Friday, March 25, 2011

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is the story of a young girl who believes nothing in life makes it worth living, so she plans on committing suicide before her next birthday. Pretty grim, but in order to make sure she is making the correct decision, she keeps a journal of observations and “profound truths.” She makes friends with a self-described hedgehog – an ugly, lumpy, crabby concierge at the apartment building where the young girl lives. Both then make friends with a new tenant. This novel is one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking novels I have read in a long time. I reviewed it February of 2010, and I am gladly reading it again for my book club.

--Chiron, 3/25/11

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Expiration Date by Sherril Jaffe

When I first looked over the cover of this novel, I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it. But I have so much faith in Permanent Press, I went ahead anyway. At first, I thought if I ever wanted to know the date of my death, this book presented a great argument against the fulfillment of that wish. However, as I read on, a thread of humor took hold, and I ended up thoroughly enjoying this book. This reminds me of another recent read that I might have shied away from: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Both proved to become stunningly thoughtful and insightful examinations of life and its meaning.

Flora, 35 years old and pregnant, has a dream in which she is told the date of her death. This and her relationship with her mother, Muriel, occupy the rest of the novel. The characters are all instantly recognizable. I know a woman who, at the birth of her daughter, said, “I’ll never live to see her first communion.” Last year her great-granddaughter had her first communion. Despite falling down an entire flight of stairs when she was in her early 90s – and she didn’t break a single bone! – she is still going strong as her 96th birthday approaches. I love this kind of realism in a novel that allows me to connect with characters in a most interesting way!

The husbands of these two women also play roles, albeit minor ones, but when Muriel’s husband dies, she embarks on a number of interesting adventures with men she meets playing bridge. The lives of these two women are entangled in a most quirky way. Rather than maudlin marches to their coffins, Flora and Muriel learn lessons and really enjoy life.

My only regret is that this novel isn’t longer. Expiration Date is due for publication next month. Don’t miss it! 5 stars

--Chiron, 3/20/11

Something Special by Iris Murdoch

This recently discovered story – apparently from the 1940s – reveals Murdoch’s talent at an earlier stage than most of her novels. The story seems a bit awkward in parts, and does not have that smooth flowing prose of her novels, especially The Bell, The Book and the Brotherhood, and The Green Knight. Nevertheless, as I work my way through her 26 novels (I am about half-way through), I enjoy seeing a slightly different side of one of the 20th century’s great novelists. Michael McCurdy adds interesting illustrations of scenes from the story.

After reading Peter Conradi’s thoroughly detailed biography, I can see some of the young Murdoch and her attitude toward marriage in Yvonne Geary. She does not seem inclined toward marriage, and Sam Goldman does not seem a good fit for the independent minded Yvonne.

A nice slim little book, and only because I am spoiled by the wonderful prose of Murdoch do I give this 4 stars.

--Chiron, 3/13/11

Monday, March 14, 2011

13 Rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro

An old saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Well, that is exactly what I did when I bought this book. An intriguing picture dominates the cover, and the mention of a “box of memories” on the jacket clinched the deal. This first novel was every bit as intriguing and exotic as the jacket.

Josianne works as an assistant in the faculty offices of a university in Paris, France. She has in her possession a box with a curious assortment of photos, letters, envelops, coins, gloves, and a few other personal items. Louise Brunet owned the box and assembled the contents. Upon her death, no relatives claimed her possessions, so the box came to Josianne. She places the box in the office of a new professor, Trevor Stratton. He becomes obsessed with the contents, and goes on a wildly imaginative journey, creating lives and events for the individuals in the pictures and mentioned in the letters.

The story has an air of mystery and charm, with some tragedy mixed in, along with some love, and several scenes of brief but intense eroticism, and a dollop of magic realism for some spice. Louise’s story becomes Trevor’s, and Trevor’s becomes Josianne’s, and Josianne’s becomes Louise’s story. Separating truth from reality, from fantasy, and from myth make this a most enjoyable read. Illustrations of the contents of the box accompany Trevor’s spinning of the tale.

As I read, I became more and more intrigued. In the top of my closet, I have a box of memories. Most of them associated with a pen pal I had over a 30 year period. Photos, postcards, letters, small items, even coins and money make up a story only I know. I got out the box after finishing this novel, and roamed over the landscape of my memories dating back to 1965. Maybe I should write it all down before someone else does it for me.

This is a most enjoyable read, and I heartily recommend it. Five stars

--Chiron, 3/13/11

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Bird Cloud: A Memoir by Annie Proulx

Ordinarily, when I see a book about a person who buys some land and builds a house, my interest doesn’t go much further. However, when the builder is noted author, Annie Proulx, and the house is her dream home in Wyoming, my interest piqued.

Proulx is one of the best novelists and short story writers of the late 20th and into the 21st centuries. Her award-winning novel, The Shipping News and That Old Ace in the Hole are my favorite of her books. I always show my creative writing class a documentary about Ms Proulx writing Ace. It shows them the amount of research and hard, meticulous work that a novelist of Proulx’s stature puts into a new work of fiction. Her short stories, however, represent another whole aspect of her talent. I can honestly say, I have never read a Proulx short story that I did not like.

In Bird Cloud, Proulx tells the story of her family from its French-Canadian roots through to New England. She describes several places she lives, but none of them match her ideal home for reading, research, and writing. She searches Wyoming -- three collections of her short stories are subtitled “Wyoming Stories” – for a perfect plot of land, secluded, but near enough to civilization for food and supplies. She wanted a place where she could have rooms that looked out over the vast prairies nearby and mountains in the distance. Then she launches into a history of the area she selected dating back to the earliest inhabitants several thousand years ago, through to the Native Americans pushed out by white settlers in the 19th century. Then the search began for an architect and construction crew. The delays and pitfalls were frustrating and costly.

Once the house is finished, she takes a detailed inventory of the flora and fauna surrounding her. She has particular interest in birds, and spots several pairs of eagles – bald and golden – along with falcons, hawks, ravens, owls, and myriad song birds. Here, she describes one unique encounter.

“It was a big thrill when I saw a white-faced ibis near the front gate where there was irrigation overflow. The ibis stayed around for weeks. A few days after this sighting I was sitting near the river and saw two herons fly to the bald eagles’ favorite fishing tree. They were too small to be blue herons, and did not really look like little blues. A few minutes with the heron book cleared up the mystery; they were tricolored herons, the first I had ever seen. By the end of the month, American goldfinches were shooting around like tossed gold pieces despite another cold spell” (220).

This conversational style gives her prose a smooth and seamless fluidity that paints a digital-quality image in the mind of the reader. She welcomes me into her world as a expected visitor. This memoir will appeal to those interested in wildlife, because her keen eye for observation reveals much about the fauna of a wilderness area most of us would never visit.

The house is complicated in its orientation, layout, and construction, and I can imagine such a wonderful hideaway for a writer and reader. If you have never read Proulx, start with one of her collections of stories and get a feel for her exquisite view of nature – flora, fauna, and human. 5 stars

--Chiron, 3/8/11

Friday, March 04, 2011

Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes

Mentor is the second book recommended by my good friend, Margaret Hawkins, author of A Year of Cats and Dogs and How to Avoid a Natural Disaster, both reviewed here last year. Grimes’ memoir must be on the shelf of anyone interested in the writing process or writing while trying to hold body and soul together. Tom had an amazingly supportive partner, Jody – that makes all the difference in the world. I can personally attest to the value of spousal support.

In 1988, Tom Grimes wrote 20 hours a week and held down a job as a waiter in a Florida restaurant. A fleeting encounter with Frank Conroy, published novelist and director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, led Tom to apply to Iowa. He was accepted and packed up his family and moved. The memoir revolves around the relationship Tom developed with Frank. He also reveals, in great detail, the agonies, joys, triumphs, and disappointments of the writing life.

The Amazing thing about this book involves an incredible number of passages that reflect closely on my own reading and writing life. For example, he describes his first class with Frank, who began by writing on the board, “meaning, sense, and clarity,” then said, “‘If you don’t have these you don’t have a reader’” (25). Another, “the world is chaos and an artful novel satisfies our human desire for order, or … the novel excavates meaning from the rubble of incomprehension” (55). Frank discusses the “impostor syndrome” with Tom. “You can’t believe good things are happening to you and you’re worried someone will find you’re a fake…Don’t worry, it’ll pass” (121). I have said these, and many other things, to my creative writing classes.

At times, Tom displays a seemingly inexplicable lack of confidence in his writing. But a writer knows and understands. I can relate to that feeling. Agonizing over a poem or a story for hours or days or months only to see someone chop it to bits, or worse, dismiss it out of hand, can have a devastating effect on a writer. Grimes gives the reader a boost and a reminder that beginning writers can never give up – if they are serious about their art.

Only one chapter failed to hold my attention. Chapter Eleven, which relates the story of a play Tom was writing, is written as play dialogue. Beside this minor lapse, I thoroughly enjoyed every other page. This book goes on my reading list for my own creative writing students. 4-3/4 stars

--Chiron, 3/3/11

Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life by Barbara Louise Ungar

Not everything recommends turns out to be a waste. These sharp, but simple poems convey all the passion and emotion a reader could want in a collection of verse. I had never heard of Ungar, but the title intrigued me, so I bought it. It is so very (too?) easy with one click shopping to indulge a passion – or an obsession – these days, but I am really glad I did.

Here’s my favorite:


Sky-blue beads’ pattern of heaven
and walking on wind—
who made them?

When I left home
and the great Plains behind,
I painted the floor of my narrow

room that very blue: I had
a futon, books and clothes,
three windows that opened on chains

into magnolia trees.
I lived in the sky.
I danced all night and out into the dawn.

It’s those cloud moccasins
I want, dancing the sky (52)

This poem, and almost all the rest of this collection, embodies everything I love in poetry I read and write: simple images, nice phrasing, a smooth, flowing rhythm, with a wonderful, unexpected closing image. Many even have a nice crisp edge to them. Ungar doesn't hold anything back. Anger sometimes peeks out of this collec tion about break-ups and divorce, but it never has a hint of self-pity. 5 stars

--Chiron, 3/4/11