Monday, May 20, 2013

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

When it comes to books and reading, I am definitely a hunter/gatherer.  My sustenance comes from these activities, but every once in a while, I bag a trophy – the best are first novels by young writers.  The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh is the latest in a long line of trophies I have collected.

Francis Irvine is the only child of a prosperous business man in London.  His deceased wife was a member of the wealthy Hamilton family, who disowned her when she married the Irish Mr. Irvine against their wishes.  Mr. Irvine began a furniture business and did quite well, but he lost all is money in the Panic of 1873.  He had borrowed and invested in The Northern Pacific Railway which went bankrupt due to poor management.  He died leaving Francis penniless and without any family, save a cousin in Manchester, who agreed to take Francis in as a governess to her children.  However, there was an alternative.

Dr. Matthews, three years older than Francis, was heading out to Kimberly in South Africa to begin a medical practice.  From an early age, he had a crush on Francis, so he proposed marriage to her father and he agreed.  However, Francis was a city girl, and thought of moving to Africa did not appeal to her at all.  Faced with the squalid life her cousin offered her, she decided to accept Matthews and move to Kimberley.

After all her father’s property was sold at auction, she had barely enough money for steamer passage.  She had to give up all her finery, and she set out for a rendezvous with a fate she bitterly decried.  She made friends with two other immigrants – also poor and penniless.  A handsome stranger is also on the ship, and he charms Francis, who promptly falls deeply in love.  She hopes Mr. Westbrook can rescue her from what she perceives as an awful marriage.

McVeigh has accurately captured the sounds and sights and characters of the 19th century.  In this passage, Francis has been summoned by her mother’s brother.  She hopes her uncle will take her into his house.  McVeigh writes, “Francis caught sight of herself in the gold-crested mirror over the fireplace.  She regretted standing up.  Her uncle would take it as a sign of bad breeding.  Beneath the eagle with his wings unfurling, the dark, convex glass threw a distorted impression back at her.  Sparks of red hair swirled away from her in dense curls, and the narrow, angular lines of her face warped so that her mouth twisted with bitterness.  Her Irish blood was too visible for her uncle’s liking, reminding him of everything her mother had given away, and she wondered whether he would be happy never to see her again, ‘So—you won’t have me?’” (33).
I have always had a soft spot for red-haired women and 19th century women writers.  Now I have a soft spot for Francis Irvine. Jennifer McVeigh’s The Fever Tree is a delightful read, but caution: she departs from traditional 19th century literature in a few explicit scenes of “you know what.”  5 stars

--Chiron, 5/20/13

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Unexplained Fevers by Jeannine Hall Gailey

A common exercise in a creative writing class has students take a fairy tale and re-write it in poetic form.  The exercise is challenging, but I thoroughly enjoyable.  Jeanine Hall Gailey’s third book of poetry, Unexplained Fevers, helps the heroes and heroines step out of the towers and oppressive households.  She uses these poems as allegories for the problems facing many people today.  Gailey is the Poet laureate of Redmond, Washington.  I was pleased to discover this collection is a serious read.

As we all know, the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales were rather dark, but they all had deep symbolic meaning.  Here is a sample of Gailey’s work: “I Like the Quiet: Rapunzel”:

“Solitude my solace, wrapped around me 

like layers of golden hair.  Stacks of books 
and I can sing as loud as I please all day and night. 
I sleep I kick and snore, during the day, delight 
in eating nothing but radishes and lime leaf tea. 
Who says I need a partner to dance?  Here
 in this tower I am mistress of all; the reindeer, 
the knight’s armor teetering in the corner, 
various discarded disguises, crowns, 
crumbs and bones.  Will you rescue me? 
What kingdom will replace my bounty 
of leisure, what tether of care and nurture 
do you wish to rope my neck with?” (12).

Another poem, “Advice Left Between the Pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” ties a few fairy tales together:

“Life is not a fairy tale, and this isn’t your pumpkin coach. 
You’re not lost in some magic wood, 
and that blood on your hands isn’t from an innocent stag 
at all.  Princess, remember to fill your pockets 
with more than bread crumbs, and  
if you can’t sleep don’t blame the legumes 
beneath the sheets.  One look at that glass coffin 
they’ve set up for you should tell you 
everything you need to know about their intentions. 
Remember a lot of girls end up dismembered, and 
every briar rose has its thorn. / Forget the sword and magic stone, 
forget the enchantment and focus on the profit margin, 
the hard line.  Read the subtext” (60).

The final poem in the collection, “At the End,” reminds the reader of the darker side of fairy tales:

“At the end of our story, we roll along 
with the prince’s procession,  
or wake up to a castle filled with friends, 
their eyes, too, puckering at the light. 
It never occurs to us to flee our fates. 
After all, we cannot sleep forever,  
it’s not our role; we merely rest until we’re touched – 
or jostled – awake by the right man or moment.

How can we lament what we’ve missed, 
asleep in glass coffins and briar-thorn prisons? 
We’ve noticed no change, not the way 
the citizens seem to glare at us as we pass 
or the price of apples. The guns men carry 
now under their coats.  Even the carts 
seem sleeker, prepared to bustle us into the future"  ... (68)

These poems grab our memories of childhood tales and bring us into the reality of life today.  You will find yourself going back over these pieces again, and again.  5 stars

--Chiron, 5/16/13

All That Is by James Salter

I first encountered James Salter in an October 28, 1990 profile in The New York Times Magazine.  The article quoted Salter, “Somewhere the ancient clerks, amid stacks of faint interest to them, are sorting literary reputations.  The work goes on endlessly and without haste.  There are names passed over and names revered, names of heroes and of those long thought to be, names of every sort and level of importance.”  The Times then asked, “Where will the tireless clerks file the name James Salter?”

With such an intriguing introduction, how could I not investigate farther?  I started with Salter’s 1988 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning collection, Dusk: And Other Stories.  I was immediately captivated and added several more of his books to my shelves.  The PEN/Faulkner Award is America’s most prestigious literary prize.  As numerous critics have said, Salter is a “writer’s writer.”  Noted critic, James Walcott dubbed him our “most underrated writer.  I could not agree more.

The Times reported Salter was born in New York City and attended the Horace Mann School in Riverdale.  His father had graduated first in his class at West Point in 1918, and Salter became a cadet.  Upon graduation, he joined the Army Air Corps.  He served in Korea, where he shot down one MIG and damaged another.  His experiences as a fighter pilot became the inspiration for one of his early stories, “A Single Daring Act.”  After achieving the rank of major, he abruptly resigned to devote his full efforts to writing.  In 1956, he had his first novel published, The Hunter.  He also spent some time as a screenwriter.  His writing credits include the cult film “Downhill Racer.”

His latest work, All That Is, carries this reputation forward.  This is his first novel since 1979.  Poetic and literary, Salter chronicles the life of Philip Bowman.  The novel opens with Midshipman Bowman on a carrier under attack by the Japanese in the days before the invasion of Okinawa.  After the war, he returns to America and becomes a book editor.
The novel has an intricate web of characters who come in and out of Bowman’s life.  Despite his frightening experiences in the Pacific, Bowman seems obsessed with water and conquering lingering fears.  Swimming figures in a number of his relationships.  He attracts, beautiful, wealthy women, but he seems unable to hold onto them – they slip through his fingers line a handful of water. 

In an epigram in All That Is, James Salter writes, “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”  A writer’s writer indeed!  No more quotes, I want you to experience this outstanding writer entirely on your own.  I believe his reputation will endure.

--Chiron, 5/14/13