Friday, April 29, 2011

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

While Katherine Howe studied for her PhD qualifying exams, she took walks with her dog in the woods around Marblehead and Salem, MA. During these rambles, she began to spin a mildly interesting tale two of her ancestors persecuted during the Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th century. One of her ancestors, Elizabeth Proctor, survived, because she was pregnant. Fortunately, the hysteria had died down by the time the she delivered her child. The other, Elizabeth Howe, was hanged.

Connie Goodwin, a PhD candidate at Harvard, receives a phone call from her new age mother in New Mexico. Grace Goodwin asks her daughter to clean out an old house in Marblehead, which belong to Grace’s mother and prepare to sell it.

Her first visit to the house involved overgrown vines and creaky gates, but I did not get a creepy, gothic feeling from the prose. In fact, the lack of atmosphere is only the beginning of the writing flaws in this novel. Awkward sentences, fact errors, and plain dumb rookie writing mistakes all mar what could be a quite interesting and atmospheric tale.

For example, she claims the witch trials were “before [emphasis Howe’s] the Scientific Revolution. They didn’t have the scientific method” (82). Rudimentary explanations of investigations of nature with strong parallels to the scientific method date back to an Egyptian papyrus from circa 1600 b.c.e. The ancient Greeks had steps for scientific inquiry, as did the Babylonians, the Arabs, and the sub-continent Indians. Frances Bacon, Descartes, and Newton all laid down principles for scientific investigation. With the founding of the Royal Society of Science during the restoration in 1660s England, the steps, still in use today, were firmly established. She also displays an alarming thinness of knowledge of common historical facts – things even my ancient minor in history allowed me to recall. Howe is an historian?

Here is one example of her sometimes awkward style. “[Connie] placed the lamp on the mantelpiece, resting her elbow next to it and gnawing on a knuckle” (111). Other examples are shifts in point of view. During a phone conversation with her mother, Connie describes an unpleasant encounter with her PhD advisor. “’He sort of … screamed at me’” (165), . . . “‘but it totally wasn’t a big deal,’ at the same moment that Grace cried. ‘Oh, Connie!’ and threw down her crochet hook in irritation” (165).

The best part of the book, for me, was the “Interludes.” These flashbacks to the witch trials offered an interesting glimpse into a terrible episode in our history.

Okay, if these things don’t bother you, then this will make a fine beach read this summer, but not much else. (3 stars)

--Chiron, 4/29/11

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin

I showed the interview of Merwin with Bill Moyers to my creative writing class and became inspired to buy a copy of this collection, which Merwin frequently read from during the interview.

The poems are exactly the kind I love to read – simple, straightforward with some surprising and highly pleasing insights. I will buy some more of his verse as I come across them. Considering the fact that he has published almost 30 volumes, I can’t bust my budget to complete the collection as I would like to do.

As is my custom when reading a volume of poetry, I mark ones I especially love for quoting here. I marked about 20 in Shadow, so I had a hard time figuring which I would quote. “Cold Spring Morning” kept popping up, so here it is:

“At times it has seemed that when
I first came here it was an old self
I recognized in the silent walls
and the river far below
but the self has no age
as I knew even then and had known
for longer than I could remember
as the sky has no sky
except itself this white morning in May
with fog hiding the barns
that are empty now and hiding the mossed
limbs of gnarled walnut trees and the green
pastures unfurled along the slope
I know where they are and the birds
that are hidden in their own calls
in the cold morning
I was not born here I come and go” (82).

I felt myself in this poem as I recalled that day back in 1993 when I moved to Texas – alone, knowing not a soul at the age of 45. If I can write one poem this wonderful, this powerful, and so full of truth – not only for me, but for some stranger who happens to read it, then I will be allowed to consider myself a poet.

You need to read Merwin. Over and over and again and again. 5 stars

--Chiron, 4/16/11

Remember Ben Clayton by Stephen Harrigan

Stephen Harrigan is the author of the best-selling novel, The Gates of the Alamo. His newest work of fiction is Remember Ben Clayton. Francis “Gil” Gilheaney is a talented sculptor who moves his family from New York to San Antonio, Texas to take advantage of a growing reputation for western-themed works of art. When Lamar Clayton, a crusty rancher, offers him a commission to create a statue to commemorate his son, Ben, killed in World War I, Gil sees it as an opportunity to sculpt a lasting legacy of his life’s work. But everyone involved with this project harbors secrets. Set in Texas and France in the aftermath of “the war to end all wars,” Harrigan has captured the brutality of war, family relationships, and the role and meaning of art.

I must admit, I was not excited about this novel when our local NPR station asked me to review and interview the author for a segment. Literature of the western US is not what I read – as faithful fans of RabbitReader well know! But I read the first chapter and I was hooked. [Right now, I only have an uncorrected proof. I will insert the paragraphs from page 9 when I get a trade edition.]

The battle scene of World War I and the cleanup in the aftermath of the war particularly affected me. We have so many novels on this subject – Remarque, Crane, Heller, Mailer, O’Brien – yet time and again we plunge our young men, and now women, into war. Why haven’t we learned – and remembered -- the lesson of the horrors of war?

The beginning of the novel’s main story-line – about 1920 – was a bit slow at first, but it had enough meat to keep me chewing. As I began to delve into the secrets these characters held, my interest piqued. As the novel reached its climax, one secret after another came out; I expected one or two, but the majority came as a surprise.

The prose is sparse and reminds me of Hemingway, but it fit the characters perfectly. The musings of the characters on art and its role in society – and what it means to an individual artist – were exceptionally absorbing. I could not help comparing the extensive research, planning, playing with his materials to the same things writers go through when creating a poem, a story, or a novel.

This novel should appeal to a wide audience – fans of cowboy lit, fans of historical fiction, and artists of all stripes. Due for publication in May of this year, I will repost this review then. 5 stars

--Chiron, 4/15/11