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