Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems edited by Mark Eisner

According to the Poetry Foundation, Pablo Neruda was born Ricardo Eliecer NeftalĂ­ Reyes Basoalto in southern Chile on July 12, 1904.  He led a life charged with poetic and political activity.  In 1923 he sold all of his possessions to finance the publication of his first book, Twilight, which was issued under the pseudonym "Pablo Neruda" to avoid conflict with his family, who disapproved of his occupation.  The following year, he found a publisher for Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.  The book made a celebrity of Neruda, who gave up his studies at the age of twenty to devote himself to his craft.  In 1939, he was named Chilean Consul to Mexico.  Upon returning to Chile in 1943, he was elected to the Senate but was expelled for his leftist political views, and he went into hiding.  In 1952 Neruda returned to Chile, and for the next twenty-one years, he continued a career that integrated private and public concerns and became known as the people's poet.  During this time, Neruda received numerous prestigious awards, including the International Peace Prize in 1950, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.  Forty years ago, on September 23, 1973, the man widely regarded as one of the greatest Latin-American poets, died of leukemia in Santiago, Chile.

I have come to love and reread and read again so many of his poems, picking a representative sample is difficult.  One of my favorites comes from his second book, Twenty Love Poems, ”Leaning into the Evenings.”  “Leaning into the evenings I throw my sad nets to your ocean eyes. // There my loneliness stretches and burns in the tallest bonfire, / arms twisting like a drowning man’s. // I cast red signals over your absent eyes / which lap like the sea at the lighthouse shore. // You guard only darkness, my distant female, / sometimes the coast of dread emerges from your stare. // Leaning into the evenings I toss my sad nets / to that sea which stirs your ocean eyes. // The night birds peck at the first stars / that twinkle like my soul as I love you. // Night gallops on her shadowy mare / scattering wheat stalks over the fields.” // (5).

New York Times Book Review critic, Selden Rodman wrote, “No writer of world renown is perhaps so little known to North Americans as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.”  New York Review of Books critic John Leonard wrote, Neruda “was, I think, one of the great ones, a Whitman of the South.”

 Several writers claim Neruda is difficult to translate, and what has appeared in English represents only a small portion of his work.  Others criticize him for his leftist views.  Ignore his politics, and bathe yourself in his verse.  Here is a brief excerpt from “Poetry,”  “And it was at that age … poetry arrived / in search of me.  I don’t know how, I don’t know where / it came from, from winter or a river / I don’t know how or when, / no, they weren’t voices, they were not / words, nor silence, / but from a street it called me, / from the branches of the night, / abruptly from the others, / among raging fires / or returning alone, / there it was, without a face, / and it touched me // (167).  Let Neruda touch your heart.  You will be forever changed.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 9/20/13

A Question of Power by Bessie Head

While reading Alice Walker’s A Temple of My Familiar, I noticed a couple of mentions of a South African writer, Bessie Head.  Normally, these references are part of the fiction, but what I read sounded authentic and vaguely familiar.  I was wrong about the familiarity, but Bessie Head was quite real indeed.

According to her website, “Bessie Amelia Head never knew her real parents: an unstable white woman and an unknown black man.  She was born and raised in apartheid South Africa.  There she suffered from poverty, racial segregation, and gender discrimination.  She also had to worry about her own "delicate nervous balance."  As a young woman she left South Africa to come to Botswana.  She lived the rest of her life in this country, mostly in Serowe.  Bit by bit she overcame her many formidable obstacles.  One of her passions was letter-writing; she corresponded with hundreds of people from many countries during her life.  At the end she was a famous writer known all around the world”

The site also revealed that Head spent at least two periods in a mental institution.  Her doctors diagnosed her with schizophrenia.  After reading this except, I began to grasp the enormity of the tale Bessie tells in her 1974 novel, A Question of Power.

I will say this right off – this was one of the most intense, moving, and horrific descriptions of mental illness I have ever read.  I have read a number of stories like this, which caused me varying amounts of disturbance.  For example, Lu Hsun’s chilling short story, “A Madman’s Diary.”  But those tales fail to even begin to approach the horror of Elizabeth’s life.

The novel contains numerous scenes of sexual encounters which may or may not directly involve the main character, Elizabeth.  After a while, I felt as though Elizabeth also suffered from what was once known as multiple personality disorder, but which the American Psychological Association now defines in DSM IVTR as “Dissociative Identity Disorder.  The symptoms include: The presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states (each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and self); at least two of these identities or personality states recurrently take control of the person's behavior; the inability to recall important personal information that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness; and the disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., blackouts or chaotic behavior during Alcohol Intoxication) or a general medical condition (e.g., complex partial seizures).

Some pages I could barely get through; others I had to read and reread, and sometimes go over again to grasp the significance.  I frequently thought, “I can’t read anymore.”  But I kept coming back.  The middle of the novel described a lucid period in Elizabeth’s life, but it ends with another breakdown and an extensive period of hospitalization.

This wonderful section, of a relatively happy and peaceful sojourn in the village of Motabeng, depicted Elizabeth helping the local residents establish gardens to grow fresh vegetables.  This part of the story was filled with love, friendship, and compassion.  However, the entire novel suffered from poor editing.  I found dozens od spelling errors in the book.  Despite all this, I want to read more of Bessie Head.  Her award winning novel, Maru is on my radar, but A Question of Power will haunt me for quite a while.  5 stars

--Chiron, 9/15/13

A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke

When I was in 7th grade, I discovered Jules Verne.  I read several of his books, and fell in love with science fiction.  I began reading Ray Bradbury’s epic series beginning with Dune.  I watched films such as Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still.  I tackled the two volume story, When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide.  This last, by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, occupies one slot in the top five best SciFi thrillers.  But the number one spot is firmly held by Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust.

After finishing an intense novel set in Botswana in the final days of apartheid, I decided something light was in order.  I do not know how many years it has been since I last read Moondust, or Clarke, or even any SciFi for that matter, but Clarke’s novel seemed to be exactly what the librarian ordered.  I have been searching for a hardback first edition with no luck, so all I have now is a worn and yellowed paper back from the 60s.  Oh how the years have altered my reading habits!  I wondered if this novel would stand the test of neglect I had imposed on it.

From the first page, Clarke’s brilliant and clever prose drew me in, but I began to notice a series of time stamps he had unwittingly written into his novel.  His foresight was most definitely NOT 20/20.  For example, I laugh when I watch Forbidden Planet and the captain lifts a microphone from a console with a retractable wire to address the crew.  Likewise, Clarke did not imagine some things that would make us cringe today.  Male characters notice, and comment on, physical characteristics of women.

Bu the most astounding thing I discovered involved the plot.  As I was making notes for this review, I began to feel as if I recognized some of the characters.  I began making a list, and suddenly, it dawned on me – the plot of Moondust had a remarkable resemblance to the 1972 film, The Poseidon Adventure, based on a novel by Paul Gallico, with a screenplay by Stirling Siliphant.

Both involve a set of tourists, stranded in a boat after a natural disaster.  Each story has a charismatic leader, who has the talent and confidence to lead the others to safety.  In the final scene of the film, the survivors reach the stern of the capsized ship and bang on the floor/ceiling.  A return thumping lets the survivors know of their imminent rescue.  A similar situation occurs in Moondust. 

I think I need to get a copy of Gallico’s novel and make a closer comparison.  Unfortunately, Paul Gallico died in 1978, but research might reveal another reader who noticed the difference, or – better yet – an acknowledgment by Gallico of his inspiration.  After all, if Irving Block could write a short story loosely based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, why couldn’t Gallico been inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust?

 My next book club read is also science fiction, so I am glad I am easing into that work by returning to those wild days of my youth when Arthur C. Clarke thrilled and inspired me to write my first story of horses, about which I knew almost nothing, and alien abductions, about which I knew even less.  Thankfully, that manuscript is long lost.  But Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust has hung in there as my favorite work of science fiction.  5 stars

--Jim, 9/21/13

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

 At some point in their teen years, every adolescent thinks their parents are weird.  I would recommend Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang to those teens for a vivid picture of a family seriously in need of therapy.  This clever and off-beat novel is not completely dark, because Wilson loads it with humor.

Caleb and Camille Fang are performance artists.  Caleb disdains all forms of representational art, because he believes art is in the reaction of a random, surprised audience.  Camille has a secret about art of her own.  The couple has two children, Annie and Buster, whom they refer to “Child A and Child B,” as though secret code names were required for their clandestine art attacks.  Caleb has managed to convince numerous art organizations and foundations to support this work to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As the reader might expect, when Annie and Buster grow up, they reject the forced participation in their parent’s pieces.  Wilson writes: “Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art.  Their children called it mischief.  ‘You make a mess and then walk away from it,’ [Annie] told them.  ‘It’s a lot more complicated than that, honey’ Mrs. Fang said […].  ‘But there’s a simplicity in what we do as well,’ Mr. Fang said.  ‘Yes, there is that, too,’ his wife replied.  Annie and […] Buster said nothing.  They were driving toward Huntsville, two hours away, because they did not want to be recognized.  Anonymity was a key element of the performances;” (1).  As the novel progresses, the events become more and more bizarre. 

Oddly enough, Buster and Annie both choose careers in the arts – Annie as a actress and Buster as a writer.  After Annie goes through with a public act – at the urging of Caleb -- she nearly ruins her career.   She runs away with a friend.  Wilson writes, “Wyoming, to Annie, was represented by a blank, bleak space in her imagination.  It was a place she could hide.  The worst that could happen would be she would sleep with Daniel and then get eaten by a wolf.  She could live with that” (96).  Dark humor indeed.

Buster has written a well-received novel, but he suffers from writer’s block.  A fan asks him to speak to a creative writing class, Buster sets up a bizarre and scary situation.  One student says, “‘I think about that kind of [weird] stuff a lot.’  // Buster smiled.  If he had any money in his pocket, he would have given it to this guy.  ‘Well, that’s why I write, I guess.  These weird thoughts come into my head, and I don’t even really want to think about it, but I can’t let go of it until I take it as far as I can, until I reach some kind of ending, and then I can move on.  That’s what writing is like for me’.” (130).

Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang is a novel of a funny and quirky family; however, he has placed quite a twist at the end, which, while unexpected, seems completely plausible, considering the characters of Caleb and Camille.  A great book club read.  5 stars

--Chiron, 9/7/13