks – collecting and repairing them. He made lots of money which he squirreled all over the place. Many of the images of people getting sick and dying resembled the winding down of a clocks works. George and Howard both had missing fathers.

The psychological aspects of this novel, however, really stand out. The hallucinations, the memories floating in and out, all punctuated with those moments of lucidity when George had to recollect where he was, who all the people around his bed were, and why he couldn’t wind his clocks.

A decent novel, a worthy addition to the Pulitzer Prize canon, but the confusing bits bothered me. 4 stars

--Chiron, 12/31/10

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Clam Lake Papers by Edward Lueders

Margaret Hawkins, author of The Year of Cats and Dogs and How to Survive a Natural Disaster, told me I have to read this book. And who am I to argue with a writer I admire so much? Not surprisingly, she was right.

This short novel/poetry/philosophy/meditation volume has a quirkiness all its own. The author/narrator is a college professor who spends his summers in his cabin on Clam lake in Northern Wisconsin. He arrives one year to find his food depleted, his bed slept in, and a letter from a mysterious stranger who has spent the winter writing and meditating on language, literature, life, and the flora and fauna in his snowbound cabin.

I have often fantasized about such a hiatus from the world. The silence pervades the pages, and I could not hear the stranger’s voice. Some of his musings are serious and some comic, but all have an air of a man seriously grappling with the large and small details of life.

The stranger is most concerned with metaphors, and he reduces much of human existence to the wide variety of ways we use metaphor. I am not sure I bought into this idea entirely, but it certainly is intriguing.

Winter on Clam Lake

I will nominate The Clam Lakes Papers for candidacy on my “Desert Island Shelf.” It certainly needs another read after I have thought about it a little more. The author has penned a restful, relaxing, serene story, and Lueders has revived my fantasy of a getaway vacation without cell phones, radios, TVs – only paper, pencils, books, and a supply of food. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/29/10

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Snapper by Roddy Doyle

I first discovered Paddy Doyle with Paddy Clarke Ha, Ha, Ha, his Booker Prize winning novel from 1993. Doyle has a level of humor that rivals any writer today. He has an understated tone – much like the English – but with a wild Irish flare.

Twenty-year old Sharon Rabbitte finds herself pregnant after an unfortunate encounter following a marathon drinking bout in a local pub. She refuses to reveal the name of the father, but it leaks out when the father leaves his wife and proclaims his love for Sharon. It takes all Sharon’s wiles to convince her family and her friends the man is lying. Her flimsy explanation doesn’t fool many, but the force of her personality brings them around – eventually.

This novel of family, friends, enemies, and especially father and daughter not only has wonderful humor, but many poignant moments as well. Unfortunately, the language is peppered with four-letter words uttered incessantly by and among all the friends and family members, so I won’t quote any of my favorite passages here. Forewarned is forearmed. The best jokes are the dirtiest, and the worst Doyle delivers in an amazingly comic dead-pan style. I have a few more of Doyle’s novels, and I can’t wait to see what else he has in store for me. (Five Stars)

--Chiron, 12/26/10

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sestets by Charles Wright

A publisher sent me this book for some reason – perhaps he or she had my address and some empty envelopes and nothing to do on a quiet afternoon. I am ambivalent about Charles Wright. Sometimes I like his poems – quite a few in this collection actually – and sometimes I like them until the end. These poems have a discordant, unexpected twist at the end that jars my vision of the poem. He probably intends that reaction in a reader. Twists and turns inhabit the ends of many, many poems, and I don’t mind those. Wright’s just happen to cross over the line. For example, here is “‘Well, Get up Rounder, Let a Working Man Lay Down’” [Note: structure lost when transfered to blog]:

The kingdom of minutiae,
that tight place where the most of us live,
Is the kingdom of the saved,
Those who exist between the cracks,
those just under the details.

When the hand comes down, the wing-white hand,
We are the heads of hair
and finger bones yanked out of their shoes,
We are the Rapture’s children. (19)

If this doesn’t make sense to you, that’s poetry. I can only suggest each reader must decide for him or herself. Here’s a poem – my favorite in this collection – that is perfect and complete in my view, “‘It’s Sweet to Be Remembered’”:

No one’s remembered much longer than a rock
is remembered beside the road
If he’s lucky or
Some tune or harsh word
uttered in childhood or back in the day.

Still how nice to imagine some kid someday
picking that rock up and holding it in his hand
Briefly before he chucks it
Deep in the woods in a sunny spot in the tall grass. (32)

How many times have I picked up random stones and tossed them into the woods, a ravine, a lake, a stream, or the ocean? Have I altered the course of history? Have I ever so slightly unbalanced the delicate scales of existence? This is what I love about poetry -- the images, the memories, the connections to my own existence. 4 stars

--Chiron, 12/20/2010 (The Winter Solstice)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Long Lankin by John Banville

On my annual trip to Charleston and The Blue Bicycle Book Shop, I stumbled on this slim paperback of John Banville’s first book. Although changed from the 1970 original – one story and a novella were deleted, and one story added – this collection has an atmospheric air about it that reminds me of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

Each of these stories has wonderful prose wrapped about a mysterious person, perhaps a ghost, perhaps a murderer, perhaps a fleeting shadow in the woods. Most of the characters have anxieties, passions, and secrets. Banville deftly builds to the climax of each story.

Curiously -- there is no title story – but they all have a psychological probing into the characters. In “Summer Voices,” Banville’s prose elucidates the characters of a brother and a sister who have escaped from their aunt’s daily prayer session for a swim.

“The boy did not move. Sunlight fell through the tiny window above the stove. The radiance of the summer afternoon wove shadows about him. Beyond the window a dead tree stood like a crazy old naked man, a blackbird hopping among the twisted branches. The boy stood up and went into what had once been the farmyard – the barn and the sties had long since crumbled. After the dimness of the kitchen the light burned his eyes. He moved across to stand under the elm tree and listen to the leaves. Light glinted gold through the branches. He stood motionless, his arms hanging at his sides, listening, and slowly from the far fields, the strange cry floated to his ears, a needle of sound that pierced the stillness. He held his breath. The voice hung poised a moment in the upper airs, a single liquid note then slowly faded back into the fields, and died away, leaving the silence deeper than before.” (65)

I only wish I had discovered this writer 40 years ago! I am making my way through his 15 published works, and it is a journey of sublime delight. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 12/19/10

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

I picked this short novel as my next read, because I thought it might be a respite from the last few long and intense works on my reading list. Well, my streak is now at four. McEwan is one of my favorite authors. His fluid and brilliant prose has consistently reinforced my belief in him as one of the masters of 20th--century fiction.

The Cement Garden tells the story of a family nearly alone in a run-down area of abandoned and crumbling apartment blocks. One day, the father dies of a heart attack while working in the garden. Almost immediately, the mother takes to her bed and dies – apparently of cancer. This leaves Julia, Jack, Sue, and Tom to fend for themselves. The family had no relatives to check on the four youngsters and no neighbors who showed any interest in what was going on in a house McEwan describes as gothic.

Julia, the oldest, begins dating and her boyfriend becomes curious about the secrets the house contains. This story has the air of The Lord of the Flies in miniature. The children play games, fantasize, and more or less take care of the house and each other.

This intense novel is not for the squeamish or faint of heart, but it does have a mysterious air throughout the 140 pages. McEwan runs the race to the last word of the last page. The climax at the end has as much shock as any suspense story I have read in a long time. If this book were a movie – faithful to the text – I cannot see it getting anything less than an NC-17 rating. Nevertheless, I have to give this brilliant psychological novel five stars.

--Chiron, 12/12/10

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra is arguably, as Stacy Schiff stated in a recent interview, the most famous woman we know so little about. I would add the most famous woman about whom so many myths and misperceptions swirl about her. Schiff has set down a detailed biography drawn from contemporary sources, including Plutarch, Dio, and Josephus. She carefully points out inconsistencies in these accounts, and deftly explains the political and social reasons her history appears as it does today.

Schiff disposes of several myths. She was not Egyptian, or even African – she was Greek through and through. She was not beautiful. Some Romans chided Julius Caesar for his liaison with her, because, “she’s not even beautiful. Lastly, she did not take her life by the bite of an asp. Alexandria held a reputation as a center for the finest poisons in the known world. Their potions acted quickly, irreversibly, and with no pain.

The Romans – great admirers and imitators of the Greeks – seem to have taken a cue from Euripides, who wrote, “Clever woman were dangerous” (qtd. in Schiff 4). She had an impressive education – the finest anyone could receive at the time. She spoke nine languages, and routinely negotiated difficult agreements and treaties with foreign kings without the aid of an interpreter. Even her contemporary critics “gave her high marks for her verbal dexterity. Her ‘sparkling eyes’ are never mentioned without equal tribute to her eloquence and charisma” (33).

The Romans treated their women as little more than personal objects to be bought, sold, traded, or discarded on the slightest whim. Cleopatra’s world, however, provided an environment in which women thrived socially, politically, financially, and educationally. According to Schiff, “as much as one-third of Ptolemaic Egypt may have been in female hands” (24). After her death, “a golden age of women dawned in Rome” (295). Suddenly, they enjoyed unprecedented freedom and political power.

The Romans respected Cleopatra, after all her fields and stores of grain fed the Roman Empire. But they also feared her wealth and her position as a queen with unparalleled support of her people. During her 22 year reign, not a single revolt or attempt on her life ever occurred. Rough estimates of her personal fortune place her among the wealthiest people of all time – over $100 billion dollars in today’s money. Kings would routinely give her a gift of thousands of silver talents, when 220 of the coins could feed and equip a Roman Legion for a year. Favored Court officials might be paid a single talent a year and believe themselves well-compensated. Yet her generosity with her people and her guests was legendary at the time.

Near the end. Schiff writes, “In the match between the lady and the legend there is no contest.

The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all: We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty. She remains on the map for having seduced two of the greatest men of her time, while her crime was to have entered into those same ‘wily and suspicious’ marital partnerships that every man in power enjoyed.” (299)

The only problem I had with the text came in the lack of connection to quotes and over 40 pages of notes. She opts for endnotes marked only by the page they reference. However, the notes have a detail, and at times a touch of humor, absent in such a vast undertaking. Schiff tells the true story of one of the great love stories of all times. She cites dozens of versions of her story, including Shakespeare’s, perhaps his greatest love story. Even if a reader’s grasp of Roman and Ptolemaic history resides in a dim college classroom, this biography will enthrall and amaze. The slight inconvenience in searching out and reading notes is well more than worth the effort to shine a brilliant light on those memories. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 12/12/10

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Some books make me laugh, some make me cry, some fill me with anger, and some with wonder and amazement. Every once in a great while, a book will do all of these things to me. The Help is one of those books.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent grad from Ole Miss, has a degree in English and Journalism. With a great deal of optimism, she applies for a senior executive editing job at a major New York publishing house. A sympathetic editor advises her to get some experience first and asks her for story ideas she has to tell. None of them have any value beyond her local community, until she decides to tell the stories of black maids working for white families. The editor likes the idea and tells her to start writing. Skeeter’s naiveté exposes itself, when she wishes Editor Elaine Stein a Merry Christmas. Her deadpan reply, “We call it Hannukah.”

The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi with a back drop of the murder of Medgar Evers, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passage of the Civil Rights laws of the 60s. Stockett uses three voices: Skeeter, Aibileen, the first maid to talk to Skeeter, and Minny, a powerful personality in the Black community and the first to join Aibileen in telling her story.

These women cook, clean, shop, and, most importantly, raise the children of these women whose main occupations seem to be gossip, bridge, and keeping the servants in their place. The parenting issues this novel raises alone make this a great and absorbing work of fiction. I get the feeling of a true story with only the names changed to protect the brave women who volunteered to open up to public view the ugly side of their lives.

At first, the maids are too terrified to talk to a white women, let alone tell the stories of Skeeter’s friends. Gradually – when one of the housekeepers has been brutally treated by her employer – her friends that work in white households all over the city come around and begin telling the tales of their difficult lives.

This sometimes grim tale, does have its moments of humor. When Minny gets a job in the suburbs, she wants to take the car, while her husband who works the night shift at a local factory wants it. Minny says, “She paying me seventy dollars cash every Friday, Leroy.” He responds, “Maybe I take Sugar’s bike.”

These strong women bear inconceivable burdens dealing with the prejudice of their employers while holding their own families together. Incredibly, they prepare food for the families, but they cannot use the same utensils to eat lunch, and thanks to one particularly obnoxious woman, can no longer use the toilets in the houses they spend all day cleaning. Once again, the inhumanity of one set of people against another – simply because of the color of their skin – baffles me.

One of the most poignant moments occurs near the end of the book at a church meeting called by the maids who told Skeeter their stories. This community demonstrates amazing strength in the face of threats to their homes, their jobs, and their lives. To anyone who thinks the servants in the “Jim Crow South” led happy and pleasant lives, The Help will come as quite a shock. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/2/10