Sunday, December 29, 2013

"The Lady with the Dog" by Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov was born January 17, 1860 in Taganrog, Ukraine.  Chekhov studied medicine, and he began writing sketches for newspapers to pay his tuition.  This profession brought him into contact with peasants, the nobility, and his peers.  These experiences informed all his work.  In 1892, he gave up medicine and devoted himself full time to writing.  In 1901, Chekhov married Olga Knipper, who had performed in his plays.  Unfortunately for Olga, Chekhov died on July 15, 1904, the day his masterpiece for the theater, The Cherry Orchard, opened.  He is buried in Moscow.

He brought theater into the 20th century by focusing on the declining fortunes of the bourgeoisie, with the revolution of 1917 just around the corner.  His plays remain popular, and theater-goers can frequently find one of his plays performed from Broadway and London’s West End, to the tiniest community theater.

Olga and Anton
But many writers and readers also consider Chekhov one of the great masters of the short story.  He wrote hundreds in his life time – some of them in under an hour.  My set of the complete stories runs to over 1300 pages.  The crowning jewel of this set is “The Lady with the Dog” written in 1897.  He set the story in Yalta, where he was recovering from an illness.  I have read this story countless times, and it never fails to move me.

Chekhov wrote, “Dmitri Gurov, who had been a fortnight at Yalta, […] had begun to take an interest in new arrivals.  Sitting in Verney’s pavilion, he saw, walking on the sea-front, a fair-haired young lady of medium height, wearing a beret; a white Pomeranian dog was running behind her.”  //  And afterwards he met her in the public gardens and in the square several times a day. […] no one knew who she was, and everyone called her simply “the lady with the dog.”  (323).

Unfortunately, Gurov and Anna, both have spouses and difficult relationships with them.  Gurov “did not like to be at home.”  He considered women, “the lower race,” despite the fact “he could not get on for two days together without [them].”  (323)  Anna has serious misgivings about the relationship, but they begin an affair.  “In another month, he fancied, the image of Anna would be shrouded in a mist in his memory.”  (330)  Sadly, this did not occur.  Chekhov writes, “Anna [...] did not visit him in his dreams, but followed him about everywhere like a shadow and haunted him.  When he shut his eyes he saw her as though she were living before him, and she seemed to him lovelier, younger, more tender than she was; […] In the evenings she peeped out at him from the bookcase, from the fireplace, from the corner – he heard her breathing, the caressing rustle of her dress.  In the street he watched the women, looking for someone like her.”  (331)

This romantic and touching story of two people who meet and discover they are soul mates never grows old for me.  Try Chekhov – virtually every anthology contains the splendid story, “The Lady with the Dog.”  5 stars

Monday, December 16, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

 Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize.  The novel tells a fictionalized account of the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in 16th-century England.  Every single page of this interesting novel carries the story forward and causes an imperceptible and complete immersion into the lives of these characters.  Mantel became the first woman to win two Man Booker Prizes, when the committee awarded her the 2012 prize for the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies.  I am now awaiting the final volume in this trilogy The Mirror and the Light.

Bring Up the Bodies seamlessly picks up the story where Wolf Hall ended.  Thomas Cromwell is garnering wealth and power while maneuvering amid the complicated and difficult maze that was Tudor England and the Court of Henry VIII.  Anne Boleyn has a daughter Elizabeth and has suffered several miscarriages.  Henry begins to lose patience with Anne, and his eyes have fallen upon Jane Seymour.  Meanwhile, Thomas plays a thrilling, complicated, and enormous chess match with his life, his fortune, and his family at stake.
Hilary Mantel

I have long been fascinated with the Tudor period, and I have a collection of biographies for every major figure of the family and the court, from Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lady Jane Gray, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.  Mantel vividly captures the intrigue, the treachery, the spies, the volatile moods of Henry, as well as the passion, the loves, and she paints wonderfully interesting portraits.  The chess game Cromwell plays extends far beyond England to Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the Low Countries, and all the little nooks and crannies in between.

Henry VIII
Mantel mesmerized me again from the first page of Bring Up the Bodies.  Thomas visits Wolf Hall, his estate, and Mantel writes, “You may find a bride in the forest, old Seymour had said.  When he closes his eyes she slides behind them, veiled in cobwebs and splashed with dew.  Her feet are bare, entwined in roots, her feather hair flies into the branches; her finger, beckoning, is a curled leaf.  She points to him, as sleep overtakes him.  His inner voice mocks him now: you thought you were going to get a holiday at Wolf Hall.  You thought there would be nothing to do here except the usual business, war and peace, famine, traitorous connivance; a failing harvest, a stubborn populace, plague ravaging London and the king losing his shirt at cards.  You were prepared for that” (25-26).  This passage brilliantly illuminates the Tudor period.

Thomas Cromwell
As in Wolf Hall, Mantel provides a detailed list of characters and their individual domains, as well as a family tree.  This information greatly aids the reader unfamiliar with the time period.  Mantel’s novels are a stunning and outstanding introduction to an important and pivotal period in world history.  I will be sorely disappointed if the trilogy does not win a third Booker Prize for The Mirror and the Light.  But start with Wolf Hall, go on to Bring Up the Bodies, and you will find yourself anxiously awaiting the final volume of the trilogy.  5 platinum stars.

--Chiron, 12/14/13

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

On December 17th of 1843, Charles Dickens published his iconic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol.  Everyone is familiar with the details and characters: Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim, and the visits of the three ghosts, Christmases Past, Present, and “Yet to Come.”  The initial printing of 6,000 copies sold out in a few days and has been popular ever since.  Dickens received credit for helping revive interest in old Christmas customs, including Christmas trees and the recently introduced Christmas cards.  However, another tale hovers around the edges of Christmas reading – “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas.  This prose work, originally written for radio, was recorded by Thomas in 1952.  It takes a nostalgic view of Christmas from an earlier, simpler time. 

Thomas was born in Swansea, Wales in 1914, and dropped out of school at 16.  He first worked as a journalist, but his poem, "Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines" in 1934, laid the foundation for his literary reputation.  Thomas and his family lived hand-to-mouth in the Welsh fishing village of Laugharne.  He found it difficult to earn a living as a writer, so he turned to radio and speaking and reading tours.  “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” became his most popular work, along with the poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.”  Thomas’ Christmas tale is warm and pleasing to the mind.  He begins the story like this,

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now […] out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six” (296).

Thomas then begins his nostalgic recollections, “Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the colour of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlours, [… and while…] we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.  But here a small boy says: ‘It snowed last year, too.  I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down, and I knocked my brother down, and then we had tea’.” (297-298).

He continues, “For dinner, we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large, moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little, and slept.  Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro” (301).

Sure sounds like many of my childhood Christmas memories at my grandparent’s home.  Start a new tradition and read Dickens and Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” around the tree on Christmas Eve.  5 stars

--Chiron, 12/16/13

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Enon by Paul Harding

In 2010, I reviewed the year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding.  For some odd reason, I do not usually follow the Pulitzer, but a friend recommended the book, and I did end up enjoying it very much.  Tinkers tell the story of the last days of George Crosby, a clockmaker.  The psychological insights were profound and really held my attention on every page.  The novel turned out not at all morbid or depressing.  Now, the waning days of 2013 has brought me Harding’s sequel of sorts, Enon, which tells the story of Charles Crosby, George’s grandson.  Harding sprinkles flashbacks to Charles’ adventures with George, and the lessons he learned from him.

Charles and Susan are married with a 13 year-old daughter, Kate.  Charles never finished college, and works as a handyman, landscaper, and painter.  Susan hales from Minnesota of solid Finnish roots.  Harding writes of Susan’s family, “They were always affectionate toward me, but I was certain they were disappointed that their daughter had taken up with me” (13).    

Harding opens the novel with dreadful news, “Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children.  I am the exception.  My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago.  She was thirteen.  My wife, Susan, and I separated soon afterward” (3).

I have heard many people say the worst thing any parent can experience is the loss of a child.  I have a son, and I cannot imagine the utter anguish and devastation I would feel if something happened to him.  This novel opens a window on that terrible world, but – spoiler alert – Enon has a reasonably good ending, which I found most satisfying.  All along, I expected the worst to happen to Charles as he spiraled out of control after Susan moved back to her parents’ home.

Before the birth of Kate, the marriage was on the thinnest of ice, but Harding writes, “When Kate was finally born and Susan saw her for the first time, the faraway look in her eyes vanished. […] Kate bound us back together.  Or really, we were each separately fully bound to Kate and thereby to each other through our single, cherished daughter, and that was fine by us.  After all, we did have a sort of real love for one another, or I did for Susan and she had a deep affection for me” (29).

But Kate’s death snapped these tenuous bonds, and Charles was left alone.  He breaks his hand and becomes addicted to painkillers, and sinks further into drug and alcohol abuse.  However, a chance encounter with a friend of Kate’s while contemplating suicide, turns his entire life around.

I never wanted to stop reading this novel.  I kept pulling for Charles.  I wanted to help rescue him.  Harding’s prose constantly reverts to the theme of loss, and in the end, we all realize loss is inevitable -- along with grief and suffering.  Charles overcame his grief, and the novel ends with him well along the road to recovery.

In one poignant scene, Charles and Kate – on one of their many walks in the woods -- searched for an old cabin from Charles’ childhood.  Harding writes, “‘There was an old cabin here when I was a kid, Kate,’ I whispered out loud, still scratching a little at the underbrush with my foot, half-looking for a threshold.  ‘But it’s gone, just disappeared, like it never even existed.’  I turned back to the path and resumed walking” (45).

Unlike the cabin, Charles will never forget Kate.  Even at his worst, the memory of Kate keeps surfacing.  That is what held Charles together and enabled him to get to the point of beginning his acceptance and recovery.  Enon by Paul Harding is an amazing tale of a most difficult subject told with sympathy and grace. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/8/13