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

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Thrift and The Origin of the Milky Way by Barbara Louise Ungar

Have you ever encountered people – face-to-face or as characters in a novel or even writers – and felt as if you knew them? That has happened to me. When I read Margaret Atwood’s novel, Cat’s Eye, I felt as if we had grown up on the same block in Philadelphia, even though she grew up in Toronto. When I read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I felt as if we had gone to the same boarding school. Now I have another author to add to this list. I connect on so many levels with Ungar.

While shopping at Amazon, their creepy, prescient, wonderful computer recommended a book of poetry -- Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life by Barbara Louise Ungar. I had never heard of the poet, but I bought it on impulse, solely because I was intrigued by the title. I read it and loved the poetry. I reviewed it here last March.

Now here is where the story gets a bit complicated. I never heard from James Joyce, of course, and I had only met Atwood at a signing in Boston -- before I had read Cat’s Eye. After my review of Ungar appeared, I corresponded with her through e-mail. She thanked me for my review, and I told her I was going to get both of her other books of poetry. She wrote, “Oh, no. Let me send them to you.” I had misgivings, and I responded with an “Okay, but let me pay for them.” “No, I have plenty of copies here.” So, time passed, and I fretted. What if I don’t like them? How can I review them after her kindness? Worse yet, what if I love them? How will she know I am being sincere? After all, she doesn’t know me any better than I know her.

Well, the books arrived this week, and I am in the middle of a novel I am not really enjoying, so I set that aside on an overcast Saturday to read these two slim volumes. First, we will tackle Thrift.

I am just going to say it – I loved most of the poems in here. Ungar’s humor, her excellent diction, her clever allusions, images, and phrases captivated me. I immediately read it again and found another thing or two I liked. “Formica” represents an excellent example of all these points:

“After arranging the peonies, I scoop
crazed ants off the counter

with delicate paper coaxings, and,
by my third transport

across the grass to the peony bush, wonder
if they could find their own way

home from the front
steps (like pets who navigate

the continent) or if they’d be devoured
by enemy armies (an ant Iliad)

and what tales
do they tell the colony

of alien abduction
(the A-Files?)

and of the strangeness of Formica
and this paper plane.” (21)

I also loved “Self-Diagnosis” (38-39). Another poem I really liked, “For the Town Clerk” (60) inspired me to write a poem about a box in my closet containing a mishmash of cards, letters, photos, and souvenirs from a pen pal I had years ago. I hear echoes of 13 Rue Thérèse here as well. All in all, a most excellent and enjoyable collection of poetry. (5 stars)

The second volume, The Origin of the Milky Way is another story. While I like several of these poems – all with the same wit and quality as those in Thrift – I didn’t relate to these as well, since many were about childbirth. When my son -- now about to turn 28 yikes! -- was in utero I heard all the stories about the difficulty and pain of childbirth, but I must admit, none so clever or vivid as Ungar’s.

One short poem, “Tanka,” really made me laugh, however:

“Horses stand in the rain
head down in an open field.
What else can they do?

It’s not labor.
I can stand it.” (39)

I refuse to take a star away for the reason stated, so I won’t rate it. Read it yourself and let me know what you think. I hope Ungar writes a memoir. She sounds as if she has had a wonderfully interesting and creative life so far!

--Chiron, 5/22/11

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

A couple of years ago, I read a curious and interesting little novel by an author I had never heard of. When I met O’Nan at a conference and got a copy of his newest novel, I was eager to try him again. Emily, Alone is a quiet, earnest story of ordinary people going about their daily lives, trying to manage the vagaries of existence as senior citizens.

Emily Maxwell is a widow, and she lives alone with her aging dog, Rufus. Her children are grown with families of their own, and Emily lives for and from one visit to the next. Her best friend is her slightly crusty sister-in-law, Arlene. Together they lament the changes they face in growing old and share a routine of lunches, dinners at the club, and miscellaneous errands.

Set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the landscape O’Nan describes seems comfortably familiar. I grew up at the other end of the state and only made a couple of brief visits to the Steel City, but Emily’s experiences mirror many of my own.

One childhood memory I vividly recall matches O’Nan’s description precisely. Emily and Arlene are driving by the old Nabisco plant, which is being converted into condos. O’Nan writes, “The real shame was that, winter or summer, when the plant was running, as you drove by you could smell them baking, even with your windows closed. They made Ritz crackers, and the warm buttery scent surrounded the place like a cloud. … In the Spring, … you could stand with your lemonade and … see the steam rising from the factory and practically taste the air” (10). I remember my Dad would detour on a trip home just to drive past the Nabisco plant on Roosevelt Boulevard. I can still smell it.

Another memory of mine involves her son, Kenneth, who signs off each phone call to his mother with, “All righty.” Must be a Pennsylvania thing. Of course, every Sunday I lament the arrival of the Waco Trib. “Stripped of its advertising, the [Pittsburgh] Post-Gazette was criminally thin” (53). Emily also surveys the “obituaries, and is relieved to find no one she knew. She noted those close to her age and younger, but refused to brood on them. She didn’t want to be one of those old ladies obsessed with death, hearing it in every tick of the clock and creak of the floorboards” (53). My favorite line, however, is, “People should give gifts because it made them happy. There should be no obligation involved, no guilt” (129). Another Pennsylvania thing perhaps?

While this might seem a tad depressing, it is anything but. The novel floats on an undercurrent of humor. Emily is an interesting, bright woman with a strong will. She has her routines, and they keep her active. She worries about Arlene, her neighbors, her daughter Margaret, her son Kenneth, the grandchildren, loyal Rufus, of course, and her preparations for the inevitable. I won’t reveal the twist in the last chapter, but it has me thinking. A third novel could have a neat little opening to resolve this riddle so tiny it could easily be missed.

I learned this novel is actually a sequel to an earlier work, Wish You Were Here. I’ll be tracking that one down in the coming days! 5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/14/11

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan

A great little novel about the last night of a Red Lobster restaurant closed because of corporate greed. I have been to this Red Lobster, despite the fact the exact location is never mentioned. It is somewhere in the snowy north, vaguely New York State.

Manny manages the doomed branch of Darden Restaurants, and December 20th is the last day it will be open for business. Typical corporate move. Five days before Christmas and most of them are losing their jobs. On the epithet page, before the half-title, O’Nan has written: “Darden Restaurants, Inc., raised its outlook and expects full year 2005 diluted earnings per share growth in the range of 22% to 27%... (” Capitalism at its finest. The restaurant makes money, but not enough to satisfy the billionaires that own Darden.

Manny has an eclectic crew, and only about half of them show up for the last day. The best workers along with two who deserve to lose their jobs. Manny had an affair with Jackie, and Roz is like his mother. Ty is the king of the kitchen. The realism of this novel is striking. O'Nan has filled it with precise details of opening and operating a chain restaurant.

The last day has plenty of typical restaurant urgencies – a party of 14 who arrives demanding a big table without any prior notice to the toddler over whom the mother has absolutely no control. I have seen that kid in many restaurants, and I hope someday I will see that same mother trying to deal with the obnoxious brat when it is a teenager. Manny is a loyal company employee, and he does his best to placate the woman.

A nifty, well-written little tale of about 150 pages. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/15/11

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Liquid Jade by Beatrice Hohenegger

A good friend recommended this book, and, although I had a bit of trouble finding a copy, the hunt was more than worth it. Liquid Jade tells the history of tea tracing its origins to second century b.c.e. China. Berenice Hohenegger quotes extensively from texts dating back centuries. This most interesting tale tells of plots to steal the closely guarded secrets of growing and brewing the perfect cup of tea. I like coffee, but there are times when nothing but a nice, hot mug of Earl Grey will do.

The story of the earliest discoveries of the benefits of brewed tea leaves begins in the Han Dynasty, which lasted from roughly 200 b.c.e. to 220 c.e. She tells the story of the tragic “gunboat diplomacy” which forced open the trading ports of China and Japan and the establishment of the East India Company and its attempts to monopolize world tea production, shipping, and sales. The author reveals the origins of afternoon tea, and its growth as a drink enjoyed world-wide, albeit in many different forms.

Unfortunately, the tea trade became tightly bound to the opium trade, which destroyed the lives of untold millions in China and Western Europe. This disturbing story did shed new light on this period of history for me. Furthermore, while “the Chinese do not use sugar in their tea,” the English did, dumping several spoonfuls in each cup. As a result of this practice, we now all use “teaspoons” (99). The English even invented a new type of sailing ship – the tea clipper – to bring the delicate tea leaves to England in one-third the time of traditional sailing ships (171).

The secret of porcelain – also closely guarded by the Chinese – fell under the control of English manufacturers when the first industrial spies roamed freely around the countryside. Blue willow porcelain, designed by Josiah Spode in the 18th century, depicted an Englishman’s view of Chinese mythology. The story associated with this pattern became so popular, the Chinese and Japanese began manufacturing it for export and even created a myth to go along with the design.

Hohenegger sums up the history of tea with some amazing statistics. Worldwide tea acreage today amounts to 6.2 million acres, with 89 percent in Asian countries. In 2004, over 7 billion pounds of tea was produced, which amounts to “3.8 billion cups of tea drunk every day around the world’ (240). Unfortunately, all this pleasure comes at a price.

A tea worker must pluck an average of 2,000 young shoots to attain about 1kg of leaf. With a “daily target weight of 30kg, the worker will have to perform the gesture of plucking the two leaves and the bud 60,000 times in one day, every day, from morning until night” (242) for the paltry wages of about one dollar (244). Hohenegger makes an excellent case for supporting fair trade coffees and teas. The added price amounts to less than a penny a cup. I rushed to the cabinet and checked my three favorite brands of Earl Grey. I was happy to see they were all organic and fair trade. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/9/11

Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins

Whenever a new collection of poetry by Billy Collins appears, I drop everything on my TBR list and read. I have already been through this volume three times, and I absolutely love nearly every poem in it.

I met Mr. Collins last year in Louisville, KY, and had him sign a paperback copy of the collection, Picnic, Lightening, which has my favorite Collins poem in it, “Shoveling Snow with the Buddha.” As I have written before, if I can ever write a poem that someone who knows says, “It reminds me of Billy Collins,” I will consider myself a poet.

About 20 poems are starred, and it was quite a struggle to emerge with one to reproduce here, but I did it. “Two Creatures” represents everything I love about poetry, everything I love about Billy Collins, and everything I aspire to in my own work:

"The last time I looked, the dog was lying
on the freshly cut grass
but now she has moved under the picnic table.

I wonder what causes her to shift
from one place to another,
to get up for no apparent reason from her spot

by the stove, scratch one ear,
then relocate, slumping down
on the other side of the room by the big window,

or I will see her hop onto the couch to nap
then later find her down
on the Turkish carpet, her nose in the fringe.

The moon rolls across the night sky
and stops to peer down on the earth,
and the dog rolls through these rooms

and onto the lawn, pausing here and there
to sleep or to stare up at me, head in her paws,
to consider the scentless pen in my hand

or the open book on my lap.
And because her eyes always follow me,
she must wonder, too, why

I shift from place to place,
from the couch to the sink
or the pencil sharpener on the wall –

two creatures bound by the wonderment
though unlike her, I have never once worried
after letting her out the back door

that she would take off in the car
and leave me to die
behind the solid locked doors of this house." (53-54)

No comment necessary. If you read this and don’t get it, I am sorry. Keep trying. Perhaps one day, it will settle into your mind, and you will know. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/1/11