Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hunters and Gatherers by Francine Prose

Francine Prose, a relatively recent discovery of mine, has a powerful, yet interesting and quirky style. I first read her excellent non-fiction work, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Of course, the title intrigued me, and the curious cat in me wondered how she read. The book absorbed my attention and admiration from page one. I agreed with much of what she wrote and learned quite a few tips along the way. Naturally, this led me to her novels.

I first read Blue Angel – the story of an English professor trapped in a web of deceit by a ruthless student. Then I read Goldengrove, and now her 1995 novel, Hunters and Gathers. I found this paperback in the sadly missed used bookstore in my hometown, Plotz Books. The cover intrigued me – three satyrs sit on rocks while dozens of nymphs seem to cascade down a mountain toward them. Inexplicably, neither the painting nor the artist are identified, but some research proved it to be by the 19th century artist, William-Adolphe Bourguereau.

Martha works as a fact checker for a fashion magazine in Manhattan. Her boss, Eleanor, is a tyrant and has Martha checking facts “any school child knew.” Dennis, her lover of about a year, has dumped her and Eleanor fired her after she asked for some time off to get herself together. The novel opens with Martha on Fire Island. Her friend, Greta, wanted to spend a weekend with her new lover, and she asked Martha to fill in for her with her elderly parents. While on the beach, she wanders into a group of oddly dressed women, and makes the acquaintance of Hegwitha, who stands apart from the main group.

Martha learns this is a gathering of Goddess-worshiping, New Age women. The central figure in this group is Isis Moonwagon, who promptly strolls into the ocean. Martha recognizes Isis is in trouble, and she dives into the surf to rescue her. Martha is then gently folded into the group. Thus ends chapter one.

This eclectic group of women spends most of its time squabbling over mundane and mountainous points of disagreement. Isis usually has a calming effect – if only for a short time. The novel does have its comic moments. Lonely Martha is drawn into the group, but she remains skeptical throughout. The group travels to the Arizona desert to spend some time learning from a Native American healer.

Although I enjoyed the story of these women, I did notice a rather glaring error in the novel. In an explanation of the gathering, Hegwitha tells Martha, “All over the world women are honoring the harvest and Persephone’s return from Hades to rejoin her mother” (10). A few pages later, still on the beach, “Martha shivered. Oh dear God, it was autumn” (13). The story of Persephone has her returning in the spring to rejoin her mother Ceres, the Goddess of grain, and thus flowers bloom, trees begin to leaf. Neither the fact checker Martha, nor anyone else, notices the error.

This novel is unlike anything else I have read by Prose, but it did have the quirkiness of the others. 4 stars.

--Chiron, 6/20/12

Thursday, June 14, 2012

I, Iago by Nicole Galland

Shakespeare’s Othello is one of his four great tragedies along with Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. I especially enjoy teaching Othello, which I alternate with Lear. When I heard about Galland’s novel, I, Iago, which is part prequel and all retelling of the story from Iago’s point of view, I eagerly awaited its rise to the top of my TBR pile. This recently published novel is great fun – especially for those familiar with the play.

I won’t go into any of the details of the plot – if the play is not familiar territory, this novel would be a great introduction. But the real fun is in noticing lines and characters from the play as they pop up almost from page one. So, I would advise reading the play first.

Othello has some of the great lines from the Bard: “green-eyed monster,” “the beast with two backs,” and, of course, Iago’s final line in the play, “Ask me nothing, … What you know, you know. From this time forth I will not speak another word” (368). Some of these lines Galland alters slightly, but the essence is always there.

Galland recounts Iago’s early days from his childhood pranks with his boyhood friend, Rodrigo to his relationship with his father, and the origin of the epithet, “Honest Iago.”

Even though I knew exactly how the plot would spin out, the last hundred pages or so were as thrilling as the downhill side of the highest roller coaster in the land.

Incidentally, I think the 1995 Kenneth Branagh, Lawrence Fishburne, and Irène Jacob Othello is a most interesting and accessible version of the play. 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/13/12

Monday, June 11, 2012

Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen has a distinguished career as a newspaper reporter in Miami, Florida. Like Pete Dexter – a former columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News -- he turned his hand to novels. I have read about six of Hiaasen’s works and thoroughly enjoyed them all. His stories are gritty and down to earth, and have that special something which sounds a lot like newspaper writing. This 1997 novel, Hiaasen’s 7th, is no exception.

Tom Krome has been relegated to covering mall openings, beauty pageants, and, in this case, the story of a woman who won $14 million in the Florida Lottery. Hiaasen writes, “The downsizing trend that swept newspapers in the early nineties was aimed at sustaining the bloated profit margins in which the newspaper industry had wallowed for most of the century. A new soulless breed of cooperate managers, unburdened by a passion for serious journalism, found an easy way to reduce the cost of publishing a daily newspaper. The first casualty was depth. … Cutting the amount of space devoted to news instantly justified cutting the staff” (21). Investigative teams were one of the first cuts these business types made.

Krome was just “peaking in his career as an investigative reporter” (21). He applied for a job as a “feature writer” for The Register. He was offered a job as a divorce columnist, which he declined. A week later, the managing editor offered him a job as a feature writer, which Krome accepted, since he was trying to save for a move to Alaska.

Meanwhile, JoLayne Lucks won half of a $28 million dollar lottery prize. The other half was won by a white supremacist in Miami, who was furious he had to share the prize with what he was sure was a member of one of Florida’s two major minority groups. His plan was to start a militia to protect the US from a NATO and UN led invasion of the US to eliminate all the white people from America. The lunatic conspiracy theories which came out of Bode Gazzer’s twisted mind were just that – sheer lunacy. His partner in this insanity was Chub, a trigger-happy racist, who occasionally expressed some skepticism about Bode’s theories but liked the idea of being part of a militia.

Bode and Chub decide to steal JoLayne’s ticket. They find her shortly before Tom Krome does, and the two set out to track the thieves and recover her ticket. This is the main plot, but a humorous sub-plot involves Lucks’ hometown of Grange, Florida and some crazy con-artists running a religious miracle racket. All this is revealed in about the first 20 pages, so I am not giving much away.

Lucky You is exciting and takes many unexpected twists and turns. I am not really a fan of mysteries and suspense stories, but the newspaper angle intrigues me, so I am working my way through Hiaasen’s work. This novel, like the others I have read, are great stories, with several interesting characters ranging from serious to funny to the bizarre. 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/10/12

Sunday, June 03, 2012

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Last month I reviewed the Best Short Stories of 2011 edited by Richard Russo. One of the stories I mentioned, “The Laugh” by Téa Obreht, reminded me I had a copy of her first novel, The Tiger’s Wife. It lay near the bottom of my TBR pile, but I decided to promote it. This turned out to be a most fortuitous decision.

Natalia is a young doctor, and she has a close relationship with her grandfather – also a well-known and respected doctor. The story is set in the Balkans at the end of the recent war. Natalia has set out to inoculate children in a remote orphanage with her best friend Zora. Interspersed among the narrative are flash backs to instances Natalia spent with her grandfather as a child. As the story opens, she learns her grandfather has died at a remote clinic, to the horror and amazement of his family, none of whom knew he was sick – except Natalia.

I could not help sensing touches of Salman Rushdie or Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk in this novel. Like these two world-renowned authors, Obreht’s prose mesmerizes. She describes one late-night adventure as a child with her grandfather:

“We were nearing the end of our street where it opened out onto the Boulevard, and I assumed the silence of our walk would be shattered by the bustle along the tramway. But when we got there, nothing, not even a single passing car. All the way from one end of the Boulevard to the other, every window was dark, and a hazy yellow moon was climbing along the curve of the old basilica on the hill. As it rose, it seemed to be gathering the silence up around it like a net. Not a sound: no police sirens, no rats in the dumpsters that lined the street. Not even my grandfather’s shoes as he stopped, looked up and down the street, and then turned left to follow the Boulevard east across the Square of the Kojanik.

“’It’s not far now,’ he said, and I caught up with him long enough to see the side of his face. He was smiling.

“’Not far to where?’ I said, out of breath, angry. ‘Where are you taking me?’ I drew myself up and stopped. ‘I’m not going any further until you tell me what the hell this is.’

“He turned to look at me, indignant. ‘Lower your voice, you fool, before you set something off,’ he hissed. ‘Can’t you feel it?’ Suddenly his arms went over his head in a wide arc. ‘Isn’t it lovely? No one in the world awake but us.’ And off he went again. I stood still for a few moments, watching him go, a tall, thin, noiseless shadow. Then the realization of it rushed over me: he didn’t need me with him, he wanted me there” (52-53).

Natalia and her grandfather spent many hours together doing simple things. Visiting the zoo became an almost daily excursion. While there, the two would sit opposite the tiger’s cage, and he would read to her from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. These visits, the book, and other stories run like threads in a skillfully woven tapestry. It explains her grandfather and it prepares her for her own life.

Obreht weaves a tale of science and superstition experienced by her grandfather and relayed in stories to Natalia. Then Natalia becomes faced with similar obstacles in her practice. She comes to a realization about her grandfather and her own life. A must read for anyone interested in literary fiction. 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/3/12/

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett

Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There’s Snakes was the May read for my book club. From the description offered by the member, it seemed as if it might be an interesting anthropological look at an isolated group of indigenous peoples in the Amazon. The Pirahã (pronounced “pee-da-HAN”). When I got a copy of the book, the dust jacket revealed Everett went to the Amazon as a missionary.

Since I am adamantly opposed to missionary work – I admire the prime directive of the Federation of Planets: non interference in the culture of indigenous people – I almost stopped right there. But, this man lost his faith, so I was intrigued.

Daniel Everett moved his wife, Keren, and their children (seven, four, and one!!!) to this remote jungle village with no electricity, no water, and no contact with the outside world. Shortly after his arrival, the Brazilian government banned missionaries from these tribes, so his sponsor, The Summer Institute of Linguistics, tried “to find a way around the governments prohibition” (14). Nice. So Daniel enrolls in a graduate school to study linguistics, and his project is to study the language of these people. He is re-admitted to the Amazon as a “scientist.”

The next problem involves linguistics. Linguistics is akin to “statistics” for English majors -- boring. But for the sake of a friend, I began to slog through the jungles of crazy spellings, crazy phonetics, and lots of missionary-speak.

Then, I did something I rarely do. I skipped to the end to see what later chapters had to offer, and I came upon Chapter 17: “Converting the Missionary.” Everett writes, “the challenge of the missionary [is] to convince a happy, satisfied people that they are lost and need Jesus as their personal savior” (266). He quotes his “evangelism professor,” who said, “You’ve got to get ‘em lost before you can get ‘em saved” (266). Disgusting. When I think of the millions of lives lost as a result of missionaries over the ages, the cultures destroyed, the languages, traditions, stories, obliterated, the acts of genocide committed in the name of religion and progress, my stomach turns over and over.

Fortunately, Everett comes to the conclusion that “the universal appeal of the spiritual message I was bringing was ill-founded” (269). Indeed. Everett’s wife was from a missionary family, and inexplicably, she found it impossible to stand by her husband after his enlightenment and took the children and went home.

The “primitive” Pirahã asked Everett if he had ever seen Jesus, and when he said no, the wondered how he could believe in such a person. The Pirahã live an immediate life, closely intertwined with their environment and the daily struggle to find food. These people have a clear “acceptance for things the way they are, by and large. No fear of death” (271). Who is the most rational in this story?.

Everett closes this chapter with some startling admissions: “I have given up what I could not keep, my faith, to gain what I cannot lose, freedom from what Thomas Jefferson called ‘tyranny of the mind’ – following outside authorities rather than one’s own reason” (272) Hallelujah! Later, on the same page, “William James reminded us, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. We are no more nor less than evolved primates” (272)..

The nuns would always tell us about the “Eleventh Commandment” – MYOB – Mind Your Own Business. At the book club, I raised the question, “Why can’t we just leave these people alone? What is the purpose of studying them, proselytizing them, and destroying them in the process?” One member suggested, if we don’t study them some corporation, oil company, logging firm, or factory farmers will..

Have humans learned nothing from history? Especially the history of the last 135 years or so? The near extinction of native peoples stripped of their land, their culture, the source of food and shelter, driven to shameful living conditions on reservations – in many cases far from their ancestral homes? Why don’t we pay attention to the oft quoted line of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Five stars for Chapter 17..

--Chiron, 5/31/12