Monday, December 29, 2014

An Italian Wife by Ann Hood

I met Ann Hood back in 1989 at an American Booksellers Association Convention.  Her line was not long, but the novel she signed seemed intriguing.  I liked it, but it did not overwhelm me.  Recently, I stumbled upon The Obituary Writer published in 2013, and that gave me a whole new view of Ms. Hood.  Her latest novel, An Italian Wife, represents quite a departure from her earlier works I have read.

This explicit novel tells the story of four generations of Italian women.  It begins with Josephine, then her seven children, seven grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren.  What all these women show is the transformation in the way women view and react to the men in their lives.  It covers them through World War I, World War I, and into VietNam.

Josephine is an entirely innocent 14-year-old when her mother marries her off to a man eleven years her senior.  After a horrific wedding night, he promptly leaves for America, promising to send for her when he has established himself in the new world.  Fortunately, Josephine does not conceive a child, and nine years later, word comes she will leave for America within a few days.  Now 23, Josephine does not want to leave her family, friends, and familiar routine.

In an example of this transformation, Hood describes the experience of Francesca, Josephine’s oldest grandchild, who lost her husband at Normandy.  She writes, “Francie Partridge grew up Francesca Caserta less than a mile from Meadowbrook Plat.  As she navigated the familiar path home, her car filled with the lilacs she had gathered for her grandmother, Francie felt like she was driving a long distance, traveling to a place far away.  Once she passed the French church, where the French Canadians went to mass, she entered the Italian part of town.  Instantly, everything looked different.  Vegetable gardens replaced backyards; shrines to the Virgin Mary stood in place of barbecue grills or patio furniture; fig trees and cherry trees dotted yards instead of leafy maples and elms.  People sat on front steps and sidewalks.  Men at folding tables at the edge of the street played cards, smoked cigars, drank homemade wine.  Everyone was yelling – fighting, calling children, talking too loud.  Francie hated it here.  Hated the noise, the smells, the plastic Virgins watching her” (179).

Each generation of women has a completely different attitude toward sex.  Warning: the novel contains numerous scenes of explicit sexual encounters of all sorts.  I did not see this in The Obituary Writer, which I recently reviewed and enjoyed.  I do not recall this from her earlier work, either.  However, she shows how women have been “bought and sold” and used and abused over the years.  Until they begin to control their own bodies in the seventies.  The novel also traces radical changes in the attitude these women had toward religion. 

While some readers may be offended, Hood paints a terrific portrait of the changes women have endured, desired, and accepted over the years.  In addition, she shows how war has destroyed veterans and torn families apart.  This excellent, absorbing novel deserves 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/29/14

Monday, December 22, 2014

Odd Books:Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock & The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

An interesting sort of books these days are those with something more than printed words on the page.  These books have nooks and crannies for peeks into some secret worlds.  Sometimes they have strange and bizarre art work.  I am not talking about graphic novels.

Nick Bantock has created a series of four books beginning with Griffin and Sabine.  Griffin receives a strange and beautifully decorated post card with an exotic postmark from Sabine.  Naturally intrigued, he writes back and thus begins a correspondence every bit as strange, beautiful, and exotic as the first post card.  Some pages have envelopes attached.  Lifting the flap reveals a folded letter.  This window into the mysterious Sabine made me feel as though I had eavesdropped on a growing romance.

The story takes numerous twists and turns over the three volumes which follow, including, Sabine’s Notebook, The Gryphon, and The Golden Mean.  They all take the story on twists and turns around the globe with a quite mysterious ending.

Haruki Murakami adds to this genre with The Strange Library.  This unusual volume has flaps which fold over the top and bottom, and it only needs a wax seal to complete the strangeness of this story.  A child who loves books, returns a few to the local library with the intention of borrowing several others.  Then a slightly strange and scary man invites the boy to look at some interesting books he might like in Room 107 in the basement of the library.  The boy is locked in a room with four folio sized books about taxation in the ottoman empire – a topic he inquired about for his next borrowings.  The librarian tells him he must memorize all four volumes, or he would suffer unspeakable pains.  A friendly jailer visits him and fills in some information, but he encourages the boy to memorize if her ever wants to escape Room 107.  The a mysterious, ethereal young girl approaches and offers a means of escape.

Together these three attempt to escape this nightmare.  The young boy who narrates the story frets about his mother who expects him home for dinner and his pet starling. 
The ghostly girl delivers gourmet meals to the boy, and another weird character, the “Sheepman” brings donuts for an afternoon snack.

Haruki Murakami
Nick Bantock
The circulation librarian checks his returned unusual books – How to Build a Submarine and memoirs of a Shepherd.  The woman directs him to the basement and room 107.  In his typical style, Murakami describes the strange librarian.  “A little old man sat behind a little old desk in the middle of the room.  Tiny black spots dotted his face like a swarm of flies.  The old man was bald and wore thick lenses.  His baldness looked incomplete; he had frizzy white hairs plastered against both sides of his head.  It looked like a mountain after a big forest fire. // ‘Welcome my boy, […] How may I be of assistance?’ […] ‘I want to learn how taxes were collected in the ottoman Empire’” (Part 2, no pagination). 

Although not described as YA fiction, this tale seems appropriate for older children.  All these books are wonderfully creative excursions into an uncommon literary genre.  They offer a pleasant afternoon of reading.  5 stars

--Chiron, 12/22/14 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Last Night by James Salter

James Salter might be the best, under-appreciated writer working today.  His stories are deft, clever exposes of the inner lives of men and women.  His second novel, Cassada, recounts his experiences in World War II.  He left the military in 1957, after the publication of his first novel, The Hunters.  Last Night is his latest collection, and they exemplify the “slice of life” stories so common these days.  These brief peeks at turmoil and joy, success and disappointment, all leave the reader space to imagine the ending or the consequences.

Salter has written five novels and two works of non-fiction.  His first collection of stories, Dust and Other Stories, won the Pen/Faulkner Award in 1989.  Last Night is his second collection.  These ten stories all delve into relationships – strong and weak, new and old, broken and fixed.  The most intriguing story is the first, “Comet.”  Philip and Adele are about to exchange wedding vows.  Salter writes, “[Philip] didn’t make much money, as it turned out.  He wrote for a business weekly.  [Adele] earned nearly that much selling houses.  She had begun to put on a little weight.  This was a few years after they were married.  She was still beautiful – her face was – but she had adopted a more comfortable outline.  She would get into a drink, the way she had done when she was twenty-five.  Phil, a sport jacket over his pajamas, sat reading.  Sometimes he walked that way on their lawn in the morning.  She sipped her drink and watched him” (6).  The story ends with Walter searching the sky for a comet.  Adele can make it out in the haze of her alcohol consumption.  Now I have to imagine what the comet represents.  That’s the fun of these stories.

Another interesting story is “My Lord You.”  This story describes the interaction among six friends.  Ardis is new to the group, and when Warren arrives intoxicated, he frightens her.  The poet makes a pass at Ardis, and the other shrug it off as a result of his drinking.  Like all of the stories in this collection, an unexpected ending awaits the reader.  “Such Fun” opens a window into the lives of three women – Leslie, Kathrin, and Jane -- who dissect their relationships, past, present, and potential.  This story has the most humor and the least subtlety than the others.

I had a tough time deciding which story I would feature as my favorite.  Because it is last, and because most writers end a collection with their best story of poem, I chose the title story for this honor.

As a touching story, “Last Night,” details the final days of Walter Such’s wife, Marit, who is seriously ill.  With the aid of a physician, the plan is to assist her suicide.  Salter writes, “It was the night they had decided would be the one.  On a saucer in the refrigerator, the syringe lay.  Her doctor had supplied the contents.  But a farewell dinner first, if she were able. It should not be just the two of them, Marit had said.  Her instinct.  They had asked Susanna rather than someone closer and grief-filled, Marit’s sister for example, with whom she was not on good terms anyway, or older friends.  Susanna was younger.  She had a wide face and high, pure forehead.  She looked like the daughter of a professor or banker, slightly errant.  Dirty girl, one of their friends had commented about her, with a degree of admiration” (121).

As a great introduction to this interesting writer, Last Night fits the bill perfectly.  5 stars 

--Chiron, 12/20/14

The Palace of Books by Roger Grenier

When I first heard about Roger Grenier and his latest work, The Palace of Books, I was certainly intrigued.  When I first looked at this book-length essay, I lost some of my enthusiasm, but I began to read with my rule of fifty in the forefront of my mind.  As I neared that “line in the text,” I began to understand Grenier’s ideas, so I accelerated onto the end.  Grenier has written a thoroughly enjoyable analysis of literature for readers and writers.  He organizes this essay – not by genre, time period, author, or country – but by ideas.  He weaves a wonderful tapestry connecting various works dating back to the ancient Greeks and Chinese all the way into the 20th century.  He seems to effortlessly draw examples from the library of his mind.

This slim volume will appeal to anyone interested in reading and/or writing.  He deftly connects quite a few dozen works of literature, because they demonstrate the continuity of devices writers use to accomplish or abandon their intentions in a particular work.  Each chapter poses an idea then takes the reader on a whirl-wind tour of authors who have tackled that problem, or, in some cases, those unable to avoid the inevitable because of death, or worse writer’s block.

My favorite chapter is “Private Life.”  Grenier introduces each chapter of the essay with a question.  For example, “Is knowing the private life of an author important for understanding his or work” (56).  I have always believed the answer to be yes, because the author’s life provides a context for the work.  It may or may not help in the understanding, but at least it becomes a piece of the puzzle.  Grenier seems more concerned with how much weight a reader places on this information.  He writes, “As long as you have not asked yourself a certain number of questions about an author and answered them satisfactorily, if only for your private benefit and sotto voce, you cannot be sure of possessing him [or her] entirely.  And this is true, though these questions may seem to be altogether foreign to the nature of his [or her] writings” (56).  So we agree, at least in part.

Roger quotes Chekhov’s Notebook, “How pleasant it is to respect people!  When I see books, I am not concerned with how the authors loved or played cards; I only see their marvelous works” (58).  He then quotes J.B. Pontalis, who “suggests with a touch of malice that Proust and Freud […] don’t want their own private lives examined: if Proust’s perversion of torturing rats was discovered” (59).  Sometimes this obsession with privacy can have tragic effects.  I recall the destruction of an unfinished novel and the diary of Emily Brontë by her sister Charlotte.  What treasures have we lost?  Should we Google J.B. Pontalis to find out who he is?  I did.  He also quotes a mysterious person I could not identify, known only as “Aragon,” who wrote, “My instinct, whenever I read, is to look constantly for the author, and to find him, to imagine him writing, to listen to what he says, not what he tells; so in the end, the usual distinctions among the literary genres – poetry, novel, philosophy, maxims – all strike me as insignificant” (60).  I am with “young Aragon of 1922.”  Grenier adds, “One retreats into oneself in order to communicate better with others” (61).  If the book has a flaw, it might be the lack of any reference to some of the more obscure writers he mentions.

 Finally, Grenier writes, “If I were asked what a literary creation amounts, to, I would say that it’s about choosing among past or present realities.  Faced with a character or a story, you say to yourself, ‘that one is for me, that one isn’t for me.’  By that I mean it does or doesn’t correspond to my sensibility, my way of understanding life, and finally to an esthetic, to a certain music that emanates from that esthetic.  Memory obviously goes along with choosing and doubtless has already made its own choice” (67).  Amen.

For an interesting tour of literature and a literary mind, I highly recommend The Palace of Books by Roger Grenier.  5 stars

--Chiron, 12/16/14

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

The winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature is French author, Patrick Modiano, but to us in the west, an obscure writer who has written 17 books and won every major literary prize in France.  When the Nobel was announced, I rushed to get a copy of one of his novels, and found only one available in English: Honeymoon.  Since then, several more have surfaced, and I plan on reading those as soon as possible.

Honeymoon is a peculiar novel, intriguing, nonetheless.  It tells the story of Jean B., a documentary film maker who pretends to fly to Rio, but he actually returns to his apartment in suburban Paris.  His intent is to imagine the lives of two people he had met 20 years before while evading the French police and Nazis in Vichy France.  Jean is alone, and he begins to travel with Ingrid, a Danish woman and Rigaud, a French national.  His intentions quickly evolve into an obsession.

Modiano’s prose is plain and simple, but his story-telling ability more than compensates for any perceived or misperceived simplicity in his writing.  The story became so real, I was sometimes startled by tidbits in the story which reminded me I was not in the France of World War II.

Jean B. seeks solitude to unravel the puzzle of the lives of Ingrid and Rigaud.  Modiano writes, “I was lying on the mattress, staring at the sky and the top of the pines.  I could hear shouts coming from the swimming pool, down below, and the sound of people diving.  Above me, between the branches, the play of sun and shade.  I let myself sink into a delightful torpor.  Remembering it now, it seems to me that that was one of the rare moments in my life when I experienced a sense of well-being that I could even call Happiness.  In that semi-somnolent state, occasionally interrupted by a shaft of sunlight piercing the shade of the pines and dazzling me, I considered it perfectly natural that they had taken me home with them, as if we had known each other for a long time.  In any case, I had no choice.  I’d just have to wait and see how things go” (19).

The young Jean B. apparently had a crush on Ingrid, and now, he tries to reassemble her life from fragments of his memory and off-hand remarks she made during their travels.  While in Paris, he makes two discoveries.  The first is a suicide in a Milan hotel he registered in, and the second is a list of seven people living in and around Paris with the surname, Rigaud.  He must decide what to do with this information, while concealing his location from family, friends, and co-workers – some of whom awaited his arrival in Rio de Janeiro.

 While Patrick Modiano uses sparse language – approaching, but not quite reaching the sparseness of Hemingway – this story is thoroughly enjoyable, with just a dash of suspense.  Honeymoon is one of his more popular novels, but I await a delivery from Amazon to discover more treasures by this writer who has escaped my attention.  Thanks, Nobel Committee!  5 stars.

--Chiron, 11/28/14

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

My recent introduction to Donna Tartt and her third novel, The Goldfinch, so overwhelmed me, I craved more of her work.  The Secret History is her first novel, and it proved to be every bit as exciting, suspenseful, and interesting.

I have begun to compare Tartt to Iris Murdoch, the Booker Prize-winning English novelist for the depth and breadth of details and character development.  Like Murdoch, Tartt fills her novels with a large and disparate group of characters.  Unfortunately, Tartt is a slow writer.  So, while her second novel, The Little Friend waits patiently on my TBR pile, I will, most likely have to wait almost decade for her fourth.

The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a transplant from California to Hampden College, an elite New England school.  Richard has previously studied Greek, and when he learns of a charismatic Professor, Julian Morrow, who hand-picks five students, his interest is immediately piqued.  Julian tightly controls his students.  He only allows five, and these select few take courses only with Professor Morrow.  After initial rejections, Richard persists, and is finally admitted to the class.

His classmates are an interesting collection.  Henry Winter, a tall, brilliant scholar, more or less leads the group.  Twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, Francis Abernathy, and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran round out the clique.  All these students come from relatively wealthy families – albeit with varying levels of access to their trust funds.  Richard, however, comes from a middle class family, and he has extremely limited resources.

As to be expected, Tartt provides detailed introductions to each of these characters.  She describes Henry as, “well over six feet – dark haired, with a square jaw, and coarse pale skin.  He might have been handsome had his features been less set, or his eyes, behind the glasses, less expressionless and blank.  He wore dark English suits and carried an umbrella […] and he walked stiffly through the throngs of hippies and beatniks and preppies and punks with the self-conscious formality of an old ballerina, surprising in one so large as he” (17-18). 

Bunny, “smaller [than Henry] -- but not by much – was a sloppy blonde boy, rosy-cheeked and gum-chewing, with a relentlessly cheery demeanor and his fists thrust deep in the pockets of his knee-sprung trousers.  He wore the same jacket every day, a shapeless brown tweed that was frayed at the elbows and short in the sleeves, and his sandy hair was parted on the left, so a long forelock fell over one bespectacled eye” (18). 

Tartt describes Francis as “the most exotic of the set. […] he dressed like Alfred Douglas […] [with] beautiful starchy shirts with French cuffs; magnificent neckties; a black greatcoat that billowed behind him as he walked and made him look like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper” (18).

The twins, “looked very much alike, with heavy dark-blond hair and epicene faces as clear, as cheerful and grave, as a couple of Flemish angels” (18).  Richard instantly develops a crush on Camilla.

The group finds themselves so intensely immersed in Greek and Latin, they frequently speak to each other in these ancient tongues.  They begin experimenting with rituals and celebrations mentioned in Homer, Virgil, and other classical writers.  And then a serious accident occurs, and the group descends – to use Joseph Campbell’s term -- into the belly of the whale.

Despite its length, every page of this thrilling and suspenseful story binds the reader more and more closely to the clique.  I frequently had the eerie sensation I was in the room with Julian and his students.  The Secret History by Donna Tartt rises near to the top of my favorites for 2014.  I can’t wait to get to her second novel.  5 stars.

Chiron, 11/27/14