Monday, December 31, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I am not much of a sports fan -- except for the occasional football game or a rarer basketball game, which have tenuous holds on my attention. However, ice hockey has a place near the top of my list, but it seems as if the entire season will be canceled for the second time in the last decade. But I do enjoy baseball. Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding rose to the top of my TBR pile, because it is the last of my Christmas 2011 book presents, so I thought I would read it before the next sure-to-be excellent pile would appear on December 24th. I had delayed reading it, because I thought it would be another sports story about a sad-sack team of misfits saved by the talent, hard work and charisma of a young phenom. I sure did strike out on this at bat!

The Art of Fielding tells the story of Henry Skrimshander, skinny, talented ball player obsessed with the fictional career, a fictional book by the fictional Aparicio Rodriguez, The Art of Fielding. Henry reveres Aparicio. He has the book memorized, and carries it with him at all times. This young man comes under the notice of Mike Schwartz, a sophomore at Westish College on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin.

This seems to be the cliché-filled story of the aspiring athlete, the mentor, and a rags-to-riches team of college athletes going through the motions of playing baseball. But this is not the full story. Several characters slowly enter the story, and all become intertwined. Henry’s roommate, Oscar, also on the team, has earned the nickname “Buddha” because he always has a book in his hands – even as he sat on the bench during a game. The college president, Guert Affenlight, opens his home to his daughter, Pella, after she leaves her husband in San Francisco. These five characters orbit around each other and interact in surprising and interesting ways.

Henry’s manual almost becomes a character itself, guiding him and eventually other members of the team. The Zen advice in the book can also be applied to many of life’s daily activities. The book provides Henry with more than 200 aphorisms and ideas for conducting his daily life. For example, “3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being. 33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.” [Italics Harbach’s] (16). These principles become the key to Henry’s actions on the field. He becomes an instinctive player, a machine, who can anticipate the direction a ball will take based on the pitcher, the swing of the hitter, and the sound of the bat.

Harbach’s prose mesmerized me, and the pages flew by faster than I would have imagined. The lives of these five characters move in surprising ways, and the final resolution of the novel was completely unexpected. Pella begins dating Mike, but his relationship as Henry’s mentor casts a pall over them. Harbach writes,

“And had Pella said boo about any of it? Had not said for instance, that Henry was an adult or nearly adult person who could fend for himself; nor had she said that being occasionally unable to throw a baseball from one place to another with perfect accuracy didn’t exactly qualify as tragic; nor had she said – for instance – that Henry would start throwing the ball better when he felt like throwing the ball better; and maybe everybody should just leave him alone for a while and let whatever was going to happen happen. It was amazing the way people hemmed each other in, forced each other to act in such narrowly determined ways, as if the world would end if Henry didn’t straighten himself out right now, as if a little struggle with self-doubt might not make him a better person in the long run, as if there was any reason why he shouldn’t take a break from baseball and teach himself to knit, to play the cello, to speak Gaelic – but no, God, no, he had to work hard and stay focused and grind it out and keep his chin up and relax and think positive and keep plugging away, subscribe to every stupid cliché Mike or anyone else could throw at him, working and worrying until he started having panic attacks, for Christ’s sake, which wasn’t tragic either but was far from a promising sign.” (247-248)

This paragraph consists of only three sentences and encapsulates the wildly different viewpoints of dedicated athletes to their passion and casual observers. Fascinating, fun, sad, and yes a bit tragic, but in the end … things work their way to some surprising conclusions.

Recently released in paperback, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach has room for enjoyment by sports fans and avid readers of literary fiction. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/31/12

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Red Bird by Mary Oliver

This slim book of poetry – recommended by a good friend – contains 61 poems. Until this recommendation, I had never heard of this poet, but I really do appreciate finding another poet who reminds me of my favorite, Billy Collins. Mary Oliver’s Red Bird contains poems with simple language, clear imagery, with profound insights into the human condition.

The best thing I can do is to quote a few of the many favorites I found in the collection, most of which focus on nature. “Of the Empire” has a timely theme:

We will be known as a culture that feared death and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity for the few and cared little for the penury of the many. We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All the world in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say that this structure was held together politically, which it was, and they will say also that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days, was small, and hard, and full of meanness. (46).

Some poems have a Zen-like quality. In “Both Worlds,” for instance, Oliver writes,

“I rise from the chair,
I put on my jacket
and leave the house
for that other world –

the first one
the holy one –
where the trees say
nothing the toad says

nothing the dirt
says nothing and yet
what has always happened
keeps happening:

the trees flourish
the toad leaps
and out of the silent dirt
the blood-red roses rise.” (51-52)

Many others have a philosophical bent. This short poem packs a lot into six lines. “I Ask Percy How I Should Life My Life (Ten)" sums up many of Oliver’s sentiments.

“Love, love, love, says Percy. And run as fast as you can along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust.

Then, go to sleep. Give up your body heat, your beating heart. Then trust.” (55)

In the waning days of 2012, this poem takes me back to Christmas weekend -- a mere week ago -- and the honeymoon we never had. Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Padre Island, the gulf, the hotel pool, walks at night and in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening and with quiet dinners alone. How closer can I connect to a poem than that? As I near thoughts of retirement, Oliver and Percy have found the truth: “Love, love, love.”

Mary Oliver’s collection, Red Bird, deserves a read, and a second closer read, and a third, even closer, and a fourth… 5 stars.

--Chiron, 12/30/12

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín writes novels which tend to the dark and intense while thoroughly examining the angst and joys of his characters. His prose tends toward the simple – without an ounce of simplicity – the sublime and, as one reviewer wrote it is, “elegant and complex.” The Testament of Mary, however, takes a slightly different tack. Based on a play, this novelization examines the life of Mary, the mother of Christ, years after her son’s crucifixion.

Tóibín portrays Mary as a skeptic in regard to her son’s divinity and the character of the men surrounding him during his public ministry as recounted in the New Testament. Those apostles are now her caretakers, providing her with food and shelter, all the while quizzing her for details of her son’s life. She clearly does not want the attention neither from strangers nor from those “misfits,” (6) as she refers to them. She holds an empty chair for his return, but deep down, she her skepticism touches even this basic tenet of Christianity. Tóibín writes,

“‘He was the Son of God,’ the man said, ‘and he was sent by his father to redeem the world.’

‘By his death, he gave us life,’ the other said. ‘By his death, he redeemed the world.’

“I turned toward them then and whatever it was in the expression on my face, the rage against them, the grief, the fear, they both looked up at me alarmed and one of them began to move towards me to stop me saying what it was I now wanted to say. I edged back from them and stood in the corner. I whispered it at first and then I said it louder and as he moved away from me and almost cowered in the corner I whispered it again, slowly, carefully, giving it all my breath, all my life, the little that is left in me.

“‘I was there,’ I said. ‘I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it’” (79-80).

Mary carries an enormous guilt for not staying with her son as he expires. Rather, she slips away with the others to save herself.

Mary also treasures a small silver statue of the Goddess,

“I do not go to the Synagogue now. All that is gone. … I move quietly. I speak to her in whispers, the great goddess Artemis, bountiful with her arms outstretched and her many breasts waiting to nurture those who come towards her” (80).

This novel will most likely upset true believers, but Tóibín has captured the anguish of a mother who has lost her son for a cause she neither believes in nor understands.

Twice short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín’s Testament of Mary strikes at the core of sorrow, love, regret, and her longing for death. A truly noble and elegant story. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 12/8/12

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize. The novel tells a fictionalized account of the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry Tudor – Henry VIII – in 16th-century England. This interesting story of one of the most famous – and infamous – families in British History tops at an imposing 604 pages. But every single page carries the story forward. Reading this novel causes an imperceptible and complete immersion into the story. Interestingly enough, Mantel became the first woman – and only the second person – to win two Man Booker Prizes, when the committee awarded her the 2012 prize for the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I collect first editions of Booker Prize winners, so I will have to wait for a reading copy before finishing the story.

Thomas Cromwell, the clever son of a blacksmith, became secretary to Cardinal Wolsey through the later years of his powerful position as Cardinal and Chancellor of England. When Wolsey fell, partly through the machinations of Anne Boleyn once she was queen, Thomas attracted the attention of Henry, who gradually raised him to the highest office beneath the king: chancellor.

As I have written several times, I find the Tudor period one of the most fascinating in English history. This novel – with its meticulous detail – has added greatly to my understanding of this time and its many interesting characters. In addition to elaborate family trees, Mantel provides a list of the characters in each of the important locales of the novel.

In one early passage, the “sweating sickness” has struck Thomas’ daughter, Anne. Mantel writes, “Mercy hangs outside their door the signs of the sweating sickness, She says, how has this happened? We scour, we scrub the floors, I do not think you will find in the whole of London, a cleaner house than ours. We say our prayers, I have never seen a child pray as Anne does. She prays as if she’s going into battle.

“Anne falls ill at first. Mercy and Johane shout at her and shake her to keep her awake, since they say if you sleep you will die. But the pull of the sickness is stronger than they are, and she falls exhausted against the bolster, struggling for breath, and falls further, into black stillness, only her hand moving, the fingers clenching and unclenching. He takes it in his own and tries to still I, but it is like the hand of a soldier itching for a fight” (139).

This passage conveys the desperation of the tragedy. The “sweating sickness” was a devastating disease that struck England and Europe in a series of epidemics from 1485 to about 1551, when it mysteriously disappeared. It struck without warning and frequently resulted in death within hours. We still do not know its cause.

While prior knowledge of the Tudors is not necessary, some familiarity enhances the read. For example, Mantel mentions, “John Seymour’s daughter” several times. This daughter, Jane, spent her days at the side of Anne Boleyn as one of her “ladies in waiting.” Knowing she would become Henry’s next queen following the execution of Queen Anne, added to my enjoyment.

But the thing I love about the Tudor’s involves the parallels to our country today. Thomas tries to deal with the rebellious Percy family. Mantel writes, “How can I explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and the click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the pages of the promissory note that pays for the gun and gunsmith and the powder and the shot” (349).

For history buffs, for lovers of historical fiction, for aficionados of romance and mysteries and spy thrillers, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will captivate the discerning reader. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/16/12

Friday, December 07, 2012

Rust by Julie Mars

Rust, by Julie Mars, tells the story of Margaret Shaw, a critically acclaimed artist, who cannot land a show in a prestigious gallery. She begins wondering if she has chosen the right career. After reading a random article about coyotes wandering the streets of Albuquerque, she uses most of her savings earned as a waiter in a bar to move to New Mexico. Thus begins the heroic journey of a confident woman, who suffers from occasional bouts of self-doubt.

She has decided to move her art to three dimensions, and, in order to accomplish this, she begins collecting an assortment of rusted machine parts. Her next step involves learning to weld. Rico Garcia, widely known as “El Rey,” because of his skill as a welder among low-rider enthusiasts, agrees to teach Margaret this skill. The two become close friends and sets them both on paths of introspection.

Margaret’s parents abandoned her as a young child, and she grew up under the care of her grandfather. Rico’s marriage slowly disintegrates as he tries to figure out why his loving, passionate wife has turned cold. Interspersed among the chapters, Mars describes the life of Vincent. On a trip to India, he has found himself imprisoned for some unspecified drug crime. He begins a journey of his own, which brings him into contact with Margaret and Rico.

Now, my faithful readers might think they know how this novel will turn out, but they would be wrong. Rust is Mars’ fourth novel, and I can assure you, I am already on the hunt for the first three. Her prose shines like the sun in the Southwest desert. Early on, Mars writes,

“On Sunday, Margaret woke up moody. After she had taken her morning shower, for example, she threw her towel to the floor and studied her naked body in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door. This was a sure sign of a coming storm. Whenever she experienced the urge to stand outside herself and technically review her body, which in these moments she tended to equate with her cage, her jail cell, or her hostage closet, she was already in trouble. It meant the restlessness, the discontent, was upon her, and she was trapped in it” (52).

Margaret encounters an entirely new world in Albuquerque, and this world helps her tie up a lot of the loose ends resulting from her unraveling in New York. Julie Mars’ novel, Rust is an interesting and imaginative novel and deserves a look by all serious readers. 5 stars

--Chiron, 11/16/12

The Ogden Nash Pocket Book by Ogden Nash

I found this handy little pocket book, published in 1943, at a yard sale. The excellent Introduction, by Louis Untermeyer, reminds me of the early days of The New Yorker magazine. The cover proclaims Nash as “America’s Light-Hearted Laureate.” I couldn’t agree more. While his short poems are most familiar, some of his longer ones really demonstrate his skill at twisting words and spellings a circus contortionist would envy. Here is a poem – “A Brief Guide to New York” -- with all the wit and humor which made Nash famous: "In New York beautiful girls can become more beautiful by going to Elizabeth Arden And getting stuff put on their faces and waiting for it to harden, And poor girls with nothing to their names but a letter or two can get rich and joyous From a brief trip to their loyous. So I can say with impunity That New York is a city of opportunity. It also has many fine theaters and hotels, And a lot of taxis, buses, subways and els, Best of all, if you don’t show up at the office or at a tea nobody will bother their head They will just think you are dead. That’s why I really think New York is Exquisite. And someday I’m going to pay a visit." Chiron, 12/7/12

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Life As I Blow It by Sarah Colonna

One of my guilty pleasures is watching “Chelsea Lately” Monday through Thursday evenings on E! -- The Entertainment Network. In case some of my faithful readers have never encountered this comedy talk show, Chelsea Handler is the host, and she has three comedians on a panel. The three rotate among a seemingly endless list of A, B, C, and the occasional D-List stand up comics. Chelsea reads snippets of news mostly about show business figures. Once in a while, she talks about a politician or a world leader. The show is edgy, daring, provocative, and tends to specialize in sexual humor.

I find it hilarious.

Of all the regular comics, my absolute favorite is Sarah Colonna. I like her hair – reddish – I like her comedy – always funny and a bit dry – and I think she is sexy!

Now, I have read a couple of Chelsea’s books, which tend to deprecate her father, her brother, her friends, and her staff. These kept me laughing from beginning to end. When Chelsea announced Sarah had published a book, I immediately got a copy.

Unfortunately, I did not find this one as funny as Chelsea’s, nor was it as funny as Sarah is on the show. Perhaps my expectations had climbed a bit too high. While I did not hate the book, and while I felt no need to invoke the rule of fifty, I did have a pretty clear level of disappointment.

As the memory of Chelsea’s books fades, I think I will take another look at Life as I Blow It by Sarah Colonna. She is still sexy. 3 stars

--Chiron, 11/11/12

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The publication page of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, reads: “1. Taste—Fiction. 2. Family Secrets—Fiction.” Normally, I rarely look at this page before reading a novel, but, while searching for my next read after a couple of complicated novels, I stumbled on the page and immediately decided to try Bender out.

The premise is as interesting as the Sears’ Subject Headings librarians use to categorize books into neat compartments. Rosie is about to turn eight, and her mother, Lane, bakes her favorite cake. Rosie spies the finished cake and a bowl of icing nearby, while her mother naps, waiting for the cake to cool. Rosie helps herself to a chunk and slathers icing on it. Bender writes,

“To be clear: the bite I ate was delicious. Warm citrus-baked batter lightness enfolded by cool deep dark swirled sugar.

“But the day was darkening outside, and as I finished that first bite, as the first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside me, an unexpected reaction. As if a sensor, so far buried deep inside me, raised its scope to scan around, alerting my mouth to something new. Because the goodness of the ingredients – the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons – seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis to her comment: ‘I’m just going to lie down.” (9-10)

This really long, absorbing sentence captures the gift – or the curse – Rosie must learn to live with for quite a few years.

Rosie’s brother, Joseph, also has a mysterious gift, but in an entirely different direction. Her reclusive grandmother also has some secret. In fact, all the members of the Edelstein family harbor strange, inner fantasies, which reveal themselves in odd behavior.

Joseph has plans for a brilliant career in physics; however, his friend George receives an acceptance to CalTech, but Joseph is rejected and ends up unhappily in a small local college. Bender describes Joseph as, “brilliant, adults often said as they shuttled out of the house, shaking their heads at the precise drawing he’d made on sketch paper of planets yet to be discovered, complete with atmosphere thicknesses and moons. Our mother lowered her eyes, pleased. I was often admired for being friendly.” (40)

To the consternation of Rosie and her parents, from time to time he disappears without a trace, then, just as suddenly, reappears. Rosie has a crush on George, especially after he believes her claim of “tasting the emotions of people who make the food she eats.” Lane tells Rosie, “Such a sweet supporter you are. Much nicer than your father.” (42) Paul, Rosie’s Dad, a moderately successful attorney on the other hand, describes himself as “without any special skills” (108 et al).

Rosie reduces herself to eating “factory” food, made strictly by machines. However, she does do some cooking of her own, and tastes, “Sadness, rage, tanks, holes, hope, guilt, tantrums. Nostalgia, like rotting flowers. A factory, cold.” (222)

In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Bender has put together a story with prose which runs like a quiet stream in the coolness of a fall afternoon. I could hardly admire her and her work any more than I do. 5 stars

--Chiron, 10/31/12

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Winter King by Thomas Penn

During my days at LaSalle University in Philly back in the 60s, I took a bunch of history classes, because I was always fascinated with the subject. I reveled in a couple on the ancient Greeks and Romans, but my heart fell in a class on Tudor England.

Since then, I have been consumed with the Tudor dynasty, which began in 1485 after Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field, thus ending the War of the Roses between the Royal Houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose). The family reign ended with the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.

Over the years, I have collected biographies of every major figure in the Tudor family – all the kings and queens, all six of Henry VIII’s wives, and a number of other peripheral figures around the court. However, I lacked one important piece of the puzzle – King Henry VII, the founder of the dynasty. Late last year, I discovered a new biography of Henry by Thomas Penn, who holds a PhD in early Tudor history from Cambridge University.

One of the fascinations I have with history revolves around the amazing discovery that history repeats itself over and over. Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England amply proves the truth of that statement once again.

Following the defeat of Richard at Bosworth Field, Henry became King of England. Many people in England resented his crown, and numerous plots to dethrone him popped up over the next 20 years. Numerous factions, especially those with connections to the defeated York family, complained that Henry illegitimately claimed the crown.

The corruption, back-stabbing, spying, treachery, and extortion, which were the hallmarks of the Tudor family throughout its existence leaves me gasping in fascination. In the “Introduction,” Penn quotes Francis Bacon, who wrote, “Henry VII was ‘infinitely suspicious’ and he was right to be so, for his times were ‘full of secret conspiracies and troubles’. Perhaps the most telling verdict of all,” Penn writes, “is that Shakespeare, omits Henry VII altogether from his sequence of history plays – not for want of material, but, one suspects, because the reign was simply too uncomfortable to deal with” ( xxv-xxvi).

Penn tells us, the idea of Henry VII as a “time of transition, one in which the violent feuds of the previous decades gave way to a glorious age of renaissance and reformation … was a myth the Tudors themselves built” (xxv). Most scholars now see him as “the unifier of a war-torn land, a wise king who brought justice and stability, and who set the crown on a sound financial footing. Nonetheless they were unable to eradicate the lingering sense of a reign that degenerated into oppression, extortion and a kind of terror, at its core a Machiavellian king who inspired not love but fear” (xxv). Bacon, his first biographer, referred to Henry as a “dark prince” (xxv).

A splendid biography for anyone interested in the history of one of the most famous – and infamous – families in English history. 5 stars

--Chiron, 10/26/12

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murikami

The timing – and indeed the reading of this novel – has an unusual genesis: a specific request for a birthday present from a close friend. The present takes the form of a blog entry on Rabbit Reader and the October 4th segment of “Likely Stories,” my twice-monthly radio show on the local NPR affiliate, KWBU-FM 103.3 in central Texas. Happy birthday, P.! I hope you enjoy my review.

This might be the hardest review I have ever written. I have read Joyce’s Ulysses, and Proust – of which I have only read a few fragments -- and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. These great works share some things in common: complex plots, a large cast of characters, enough symbolism to make one’s head spin, and a plot which defies simple explanation. Muraki Hurakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle definitely belongs in the company of these stunning novels.

I first encountered Murakami when I heard of a new novel, Kafka on the Shore. I bought it simply because of the intriguing title. I loved the book, and went in search of something else by the Japanese author. I quickly found the Chronicle, but because it was over 600 pages, I put it aside. Then the request for the birthday present arrived.

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan in 1949. He attended Waseda University as a theater arts major. He runs marathons, and reportedly has a collection of over 40,000 jazz recordings. In 1974, he opened a Jazz bar, which he named “Peter Cat.” He published his first novel, Hear the Wind, in 1979, and he won a major Japanese literary award for it. In 1992, he was named an Associate Professor at Princeton University. In 1996, he published Chronicle and won another major Japanese Literary prize.

Normally, my habit in these reviews is to place a quote or two to give a flavor of the novel. However, I have so many passages underlined, bracketed, and starred, I would have difficulty choosing one. Furthermore, those I might choose would require so much background information, I would spoil the plot, while making the review impossibly long. Suffice it to say Murakami’s prose sparkles with amazing and hypnotizing detail. A reader cannot help but be drawn into the story, as if descending into a deep, dark well, with no light and only inner thoughts for company. Readers of the novel will understand this reference – like many others – repeated in various forms throughout the story.

Now, I always tell my students that reading and writing should raise questions in the reader’s and the writer’s mind. So rather than only a cursory trace of the plot, I will also share some of my questions.

The core plot set in Japan is simple. Toru and Kumiko meet and decide to marry. Her father does not like Toru, but agrees to the marriage on one condition: the couple must meet weekly with the mysterious Mr. Honda. Kumiko’s father will pay for the sessions. Mr. Honda proceeds to tell the couple strange and sometimes terrifying stories of his experiences in the Sino-Soviet war in Manchukou in the 1930s. This continues for about a year. Then, the couple’s cat, named Noburu Wataya, after Kumiko’s brother, disappears. Kumiko is heartbroken, and she insists Toru spends his days looking for the cat. Then, one day, Kumiko leaves for work, and completely disappears. Toru’s life then takes a surreal and, at times, bizarre turn. He meets a succession of strange characters, and the novel takes a sharp detour into the realm of magical realism.

Some of the questions which emerged as I read include: Why are all the products mentioned western? Why are all the long dreams of these characters described in vivid detail? Why is all the music the characters listen to exclusively western classical pieces? Who are all these strange surreal people who pop in and out of Toru’s life? What really happened to Kumiko? What boundary lines divide reality from dreams? Dreams from hallucinations? Hallucinations from reality? I could go on, but I do not want to discourage anyone from reading this great work.

Haruki Murakami is a genius, and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is one of the great pieces of world literature. I classify it as a must read for all devotees of serious fiction. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 9/29/12

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Mortality, Christopher Hitchens’s essays on his slow walk to death, all have an air of seriousness, of course, but a vein of humor runs through them like a stream of cool water. I read this 104-page gem in a single sitting. The book includes a forward by Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, for whom Hitchens wrote for many years, and an Afterword by his wife, Carol Blue.

According to her, “Hitch” – as his friends and readers affectionately knew him – wrote up until the end. In fact, the main point of the book is about the importance of writing. His greatest fear seemed to be the loss of this ability. During the final stages, speech became almost impossible, but he kept writing away. The last chapter consists of fragments, which “seem to trail off, but in fact were written on his computer in bursts of energy and enthusiasm as he sat in the hospital using his food tray for a desk” (103) as Carol Blue says.

Hitch gave some advice to writing students, which I have shared with my writing classes. He would begin, “by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: ‘How many people in the class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?’ This had its duly woeful effect.” He then added this advice: “Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. … So, this above all: Find your own voice” (50).

He wrote on an incredibly wide variety of topics, but I did not always agree with him, particularly in regard to his support of the Iraq War; however, I always loved his prose, his way with words, his humor, and his evident love of the English language. Mortality is a sad good bye to and from Hitch.

Reading this meditation upon his impending death, inspired me to dig into the recently published mammoth, Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens. At nearly a thousand pages, it contains well over a hundred of his essays. I would rarely sit down and begin reading something like this from cover to cover, so I devised a plan -- an homage -- to Hitch. Starting on Sunday, September 16, 2012, I read one essay every night before bed. It will take more than three months, but that will be my own meditation on the loss of one of the great writers and orators of the 20th and 21st centuries. 5 stars

--Chiron, 9/22/12

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Winter Journal by Paul Auster

Through the years, the name Paul Auster would occasionally pop up in interviews, reviews, blogs, and even a half-hearted suggestion from a friend. But none of these sparked any interest in this prolific author. He has written 16 novels, 4 screenplays, 6 works of non-fiction, a volume of poetry, 3 illustrated books, and he has edited 3 anthologies. When I received an advance reader’s edition of his latest work – a memoir, Winter Journal -- from Henry Holt through the early reader’s club of, I decided it was time to find out what Paul Auster was all about.

Winter Journal appears 30 years after his critically acclaimed memoir, The Invention of Solitude, and, as the cover notes say, “Auster gives us a second unconventional memoir.”

The cover notes further state, Auster writes a “history of his body and its sensations – both pleasurable and painful.” Unconventional is a bit of an understatement. Auster wrote Winter Journal in the second person. Normally, I do not read second person novels. Ever since Jay McInerny’s, Bright Lights, Big City, I have resisted the temptation to read second person works. Auster’s memoir, however, has given me pause – a great, big, eye-opening pause. His narrative is engaging, and drew me almost from the first page, once I got over my “you/your phobia.”

Early on, when Auster examines his young body, he writes,

“…you ask your mother the question all children ask their parents, the standard question about where babies come from, meaning where did you come from, and by what mysterious process did you enter the world as a human being? Your mother’s answer is so abstract, so evasive, so metaphorical that it leaves you utterly confounded. She says: The father plants a seed in the mother, and little by little the baby begins to grow. At this point in your life, the only seeds you are familiar with are the ones that produce flowers and vegetables, the ones that farmers scatter over large fields at planting time to start a new round of crops for harvest in the fall. You instantly see an image in your head: your father dressed as a farmer, a cartoon version of a farmer in blue overalls with a straw hat on his head, and he is walking along with a jaunty, insouciant stride out in some rural nowhere, on his way to plant the seed.” (36).

My mother told me an almost identical story, except that the seed was “planted” beneath the mother’s heart. I had no idea back then my mother was so poetic!

Auster’s Winter Journal becomes a new connection to a favorite author. I already have a copy of The Invention of Solitude. I might even go back and take another look at Jay McInerney’s novel. 5 stars

--Chiron, 9/16/12

Making Things Better by Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner’s novels usually feature women loners floundering under bad relationships, who then try to escape depressing situations. As I wrote in 2009 about Strangers, this might seem boring – mining the same plot line over and over, but she draws her characters as finely as detailed, realistic paintings. Brookner spent years teaching art history in England. Furthermore, each of these characters deals with the escape and resolution in an entirely different manner. Strangers was the first of her novels I read that featured a man as the main character. Making Things Better, published in the U.S. in 2002, also features a man -- a loner, a dejected, rejected man who suffers some serious losses in his life.

Julius Herz manages a business owned by his father, Willie, and his partner Ostrovski. He lives alone in a flat over the shop. Julius meets Josie, and they marry. They try to live in the cramped flat, but Julius’s mother needs care, so they move into the even smaller flat with his mother. Julius’s world is shrinking – literally and figuratively. Josie hangs on for two years, but she abruptly leaves and files for divorce.

Then, the last prop is shoved out from under Julius. Ostrovski decides to retire to Spain, and he sells the business, but he does take care of Julius by settling a large amount of money on him for his years of service. Julius is now confronted with the possibility of a life style he never thought possible. He first leases a larger flat, and then – a creature of some serious habits -- continues his daily routine broken only by an occasional trip to a museum. Then he decides to take a holiday.

Brookner’s novels feature little in the way of dialogue. Rather, her forté is the serious interior examination of her protagonist’s life, loves, dreams, fears, and pleasures. In this scene, Ostrovski has broken the news of his retirement to Julius. Brookner writes,

“The suddenness of Ostrovski’s announcement seemed to have obliterated any response. Julius went to his small desk and scrutinized the invoices and accounts, the contents of which he knew by heart. But it was no good; he could make sense of none of it. His working life, it seemed, was over. Not quite what he had expected, he had admitted to himself in the course of the afternoon. Yet he had expected nothing, and had been endowed with freedom, a freedom for which he was entirely unprepared. … he would have to find somewhere to live. The prospect posed even more difficulties; he had never exercised his own wishes in this respect. … all his homes had been chosen for him. And home was such an emotive concept that he doubted whether he would be able to live up to it, to make a place for himself in a world where people exercised choices” (63-64).

The name “Julius Herz” sounds like a clue to the main character’s state of mind. My faithful readers know I am a fan of novels with deep psychological insights. Making Things Better fills that bill perfectly. 5 stars

--Chiron, 9/10/12

Monday, September 10, 2012

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

One of my favorite books of the last few years is Geraldine Brooks’ The People of the Book. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for March, as well as critical acclaim for The Year of Wonders. Brooks has set all of these novels in remote time periods, and they all share one important similarity. Each time, Brooks captures the voice of the characters in their time and place. Her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing follows this pattern with superb results.

Geraldine Brooks loosely based Caleb’s Crossing on the true story of Caleb, a Native American living near some less than strict Puritans, in 1660, on what is now known as Martha’s Vineyard. He befriends the 15-year-old Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a strict Calvinist minister trying to convert Caleb’s tribe. The two form a bond which lasts for many, many years.

Bethia’s father agrees to tutor Caleb, and another young Indian, Joel, in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in order for them to qualify for a scholarship dedicated to Native Americans to the recently founded Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before the arrival of Caleb, he tutored Makepeace and Bethia, but his son proved a poor student, and he despaired and stopped the lessons for both his children. He tried again with the two Indians in the hopes that Caleb would inspire his son.

He succeeded with Caleb and Joel, both of whom received the scholarships; however, Makepeace faltered. His father could not afford the cost of sending Makepeace to a preparatory school – along with Caleb and Joel – but he solved this difficulty by sending Bethia as an indentured servant to the headmaster of the school. Bethia narrates the story and reveals many of the secret meetings she has with Caleb. Her struggles with religion and her blooming womanhood are the keystones to the story.

As always, Brooks’ plots have a certain something, which creates vivid images in the mind of the reader. Her attention to detail raises the story to a level of realism I find most admirable. The icing on this marvelous dessert, however, consists of the voice of the narrator. I have spent a fair amount of time studying the 17th century, and have read a few books set in that period, not the least of which is Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost. Brooks deserves a place of honor right next to that spectacular novel.

Bethia struggles with her religious views after spending some time with Caleb. He explains to her his pantheon of deities after Bethia tells him of the “one, true God of the Christians.” Brooks writes,

“But then, I remembered the singing under the cliffs. An inner voice, barely audible: the merest hiss. Satan’s voice, I am sure of it now, whispering to me that I already knew Keeskand, that I had already worshipped him many times as I bathed in the radiance of a sunrise, or paused to witness the glory of his sunset. And did not Nanpawshat have power over me, governing the swelling, salty tides of my own body, which, no so very long since, had begun to ebb and flow with the moon. It was good, the voice whispered. It was right and well to know these powers, to live in a world aswirl with spirits, everywhere ablaze with divinity” (36).

Numerous words in the Wampanoag tongue add additional spice to the story. Bethia explains some of the words, some are clear from context, while translation of others are easily found with a smart phone.

Bethia seems a bit too mature for a girl of 15, and sometimes I found this a bit annoying. Nevertheless, in Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks has another wonderful historical novel to her credit. I can’t wait for the next. 4-1/2 Stars.

--Chiron, 9/1/12

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Small Room by May Sarton

I have never read anything by May Sarton – except for a few short stories. When a member of my book club recommended this title, I became intrigued. I enjoy novels describing the ins and outs, ups and downs, and other antics which play out behind the scenes in academia. Sarton’s novel, A Small Room takes its place among several novels of this genre I read over the last few years.

Lucy Winter has a newly minted PhD in hand, and she takes a job at a small New England women’s college as a professor of English. The dynamic relationships in the college fascinate me the most. Among the faculty, between the faculty and the administration, and between the students and the faculty.

Carryl Cope is a veteran professor with lots of clout with the administration. She is also intimately involved with a member of the Board of Trustees who holds the purse springs of a substantial endowment in a will. Carryl also has a prize student, Jane Seamen, whom she is grooming for grad school and what promises to be a stellar academic career. Then Lucy discovers Jane has seriously plagiarized an essay for the college literary magazine. Lucy caught in the eddy of the politics – pro- and anti-Carryl, pro- and anti-Jane, and then the agitated students are thrown into the mix. Lucy handles all this with aplomb, but with a touch of trepidation since she must slide on a knife’s edge to the resolution of the situation.

The novel overflows with statements and observations most teachers have felt at one time or another – I know many of them are all too familiar to me. For example, “‘The hell of teaching is that one is never prepared. I often think that before every class I feel the same sort of terror I used to experience before an examination … and always I imagine that next year it will be different’” (28). A familiar refrain in our building at every semester’s end runs like this: “Next semester will be better!”

On her first day of class, Lucy decides to reveal something about herself to the students. She tells them, “‘You will discover,’ she added with a smile, ‘that you appreciate teachers rather a long time after you have suffered from them’” (34) I can only hope this one has a grain of truth. I know I want it to be true. Lastly, Sarton writes, “‘The relation between student and teacher must be about the most complex and ill-defined there is’” (83). I know this one to be absolutely true. Literally dozens of other examples have my pencil marks.

Another little game I played with this interesting cast of characters included matching some of Sarton’s characters with some of my colleagues. And, of course for fans of Mad Men, ubiquitous cigarettes and martinis accompany every meeting no matter the size. This quite dates the novel in the year originally published – 1961.

All in all, May Sarton’s The Small Room will surely appeal to anyone who has spent some time at the head of a class. At our book club, an animated discussion lasted nearly all of the two hours allotted. I noticed that a few non-teaching members of the club were uncharacteristically silent during these discussions. Nevertheless, everyone seemed to enjoy the novel. 4 stars for so much smoking I found myself coughing as I read.

--Chiron, 8/20/12

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Lives of the Heart by Jane Hirshfield

I had never read anything by Jane Hirshfield, but she did carry a recommendation from a good friend. In addition to The Lives of the Heart, Hirshfield has written about eight books of poetry, some essays, and edited, or contributed to, other collections.

My usual custom when opening a book of poetry by an author I do not know is to read through rather quickly, sometimes skipping poems with openings I did not care to finish. Then, I read a second time – slowly -- thinking, digesting, marking a few poems for a third or fourth read.

That plan did not work out so well this time. I found myself, on the first read, digging into some of these thought-provoking, intelligent, and wonderfully crafted poems.

For example, “Mele in Gabbia” is one of my favorites from this collection:

The pastry / is dusted with sugar. / The slices of apple inside, / just sour enough. // The name, / “apples in a cage.” // I eat them / in this good place -- / the pastry warm, the linen / impeccably white -- / and consider. // (65)

Like many of the poems this one has a rather opened ended finish. This device, I believe, allows me to immerse myself in the scene, and then “consider” for myself what passes through the mind. When I read this one for the first time, memories flooded over me of when I was a child and sat at the breakfast table. My Dad would pluck a jelly donut from the plate, point to the tiny spot of jelly on one side, shake his head no, and bite into the other side. He explained, the idea is not to get all the jelly at once, but also not to let it all escape. To this day, I bite into a jelly donut on the side, and until I read this poem, I had forgotten the incident.

Some of the poems have a Zen-like quality. “Reading Chinese Poetry Before Dawn” is another favorite:

Sleepless again, / I get up. / A cold rain / beats at the windows. / Holding my coffee, / I ponder Tu Fu’s / overturned wine glass. / At his window, snow, / twelve hundred years fallen; / under his hand, / black ink not yet dry. / “Letters are Useless.” / The poet is old, alone, / his woodstove is empty. / The fame of centuries / casts off no heat. / In his verse, I know, / is a discipline / lost to translation; / here, only the blizzard remains. // (83)

Again, one easily slips into other times and other places. In this poem, I recall many days of my youth – pre-Texas! – of blizzards roaring down the street, covering the cars, closing the schools, and stopping trolleys and buses from carrying my father to work. This poem also has that quiet, sparse feeling of a Chinese poem, or a painting of a farmer laboring in the snow to tend his herd.

One last short poem I also found thought-provoking is “Wine Grapes for Breakfast”:

Sweet / at first / on the tongue, / hours later / the red grapes / still sting, / as if trying / to tell me something -- / what the hook / tells the fish / perhaps, / or the wand / or stick hears / before conductor / or mule driver / brings it down. // (66)

I have to end now, because I want to read this collection again. 5 stars

--Chiron, 8/22/12

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Mockingjay: Book Three of the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I started reading this series, because many of my students listed it as a book they had read “for fun” as opposed to something read for an assignment. I thoroughly enjoyed volume one – The Hunger Games. Several of these same students told me they didn’t like the second volume – Catching Fire – so I waited until I read this, the third before finishing my rating of the series.

Volume Two admittedly lacked the excitement of the first, but, as I began the third, I realized Parts 2 and 3 were really more closely related than I thought. Catching Fire told the story of the aftermath of the hunger game in the first, and Mockingjay, the third volume, follows close on the heels of the second.

Anyone who read the first and liked it will undoubtedly enjoy two and three. Considering the series as a whole, I would give it four and a half stars. I took some away, because I did not like the ending very much. I know this is fantasy/dystopian literature, but I think the bounds were stretched a bit in Part Three.

Overall an interesting, fun, and quick read.

--Chiron, 7/26/12

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Inheritance by Lan Samantha Chang

Lan Samantha Chang holds the position of Director of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City. She has published three books: Hunger, a collection of short stories, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, her latest novel, published in 2010, and her second book and first novel, Inheritance. I won an advance reading copy of All is Forgotten at a conference. I had never heard of Chang, but the novel involved an English Professor and some poetry students, so I read it and reviewed it July of 2010. Somehow, her other two books I ordered became lost in a pile. While straightening it out a couple of weeks ago, I came across them. Since I needed a nice solid paperback for a flight to Philly, I began Inheritance on the airplane. I am glad I did, because this sweeping novel of four generations of Chinese women was interesting, exciting, with lots of psychological insights into Asian customs – particularly regarding courtship and marriage.

As I have done with several books lately, I made a family tree to keep all the relationships straight. Chanyi marries Wang Daming and produces two daughters, Junan and Yinan. These two sisters are extremely close, but are torn apart when they both fall in love with the same man, Li Ang, who marries Junan. Yinan is rather plain, but when Junan is separated from her husband by war, she remains home to protect her children, and she sends Yinan to “keep house” for Li Ang. An affair destroys the sisterly bonds.

Li Ang has a brother, Bing Ang, and these two find themselves on opposite sides following World War II. Li becomes a general in the Nationalist Chinese Army, and Bing becomes a colonel in the Communist Chinese Army.

The novel is narrated by Xaio Hong, Junan and Li Ang’s daughter. Xaio’s sister, Hwa, marries Pu Li and Xaio has a baby with Hu Ran, son of her mother’s servant. This shames Junan. The families flee Mainland China in 1949. Hu Ran stays behind along with Li Ang, Yinan, and Bing Li. Xaio and Hwa move to America, but live on different coasts -- Hwa in San Francisco and Xaio in New York. Xaio marries Tom Marquez, and she has two daughters.

This really interesting story of four generations of women shows how times and cultural influences warp and waft relationships – sometimes to the breaking point. Chang’s writing is smooth and calm as the emotions of these women in the story.

Hong frequently recalls advice she received from her mother. For example, Chang writes:

“My mother once warned me not to be too proud of how much I could see. I believe it wasn’t pride but righteous curiosity that made me strive to notice things. Curiosity mingled with a need to uncover what flowed beneath our household calm, a hidden source of pain that wasn’t mentioned. I had seen it in my grandfather, his hair a shock of white, his gaze sliding away as if the sunlight hurt his eyes. I had seen it in my solitary aunt. Now, in the aftermath of Yao’s birth, I could see it in my mother. It wasn’t a ghost. My mother worked to keep it hidden, yet it didn’t disappear. Nothing could vanquish it: not Hwa’s devotion nor my good grades in school; not even my mother’s growing stash of jewelry and gold” (182).

Chang's Inheritance will appear high on my list of the best of 2012. 5 stars

--Chiron, 8/10/12

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Signal by Ron Carlson

Last March, while in a used bookstore, I picked up this novel by an author of whom I had never heard. He has published five collections of short stories and this, his fourth novel. This slim novel, The Signal by Ron Carlson, had a premise which sounded rather interesting.

Mack comes from a long line of ranchers, and his ex-wife Vonnie, a headstrong, intelligent woman, meet for a hiking trip in the mountains of Wyoming. This trip occurred, at Mack’s request, as a goodbye after his release from prison. The ranch his family owned began to slip financially, and Mack turned to some petty crimes to save the property. When he landed in jail, Vonnie asked for a divorce. The trip into the mountains – a trip the couple had taken together many times in happier days – turns sour because Mack has a secret, and the trip proves to be more than either bargained for.

Carlson's prose is smooth and slow as Mack’s reticence in his conversations with friends and Vonnie. Carlson writes,

“Vonnie shook her sleeping bag and lay down on it, unlacing her boots. ‘You want me to cook?’

‘No, I’ll do it,’ he said. She lay and watched the sky and Mack saw her eyes close. The sun was down behind the western slope.

He cut the heads from the trout and they were still too big for the pan, so he left the tails on and stuffed them with lemon wedges and pepper and butter and double wrapped them in foil and set them aside. He knelt and fingered a mound of tinder, moss, and hairy duff and lit it and fed it up, and the fire rose quiet and straight. When he looked up from his work, the day was gone, the mountain sky a bowl of glowing, grainy dark. He snugged the fish into the coals burying them carefully by using a forked stick. Away from the fire it was chilly and he could hear her napping. He put his hand on her shoulder and she woke without a word, her eyes a sleepy kindness, and she crawled into her bag and napped again. Mack made a tour of the perimeter and gathered an armload of branches using half now to stoke the fire. He broke and sorted the rest into piles close at hand. He shook up a water bottle with powdered lime punch and set it back on the rock shelf.”

On page 149 – the first page of the last chapter – I came across a curious phrase. Carlson writes, “The deer was in no hurry and disappeared seamlessly into the fifty shades of gray at this hour.” Since this novel came out in 2009, one wonders if the author of that notorious book was inspired by this novel. E.L. James, who wrote FSG, lives in London England. Perhaps it is a mere coincidence.

The thrilling conclusion of The Signal makes me want more of Carlson. This is exactly why I love haunting used bookstores! 5 stars --Chiron, 7/29/12

Friday, August 03, 2012

The Red and the Green by Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch has written twenty-six novels. She also has written five plays and five volumes of philosophy and a book of poetry. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the 1978 novel, The Sea, The Sea. I came to read Murdoch after hearing an interview on NPR in 1988 about her newest novel, The Book and the Brotherhood. This novel may be my earliest invocation of the “Rule of 50.”

I started it, but became confused by the mass of characters and background detail. I put it aside for another day. Shortly after, I found myself laid up for a week, and tried it again. This time I stuck to it, and became enthralled with the power of Murdoch’s prose, her attention to the minutest detail, and the deep, psychological insights of her characters. I immediately set out to gather the rest of her work. I have all of her novels, and since 1988, I have been slowly working my way through them. The Red and the Green, published in 1965, is the thirteenth I have read.

The Red and the Green tells the story of an extended family in the week before the Easter Rising in 1916 Ireland. Andrew Chase-White is a protestant and an officer in the British Army. His cousin Pat Dumay, is a Catholic and a member of the Volunteers, a group planning the uprising. These families are tightly woven, and the political situation in Ireland bubbles beneath the surface when the family members meet. The “troubles” appear in the form of petty squabbles.

As in all her novels, she has a large number of characters, and, as is my custom, a family tree helps keep all the cousins, aunts, and uncles in order. Christopher is the widowed father of Frances, who is very close to Andrew Chase-White. They discuss which theater to attend one afternoon. Murdoch writes:

“It was about a half hour later and tea was nearly over. They were sitting round the low wickerwork table in the conservatory, while outside the garden was being caressed or playfully beaten by the light rain which drifted a little in the breeze from the sea. Rain in Ireland always seemed a different substance from English rain, its drops smaller and more numerous. It seemed now to materialize in the air rather than to fall through it, and, transformed into quick-silver, ran shimmering upon the surface of the trees and plants, to fall with a heavier plop from the dejected palms and the chestnut. This rain, this scene, the pattering on the glass, the smell of the porous concrete floor, never entirely dry, the restless sensation of slightly damp cushions, these things set up for Andrew a long arcade of memories. He shifted uneasily in his basket chair, wondering how long it took to develop rheumatism.” (29)

Few novelists can grip me by the heart and soul and transport me to a distant time and place. Murdoch does it to me every time. I think my first encounter caught me unawares of the power of this great 20th century novelist. She died in February 1999 after suffering from Alzheimer’s. A film, starring Judy Dench told the story of her final years. An extremely interesting and detailed biography came out in 2001 by Peter J. Conradi, a friend of Iris’s, who gave him complete access to her journal, letters, and papers.

Iris Murdoch is one of the finest novelists of the 20th century. It has taken me many years to get to The Red and the Green, the halfway point of her novels, but I mean to get through the entire list. I guess then I will have to start over from the beginning. 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/9/12

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Catching Fire: Hunger Games: Part Two by Suzanne Collins

Every class I have taught starts with an icebreaker with some questions about hobbies, favorite foods, and the “Last book read for fun.” Many students mentioned Suzanne Collins’ series beginning with The Hunger Games. When the movie came out, I decided to see what all the hype was about before I saw the film. I loved the book and really enjoyed the film. So, I decided to continue reading the series, even though some students told me the second book was not as good as the first.

I partially agree. Yes, there was a lot less action and suspense, but I feel the second and third in the series really go together, so I am going to defer judgment until I read part three.

Part Two, Catching Fire, begins shortly after the first book ends. The annual selection of Tributes is about to begin -- but with a twist. These games are the 75th, and every 25 years a “Quarter Quell” calls for some special reminder that Capitol City rules Panem, and rebellions will be brutally crushed. Meanwhile, the appearance of some refuges and shortages of supplies from other districts feed rumors of uprisings.

The special twist for this Quell is that each district will select two tributes who have already won games. Of course, this means Haymitch, Katniss, Peter are all eligible, despite the fact that winners were exempt from the lottery. Peter and Katniss agree to volunteer, so Haymitch can be their sponsor and advocate.

It seems President Snow has a particular vendetta to settle against Katniss. The book ends with a cliffhanger. I can’t wait to get to Volume Three, Mocking Jay. ? Stars

--Chiron, 7/13/12

Friday, July 20, 2012

Cotton Rock by Janet Smith Post

One of the pitfalls of voracious readers and book collectors is the well-meaning friend who urges a new novel with, “You have to read this!” or “I think you will like it.” Such is the case with Cotton Rock by Janet Smith Post. When I first received the book, I skimmed a few pages, looked at the cover and the blurbs, and decided the novel was not a priority. But I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, so I put it on my summer reading list.

The novel has an interesting premise. John Sinclair, is an English Professor at a small college. He is on sabbatical to complete his novel, but since the death of his wife in a tragic car accident, he has been unable to write. As the end of his leave approaches, he moves to his grandfather’s cabin on the White River in Arkansas. He offers to teach, gratis, a class in creative writing to the local residents. Three of his students figure prominently in the novel.

Emmett has been hired to write a newspaper column on fishing in the White River. Lucy wants to tell stories that angels gossip about when otherwise unoccupied in guarding children. Lastly, Anna, an older woman caring for her mother who has Alzheimer’s, also lives with her daughter, Leah, and her granddaughter, Harlo. Two of Anna’s children drowned in the river, although the body of Sam, her oldest, was never found. Anna writes about her life on the river.

Sinclair writes “Thoughts from the Backporch” wherein he muses on his life, his novel, the class, the three students I mentioned, and the river. In fact, the White River becomes a character itself.

After a few entries about fishing and angel gossip, I began skipping those entries in favor of concentration on Sinclair and Anna’s compelling stories. Post’s prose is lyrical, and flows right alongside the river. In one of Sinclair’s “Thoughts,” he recounts a fishing trip with a colleague who came for a visit. Post writes,

“‘The motor’s loud; I’ll row for a while.’ I gave a pull on the oars. ‘Catch the true serenity of the river.’

Patches of fog lifted from the water. The hoarse cry of a blue heron carried down the channel.

Just below my cabin, we entered a series of hills shouldering the river on either side, their thick woods running down to the waters edge. Occasionally the woods gave way to meadows filled with willows. I spied a doe and her fawn feeding. They lifted their heads and gazed our direction, but being accustomed to boats sliding by, they resumed their feed” (48).

Anna’s entries are warm and soft and filled with good old country common sense. In her eleventh entry, Anna writes,

"I think how Harlo loves the bread when it’s warm from the oven. She will spread it with butter and fill her little mouth with its goodness. I think how the bread and a cup of tea will bring a sweet moment to my Momma’s life. The bread is one moment I can fix. A little fix. I add more flour, knead and fold” (151).

Anna carries much pain and sorrow, but she handles the regrets with dignity and wisdom.

One minor flaw in the novel is some confusion over family relationships. Early on, I began constructing a family tree, which helped quite a bit. There were also a number of typographical errors. Despite all this, Cotton Rock is a lovely, heart-warming and heart breaking story. No matter how simple we try and live our lives, complications always intrude. So why do we add complications of our own? Life should flow calmly, relentlessly – just like the river – and we should expect an occasional flood. 4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 7/9/12

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Canada by Richard Ford

Quite a few years ago, I heard a lot of buzz about Richard Ford. His novel Independence Day won a Pulitzer and a Pen/Faulkner Award. I have always been a bit skeptical about the Pulitzer for fiction – too often I have not liked their selection. I felt some of their picks relied on gimmicks and attempts – it seemed to me – intended to shock and break out of the usual conventions of the novel. Now, I am not against a bit of iconoclasm when it comes to novels, but I sense – on occasion – that rule breakers break rules simply for the sake of making a ruckus. That, added to a fragment of a review, turned me away from Ford.

Then, I found myself in a class which required me to read Independence Day, and to my surprise, I enjoyed the novel enough to give it four stars. That was the Spring of 2008. Since then, I have read and watched interviews, read a short story or two, and read some reviews of ID. When I saw Ford had a new novel, I decided to dive in head first.

Canada Is a sprawling story of a dysfunctional family and how that dysfunction can affect the lives of its members in a variety of ways. The story is narrated by the son, Dell, about 50 years later. Dell has a twin sister, Berner. The mother, “Neeva,” short for Geneva, has been disowned by her Jewish parents for marrying Bev Parsons, a World War II bombardier, who now flits from job to job. He was demoted and honorably discharged from the Air Force for his participation involving some stolen beef for the officer’s club. He continued this sort of shadowy activity in civilian life. Finally, faced with death threats over a beef deal gone bad, he takes desperate measures to save his family.

Ford’s prose is most notable for his attention to details. These really bring the characters, the settings, the situations to life. Ford writes, “[Dad] had brought home two bottles of Schlitz beer, and they’d each drunk one – which they didn’t regularly do. It made them playful, which was how our mother’d become with us while he was gone. She’d put on a pair of white pedal pushers that revealed her thin ankles, some flat cotton shoes, and a pretty green blouse – clothes we didn’t know she owned. She looked like a young girl and smiled more than she normally would’ve and held her beer bottle by its neck and drank it in small swallows. She acted affectionately toward our father and laughed and shook her head at silly things he said. A couple of times she patted him on the shoulder and said he was a card. (As I said, she was a good listener.) Though he didn’t seem any different to me. He was a man in a good humor most of the time” (73).

As the dust jacket tells us, when Berner and Dell were 15, their parents robbed a bank, but the plan did not rise to the level of perfection Bev assured Neeva it would. She fought against the idea, but in the end, she agreed to accompany Bev to the bank and drive the getaway car. This catastrophic even tore the family apart. Berner ran away to California, and Dell was taken by Neeva’s friend, Mildred to Canada to live with her brother.

The second half of the novel deals with Dell’s adventures in Fort Royal, a near ghost town in Saskatchewan. Eventually, Dell learns some lessons from his parents, and begins to make sense of them, his life, and his relationship with his sister.

Ford leaves lots of clues about the future of this family, and these are interesting. Ford is now in that hallowed group of my favorite authors. 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/5/12