Friday, February 24, 2012

The Year of Wonder by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks represents my third encounter with Brooks. March, a novel of the father figure in Alcott’s Little Women was the first, and the magnificent People of the Book both set high standards for historical fiction. Brooks has come up with another detailed and well-researched novel of the 1666 plague outbreak in England. She won Pulitzer Prizes for March and Years.

Based on the true story of Eyam, a small village in Derbyshire, Brooks has managed to convey the terror and frightening consequences of this catastrophic event. Anne Frith is a widow with two young children. Her husband died in a mine collapse. She tends her flock of sheep, raises the children, and works each morning as housekeeper and cook for the village pastor.

This novel not only instructs about events in 17th century England, it also provides some interesting insights on our society today.

One interesting parallel with modern society lies in the succumbing to superstitions. How often do we cross our fingers, knock on wood, or throw salt over our shoulder? These benign examples only begin to scratch the surface of our superstitious society. I am still amazed to enter an elevator and find no 13th floor – even in new buildings!

Two local women provide herbal remedies to the village, and the wife of the pastor, Elizabeth Mompellion uses them and recommends them to Anne. Brooks writes, “But of her herb knowledge I wanted none; it is one thing for a pastor’s wife to have such learning and another thing again for a widow woman of my sort. I knew how easy it is for [a] widow to be turned witch in the common mind, and the first cause generally is that she meddles somehow in medicinals.” (38)

The prose Brooks uses has such a wonderful pastoral tone, I sometimes forgot this was set in the middle of a terrible tragedy. “At last, I called to Jamie and we, too, set our feet on the path for home. All along the way, Jamie kept darting off like a swallow, swooping down to pluck the blowsy, late-blooming dog roses. When we neared the cottage, he bad, he made me wait by the door while he ran inside. ‘Close your eyes, Mummy,’ he cried excitedly. Obediently, I waited, my face buried in my hands, wondering what game he was devising. I heard him thump up the stairs, scrambling, as he did when he was in a hurry, on all fours like a puppy. A few moments passed, and then I heard the upstairs casement creak open. ‘All right Mummy. Now! Look up!’ I tilted my face and opened my eyes to find myself in a velvet rain of rose petals. The soft, sweet shower brushed my cheeks. I pulled off my cap and shook out my long hair and let petals land in its tangles. ‘This,’ I thought, smiling gratefully up at him, ‘this moment is my miracle.’” (71)

Anne Frith is a strong, intelligent, and empathetic woman, who overcomes incredible obstacles and survives. She is the centerpiece of this story, the best, and most likeable character, and I marvel at her reasoning skills. Brooks has wonderfully captured the voice of 1666 England, and easily reminds me of Samuel Pepys. Brooks has another novel, Caleb’s Crossing, which I can’t wait to begin. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 2/19/12

Friday, February 17, 2012

Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo

In 1993, at age 45, I packed up my car and moved to Texas to attend grad school at Baylor University. Over the years, I have made about 40 round trips driving to and from Philadelphia. I always enjoyed those rides as a time to relax and unwind after a long semester teaching. I listened to music or a book on tapes or CDs, I stopped when and where I wanted for a rest, to eat, or perhaps an antique store, flea market, or historical site. Most of the time, I traveled alone, but I always found the trips refreshing.

Roland Merullo’s Breakfast with Buddha tells the story of Otto Ringling, 45, whose parents have died in an automobile accident in North Dakota. He loads up his car, says his goodbyes to his wife, Jeannie, and two children, and heads to his sister’s home in New Jersey. He expects to have Cecelia as a passenger for the trip, but she convinces Otto to take Volya Rinpoche, her spiritual adviser instead.

Otto, who works as a book editor for a small publishing house, is in no mood for nonsense. Initially, he resists interacting with Rinpoche, but gradually comes under the sage’s spell. Rinpoche is a Tibetan honorific, which means “precious one,” and it is usually applied to a respected teacher.

The story more than held my interest all the way to the end. Through attempts at Yoga, riddles, and stories, Otto eventually began to appreciate what Rinpoche had to offer. Otto declares himself a Christian without regular church attendance. He finds repellant Christians who believe what “ails us is more and stricter rules, more narrow-mindedness, more hatred, more sectioning off of the society, and it has always seemed to me that, if Christ’s message could be distilled down to one line, that line would have to do with kindness and inclusiveness, not rules and divisiveness.” (153) My sentiments precisely!

The last couple of chapters sum up what Otto has gained on the journey. The reluctant “hero” of the story really learns a lot about himself and his life. He always insists he has a good life, with a loving wife, two great kids, and a good job he loved, but Rinpoche pushes him to experience more. Merullo writes,

“Something was changing us with each breath, each second. The delusion of youth was that you believed you’d never reach middle age, and the delusion of middle age made you believe you could go on more or less indefinitely the way things were. Yes, the kids would grow up. Yes, you’d grow old and eventually pass away. But, really, there were so many pleasures to be had between now and then, so many tennis games, so many meals, so many weeks at the Cape and the ski lodge, so tremendously much to do before that other stage of life eventually set in.” (315)

Published by Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill, Merullo’s Breakfast with Buddha is a pleasant and thought-provoking read. I have collected novels from this publisher for almost 30 years, and this one convinces me, yet again, I have done the right thing. (5 stars)

--Chiron, 2/13/12

Friday, February 10, 2012

Make It Stay by Joan Frank

This fifth work of fiction by Joan Frank, who has won a slew of short story and fiction prizes, has a peculiar style, which took a few pages for me to fully appreciate.

Make it Stay reveals the history and inner workings of two couples. Neil, of Scottish ancestry, has passed the bar exam, taken out a loan, and opened a personal injury practice in Mira Flores, a small community in Northern California. The first person he meets is Mike Spender, something of a hippie, who runs a tropical fish store with the clever name of “Finny Business.” Mike frequently travels to the South Pacific to capture stock for his store. He takes Neil on one of these expeditions. Rae moves in with Neil, and while he cooks dinner for a group of their friends, he begins telling her the story of his adventures with Mike and his wife, Tilda.

Frank has told Make It Stay in a conversational style, which can only be described as casual, bordering on stream of consciousness. As the interesting and absorbing story spins out, I felt as if I sat – late at night -- on a comfortable sofa, with a close friend unburdening herself. Rae narrates the story of the two couples, and I can even see her looking away, absorbed in thought, trying to recall some detail pertinent to the tale of the complicated lives these four experienced.

As an example of this style early on in the story, Rae muses on a noisy screen door,

“Abrupt and bracing and welcome, the blueing air out the back door—door that screams like a raptor every time it’s opened. I don’t oil it, because as much as the sound claws at me, I think someday it might announce a burglar – though in truth, an intruder could easily enter any of the old back windows while both of us slept sweetly on. “We’ll replace these windows soon,” Neil mutters as we descend the wooden stairs; he is thinking the same thing, which happens more and more these days, and touches me. The skin of my bare arms tightens against the temperature; I should’ve grabbed a sweater. Sun low, piercing smell of late day, chimney smoke, crushed leaves, cooling earth; aromas of our own pending dinner; of neighbors’ dinners. Oh, Sundays! Unbearable time. Implacable stillness. The jay’s cry, its flash of blue wing. Tang and clarity that cut, when the nearness of the beloved is about the only thing that keeps you from doubling over.” (60)

Prose this poetic does not come along nearly enough for my tastes. So a mixture of wonderful prose, complicated relationships, memory, friendship, loyalty, a nifty, interesting style, an a somewhat unexpected conclusion all come together for a wonderful read that I found hard to put aside.

Due out soon, keep an eye out for this most excellent read. Kudos to Permanent Press, a small independent publisher, for supporting authors of this caliber. Make It Stay is Frank’s third novel and the second published by Permanent. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/5/12

Friday, February 03, 2012

How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman

This history has an intriguing title, and I could not wait to dive in. One of my primary teaching specialties is British Literature, so I know something about the early history of Scotland. I hoped to add to that knowledge.

Unfortunately, I was greatly disappointed. Not only was the prose deadly dull, but the humor was so subtle and so deeply buried, not even a smile broke the hours I struggled through the first 100 pages. If this had not been on the list of reads for my book club, I would have invoked the “Rule of 50” around about page ten.

Furthermore, while the premise seems to have some plausibility, many of the connections with the Scots are tenuous at best and extremely flimsy at worst. For example, in 1579, George Buchanan asserted the authority of government arises from the people. Herman thus lays claim to this “invention,” which Locke thoroughly examined and enabled the ideas to actually come to fruition (18-19). Technically speaking, this embryonic idea of democracy belongs to the Golden Age of Athenian culture, which developed the idea much more fully.

If I was more frugal, I might be upset that I wasted the money for this book. The chapter on the relationship of the clans and their connection to English Royalty – which embodied what I already knew about the early history of Scotland – was somewhat interesting. However, this is hardly enough to redeem this work. 1 star

--Chiron, 1/26/12