Sunday, May 27, 2012

Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler

Spoiler alert! Chelsea Handler holds a high position in the realm of my guilty pleasure reading. If you like her show, you will love her books. I also cannot help hearing her voice on every page.

Her practical jokes are elaborate, involve many people – including film crews – and are relatively harmless, if you allow for the humiliation she seems to enthusiastically enjoy pouring over her friends, family, staff, and co-workers.

Two of the chapters towards the end, are a bit less than the rest of the book, but even they have their moments.

Again, rated NC-17, her humor is not for everyone, but I love it. Like I said: A guilty pleasure par excellance!” 4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 5/21/12

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Twoweeks by Larry Duberstein

This peculiar novel comes from the overwhelmingly reliable Permanent Press. It is roughly divided into four parts. But first some background.

Cal and Winnie are married and have two kids. Call loves Winnie, Winnie loves Cal, and Cal is absolutely devoted to his children. Lara and Winnie are friends. Lara and Ian are married but have no children. Cal and Lara bump into each other, and Cal notices her beauty. He is smitten. Duberstein writes, [I only have an uncorrected proof, but as soon as I get a trade copy, I will post a quote.] (25). Cal and Lara decide to take two weeks together to work out of their system the mutual attraction that had been building. Lara tells Ian, but Call does not tell Winnie.

Numerous stories crossed my mind while reading The Twoweeks by Larry Duberstein. These stories involve people married or involved with the wrong partner. Someone new comes along, and suddenly chaos breaks out. Think The English Patient, Bridges of Madison County, Shakespeare in Love, and The End of the Affair by Graham Green.

Part one involves Lara reading a journal of The Twoweeks, but Cal interrupts her and insists the “backstory” is important and relevant. Part two reveals the journal, frequently interspersed with comments mainly from Cal explaining, revising, or adding details in the journal. Part three describes separately Lara and Cal’s reaction in the immediate aftermath of the two weeks. Part four has a narrator outside the novel. Here all is revealed.

Duberstein’s prose is down to earth and conversational – lots of dialogue between Cal and Lara, and between Cal and himself and Lara and herself. The reader delves deeply into the psychology of these two characters, and clearly reveals the trauma and heart ache associated with finding oneself in a marriage when someone “better” or “more suited” comes along.

Having been in such a relationship myself not too many years ago, I had a great deal of empathy for Cal and Lara, as well as a lot of sympathy for Ian and Winnie. The major complicating factor in this novel, is of course, the children.

The Twoweeks is Larry Duberstein’s eighth novel along with two collections of short stories. I see a future spent hunting for the rest of his works. 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/19/12

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Best American Short Stories 20120 edited by Richard Russo

One of my favorite annual publications is the Best American Series, edited by Heidi Pitlor. In addition to fiction, the series also includes the best comics, essays, mystery stories, non-required reading, science and nature, sports, and travel. Each volume has a different guest editor, and the 2010 editor was Richard Russo, one of my favorite authors.

In his magnificent introduction, Russo discusses the purpose of literature. He writes, “The writer’s real job is not to court the affection of readers but to force them to confront hard truths” (xv). Furthermore, the artist “desires to show people a good time” and “comes to us bearing a gift he hopes will please us.” The writer “starts out making the thing for himself, perhaps, but at some point …realizes he [or she] wants to share it, which is why [an author] spends long hours reshaping the thing, lovingly honing its details in the hopes it will please us, that it will be a gift worth the giving and the receiving” (xv).

He goes on to say that writers and readers understand “how wonderful it is to lose the “self” in a story so that … for a time, the reader’s life, troubles … none of it matters” (xv).

These twenty stories fulfill that mission splendidly. The finest magazines publishing fiction today are well represented: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares among others.

Some well-known authors, but just as many gems by new and young writers have found their way into this prestigious collection. Charles Baxter, author of Feast of Love, Jennifer Egan, author of the critically acclaimed Visit from the Goon Squad, Jill McCorkle, who write, Going Away Shoes, and Téa Obrecht, who wrote The Tiger’s Wife. Most of the authors in the volume teach at some of the finest writing programs in America today.

The advantage of this series comes in the form of exposure to the reader of many new and established writers in a wide variety of styles.

As an example, my favorite story from the collection is “The Cousins,” by Charles Baxter. Baxter received the Award of Merit for the Short Story by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007. In the story, Brantford is the ne’er-do-well younger cousin of Benjamin, or “Bunny” as Brantford calls him. Like all of Baxter’s work, the prose is sparkling and wonderfully phrased. Benjamin, the narrator, travels from party to party and from one relative’s house to another. He engages people in conversations which usually end badly. He approaches a “famous poet” but cannot ask him about his play. Benjamin pontificates about Yeats and Eliot, and the poet interrupts him with a vulgar insult as if from an “Old Testament style prophet” (49). This conflict between writer and reader hangs like a shadow over Benjamin.

The volume concludes with a handy list of U.S. and Canadian magazines publishing short stories. This annual series is a real treasure for anyone who loves the art of the short story. 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/19/12

Children's Literature

On Tuesday, May 8th, the world of publishing lost a shining star. Maurice Sendak died at the age of 83. On the following Wednesday, Terry Gross re-played excerpts from four interviews she had conducted over the last 20 years or so.

Sendak revealed he had drawn the characters in his most well-known book, Where the Wild Things Are, with characteristics of friends and family members. Over the years, I have read this book and had countless encounters with Max and the “wild things… with their terrible roars … terrible teeth … and terrible eyes … and terrible claws.”

Every child fears monsters of one kind or another, but Max tames the monsters with a magic trick and they “made him king of all wild things.” That led to “the wild rumpus.” Max gives up being “king of where the wild things are, But the wild things cried, ‘Oh please don’t go – we’ll eat you up – we love you so!’ And Max said, ‘No!’” I still can’t help chuckling over those lines.

Then, I began thinking of the many children’s books in my collection. I frequently search antique shops and used book stores to find copies of those books from long ago.

Some of the treasures I have unearthed are The True Book of Birds We Know by Margaret Friskey. This was the first book I borrowed with my new library card about 1955. Also from that time period is The Adventures of a Brownie by Dinah Marie Mulock, originally published in 1924; however, the dust jacket is exactly the one I remember. Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater dates from the 30s. My copy is from the 52nd printing, which attests to the staying power of classic children’s literature.

A series of non-fiction books introduced me to many topics in science. Published by Random House, the “All About” series has dozens and dozens of titles on all branches of science, including dinosaurs, mammals, archaeology, rockets, famous inventors, and the planets. Some of the illustrations in this wonderful series still come to mind.

But my collection does not stop in the 60s. My wife started her library career as a children’s librarian, so she brought many classic children’s books to our marriage. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Millions of Cats, and one of my favorites, The Owl and the Pussy Cat by Edward Lear. Recently, we began collecting books illustrated by John Muth. His The Three Questions, based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, tells the tale of a young boy who has some questions about his life. I read this book to my literature classes.

I could go on and on with many more titles, but my point is that reading becomes a habit if instilled in children at an early age. Parents who read to their children lay a foundation for those children to become life-long readers. For all the wonderful children’s authors over the years – 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/19/12

Friday, May 11, 2012

Free Will by Sam Harris

I have admired the work of Sam Harris since his first book, The End of Faith, and his second, Letter to a Christian Nation. His last, The Moral Landscape, was a bit more difficult, but all three books shared one thing in common: they were all extremely thought-provoking. Free Will is no exception.

This slim volume examines the decisions we make and asks the question, “Are we really free to choose?" His conclusion is no.

I admit, I was more skeptical on this subject than any other he has addressed. However, after reading this book twice, I have come to the conclusion he is at least onto something. My full acceptance will require a complete overhaul of how and what and why I feel the way I do about decisions I routinely make. Thought-provoking indeed!

I have underlined many, many passages, but one that particularly sticks out is this: “One of the most refreshing ideas to come out of existentialism (perhaps the only one() is that we are free to interpret and reinterpret the meaning of our lives. You can consider your first marriage, which ended in divorce, to be a ‘failure,’ or you can view it as a circumstance that caused you to grow in ways that were crucial to your future happiness. Does this freedom of interpretation require free will? No. It simply suggests that different ways of thinking have different consequences. Some thoughts are depressing and disempowering; others inspire us. We can pursue any line of thought we want – but our choice is the product of prior events that we did not bring into being” (40).

Harris is careful to assert that the illusion of free will does not remove any responsibility for our actions. Rather the circumstances that led to a decision – whether they are internal, external, biological, or chemical – play a crucial role in determining the paths we choose.

When discussing “Moral Responsibility,” Harris writes, “Judgments of responsibility depend upon the overall complexion of one’s mind, not on the metaphysics of mental cause and effect” (49). He then describes five scenarios, all of which end with the same result. He peals apart the circumstances of each and ascribes explanations for the course of action chosen. All are not the result of free will, and this demonstrates his thesis, because we judge each of these five actions after considering surrounding circumstances.

He also spends some time describing the physiology of the brain and its role in the decision making process. It might require a second – or even a third reading – but the effort is more than worthwhile. Harris blogs at 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/11/12

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels

Elaine Pagels teaches religion at Princeton University, and she is best known for her studies ancient religious texts. I first heard of her during an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. Her book, The Gnostic Gospels had just been published. Since then she has had books on the Gnostic Gospels of St. Thomas and Judas.

Her latest book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation is every bit as interesting and readable for the non-biblical scholar as the others. She lists the curiosities of this final book of the New Testament, saying “The Book of Revelation speaks to something deep in human nature” (2). “Martin Luther wanted to throw [it] out of the canon, saying, ‘there is no Christ in it’ until he realized how he could use its powerful imagery against the Catholic Church, while Catholic apologists turned it back against him and other ‘protesting’ Christians” (3)

Pagels points out that the early church featured about 20 so-called books of “revelation.” These however, are quite different than the book John of Patmos wrote while in exile. While John focused on Judgment day and the end of the world, those others sought “the divine in [the world] now” (3).

Pagels categorizes this book as “wartime literature,” because John had witnessed the terrible death and destruction the Roman Empire wrought on Judea, including the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. She posits that “What John did … was create anti-Roman propaganda that drew its imagery from Israel’s prophetic traditions – above all the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel” (16). John’s “visions came to him – perhaps induced by prayer and fasting” (16-17). She then goes on to quote extensively from those Old Testament Books to draw parallels with John’s work.

Furthermore, John’s “great mountain, burning with fire” (20), may have been influenced by an event that happened ten years before, “when Mt. Vesuvius … erupted with great explosions that shook the earth and filled the air with a deafening roar” (20). Many of the fearsome monsters in Revelation bear striking resemblance to 3,000 year-old texts by “Israel’s poets and storytellers … [who told] how Israel’s God, like [the Babylonian god] Marduk, fought against a many-headed dragon, a sea-monster whom they called by such names as Leviathan and Rahab” (24-25). Both these names appear in the Old Testament.

Ultimately, John’s Revelation used “cryptic images because open hostility to Rome could be dangerous” (30). Pagels cites other prophetic writers who “had written in coded language to hold out visions of hope (30), … when, for example Daniel challenged his fellow Jews to resist the tyranny of Antiochus IV, a successor of Alexander the Great who tried to force the Jews to assimilate into his empire” (30-31). John saw the Roman Empire as the personification of evil, and only Christ’s return could punish the Romans and reward those people who had stayed faithful.

Elaine Pagels’ Revelation is another fascinating piece of the puzzle which sheds much light on the formation of the early church. Her books are as irresistible as warm chocolate chip cookies.

--Chiron, 5/10/12

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

A treat is something wonderful which only comes once in a while. Special treats are spaced far apart and are especially welcome when they do appear. Baltimore-native Anne Tyler is a writer I have admired for a very long time. Her novels appear only once in a while with varying degrees of regularity. However, whenever a new novel does appear, I drop whatever I am reading for her.

The Beginner’s Goodbye tells the story of Aaron Woolcott, an editor at his family’s vanity publishing house, Woolcott Publishing. Aaron’s wife, Dorothy, has died in a tragic accident, and the novel begins with a visit from Dorothy. At first, Aaron is tentative, questioning his own sanity. Then, because he misses her so much, he looks forward to her appearances, and doesn’t wish to question her about her visits, fearing she would leave and never come back. Aaron was devoted to Dorothy, and he reflects, “one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with” (54).

Aaron’s sister, Nandina, also works at Woolcott, but she is something of a tyrant in the office. She invites Aaron to stay with her while repairs are made to his house. He hires a contractor, gives Gil the keys, and says, fix my house, “Everything. I don’t know. Just take care of it. You decide” (76). Aaron cannot bring himself to go home to the scene of Dorothy’s death.

Tyler’s prose is soft, calm, and understated. She weaves a tale of the interesting, ordinary quality of middle class lives set mostly in her home town. On one occasion, late in the novel, Aaron walks down the street of his house, and sees Dorothy standing on the sidewalk. Tyler writes, “Harder to figure, though, was that she didn’t visit our own house – at least not the interior. Wouldn’t you suppose she’d be interested? The closest she’d come was that time on the sidewalk. But then, one Sunday morning, I caught sight of her in the back yard, beside where the oak tree had been. It was one of the few occasions she was already in place before I arrived. I glanced out our kitchen window and saw her standing there, looking down at the wood chips, with her hands jammed in the pockets of her doctor coat. I made it to her side in record time, even though I seem to have left my cane somewhere in the house. I said, slightly short of breath – ‘You see they removed all the evidence. Ground the stump to bits even.’ ‘Mmhmm,’ she said. I stopped. This wasn’t what I wanted to be talking about. During all the months when she had been absent, there were so many things I had saved up to tell her, so many bits of news about the house and the neighborhood and friends and work and family, but now they seemed inconsequential. Puny. Move far enough away from an even and it sort of levels out, so to speak – settles into the general landscape” (147-148). Aaron does “sort things out” – with Dorothy’s help -- and moves on with his life.

If you have never read Anne Tyler, Any number of her 18 novels would be a good place to start, but The Beginner’s Goodbye would be a wonderful introduction to this award-winning novelist. 5 stars (565)

--Chiron, 5/6/12