Friday, February 25, 2011

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

A good friend in my book club recommended this, and I was a bit skeptical when I found out it was a young adult novel. However, I Capture the Castle proved to be a mixture of Brontë, Austen, with a dash of Dickens – in short a wonderful read that tells a story of interest to any serious reader.

Cassandra, the narrator, is 17 on the verge of 18. She has finished school and decided to keep a diary to help her learn to write. Her wonderfully quirky family includes her younger brother Thomas, an older sister Rose, her father James Mortmain (the author of a well-received novel who is now blocked), his wife Topaz (the children’s stepmother), and Stephen, the son of a deceased housekeeper of the Mortmain’s who had nowhere to live. Heloise (the beloved dog), Abelard (the cat), and Miss Blossom (a dress form with a personality all her own) round out the main cast.

The family has serious money problems, and one day, two Americans arrive to take possession of the estate on which the Mortmains live.

Cassandra is one of the best narrator/characters I have ever had the pleasure of sharing all the joys and sorrows of growing into adulthood. She has a marvelous imagination, and places herself in all sorts of situations. She goes for a walk with Stephen. Smith writes, “As we pushed aside the first green trails of larch I thought, ‘Well, this will disprove my theory that things I’ve imagined happening never really do happen.’ But it didn’t – because everything was so different from my imagining. The wood had been thinned out, so it wasn’t cool and dark as I expected; the air was still warm and the rays of the sinking sun shone in from behind us. The tree trunks glowed redly. There was a hot resinous smell instead of the scent of bluebells – the only ones left were shriveled and going to seed” (251).

Reading this prose, I felt as if I were in the room as she told me the story of her life. The prose is simple, yet elegant, descriptive without being overbearing – in a word: marvelous. She cleverly hid the ending in quite a few clues that only made sense when I finished the book. I hated to put it down and read it in three chunks of about 15%, 35%, and 50%. I also watched the film which was pretty good, although as expected several scenes were deleted, shortened, or combined with others. Despite this minor disappointment, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but I loved the book completely. A must read for anyone with the slightest touch of the romantic. 5 stars

--Chiron, 2/25/11

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Beet by Roger Rosenblatt

Academic novels are among my favorite reads – especially those involving English professors. I measured Beet against my favorites: Straight Man by Richard Russo, The English Major by Jim Harrison, and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang, and I am happy to say this one measures up! The fun, the politics, the turf wars, the “unusual” students, the bizarre faculty, and the businessmen trying to turn a college into a business are all present in their funny, sad, and tragic glory.

Peace Porterfield is a tenured English professor who cares about only one thing: teaching his students. Rosenblatt writes, “All he knew about being a professor was students, teaching, and learning, and this skewed and narrowed prospect of academic life deprived him of the full, rich picture” (26).

If I listed all my favorite passages, this would be the longest review I have written to date. But here are a few:

“There were more political constituencies on the faculty than professors” (45). “What’s wrong with making a buck? … “Nothing. Unless that’s all you make” (121). “Once money alone drives these [academic] institutions, they’re goners” (126). “He [a fellow faculty member] had a liberal arts education, you had one, I had one. What’s it for, if not to enable us to beat back people whose only values are dollars?” (126). And lastly, really my number one favorite: “Professor Porterfield was just the sort of faculty member he despised, … ‘He keeps to himself. He teaches, talks to students in office hours, and goes home. He doesn’t gossip’” (145).

Chapter Nine was rather poignant. It focuses on Peace as a professor. The chapter begins, “The better teachers at any level possess invention and imagination. These powers are not the same and are not equal. An imaginative teacher is always inventive, but an inventive teacher is not necessarily imaginative” (101). The chapter includes a Socratic dialogue between Peace and his creative writing class.

Irony abounds in this novel, from the fierce feminist student who continually uses “seminal” to characterize her ideas to the name of the English building, Mallory, which is a misspelling of the Sir Thomas Malory, author of the great legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Tons of literary references are spread throughout the book as well. Peace’s wife, Livi, often calls him “Candide,” because of his naiveté and cockeyed optimism. At the end of the novel, Rosenblatt foretells the future for most of the main characters, but he doesn’t know what happened to Peace. “He may have decided to cultivate a garden – not one of his own, but somewhere that had no gardens, and needed them. One simply doesn‘t know what Peace’s future contained. His present was good enough. He took her hand [Livi’s], and they walked together from that place” (225). A free book to the first reader to identify the literary reference contained in the last sentence of this novel!

Students might not find this novel funny, administrators might wince on occasion, but faculty members will howl with laughter. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/20/11

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Reckoning by Howard Owen

Suspense takes a place in my reading life only once or twice a year, so I like to save the space for a well-told story, with interesting characters, and a plot with believable twists and turns. Howard Owen has admirably fulfilled this task with his ninth novel. Seems as though I have some searches at local bookstores and, failing that, on Amazon ahead of me!

Jake James is 16, a cross country star, and seeking his first intimate relationship. He is the grandson of “Wash” James, failed candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia and scion of a wealthy family that owned a famous Virginia ham company. Jake’s father, George, runs the company now, and his past intrudes into the life of Jake and his friends.

The story lives in a backdrop of the Vietnam War and 9/11. George graduates from college one year after I did, so many of the events and characters are strikingly familiar to me. I lived through the national turmoil of the 60s and 70s, and Owen has recaptured those memories for me in amazing detail.

My major problem with the story is a curious episode at the end. Jake befriends a nine-year-old Guatemalan boy, who is the son of his aunt’s housekeeper. The novel is 2-1/2 pages too long to my tastes. I did some checking and some reviewers feel this ties up the novel with Jake becoming a little self-centered and more caring about others. However, I never really saw him as entirely selfish -- he was a typical teenager. I am much more interested in the evolving relationships between Wash and George and then George and Jake. So, I still think this ending was a bit too cute. Aside from that, I found a few sentences and references that gave me pause. Nevertheless, this is a page turner of the first order. 4-1/2 stars.

--Chiron, 2/11/11

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble

This rather peculiar book has really left me perplexed. I discovered Margaret Drabble in grad school, and was surprised to learn she is A.S. Byatt’s sister. Byatt visited a class in British Women Writers. I had already known Byatt from her novel, Possession, and I have since read most of her novels. When I first read Drabble, I liked her, but not entirely and not as much. Her prose seems a bit stilted at times, and I had to stop on more than one occasion to pick up a thread she had dropped.

The story starts out as a diary of Candida Wilton, newly divorced mother of three daughters. Candida has taken her divorce settlement and moved from rural Suffolk to a slightly squalid London neighborhood. She takes a class reading Virgil’s Aeniad, but when the building is converted to a health club, she aimlessly joins. She has friends from school, whom she rarely hears from, and friends from Suffolk, whom she rarely hears from, and doesn’t seem able to make any solid new friends. When a sudden windfall lifts her from near poverty, she rounds up her friends for an adventure retracing the steps of Aeneas from Carthage to Naples. This is part one.

Part two suddenly shifts to third person and relates details of the trip to Italy. Then one of her estranged daughters weighs in as the narrator of part three, with a final section from Candida, post Italy. This must represent some sort of post-modern novel, but the ending confused me quite a bit. I am going to have to dig up some serious reviews and see what others think.

I really enjoyed the diary section. The issues of aging, broken relationships, loss of family and friends all made for an interesting excursion into the life and mind of a 50-something women who finally gets a grip on herself.

The section on the Italy trip was also good, but I felt it lacked some detail. The daughter’s section reminds us that every story teller tells his or her version of events. The last section really confused me.

Not the best Drabble I have ever read, but it certainly was worth the effort. This one will need a re-read sometime soon. 4 stars.

--Chiron, 2/6/11