Saturday, April 27, 2013

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

In Waco, April means the Beall Poetry festival at Baylor University.  In 1994, Mrs. Virginia B. Ball established the John A. and DeLouise McClelland Beall Endowed Fund to honor her parents and to encourage the writing and appreciation of poetry.  Mrs. Ball was an English major who graduated from Baylor in 1940.  Since 1995, the festival has celebrated some of the finest contemporary poets with readings, a panel discussion, and a lecture on contemporary poetry.  Some of the invited participants include Donald Hall, Gary Snyder, Derek Walcott, Maxine Kumin, Galway Kinnell, Billy Collins, W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, Louise Glück, Charles Wright, and Anthony Hecht.

The 2013 invitees included Bobby C. Rogers, James Fenton, Les Murray, and Pulitzer Prize winner, Tracy K. Smith.  Henry Hart delivered the Virginia Beall Ball Lecture..

Tracy won the Pulitzer Prize for her third collection of poetry, Life on Mars.  She read several poems at her reading, so I had a tough time selecting my favorite.  Even after a couple of reads, the power of description and the emotion in these poems shine through to this reader.  “The Good Life” well-represents her talents:.

“When some people talk about money / They speak as if it were a mysterious lover / Who went out to buy milk and never / Came back, and it makes me nostalgic / For the years I lived on coffee and bread, / Hungry all the time, walking to work on Payday / Like a woman journeying for water / From a village without a well, then living / One or two nights like everyone else / On roast chicken and red wine.”  (64).

It must be obvious I like short poems, and here is another, titled “The Soul”:

“The voice is clean.  Has heft.  Like Stones / Dropped in still water, or tossed / One after the other at a low wall. / Chipping away at what pushes back.  Not always making a dent, but keeping at it. / And the silence around it is a door / Punched through with light.  A garment / That attests to breasts, the privacy / Between thighs.  This body is what we lean toward, / Tensing as it darts, dancing away. / But it’s the voice that enters us.  Even / Saying nothing.  Even saying nothing / Over and over absently to itself.” (23).

Tracy K. Smith
A good poet, in my opinion, is one who consistently produces thought-provoking poems, with imagery that rakes my imagination over cooling coals of emotion, then leaves me with a smile, or maybe a frown, or even laughter at the clever connections to my life, loves, and experiences.  Tracy K. Smith is one of those poets.  5 stars..

--Chiron, 4/17/13

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 by Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee

Way back in 1976, someone, whom I have long forgotten, gave me a copy of The Letters of William Faulkner. I never read any such collection, and I could not imagine it would be worth my time. The friend asked me if I had read the book, but I pleaded too much work, too many things to read, but I would get to it. After the third request, I decided to spend a rainy weekend with Faulkner. I was completely surprised at how interesting the letters were. Since then, I have amassed a nice collection of letters – mostly those of writers.

Recently published, Here and Now collects letters exchanged between Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee from 2008 to 2011. I have read a few of Australian writer Coetzee’s works, but only recently discovered Auster. I admire both these writers, and I was thrilled when the book arrived at my door within a day or two of publication.

Paul Auster
J.M. Coetzee receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature

Paul and John – as they address each other – share wide-ranging but similar interests. An extended dialogue on sports was interesting, as were comments on the political situation in the U.S. and other parts of the world. History comes into play as well, since Coetzee was born in South Africa, but now lives in Adelaide, Australia. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. Auster lives in Brooklyn. He won the prestigious Prince Asturias Prize for Literature in 2006.

The real meaty bits of their correspondence, however, can be found in their discussions of writing and reading. I have added a half dozen books to my wish list, along with a few films.

Coetzee receives a letter from a woman accusing him of anti-Semitism. He asks Auster for advice on how to respond. He wrote, “Do nothing—or something […] write to the woman … and tell her that you have written a novel, not a tract on ethical conduct, and that disparaging remarks […] [of] anti-Semitism, are a part of the world we live in, and just because your character says what she says does not mean that you endorse her comments. […] Do writers of murder stories endorse murder?” (95). I have found myself defending a number of writers over the years in exactly the same way.

Auster also comments on reading, “Isn’t reading the art of seeing things for yourself, of conjuring up images in your own head? And isn’t the beauty of reading all about the silence that surrounds you as you plunge into the story, the sound of the author’s voice resonating inside you to the exclusion of all other sounds?” (177).
Oh, how I long for the days of letters coming from far away! I carried on (and off) an exchange with a pen-pal I got in high school for over 30 years. The onion skin paper, the strange stamps, trying to translate the German to English all held many, many fond memories. I still have the box of letters and small gifts I received. All that is lost in the age of email.

Try this slim volume of letters, and I am sure you will find a whole new world ripe for exploration. 5 stars

--Chiron, 4/14/13

Friday, April 19, 2013

Cain by José Saramago

José Saramago won the Nobel Prize in 1998. He died in 2010, and Cain is his last novel. While it takes a bit of effort to get used to his style, his books are a lot of fun and well-worth the effort. In The Stone Raft, a geologist discovers a fissure in the Pyrenees Mountains. He returns for further investigation to find the gap has widened. Eventually, Spain and Portugal break off from Europe and float out into the Atlantic Ocean, narrowly missing the Canary Islands. Blindness is a retelling of Camus’ novel, The Plague, and All the Names involves a clerk in a registry office who becomes obsessed with a card accidentally removed from a drawer.

Cain recounts the story following the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and the murder of Abel. Marked by the Lord and condemned to wander the earth, Cain slingshots from various places and time periods to witness events in the Old Testament. He sees Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac; he sees the remains of the Tower of Babel; he hitches a ride on Noah’s Ark; he spends some time working for Job, until his fortunes take a downturn; Cain spends some time with Joshua before the trumpets blare; and he is present when Moses comes down from the mountain. In all of these encounters, Cain questions the actions and motives of God.

At the conclusion of the novel, when Noah tries to complete the Ark on time and in budget, God sends an army of angels to assist with the construction. Cain engages them in a conversation about the Lord. The following two passages are reproduced exactly as printed to give an idea of Saramago’s style. Cain establishes a friendly bond with some of the angels, who claim, “happiness on earth was far superior to that in heaven, but the lord, of course, being a jealous god, must never know this, because if he did, such seditious thoughts would merit the severest of reprisals with no regard for the perpetrators’ angelic status” (144). He likes long sentences and he is stingy about paragraphing and capitalization.

Cain replies, “if they really thought that, once this humanity had been destroyed, the race that followed would not fall into the same errors, the same temptations, the same follies and crimes, and they answered, We are mere angels, we know little about the incomprehensible charade that you call human nature, but to be perfectly frank, we don’t see how the second experiment will be any more satisfactory than the first, which ended in the long string of miseries we see before us now, in short, in our honest opinion as angels, and considering all the evidence, we don’t believe that human beings deserve life” (144-45).

 The dust jacket quotes John Updike on the author. “Saramago is a writer, like Faulkner, so confident of his resources and ultimate destination that he can bring any improbability to life.” I am in complete agreement. José Saramago’s Cain is a fun, thought-provoking, and interesting rational look at some of the best-loved stories of the Old Testament – a great place to begin exploring this amazing author. Five stars.
--Chiron, 4/10/13

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Odds by Stewart O'Nan

I stumbled on Stewart O’Nan with the intriguingly titled novel, Last Night at the Lobster. This story of ordinary working people and their struggles working minimum wage jobs entertained me all the way through. Emily Alone came next, and in May 2011, I wrote on my blog, “a quiet, earnest story of ordinary people going about their daily lives, trying to manage the vagaries of existence as senior citizens.” So, when his latest came out, I had high hopes for a three-peat. The Odds did not disappoint.

Art and Marion are nearing their 30th wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, both have lost their jobs, and they teeter on the brink of financial ruin. Their marriage isn’t in great shape either. Their solution to these problems is wild. They liquidate all their savings, make a reservation at the bridal suite fanciest casino/hotel in Niagara Falls. Art has a plan to win a great pile of cash to pay off their debts and avoid a financial cliff of their own making.

Early on, fellow Pennsylvanian, O’Nan sums up Art’s and Marion’s characters in a neat little package. He writes, “the brittle, rigid Art … emerged more frequently since he’d been laid off, always lurking just beneath the cheerful veneer. His mother had been the same way, affecting a patrician calm, then breaking into self-righteous tirades when the smallest thing went wrong--tipped juice boxes or overcooked steaks. They shared a sense of entitlement and a selective paranoia, as if the world were conspiring against them. Marion was hurt and angry too, but knew the world wasn’t to blame. They’d had their share of good luck, more than most couples, especially after the mistakes they’d made. She didn’t hold hers above his or vice versa. Like the world, no one was perfect. … If Marion was disappointed in anyone it was herself. She’d promised not to give up on him, but [sometimes] she was convinced she’d be happier alone, and felt selfish” (81).

Relationships are complicated – this one more so that others, but Art and Marion are giving it one last chance with a pile of cash, an American Express Card, and fool-proof system to beat the roulette wheel.
Despite this plan, they are somewhat practical. Marion muses, “You couldn’t relive your life, skipping the awful parts, without losing what made it worthwhile. You had to accept it as a whole—like the world, or the person you loved” (98).

This pleasant little novel of only 179 pages also has a streak of humor. Each chapter heading gives the odds for a variety of activities. For example, “Odds of a tourist visiting Niagara Falls: 1 in 195” (1); “Odds of a married couple making love on a given night: 1 in 5” (37); “Odds of a couple taking a second honeymoon to the same destination: 1 in 9” (57); “Odds of a jazz band playing 'My Funny Valentine' on Valentine’s Day: 1 in 1 (123); and “Odds of the Cleveland Indians winning the World Series: 1 in 25,000” (161).
However, the odds of enjoying Stewart O'Nan's fun novel – by my calculations – 1 in 1. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 4/10/13