Thursday, December 29, 2011

20 Years After by E.J. Newman

Emma Newman currently lives in Somerset, England, not terribly far from where she was born in a coastal village. After graduating from Oxford, she worked in magazine publishing, web site information architecture, and had a stint as a teacher. She has also recorded audio book versions of her works. Emma has published a collection of short stories, From Dark Places, and the forthcoming novel, Split Worlds…It Begins. Twenty Years Later is her first novel.

Sporadically, I have encountered dystopian literature and enjoyed what I have read – The Lord of the Flies, 1984, Brave New World – without ever actually seeking it out. When I first heard about Emma Newman’s YA novel, I experienced a twinge of skepticism. However, she captured my attention on the first pages.

20 Years After recounts the story of London, 20 years after a mysterious event which wiped out most of the adults. Left behind, gangs of young boys occupied and defended patches of the city with violent and frequently deadly consequences. Miri, a woman knowledgeable in the field of medicine, and her son Zane occupy a garden in an area bordered by three gangs – The Gardners, the Red Lady gang, and the Bloomsbury boys. Miri tries to protect Zane from the outside world. The garden and their house provide a safe haven from the violence of the city. Despite her efforts, Zane befriends one of the Bloomsbury boys, and the outside encroaches on their lives.

Only an occasional piece of conversation betrays the youth of these gang members and reminds me I am reading a YA novel.

Not only is this a first novel for Newman but also the first novel published by Dystopia Press, a local publisher in Central Texas. 20 Years After is the first volume of a trilogy, and I eagerly await parts two and three. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/27/11

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein

Epstein is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. This New York Times bestseller is a treasure trove of information about Humanism. His chapter titles say it all: “Can We Be Good Without God?”; “A Brief History of Goodness Without God”; “Why Be Good Without God? (which includes an interesting excursion into Camus’ The Plague); and a “how-to” guide to ethics and Humanism. Appendices include writings from noted Humanist thinkers and a list of Humanist and secular resources.

The radical right has tried to trash the ideas and ideals of humanism recently, so if you are curious about the truth, this book is a must read.

Essentially, “Humanists believe in life before death,” and Epstein adds a definition of “Humanism as a progressive lifestance that, without superstition, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment, aspiring to the greater good of humanity” (xii-xiv).

Some work has been done recently in the psychology of religion, and Epstein writes that, “for most, religion is not about belief in an all-seeing deity with a baritone voice and a flowing beard. It is about group identification – the community and the connections we need to live. It is about family, tradition, consolation, ethics, memories, music, art, architecture and much more” (xiv). Humanists believe in all these good qualities of wonderful and fulfilled life.

Epstein has written a fascinating history of Humanism dating back to its roots among the Epicureans – three centuries bce – through the Renaissance to the 20th century.

I have added this book to my “Desert Island Shelf,” because I know I will want to go back to it many times in the coming years. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/24/11

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna M. Johnson

A couple of months ago, I received a call from Donna Johnson, who identified herself as a former student of my college. She told me she had written a memoir of her life growing up on the “sawdust circuit,” otherwise known as the world of tent revivals. It didn’t seem like something I would be interested in, but she offered to send me a copy of the book. She also asked if she could speak to my creative writing class. I am always happy to accommodate this request, because writers invariably tell my students the same things I tell them about reading, writing, persistence, and discipline.

When, I got Holy Ghost Girl, I was still skeptical, but publication by a division of Penguin must mean something. So, I called her back and made arrangements for her to speak to my class.

Whew! Am I glad I did not let these two opportunities slip by me. First of all, Donna did a terrific job – not only in my class, but also at a reading at the local Barnes & Noble a couple of days later.

When we agreed on a date and time, I decided I should at least begin to read the book. Once I started, I could hardly put it down.

Tent revivals encompass a world entirely off my radar. I knew about them in a vague sort of way – mostly from television. But Johnson has created a vivid world of the showmanship, the greed, the shameless begging, and obviously faked “miracle cures.”

Donna tells the story through her eyes as a young child. She acknowledges help with some of the memories from her sister and mother and some scholarly sources, but the truth of her story pours off every page. I never doubted a word of her tale for even a moment.

The rationalizations, the excuses, the canard “It’s all part of God’s plan,” and the ubiquitous “God told me (fill in the blank).” Needless to say I was appalled at the pandering for the last dollars and coins of people living on the edge. Most of the revivals seem to have taken place in the rural south, including Texas. David Terrell is still active, and his website lists a number of revivals.

The real tragedy of the story involves the effect this life had on Donna and her brother and sisters. CPS would be all over Donna’s mother, Carolyn Johnson for abandonment of her children in the care of near-strangers. Donna captures the terror of every move, every all-night drive to the next revival site, every time the children watched their mother drive away for an unknown destination for unknown length of time.

Donna has her doubts, but somehow she cannot turn completely away. Of course the child is awestruck by the charismatic preacher, but the adult has questions. She writes, “Doubt is a lot like faith; a mustard seed’s worth changes everything. Away from the tent, the questions kept coming. How can Brother Terrell claim to be without sin? Why doesn’t it matter that he is committing adultery and lying? [italics Johnson’s] .(256) and “”Why did Brother Terrell and my family have so much stuff, when Jesus said to sell everything and give it to the poor? Why had an omnipotent God let that child die?” (257). Why indeed?

As Lord Acton wrote, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” so inevitably, the mansions, the Mercedes, the planes, the fast living, all consumed David Terrell, and, inevitably, the tax man cometh. Eventually, Terrell was convicted and spent a few measly years in prison for the millions he bilked off of poor, gullible people who desperately wanted to believe a better life awaited them in the beyond.

An absorbing story, and I recommend it highly. 5 stars

--Chiron, 11/17/11

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I haven’t read any Julian Barnes since Flaubert’s Parrot and History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters in grad school. When the 2011 Booker Prize went to Barnes for A Sense of an Ending, I pounced on it. My complete set of Booker Prize winning novels is one of my prize collections.

Ending is divided into two parts. The first tells the story of four friends in high school: Colin, Alex, the narrator Tony Webster, and a newcomer to the school, Adrian Finn. The boys graduate and slowly drift apart. Then Adrian dies unexpectedly, and the memories come crashing down on Tony. Part of his past also reappears in the form of Veronica – a woman Tony cared about deeply, but who dropped him rather abruptly and unkindly. That’s it – no more plot.

The story is a lot more complicated, as Barnes delves into the sometimes distorted memory of Tony, who as Veronica says, “doesn’t get it.” Tony hasn’t really given much thought about the details of his life in years. The novel opens with a list of images, which re-appear throughout the novel. These images, first out of, and then, in context provide an interesting backdrop to the story.

Barnes has written a novel which begs to be read in a single sitting. His prose mesmerizes the reader and creates a hunger for more of the details of Tony and his friends.

Appropriately enough, the opening scene is a history class, and the boys offer differing interpretations of the past. Professor Hunt asked Tony, “What is history?” Tony replied, “History is the lies of the victors” … and then Hunt says, “as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated” (18).

Later, Tony muses, “It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others” (88). I wondered, who is the victor? Who the defeated?

The themes of history and memory run through the novel, and Barnes has his narrator constantly turning over the stones of his past to understand himself and the context of his life. Barnes writes, “Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born. Does this make sense if we apply it to our individual lives? To die when something new was being born – even if that something new is our very own self?

A most interesting question! Ultimately, Tony determines the significance of his memories, but a surprise ending brings the entire story into focus. 5 stars

--Chiron, 11/11/11

Sunday, November 06, 2011

French Lessons by Ellen Sussman

Some might call this “chick lit,” but I think it has a bit more to it than that. I have done some pretty heavy reading lately, and when I left for a weekend in Charleston, I needed something a bit lighter.

Chantel and Philippe are lovers. Along with their friend Nico, all work for a tutoring school in Paris. As is the custom, they meet for coffee before beginning a day with their students wandering around Paris, helping them learn French. Philippe has been cheating on Chantel, and she has “revenge sex” with Nico. The novel breaks down into three parts. Nico instructs Josie, an American escaping to Paris after the sudden death of her lover, Simon, the married father of one of her students. Philippe pairs up with Riley, an ex-pat American with two children, and a husband, Victor, who spends way too much time on the job. Chantel strolls about the City of Lights with Jeremy, married to Dana, an American actress making a film. At the end of the day, they all arrive at the set of the movie on a bridge over the Seine.

Quite a few erotic scenes pepper the story, so this is definitely an NC-17 novel. But the discussions and the introspection elevate French Lessons quite a bit above an ordinary romance. Furthermore, the plot develops in an unexpected way for each pair of characters, and the ending has a nice twist.

A nice read for a rainy, damp, fall day curled up with a cup of tea and some soft music. 4 stars.

--Chiron, 11/6/11

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Forty some years ago, as I gathered textbooks at LaSalle College for another semester pursing a degree in political science, I happened to pass a textbook for a class which not in my major. I grabbed a copy, and thus began a lifelong interest in the history of Russia. Robert K. Massie has written a definitive biography of Tsarina Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great.

Well-educated, multi-lingual, cultured, free-spirited, graceful, with a good measure of beauty and charm only begins to describe this complex, intelligent woman.

Catherine, a voracious reader of the great enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot, Montesquieu, Beccaria, and, perhaps most importantly, Voltaire, attempted a radical reform of the Russian legal and economic systems. She titled her document the Nakaz, or “Instruction.” She believed a benevolent autocracy was the only form of government able to hold together the vast Russian Empire with its mind-numbing variety of ethnic groups, languages, philosophies, religious views, and social classes.

The same men who profoundly influenced our founding fathers, instructed Catherine in equal rights for men and women, religious freedom, strict limits on capital punishment, and the banning of torture. Unfortunately, the serfs, considered property tied to the land, would only receive limited benefits from this proposal. When the nobles finished hacking and sawing the 500 plus articles in her manifesto, barely a quarter of her two-year’s labor remained. Yet Voltaire hailed it as masterpiece of Enlightenment thought and practice.

I was particularly struck by some ideas and quotes of Voltaire’s incorporated into the Nakaz. For example, Catherine wrote, “Experience shows that the frequent use of severe punishment has never rendered a people better. The death of a criminal is a less effective means of restraining crimes than the permanent example of a man deprived of his liberty during the whole of his life to make amends for the injury he has done to the public” (350). This sentence is worthy of Jefferson, Washington, Adams, or Lincoln.

In prohibiting censorship and promoting free speech, she wrote, “censorship can be ‘productive of nothing but ignorance and must cramp the rising efforts of genius and destroy the very will for writing” (351).

When Catherine ascended the throne in 1761, she immediately put an end to a pointless, costly, and destructive war in Eastern Europe. She believed, as Voltaire wrote, “The victorious nation never profits from the spoils of the conquered; it pays for everything. It suffers as much when its armies are successful as when they are defeated. Whoever wins, humanity loses” (335).

This meticulously documented biography covers Catherine’s life from her birth as Sophia in 1727 through her 34-year reign as Empress Catherine II to her death in 1796.

The only shortcoming – and a minor one at that – is the lack of genealogical chart to separate all the Catherines, Peters, Pauls, and Ivans which populated the Russian Empire during the enlightenment. Due for publication November 8th, be sure to add this fascinating biography to your TBR list. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 10/27/11

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Eclipse by John Banville

John Banville won the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea. Of his 14 novels, Eclipse is the 7th I have read. At first, I feared this one did not have the interesting characters I have come to expect from Banville, but as I traveled more and more deeply into the novel, I realized my fears had no basis when confronted with the power of his prose. Banville always provides an interesting plot, characters drawn in great and interesting detail, with lots of introspection – exactly the kind of novel I love.

Alexander Cleave has built a career as an acclaimed actor performing all over the world. One day, he steps onto the stage and goes “dry.” He can “see” his lines, yet he cannot utter a word. He skulks off the stage to a falling curtain and some cat calls from the audience. He retreats to his abandoned childhood home by the sea to escape his shame. As an actor, who has spent his life living an imaginary existence in the clothes and character of strangers, he has difficulty separating reality from fantasy. He lives mostly in the past.

Banville used the idea of a retreat in his Booker Prize novel. In The Sea, Max has lost his wife to divorce, and travels to his boyhood home to sort out the ruins of his marriage. Alex retreats to sort out the ruins of his career. Banville’s prose delves into all the minutiae of Alex’s life as well as his deep-seated psychological self-examination.

The use of detail can be overwhelming, but in order to travel through Alex’s life, it becomes necessary to an understanding of how he arrived at the house by the sea. Here is an example as Alex begins to unpack when he arrives at his retreat:

“Things to do, things to do. Store the kitchen supplies, set out my books, my framed photographs, my lucky rabbit’s paw. Too soon it was all done. There was no avoiding upstairs any longer. Grimly I mounted the steps as if I were climbing into the past itself, the years pressing down on me, like a heavier atmosphere. Here is the room looking out on the square that used to be mine. Alex’s room. Dust, and a mildew smell, and droppings on an inside sill where birds had got in through a broken windowpane. Strange, how places, once so intimate, can go neutral under the dust-fall of time. (17)

Whenever, I read Banville, I must have a dictionary close at hand. Every novel helps me add five or six words to my vocabulary. For example, in Eclipse I learned “anaglyptal,” “tannoys,” “verrucas,” “crepuscular,” “sizar,” and “leverets.” I will leave the adventure of a dictionary search to my faithful readers.

Banville writes, “It was that torpid hour of afternoon in summer when all falls silent and even the birds cease their twitterings. At such a time, in such a place, a man might lose his grip on all that he is” (76). Having spent many, many summer days by the ocean, I understand this sentiment entirely. Banville has heightened my desire to get back near the ocean, for night time walks on the beach and lazy fall and spring days reading under an umbrella with the soft breeze in my face. 5 stars

--Chiron, 10/15/11

Saturday, October 08, 2011

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

The September read for my book club was of a collection of short stories set in Pakistan. For some reason, a flood of books from Central Asia has rushed through publishing over the last few years – The Kite Runner, Two Cups of tea, Reading Lolita in Tehran to name a few. All these books have one thing in common: they demonstrate the difficulty of living that part of the world. I get it. I have seen all the stories about the oppression of women, the hard scrabbling men, women, and children, who have to fight for scraps of food and the tiniest mote of dignity.

One can only hope the “Arab Spring” makes its way to this remote and forbidding corner of the world and allow these people to enter the 20th century – at least! I feel for these people – I really do, but they need to throw off whatever shackles bind them to a primitive and heartless society. I know full well this is much easier said than done, but look at Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

Our own country experiences – as I write -- an uprising fueled by frustration over corporate greed and corruption. I can only hope our movement grows and maintains itself over the winter. I bet the moguls of Wall Street smile every day as winter approaches. I hope they are wrong. I wish I were 40 years younger and could join those brave protestors.

--Chiron, 9/29/11

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Vox by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker has a reputation for peculiar novels. The Mezzanine, for example, chronicles a single ride on an escalator between an office and the lobby of an office building. The narrator muses on life, lunch, and the shoe laces he intends to buy on his lunch hour. Room Temperature, chronicles the musings of a new father as he rocks the baby one afternoon. Box of Matches relates thirty days in the life of a text book editor who wakes early every morning, makes a cup of coffee, and lights a fire with a single match. He then reflects on his life. All these slim novels grab hold of the reader. I found it difficult to put any of them down – even for a minute. Fortunately, all are 200 pages or less. Vox, the record of a single phone call between a man in California and a woman in Massachusetts, does not deviate from the rest of Baker’s work.

Sometimes chatty, sometimes serious, and occasionally erotic, the conversation ranges over the lives of two strangers brought together by an ad in a personals column. They share tidbits of their lives then the other will riff on the facts into a fantasy world.

Quoting any of the novel will give some elements away, so I won’t do that. Baker cannot be reproduced; he must be experienced right off the page. Some parts of the conversation are decidedly NC-17, but not too many. Those passages are easy to spot and avoid. For an interesting and quirky detour into the minds of two strangers, Vox fills the bill. (5 stars).

--Chiron, 9/20/11

Saturday, September 10, 2011

We the Animals by Justin Torres

Recently, I reviewed a novel I bought solely on the basis of an intriguing cover. That turned out to be an excellent purchase. We the Animals by Justin Torres, on the other hand, intrigued me because of the blurbs by two authors I admire: Michael Cunningham and Marilynne Robinson.

This taut, brief novel tells the story of a Puerto Rican family in Brooklyn: Paps, Ma, and three brothers, Manny, Joel, and the narrator, the youngest of the sons.

Intense, gritty, and sometimes horrific, the story of a rather dysfunctional family held me spellbound for its entire length. Torres captures the dynamics of this family with a brutal realism. A sequel to this novel -- set 20 years later -- will feature the family broken up, and all in therapy or worse.

While I understood what these three boys experienced, I shudder to think of the myriad families across America today living under similar circumstances. I imagine few of these families will ever have the opportunity for a real, safe, life, let alone any kind of therapy to reach that goal.

Torres sprinkles animal references throughout the novel. He describes Paps, as “like an animal, … ruddy and physical and instinctive; his shoulders hulked and curved, and we had each of us, even Ma, sat on them, gone for rides” (45).

Paps and the boys frequently play rather rough. In one scene, Torres writes, “We hit and we kept hitting; we were allowed to be what we were, frightened and vengeful – little animals, clawing at what we needed” (51). Even Ma gets the animal treatment: “Ma choking on words, the croak in her throat,” (72).

One day, the narrator comes home to find his family assembled with his secret journal. Torres writes, “In bold and explicit language I had written fantasies … about what I wanted done to me” (116). Paps says, “I will kill you” (116). Ma, tears streaming down her cheeks, says nothing. Manny and Joel glared. Then, “I could have risen; I believe they would have embraced me. Instead, I behaved like an animal. I tried to rip the skin from their faces, and when I couldn’t, I tried to rip the skin from my own. They held me down on the ground; I bucked and spat and screamed my throat raw. I cursed them: we were, all of us, sons of whores, mongrels” (118).

The narrator is bundled into a car and taken to psychiatric hospital. The last page contains the last chapter, and it brought tears to my eyes.

I revealed more of the plot this time than usual, but that is because the plot is a distant third to the characters and the atmosphere Torres has created. This first novel portends great things from, as Cunningham wrote, “a brilliant, ferocious new voice.” (Jacket). 5 stars

--Chiron, 9/10/11

Soulscapes by Nora Mahon Olivares

Nora Olivares is Professor Emeritus of English at San Antonio College. I met her while grading AP English Literature exams for the Educational Testing Service in Louisville , Kentucky. Among the thousand or so English people who gather every summer for the grading, many of them bring copies of their books to sell. I always try and support my colleagues toiling in the wilderness of words with a purchase or two.

This collection of poetry is uniformly good. Personal photographs add an interesting touch to many of these poignant poems. My favorite, and an excellent example of Olivares’ work, is “Seascape”:

Sitting among the jagged rocks,
I watched some children prodding
jellyfish, determined to collapse
their ivory-gray umbrellas.

“Too young to appreciate the art
of leaving things alone,” I thought
bracing my knees from slipping and
noticing the little bird holding her
tranquil poise on the swaying waves—
with no schooling in the art of confidence,
no self-conscious exhibitionism,
no excuse for the sojourning,
no complaints of passing time,
just some secret knowledge that
waves were meant for riding.

And, though I had not come
for tutoring, I was taken captive by
this scene, a little girl playing
Socrates to my musings. (55)

The simplicity and clarity of this scene recalls the episode in the Nausicca chapter (13) of James Joyce’s great novel, Ulysses. Leopold Bloom stops on a boardwalk and watches a young girl on the rocks, while some younger children play in the sand and surf.

The only drawback in the collection consists of a few poems that seem a bit over wrought. For example, in “Hope (For Dinah)” the opening lines read,

Daddy just left us
piped the four-year old
mustering premature manhood… (11).

Nevertheless, these occasional slips only mildly detract from an enjoyable collection.

Soulscapes opens with another favorite, “Dawn”:

comes like
a flickering candle
in an empty church
surprising me when
I tiptoe bleary-eyed into the sanctuary
of my kitchen to brew
the morning coffee. (1)

A wonderful, relaxing collection of poems to enjoy with a cup of tea on a mild, breezy Saturday, as I just did. (4-1/2 stars)

--Chiron, 9/10/11

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

If I could live anywhere in the world, it would be Paris, France. If I had a time machine, it would be set for Paris in the 20s. Paris between the World Wars has always fascinated me for the wonderful cast of writers and philosophers that hung out in the cafes, the museums, the French Quarter, the restaurants, and the boulevards.

Good fortune took me to Paris a number of times, and from the first, and every trip after, I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – one of my favorite books. I loved the story of Papa struggling to establish himself as a writer, befriending Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and, of course, the proprietor of the famous bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. Ms Beach wrote her own version of all these characters.

The Paris Wife tells the fictionalized account of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife. The story from her viewpoint goes into much more detail about the feud which developed between Hem and Gertrude, Hem and Anderson, and finally his break up with Hadley. The acknowledgments offers a list of the sources for her story, including biographies, letters, diaries, and all of Hemingway’s fiction. In a graduate class at Baylor, I read all these things, too, and came to a deeper understanding of Hemingway as a man as well as a writer. This novel adds to that understanding.

My impression of Hemingway was that of a drinker, brawler, and womanizer. True, he was always all these things, but McLain’s novel brings into focus another side of Hemingway – father, husband, lover, and friend. The novel puts a soft, feminine touch on Papa’s hard edges.

I especially liked the passages in which Hadley describes some of the great men and women she met. McClain writes, “We’d glimpsed Joyce a few times on the streets of Montparnasse, with his neatly combed hair and rimless glasses and shapeless coat, but we’d never heard him speak. ‘He does speak,’ Lewis [Galantière, writer and friend of Sherwood Anderson] insisted, ‘but only under duress.’ ‘Everyone says Ulysses is great,’ Ernest said. ‘I’ve read a few serialized chapters. It’s not what I’m used to, but you know, something important is happening in it just the same.’” (82) Hemingway recognized the great novel needs to be slowly and carefully consumed to experience all the tastes, smells, sounds, and textures of what many lists called the best novel of the 20th century.

A frequently quoted statement of Hemingway’s also found its way into the novel. He tells Hadley, “I want to write one true sentence. If I can write one sentence -- simple and true, every day, I’ll be satisfied” (81).

One horrific episode, in which Hadley’s character comes out, involves the loss of the briefcase with all of Hemingway’s work. Hadley is in a state of anguish for a long time, but Hemingway seems to take it in stride. Gertrude Stein tells him, “I think your losing everything has been a blessing. You needed to be free. To start over with nothing and make something truly new” (152). Gertrude played an important role in Hemingway’s development as a writer, and only his stubborn pride destroyed their relationship.

McLain has added to the myth, the lore, the beauty, the anguish, and the wonderful time of Paris in the 20s. The absorbing story of a romance, art, writing, and living in a time and place unlike any other, should appeal to all readers interested in the arts of reading and writing. Five stars

--Chiron, 9/5/11

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Elephant's Journey by José Saramago

José Saramago, the Portuguese author, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. He died last year. I have read about a half-dozen of Saramago’s works, and each time I start another of his novels, it takes a bit of getting use to his style.

The Elephant’s Journey is exactly that. Saramago based his novel on an historical event that occurred in the 16th century. King João III of Portugal has decided to present his cousin, Archduke Maximilian of Vienna, an elephant, Solomon, as a wedding present. The mahout, Subhro, who cares for the beast in a broken down corner of the king’s zoo, guides the elephant and a troop of workers and soldiers, on a trek across Europe during the Reformation and amid various conflicts.

Saramago’s prose contains long, convoluted sentences that sometimes repeat facts, or predict future events, or even fill in background information. They remind me of the “digressions” found in Beowulf, the great epic of the Anglo-Saxons written near the end of the 10th century c.e. Furthermore, he embeds dialogue in his sentences with little to no punctuation. Only a capital letter alerts the reader another person is speaking.

Here is an example:

“If I [Subhro] get to Vienna, I won’t be coming back. Won’t you go home to india, asked the commanding officer, No, I’m not an Indian anymore, And yet you obviously know a lot about hinduism, More or less, sir, more or less. Why do you say that, Because it’s all words and only words, and beyond the words there’s nothing, Is ganesh a word, asked the commanding officer, Yes, a word. like all the others, can only be explained by more words, but since the words we use to explain things, successfully or not, will in turn, have to be explained, our conversation will lead nowhere, the mistaken and the true will alternate, like some kind of curse, and we’ll never know what’s right and what’s wrong” (52).

He also sprinkles gems of wisdom throughout his story. Here is a favorite of mine:

“The past is an immense are of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a road, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath” (21). Sounds like an allegory of politicians and pundits who like to ignore the inconvenient aspects of history for their own purposes.

Saramago also has his moments of dry humor. The caravan halts near a village for rest, and some of the town’s people come out to see what’s what. They misunderstand some of the conversations about hinduism, and they rush to the local priest to tell him “God is an elephant” (57). The priest decides this is a demon from hell, and he orders the entire village to follow him to the caravan :

“The priest dipped the aspergillum in the water, took three steps forward and sprinkled the elephant’s head with it, at the same time murmuring words that sounded like latin, although no one understood them, not even the tiny educated minority present, namely the commanding officer, who had spent some years in a seminary, the result of a mystical crisis that eventually cured itself” (62-63).

Saramago’s novels really are great fun to read. The Stone Raft has the Iberian Peninsula breaking off from Europe and floating out into the Atlantic. In All the Names, a clerk becomes obsessed with the life of a woman he accidentally discovers when he removes a seventh card from an index file, instead of his customary six. Blindness is Saramago’s reworking of Camus’ The Plague.

Reading Saramago requires a bit of effort, but the rewards are … elephantine!

--Chiron, 8/14/11

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Haiku Harvest translations by Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn

This nifty, slim volume holds about 220 haikus from all the great masters of the genre. Basho, Issa, Onitsura, Saikaku, to Yasui along with many others, present a showcase of wonderful nuggets of timeless beauty and simplicity. I stumbled on it at Plotz Used Books in Waco.

Haiku Harvest, the fourth in a series, started at Peter Pauper Press. Their website says they have been producing fine books since 1928. This volume, like the others, has translations by Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn. Each page has woodblock-style Japanese prints. Most of the poems are really good in translation, but a few – very few – have an awkward word or violate the 5-7-5 rule. Here follows a couple of my favorites.

Snow whispering down
all day long, earth has vanished
leaving only sky --Joso

Oh that summer moon!
It made me go wandering
round the pond all night --Basho

Some poor villages
lack fresh fish or flowers…
all can share this moon – Saikaku

Now the dragonflies
cease their mad gyrations…
a thin crescent moon --Kikaku

The drake and his wife
paddling among green tufts of grass
are playing house --Issa

A hunt for the first three volumes in this series has already begun.

--Chiron, 8/4/11

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant

This recently published work of non-fiction has elements of history, the politics of the cold war, ecology, biology, and botany all while spinning a terrific adventure story. None of this, however, gets bogged down in a morass of technical jargon, but the reader does become immersed in the mysterious and magical world of the “taiga” -- which is Russian for forest. This vast tract of evergreens has the distinction of being the largest biome in the world. It stretches across Eurasia and North America. The winters in the Russian portion drop as low as -60 degrees below zero. The summers are warm, rainy, and humid, with temperatures rising as high as 70 degrees. An enormous variety of insects invade the taiga in the summer, followed by a wide variety of birds to eat them. No roads, no buildings, no power lines – virtually nothing mars the landscape

The taiga also provides a home to wolverines, mink, sable, the lynx, and what most people know as the Siberian tiger, however, the “Amir” tiger is the correct name. The males frequently hover near 800 pounds, and 500 to 600 pound females commonly stalk this enormous forest.

John Vaillant, a writer frequently found in the pages of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and National Geographic, builds his tale around a hunter in the taiga, Vladimir Markov and Yuri Trush, the squad leader of a SWAT team known as “Inspection Tiger.” This unit has the responsibility of dealing with crimes in the forest. Sometimes those crimes involve tigers – either because of poaching or attacks by tigers on humans in and around the edges of the taiga.

As the story opens, several friends of Markov find his remains in the forest. No doubt exists in their minds that he has fallen victim to a huge tiger. In fact, some of these tough, hard-bitten men, who live a life just barely out of the stone age, become physically sick at what they saw. They file a report with the local authorities, and Yuri Trush, part hunter, part policeman, part special forces soldier begins an investigation.

He assembles details of the last few days of Markov’s life by considering anecdotes from local hunters, loggers, and poachers, and most importantly, by tracking the tiger from the scene of the attack. Vaillant describes a tiger attack this way: “The impact…can be compared to that of a piano falling on you from a second story window. But unlike the piano, the tiger is designed to do this, and the impact is only the beginning” (270).

Some elements of the story stretch believability to extremes, but the stories of the men who know the taiga, the physical evidence, and historical records about the tigers, make for an interesting, fascinating, and exciting story. Vaillant does spend some time on the political and historical background of his unit and the taiga, but it did help my understanding of this wild and forbidding place. The last few chapters have a level of excitement far above anything I have read in a long, long time.

This story fascinated me from the moment I heard the author interview on NPR. The subtitle says all I needed to know: “A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.” 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/30/11

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I Love a Broad Margin to My Life by Maxine Hong Kingston

An interview with Kingston aired on NPR, and I really wanted to like this verse memoir. A few of her poems had appeared in anthologies over the years, but none of them caused in me any over excitement. Her interview, on the other hand, sounded so interesting, I immediately went out and bought the book.

While the poem had its interesting moments, those were few and far between. Large sections slipped into stream of consciousness, compounded with some obscure cultural references. Some of those references are explained in a glossary, but some are not.

This example of such a passage might illustrate what I mean:

“Sleeping in public, jet-lagged, soul
loose from soul, body trusted itself to
the grass, the ground, the earth, the good earth,
and rested in that state where dream is wake,
wake is dream. Conscious you are conscious.
Climb – fly – high and higher, and know:
Now / Always, all connects to all.” (60)

However, I am not giving up on this book. I have really been busy with school and other projects, so I am going to set it aside and come back when I am in a calmer state of mind. 3 stars – for now!

--Chiron, 7/17/11

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann

Undoubtedly, thousands of good novels find their way to bookstores every year, but the vast majority come from the big publishing conglomerates. Unfortunately, far too many really good novels pass almost unnoticed, because small and/or independent publishers issued them. Most of the time, the publicity for these novels comes as a result of gallons of sweat and struggle of those who labor in the marginalized world of the independent press. Permanent Press, as one example, has published a whole slew of interesting, well-written, and critically acclaimed novels. Yet…

Calls to the three major bookstores in Waco netted the following responses: “It’s not something we carry. We would have to order it. It would take 7-10 business days” (Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million) and “That’s not popping up in my system at all” (Hastings).

Permanent Press has another winner on its hands. The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann – published in June – tells the story of a peculiar man who leaves his home in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for an education in America. Alfred ends up in Boston and decides to go to law school. His father dies a couple of years later, and his mother packs up and moves to England.

From the first page, it is evident that Schmahmann has produced an interior monologue of the first order. While not as humorless as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and only slightly below the prose of Nabokov, this interesting and eccentric character spins a tale which blurs the line between reality and fantasy, the rational and the ridiculous.

Alfred has built his life around a series of paradoxes. He constantly contradicts himself, and this self-confusion leads him down a path some might consider sordid. I happen to believe this quality interior monologue provides incredible insights into the workings of an eccentric mind. A few scenes in the “Star of Love Bar” provide the gritty and perilous nature of some of Alfred’s fantasies.

As the novel reaches its conclusion, Alfred’s fantasies confuse him further as his double life is revealed. Recently published, you will most likely have to order this novel, but it is more than worthwhile – even with a great deal of effort. Amazon carries it, and you can get it in a couple of days. I need to do even more of my shopping there and stop wasting gas around here. 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/11/11

Friday, July 08, 2011

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

I had the good fortune to have Ms Jordan "visit" my book club when we read Mudbound a couple of years ago. She told us about her next novel, which then had a working title of Red. Needless to say, I have been anxiously awaiting its release. The Summer ALA Convention netted me an uncorrected proof, now titled When She Woke. I immediately moved it to the top of my TBR pile.

When I finished part one, I was nervous. I thought the main character’s name, Hannah Payne, a bit too obvious parallel to Hester Prynne, but I liked Reverend Aidan Dale's name. I hoped the name Pearl would not pop up, but when it appeared, I realized the single use of “Pearl” represented a turning point in Hannah’s life. All my trepidations about the parallels with Hawthorne melted away.

My list of dystopian novels I really admire runs pretty thin: Handmaid's Tale is the gold standard. Atwood really gets into Offred's mind. McCarthy’s The Road is a close second. Updike's version of The Scarlet Letter in three parts represents a rare retelling of a classic I love and admire. But, as I approached the final chapter of When She Woke, I knew Jordan measured up to these standards. I could hardly put it down.

Hannah Payne has committed what her family and church view as an unspeakable crime. With the death penalty abolished, convicted criminals are “chromed” the color of their crimes. Hannah has, in society’s view, murdered an unnamed child, and thus, when she wakes, she is entirely red. She will serve only 30 days in prison for a period of acclimation. When released, she will reenter the world as an outcast, a pariah of the worst sort. She will get no sympathy – even from her own mother, and she will be barred from employment and residence in most places. Businesses will refuse to serve her, and strangers will treat her as a wild, rabid animal. Hannah will have virtually no protection from, or recourse for, such treatment.

Jordan has created a setting in Texas, which is chillingly similar to the way far too many people I know would like Texas and the United States to be -- submissive women, all reproductive freedoms squashed, and fundamentalist Christians ruling most aspects of people’s lives. One character moves to Washington to join the president’s cabinet as the Secretary of Faith! I had a creepy feeling when Crawford, Austin, Dallas, Plano, and the fortunately fictional “creation museum” in Waco were mentioned.

Into this disturbing landscape, Jordan has planted several orchids -- scenes of quiet, gentle, pleasant intimacy that carried me above the horror of the society which entrapped Hannah.

As the novel progressed, the tension and the excitement mounted. It literally took me four hours to read the last 60 pages – fear struck me about possible endings I did not want to see. When I finally reached the last page, I closed the book and cried.

After my experience with Mudbound, I did not think Jordan could match that novel for the sheer power of the story, the wonderful characters, and the setting. I was prepared for disappointment – but secretly, I hoped for another triumph, and she has done it.

Unfortunately, I cannot quote from an uncorrected proof, but the novel is due for publication in October. I will buy a copy and insert some quotes into this review and re-post. This will definitely be at the top of my list for best reads of 2011. I cannot imagine anything better.

--Chiron, 7/8/11

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

If someone set out to write a book that would frustrate all believers in the “Rule of 50,” this book would win the prize. A friend recommended this book, and she has a good track record with me, so I decided to read it. I struggled past the first fifty pages with characters I did not like, and a story line I had difficulty following because of all the bungie jumps through time. Only occasionally did a clue appear hinting at a time shift.

Another annoying habit of Egan’s involved her suddenly telling the reader what would happen to a character in the next 20 or 30 years. She often dropped these as an afterthought at the end of a chapter.

Egan wrote one chapter entirely in second person. A cheap trick and a tired gimmick, if you ask me. Chapter 12 took the form of a power point with flow charts and pie graphs. Like the form in its usual incarnations in business meetings, this chapter had “No power and no point.” I could not even begin to tell you what ideas this chapter tried to convey. All I got out of it was a well-scratched head.

The characters who populate this story had not one ounce of charisma – except for a few women characters drooled over by some of the men. Second-hand charisma is phony.

A Pulitzer Prize? Give me a break. A Visit from the Goon Squad doesn’t even come close to any book awarded the Booker Prize.

This novel is gimmicky and not worth the read. 1 star

--Chiron, 7/4/11

Friday, July 01, 2011

To Kill A Mockingbird [Theater Version] by Christopher Sergel

A member of our club directed this play at my college, so we thought it would be fun to read the script and talk about the play. Of course we had all read the book – several times in some cases – so the comparisons to the book and the play became inevitable.

Personally, reading plays does not appeal to me in the least. Plays were meant to be heard and acted out. I only enjoyed this because I am so familiar with the book, and I could fill in gaps. Most of the important ideas from the book were captured, but I much prefer Harper Lee’s voice providing description and background than Miss Maudie.

In our stage version, the character providing the background was an older Scout reminiscing. That seems much more appropriate to me, since the story is Scout’s and her coming of age and understanding about racism in the South.

I gave this version less than five stars, only because it is not the book. A reader who enjoys reading plays will undoubtedly score it higher. 4 stars.

--Chiron, 6/30/11

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Landscape and Journey by William Virgil Davis

William Virgil Davis is a Professor of English and Writer in Residence at Baylor University. He has written several volumes of poetry, and his latest is Landscape and Journey, which was the ninth winner of the prestigious New Criterion Poetry Prize and the 2010 Helen C. Smith Memorial Award for Poetry.

While a graduate student at Baylor, I never took Dr. Davis for any of his poetry classes, primarily because I had no interest in poetry beyond Shakespeare, with the exception of a few poems from my grammar school days, such as “The Owl and the Pussycat.” by Edward Lear. The reason for my ability to recite this poem from memory some 40 years later is the cause of that lack of interest. The nuns made us memorize a poem every week, and I HATED that assignment!

But gradually, I came to understand the beauty and magic of poetry. Believe it or not, my Master’s Thesis for my MFA completed last July is on poetry! I had to construct a personal aesthetic theory of my poetry, and then write about 50 pages of original poetry.

So, I approached Landscape and Journey with quite a bit of trepidation. I was not at all familiar with Dr. Davis’ poetry, so I had no idea what to expect. I was thoroughly and completely delighted with this collection. It is my kind of poetry: simple, beautiful images, lots of memories culled from his youth, reflections of travels, and even some wrangling with memories less than bright and happy. In short, I liked almost every single poem in this collection. No wonder it has won the prizes it has!

One of my favorites is an ekphrastic poem (a poem inspired by a work of art), “Tapestry”:

“Veins and arteries carry the blood from corner
to corner. The interpretation is easy once you find
the right place to begin. The Duke, on his white
stallion, has killed a knight from the invading
army near the center of the scene. Three of his
own followers lie in a heap at his feet. There are
too many corpses to count. A small stream winds
through the valleys, the rolling hills of the
background, done in a flourish of autumnal color.
In the lower left-hand corner, worked intricately
into the dense undergrowth, is the small signature
of one of the women who worked her life away
on the other side of this scene, in the cold tower
where the tapestry, for centuries, has hung.” (23)

I have never scene this tapestry. I have no idea where it is, yet I have a clear and pleasant image in my mind of what it must look like.

Another favorite, based on an etching by a 16th century German artist, Hanns Lautensack, matches exactly the image I had built up in my mind. This one I was able to find on Google images. The original is in the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. I see a trip to Austin in my near future. The poem is titled “Landscape with a Pollard Willow”:

“The telescoped view
forces focus through
the foliage, the fingering
limbs, leaving the gaze to linger

on the church, its tower and steeple,
fixed in the center of the scene.
There are no people to be seen,
no animals. There is simply

this scope of the land, etched
as it might have been sketched
on an afternoon walk by one
on his long way home alone.” (29)

This collection has a peacefulness and majesty about it. I highly recommend this slim volume of poetry – even and especially if you do not read poems at all. 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/23/11

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler

I stumbled on the E! show, Chelsea Lately, a couple of months ago, and found it quite funny. The show is a combination comedy and talk show. She usually has three comics on a panel, and they all skewer celebrities. Chelsea ends the show with a guest featured in a new movie. For a while, a “realty” show aired called After Lately, which was about Chelsea and her crew preparing for her nightly show.

Her humor is not for everyone – it largely revolves around sex, drugs, alcohol, and little people, whom she refers to as “nuggets.” I decided to try one of her best-selling comedy books, which is more of the same and definitely rated NC-17.

Quoting from the book would require either taking things out of context or bowdlerizing them so much the humor would be lost. She does have her moments, many of them, in fact. She is not hard to look at – quite cute, really. Try the show first – if you find yourself laughing, you will most definitely enjoy this book. I might get another for some light reading. 4 stars.

--Chiron, 6/15/11

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Stop-Time by Frank Conroy

This book came to my shelves after I read Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes, reviewed here in March of this year. Frank Conroy was Tom’s Mentor, and Stop-Time was Conroy’s best known work at the time.

The story reminds me of a cross between Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Daedalus of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Young Frank Conroy has quite an interesting childhood, getting himself into a whole assortment of scrapes. He even ends up in Paris – as did Joyce when he graduated from college.

Even the episodes when Frank was a toddler were so absorbing. He was also brutally detailed in telling some of his experiences – his first kiss and his first sexual encounter. He did enough work to get by, but in the end he was accepted at Haverford College on the Philadelphia Main Line. Haverford was, and still is, a quite prestigious school.

At one point he ran away from his home in New York City with only a few dollars. He managed to make it all the way to Baltimore before his money ran out with his resolve to leave home.

One incident sounded right out of the mouth of Jean Shepherd, the great story-teller of Middle America. With a friend, he tries to peep into the window of a girl in the neighborhood. Conroy writes,

“Alone with the scent of flowers trickling down my throat like syrup, I watched the windows. Was that a pair of arms moving behind the blinds? Legs perhaps? An immense stone rolled over in my chest. Good Gog! Was that a thigh? Was that a bare shoulder? Lust exploded inside me, pure, hot lust bathing me like internal sunshine” (127)

Frank was about 12, and they never did a see anything. Illicit cigarettes, skipping school, fooling around with his friends, are all here in wonderful prose. His years at a boarding school, moving back and forth from Florida to New York with his mother, sister, and step-father are all woven together to make an interesting tapestry of life in the late 50s and early 60s.

Stop-Time will have to be ordered, but you will not regret the effort. 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/8/11

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

For the life of me, I cannot understand how this novel won a Pulitzer Prize. The committee must have had an overstock of shrinks and therapists! Practically every character is either suicidal, anorexic, depressed, paranoid, just plain loopy, or all of the above. Crosby, Maine must be one hell-hole of a place to live.

Olive Kitteridge, retired school teacher, lives with her husband Henry, the town pharmacist, and her son Christopher. Chris marries a woman whom Olive, naturally, hates. She has disparaging comments about everyone in town, which sometimes she bases on nothing more than rumor. Her husband tells her she has never apologized for anything. In the closing chapters, she admits this. So guess how many people, including her son, she called and tried to make amends? Zero. Olive is one of the most despicable characters I have encountered in quite a while. Why are people afraid to apologize – when they are wrong or even when right, and the dispute is not worth the loss of a friend? Is saving face that important? Is the possibility of appearing weak that repulsive?

However, the novel is well written. Numerous passages sprinkled throughout have a certain luster, a smooth polished surface that kept me reading. Here is one example:

“He was as much a stranger up here now as any tourist might be, and yet gazing back at the sun-sliced bay, he noted how familiar it felt; he had not expected that. The salt air filled his nose, the wild rugosa bushes with their white blossoms brought him a vague confusion; a sense of sad ignorance seemed cloaked in their benign white petals” (31).

I gather these chapters are intended as a collection of short stories, but does the reader need to be told in nearly every chapter that Olive taught math in seventh grade? Some more skillful editing would have helped this story become a bit more enjoyable.

All of these stars are strictly for the writing. 3 stars

--Chiron, 5/29/11