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