Sunday, April 25, 2010

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I dimly remember reading this back in the 60s when it first came out. I didn’t like it then -- as I did Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and I have little additional regard for it now.

This postmodern piece of metafiction is somewhat interesting, but I think the antiwar message is muddled with all the stuff about the Tralfamadorians. I found the 100 plus uses of “So it goes” somewhat annoying. As a rule, postmodern fiction does little for me -- along with postmodern poetry, art, and film.

I read Catch-22 back in the 70s and took its anti-war message seriously. Years later, I re-read it and better appreciated the humor Heller infused into his story. Perhaps the TV series M.A.S.H., with its thinly veiled criticism of the Viet Nam war, influenced my second reading of Heller and Vonnegut.

Lately, I have been reading some of Vonnegut’s non-fiction, and when a member of my book club proposed it, I thought it might be the perfect time to re-visit Slaughterhouse Five. I am not giving up entirely on Vonnegut however, since I am going to read Cat’s Cradle soon. A trusted friend tells me it is his best. Three stars

--Chiron 4/25/10

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

About 140 pages from the end of this 675-page masterpiece – short-listed for the 2009 Booker Prize -- Byatt wrote, “They seem to me like coloured mosaics, with separate little pieces that fit together” (536). This perfectly describes this complicated, funny, sad, absorbing, sprawling story, which Byatt has skillfully interwoven with numerous historical events and figures: from Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw to Asquith, Kaiser Willhem, King Edward V, Tsar Nicholas II, and Queen Victoria, from the Fabian’s and anarchists of the late 19th century, to the last days of World War I.

If I pulled any one of the dozens of quotes I underlined, they would only provide a tantalizing glimpse of the whole – as if I held up a single piece of a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and said, “Isn’t this a beautiful picture!” You simply have to read this novel and immerse yourself in this fantastic world created by the Booker Prize winner for Possession in 1990. I had the good fortune to meet A.S. Byatt at Baylor University when I was a grad student there. She delivered the Virginia Beall Lecture on Literature in 1994. She also sat in on a class I was taking – British Women Writers. Meeting her was one of the highlights of my graduate school experience. Her insights on writing, reading, and other English Women writers were priceless.

The Children’s Story revolves around five families. Basil Wellwood, a wealthy conservative banker and his wife, Katharina, and their two children; Basil’s brother Humphry Wellwood, also a banker – at first – and his wife Olive, a writer of children’s tales, and their eight children; Prosper Cain, widower and curator of a major museum in London, and his two children; Benedict Fludd, master potter, and his wife Seraphita and their three children; and, lastly, Phillip and Elise, orphans of poor working people.

Humphry and Olive give a “Midsummer Party,” and Byatt describes the attendees. “Their guests were socialists, anarchists, Quakers, Fabians, artists, editors, freethinkers and writers, who lived, either all the time, or at weekends and on holidays in converted cottages and old farmhouses…the children mingled with the adults, and spoke and were spoken to…They were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed, over supper or during long country walks” (31). These progressives had radical views on everything from raising children to women’s suffrage.

Byatt presents this foundational information and weaves a tale spanning about 30 years. Imagine the parties, the family crises, the current events, the intermingling of all these children with the arts – writing, painting, pottery, music, reading, education, the theater – well, you get the idea.

The most amazing thing is the fluid and beautiful prose Byatt has given the reader. If Possession has a revered place in your library and reading history -- and it should! -- you will become immersed in this marvelous story. The surprising and inevitable, shocking and unexpected endings will not fail to disappoint.

I would like to offer some tips which might make this a more enjoyable read. Make family trees of the five families and refer to it frequently. The children travel, party, and visit together frequently, and this helps keep the relationships in order. Also, I wish I had a detailed map of England in and around London, Cambridge, Canterbury, and Dungeness so I could follow the travels of these characters. One of my top reads of the year – 10 stars out of five.

--Chiron, 4/20/10

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Ninety-Fifth Street; Sally's Hair; North Point North by John Koethe

The annual Beall Poetry Festival at Baylor University has become an event I eagerly await as each spring rolls around. This year was no exception, despite the fact I had only the slightest familiarity with only one of the three poets, Carol Frost. However, the poet that impressed and inspired me the most was John Koethe.

His poems tell stories, in plain language, with gentle strokes of humor, pathos, and intelligence -- all with profound insights into human nature and the creative mind. I even found an epithet for my own thesis, which Prof. Koethe enthusiastically gave me permission to use.

The epithet comes from the opening lines of the title poem of Ninety-Fifth Street. Koethe wrote,

“Words can bang around in your head
Forever, if you let them and you give them room.
I used to love poetry, and mostly I still do,
Though sometimes ‘I, too, dislike it.’ There must
be something real beyond the fiddle and perfunctory
Consolations and the quarrels -- as of course
There is, though what it is is difficult to say.” (72)

I was thrilled to recognize the interior quote as the words of Marianne Moore, the eccentric 20th century poet, editor, librarian, and teacher. Her apartment was moved from New York City -- following her death in 1972 -- and reassembled at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. So, I have a close personal connection to her work.

Like Moore, Koethe’s poetry is simple, yet profound with wit and irony. He tells stories and -- in the telling -- reveals philosophy and the inner workings of the human psyche.

Furthermore, a measure of irony lay in my selection of this epithet. To paraphrase Koethe, “I used to hate poetry, but now I mostly love it, although some I still dislike.”

The title poem from Sally’s Hair is a good example of the story-telling talent of Koethe. He writes,

“I took the train back from Poughkeepsie to New York
And in the Port Authority, there at the Suburban Transit window,
She asked, ‘Is this the bus to Princeton?’ -- which it was.
‘Do you know Geoffrey Love?’ I said I did. She had the blondest hair,

Which fell across her shoulders, and a dress of almost phosphorescent blue.
She liked Ayn Rand. We went to the Village for a drink,
Where I contrived to miss the last bus to New Jersey, and at 3 a.m. we
Walked around and found a cheap motel I hadn’t enough money for

And fooled around on the dilapidated couch. An early morning bus
(She’d come to see her brother), dinner plans and missed connections
And a message on his door about the Jersey shore. Next day
A summer dormitory room, my roommates gone: ‘Are you,’ she asked,

‘A hedonist?’ I guessed so. Then she had to catch her plane.
Sally -- Sally Roche. She called that night from Florida,
And I never heard from her again…” (69-70)

Hearing the poet read this poem impressed me with the power of his words, and his voice reinforced the story-telling nature of his work. I can only begin to hope to write something as touching, sincere, and emotional in my own work

Lastly, a poignant piece from North Point North, “The Little Boy.”

“I want to stay here awhile, now that there came to me
This other version of what passes in my life for time.
The little boy is in his sandbox. Mom and Dad
Are puttering around in the backyard.” (116)

I have to stop here, because memories of my own childhood are welling up inside, and I have gone on long enough. If these three samples don’t tempt you, you have not discovered the depth, the breath, the beauty of well-crafted poetry. 15 stars -- 5 each!

--Jim, 4/3/10

Pride and Prescience by Carrie Bebris

This novel was a quick read. Were I without distractions, I most likely could have finished it in a day. However, those pesky students keep writing essays I assign, so I must pay them some attention.

Bebris has created a spot-on imitation of Jane Austen in this "sequel" to Pride and Prejudice. Caroline Bingley becomes engaged, and she seeks Elizabeth’s advice in planning her wedding. Elizabeth, somewhat miffed that Caroline’s wedding follows so closely upon her own, responds, “With your own taste to guide you, I am sure your celebration could derive no further benefit from my opinions” (19). Classic Austen with the drop of acid she so ably inserted in her prose.

Only occasionally does a modern anachronism pop into the story. The physical relationships are also quite more detailed than Austen gave us. The reader glimpses a private scene between Elizabeth and Darcy. One night, “Darcy rolled over and spooned against her” (123). Several of these tidbits made me smile.

Bebris also slips in quotes from several of Austen’s novels. My favorite comes from Sense and Sensibility. In Bebris, Mr. Gardiner (also a character in Pride and Prejudice) discusses the library of Pemberley, Darcy’s elegant home. “But the library of a great house can never have too many books” (29). What a wonderful sentiment! The Augustan view of Americans and the colonies also provides a good bit of humor.

I won’t give away any plot details, but I will say I found the path to the end disappointing. Elizabeth and several of the characters embrace some rather silly hocus-pocus to explain the mysterious goings on a Netherfield. Woven into this nonsense is a perfectly logical and reasonable explanation of greed and human nature.

The novel mostly has the feel of a lost work by Austen herself, but I doubt I will delve any further into the series. Apparently this is the first of three -- so far. Lovers of Austen will enjoy this story. Four Stars.

--Chiron, 4/2/10