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

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Shallow End of Sleep by José Antonio Rodríguez

For anyone who aspires to write a good poem now and again, the discovery of a new poet can be a touch and go matter. How closely will the poet’s work appeal to my idea of a good poem? How closely will I relate to the images, the diction, and rhythm? Probably half of the poets I first encounter do not pass at least some of these tests. Every once in great while, however, I come across a book of poetry which rings all these bells for me. The Shallow End of Sleep by José Antonio Rodríguez resoundingly passes with flying colors.

The poems in Rodríguez’s collection have a warmth and an ability to call up memories of my own that somewhat match his. However, a shadow hangs over most of the endings -- a reminder of poverty and the hardship of adjusting to a new culture.

One of my favorites in the collection, “Playing Monopoly,” has many, many ties to my childhood.

“the green homes with perfect corners, the red hotels that looked like the textbook picture of George Washington’s home. The kids gloated guiltless when they won and the losers frowned for a second, their hands empty, until they decided to play again, like losing and winning were nothing” (38).

The poem then moves from the game of real estate to the realities of providing shelter for the family:

“I could tell you that I thought then of everybody putting in late hours, pooling money together to eke out the $400 payment on the house with a sink that drained into a bucket, with curtains for doors, with broken mattresses for beds, but it wasn’t like that – thoughts lined neatly like blocks.

“It was like when you finished your serving of beans and knew not to ask for seconds, that moment between taking the last bite and pulling the chair away from the table, the taste of that and the swallowing” (39).

The poems in this collection fill the page with powerful memories and even more powerful emotions. Rodríguez has won the 2009 Allen Ginsburg Poetry Award and a Pushcart Prize nomination. His work has appeared in Paterson Literary Review, cream city review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, among others. He currently works on a Ph.D in English and creative Writing. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 7/1/12

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham has written a series of novels about relationships – how they form, how they grow, and how they die. He manages this without being too dark, but rather he handles them in a thoughtful and sensitive manner. He is probably best known for The Hours, a multilayered reworking of the Virginia Woolf novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Specimen Days tells the story of three people in three different time periods – similar to the structure of The Hours – however, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass provides a backdrop. By Nightfall parallels the story of Aschenbach and Tadzio from Thomas Mann’s erotic classic, Death in Venice.

Peter and Rebecca married in their early 20s, had a daughter Bea, and live in the Soho section of Lower Manhattan. Peter owns an art gallery struggling to reach the upper tier of galleries in a crowded NY market. Rebecca is a writer, and she publishes a literary magazine just barely surviving.

The families of the couple cast a shadow over their lives. Peter’s brother, Michael, died as a young man, and Rebecca’s younger brother is a drug addict. One day, Ethan “Mizzy,” shows up in Soho, and adds further complications to the plot.

Peter and Rebecca have a tender and loving relationship, which Peter frets over and second guesses at every turn. Cunningham does this in a structurally peculiar way. As Peter muses on his marriage, his life, and work, he frequently inserts parenthetical asides, as if a second narrator stood over his shoulder adding details or making corrections.

Here is an example from a passage about the home of Rebecca’s parents. She felt a slight embarrassment, but, as Cunningham writes: “Some – many – would have found this room disheartening, would have in fact been unnerved by the Taylor’s whole house and the Taylors’ entire lives. Peter was enchanted. Here he was among people too busy (with students, with patients, with books) to keep it all in perfect running order; people who’d rather have lawn parties and game nights than clean the tile grout with a tooth brush (although the Taylor’s grout could, undeniably, have used at least minor attention). Here was the living opposite of his own childhood, all those frozen nights, dinner finished by six thirty and at least another four hours before anyone could reasonably go to bed” (49).

I also enjoyed another aspect of this novel -- the generous sprinkling of literary references throughout the story. Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust, Jane Austen, Anna Karenina, Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Dante, Hamlet, Homer, Cheever, and many others. Fitting these selections into the fabric of the story would make an interesting research project.

But the most telling of all, occurred on a train trip to visit a client of Peter’s. Mizzy is searching for an occupation to save himself from drugs. He thinks “something in the Arts, perhaps a curator” would be a good choice. Peter sits opposite Mizzy and notices a copy of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, which “sits open but unread on his lap” (169). They discuss Mann and Peter asks him about Death in Venice.

Cunningham’s By Nightfall is altogether a clever, absorbing psychological voyage into the lives and loves of Peter and Rebecca with an unusual twist on the last pages. If you have never read Cunningham, this novel is a good starting place. 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/30/12

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

For many, many years, I have loved and admired Homer’s Odyssey. Lately, I have experienced a growing admiration for his Iliad. I recently reviewed The War that Killed Achilles by Caroline Alexander. And now, a new entry onto my “desert island shelf” will take its place with these foundations of western literature. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller tells the story of the greatest warrior of the ancient world from the point of view of Patroclus, his companion.

Even though I knew exactly how the story would end, I reveled in every page of this enthralling story. Miller has a tinge of the voice of Homer, with a couple of epithets thrown in for good measure. Rosy-fingered dawn even gets a mention.

Patroclus accidentally killed a boy who bullied him relentlessly. Clysonomous was the son of a noble family, and the penalty for such a killing was death or exile. Patroclus lacked the physical and mental strengths required of the son of a king, and his father’s disdain appeared evident to everyone – even the young Patroclus. The verdict was exile.

Peleus, King of Phthia, and father of Achilles by the divine nymph, Thetis, routinely accepted such exiles for the treasure that came along with the unfortunate individual. Patroclus became a close friend and companion to Achilles, destined to become “Aristos Achaion. Best of the Greeks” (176), “the greatest warrior of his generation” (160).

When Achilles turns thirteen, he is sent to study with the centaur, Chiron, to learn the arts of war and medicine. Patroclus is left behind, but by this time, he has developed a deep and abiding relationship with Achilles. He wheedles Achilles location from Peleus, and Patroclus immediately runs after his friend. The bond with Achilles is mutual. He says, “I hoped you would come” (70).

Years pass and the boys grow closer. When Achilles is 16, Odysseus, King of Ithaca, the “man of twists and turns” comes to seek Achilles’ help in rescuing Helen of Greece, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta. But Peleus knows of the prophecy and the flimsy bond drawing all these heroes together for the Trojan War. Achilles and his father were not present when Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus extracted a promise from the disappointed suitors to swear allegiance to Helen and her chosen husband, Menelaus. Peleus spirits him away – again without Patroclus -- to an obscure, poor kingdom famous for its dancing women, led by the daughter of the king. But Patroclus and Odysseus find him again. Odysseus convinces Achilles to raise and lead the best army in the ancient world – the Myrmidons.

Patroclus realizes he will lose Achilles to this adventure. Miller writes, “If he was nervous, even I could not tell. I watched as he greeted them, spoke ringing words that made them stand up straighter. They grinned, loving every inch of their miraculous prince: his gleaming hair, his deadly hands, his nimble feet. They leaned towards him, like flowers in the sun, drinking in his luster. It was as Odysseus had said: he had light enough to make heroes of them all” (186).

Thus, they set sail for that fateful battle before the walls of Troy. Hector, Ajax, Achilles, Odysseus, Menelaus, and countless others -- all players in one of the greatest stories ever sung, recited, read, studied, and loved. Read The Song of Achilles. As soon as you can. You, too, will be captivated and enthralled. 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/24/12