Sunday, January 27, 2013

Something Else: A Memoir by Richard Russo

Richard Russo has been one of my favorite authors for a long time. I started with Straight Man, a comic look at life in the English Department of a rural New England College. As an English Professor, I laughed and cried with tears of joy and sorrow as Russo exposed the peculiarities of my profession. I “knew” many of his characters as colleagues of my own.

Of course, Russo is most well-known for his stories of decaying towns in the rust belt of the U.S. Several of these novels, including, Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls have been made into successful movies. Empire Falls won two Golden Globes along with other awards and nominations, including a Pulitzer Prize for the author. All these stories are tales of ordinary, hard-working people, who overcome serious difficulties in their struggles through life. Russo’s recently published memoir, Elsewhere sheds a bright light on the origin of many of these characters.

Russo grew up in the mill town of Gloversville, NY, famous for its gloves. As has frequently been the case, the labor was sent overseas and the mills closed. The town was left with poverty, unemployment, and a host of medical problems resulting from working around the chemicals used in tanning the leather and the dust as a by-product of glove making.

Elsewhere focuses on Russo’s mother and their relationship. His father left the family early on, and apparently played only a little role in the young boy’s life. Richard struggled to understand and cope with the mental illness of his mother. He tells this sad story of his mother's illness without becoming maudlin because of the streak of humor underlying it all.

Russo and I are about the same age, and we share a number of interesting coincidences. His youth was filled with books and a wide variety of interests. He even flirted with a career in archaeology. While I was fortunate to grow up in a stable family with no hint of mental difficulties, my life closely parallels Russo’s in a number of respects.

In the “Prologue,” Russo writes,

“What follows in this memoir – I don’t know what else to call it – is a story of intersections: of place and time, of private and public, of linked destinies and flawed devotion. It’s more my mother’s story than mine, but it’s mine, too, because until just a few years ago she was seldom absent from my life. It’s about her character but also about where she grew up, fled from, and returned to again and again, about contradictions she couldn’t resolve and so passed on the me, knowing full well I’d worry them much like a dog worries a bone, gnawing, burying, unearthing, gnawing again, until there’s nothing left but sharp splinters and bleeding gums” (12).

Obviously, I could never hope to explain this heartwarming yarn of growing up in the northeast as well as Russo does here. If you have never read Russo, I think Elsewhere will provide a solid foundation for understanding his novels, and those are a real treat for anyone interested in fine literary fiction. 5 stars

--Chiron, 1/27/13

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie has a reputation for prose that tends to be dense to the point of un-readability. I believe this view has developed solely from The Satanic Verses, which is, admittedly, a difficult read. But lately, Rushdie has published a number of books that are not only eminently readable, but interesting and thoroughly entertaining. His 2010 novel, Luka and the Fire of Life proves this point.

Luka’s father, Rashid, has an unparalleled talent for telling stories. He has created whole worlds full of interesting characters, places, and ideas, which become real for Luca, when he actually travels to “The World of Magic.” One day, Rashid falls into a deep sleep, which puzzles the doctors. Luka, concerned for his father, takes an errant step, and slips into the world his father created. The wraith, Nobodaddy, slowly absorbs Rashid’s life forces, and, should he absorb all of them, he will die. Luka decides if his father dies, his stories, and the world he created, will die with him. The young boy embarks on a classic hero’s journey to steal the fire of life, restore his father to health, and save the World of Magic.

Rushdie has bathed this novel in the art of storytelling. In fact, the entire story is about stories and the lessons they teach us. Luka also fits nicely into Joseph Campbell’s keys to his theory of myth. Luka reluctantly answers the call to adventure, he has helpers and supernatural assistance, he must cross the threshold of The River of Time, he must complete the last leg of his journey alone, and he returns to his home. But will he make it in time to save his father?

Another interesting and fun aspect of this work includes the numerous embedded cultural references that seem way out of time and place in the World of Magic. For example, while looking at “The River of Time,” Luka sees,

“Running along the bank was a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat and looking worriedly at a clock. Appearing and disappearing at various points on both banks was a dark blue British police telephone booth, out of which a perplexed-looking man holding a screw driver would periodically emerge. A group of dwarf bandits could be seen disappearing into a hole in the sky. ‘Time travelers,’ said, Nobodaddy in a voice of gentle disgust. ‘They’re everywhere these days’” (60-61). Alice in Wonderland, Doctor Who, and Monty Python all in one breath. This story can be shared by the whole family.

In fact this novel is about storytelling, the importance of myth, and imagination. Rushdie does it with style, grace, and a prose so spectacular, he never ceases to amaze me. I have read eight of his eleven novels, and I have the other three which I am eagerly waiting to devour. If you have never read Rushdie, Luka and the Fire of Life is a grand place to start. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 1/5/13

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Short Cuts by Raymond Carver

This book probably represents the best half-dollar I ever spent at a yard sale. Raymond Carver wrote mostly short stories, and he is among the best short stories writers of the latter part of the 20th century. I had never heard of this book, although I have read several of the stories.

Raymond Carver died at the young age of 50. He wrote five collections of stories, and five collections of poetry. His first published story appeared in a college literary journal, and his first book of poetry was published by a college press. His career was plagued with bankruptcies and alcoholism. The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters awarded him a fellowship, which allowed him to write full time. At age 49, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and despite radiation, chemo, and surgery, he died in August of 1988.

Robert Altman wrote the Introduction to Short Cuts, because he assembled a selection of nine Carver stories and a poem and made a film with the same title. Amazon should shortly process my order for the film.

Each of these nine stories tells a tale of families and relationships. Individuals, who through fate, carelessness, accidents, and plain old stupidity, find themselves in a corner of dark shadows, fears, and stressful situations. Raymond Carver short stories often probe the psyche of men and women caught in uncomfortable positions. Most of these slice of life stories end up without resolution, as the character founders and struggles with the consequences of his or her own deeds.

I do not have a single favorite. Unlike most collections of stories, Carver’s Short Cuts, has no lumps of coal. They are all gems. However, one story intrigued me slightly more than the others – “So Much Water So Close to Home.” In this intense story, four friends, bowl, play cards, drink, and a couple of times year, travel over 100 miles for a long weekend of fishing. One trip, however, will alter Stuart Kane’s life forever.

Carver wrote, “On Friday afternoon these four men left for a three-day fishing trip to the Naches River. They parked the car in the mountains and hiked several miles to where they wanted to fish. They carried their bedrolls, food and cooking utensils, their playing cards, their whiskey. The first evening at the river, even before they could set up camp, Mel Dorn found the girl floating face down in the river, nude, lodged near the shore in some branches” (71).

Imagine what happens next! All of these stories revolve around a crisis of some sort, and they all shatter lives and relationships. A nifty collection and a first-rate introduction to a master of the short story. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 12/31/12

Nothing Serious by Daniel Klein

A funny philosophical novel? A resounding yes in the case of Daniel Klein’s Nothing Serious. When I first picked up this novel, the name Daniel Klein seemed remotely familiar. The jacket bio informed me he co-authored Plato and a Platypus Walked Into a Bar. This humorous introduction to philosophy in plain language and cartoons entertained me every minute I spent on its musings about the great thinkers of the world. Klein has turned his hand to fiction and written a witty story of Digby Maxwell, who has found himself the editor of Cogito, a small philosophy magazine headquartered in a Vermont College town.

Digby has had a storied career with The Village Voice and New York Magazine as a talented trend spotter. A word in his columns quickly spread through Manhattan and the country. One day, Digby finds himself on the bad end of a pink slip. His editor feels he has lost his touch.

He wanders around a bit, and tries to figure out how long his savings and his supply of pot will last. Suddenly, literally out of nowhere, Digby receives a call from a small magazine, Cogito, based at Loudon College in Vermont. The caller informs Digby he is the only candidate for the job of editor. He protests his lack of knowledge of philosophy, but the publisher has other plans. She is completely aware of Digby’s connections to pop culture, and she wants the magazine to take a different turn – looking at philosophy from the outside. In other words, integrate pop culture and make the journal more relevant to the 24 to 40 crowd with lots of disposable income.

Digby takes the job and appears stoned at a welcoming party in a frayed tweed jacket with leather elbows. He begins surveying the women at the party for likely candidates as bed mates. He quickly develops several relationships on and off the campus of the small town. Digby is pleased with the salary, and decides to go ahead with the job. However, others at Loudon and Cogito have significantly different ideas.

The story unfolds into a complicated tale of small town politics, academic turf protection, sexual obsessions, and petty jealousies. Partly because of his self-medication with weed, Digby finds himself quite anxious about his ability to pull this off. Klein writes, “This welcoming party merely touches the tip of the angst iceberg that chills his soul” (12). Digby muses, “I am an impostor. A charlatan. A quack in tweeds” (13). In his attempt to learn something about the philosophers whose ideas he deals with daily, he undertakes a reading project of huge proportions. He begins to analyze his colleagues and co-workers according to the ideas of Kant, Schopenhauer, and others.

Digby falls in love with Mary Bonavitacola, the pastor of the local Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship. He attends a meeting, but “As a point of pride, Digby has never allowed himself to feel a part of a rapt audience. It smacks of groupthink. And for him, a church congregation is the most flagrant laboratory of groupthink in the civilized world, the kind of groupthink that usually ends in group mayhem. That said, he is listening like an acolyte to Reverend Bonavitacola” (65).

Daniel Klein’s Nothing Serious has a publication date of April 2013. Look for a copy, you will not be disappointed. Because of some slightly improbable observations and comments by Digby, Four stars --Chiron, 12/31/12