Saturday, March 29, 2014

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I recently reviewed My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, and she inspired me to return – for the third time – to one of my all-time favorite novels: Middlemarch by George Eliot.  Fortunately, on my first two reads, I used two different pencils, so I was able to compare my readings as I went along.

First page of the manuscript of Middlemarch
According to the BBC History Website, George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, one of the leading English novelists of the 19th century.  She was born on November 22, 1819 in rural Warwickshire. When her mother died in 1836, Eliot left school to help run her father's household. In 1841, she moved with her father to Coventry and lived with him until his death in 1849. Eliot then travelled in Europe, eventually settling in London.  In 1850, Eliot began contributing to the Westminster Review, a leading journal for philosophical radicals and later became its editor.  She was now at the centre of a literary circle through which she met George Henry Lewes, with whom she lived until his death in 1878.  Lewes was married and their relationship caused a scandal.  Eliot was shunned by friends and family.  Lewes encouraged Eliot to write. In 1856, she began a series of novels, which proved to be great successes.  She used a male pen name to ensure her works were taken seriously in an era when female authors were usually associated with romantic novels.  The popularity of Eliot's novels brought social acceptance, and Lewes and Eliot's home became a meeting place for writers and intellectuals.  After Lewes' death Eliot married a friend, John Cross, who was 20 years her junior. She died on December 22 1880 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery in North London.

Eliot underscored the importance of teaching reading and the humanities when she wrote in a letter to Frederic Harrison the following:  “aesthetic teaching is the highest of all teaching because it deals with life in its highest complexity” (593).  This quintessential novel of the nineteenth century conveys, in a wonderfully entertaining fashion, the complex tangled web of love, marriage, and relationships.

My worn Norton Edition has hundreds of passages underlined and annotated.  The attempt to encapsulate this novel in a single passage proves almost impossible.  So, I decided to quote the opening passage, which describes the main character:

“Miss Brooks had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.  Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible, -- or from one of our elder poets, -- in a paragraph of today’s newspaper.  She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common sense” (1).

Middlemarch by George Eliot is one of the great novels of British Literature.  Rather than simply read, it should be experienced.  Do not be deterred by its 578 pages.  You will visit Middlemarch and soon return after what will seem like the briefest of vacations.  5 stars

--Chiron, 3/22/14

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras is most known for her screenplay of the successful 1959 French film Hiroshima Mon Amour, directed by Alain Resnais.  However, my favorite of her books is the faintly autobiographical novel The Lover, published in 1984, which won the prestigious Goncourt Prize in French literature, given by the Académie Goncourt to the author of "the best and most imaginative prose work of the year."

Duras was born in French Indochina (now Vietnam), after her parents responded to a campaign by the French government encouraging people to move in the colony.  Marguerite's father fell ill soon after their arrival, and returned to France, where he died. After his death, her mother, a teacher, remained in Indochina with her three children. The family lived in relative poverty after her mother made a bad investment in an isolated property. The experience greatly influenced her writing. An affair between the teenaged Marguerite and a rich merchant, provided the basis for The Lover.  She also reported being beaten by her mother and her older brother.
At 17, Marguerite went to France, where she began studying mathematics.  This she soon changed to political science and then law.  In the late 1930s she worked for the French government office representing the colony of Indochina.  From 1942 to 1944, she worked for the Vichy government in an office that allocated paper to publishers, but she was also a member of the French Resistance. In 1943, she published her first novel, Les Impudents, using the pen name “Duras” after a village where her father owned a home.  Her early novels were romantic and conventional; however, she gradually became more experimental. The Lover became a New York Times best seller.  April 4, 2014 would have been the centenary of her birth. 

The Lover tells the story of a young girl living in French Indochina with her mother and two brothers.  The novel is a detailed psychological exploration of a young girl’s “coming of age” and search for love in a dysfunctional family.  Her descriptions are ethereal and haunting.  Duras wrote,

“I can’t really remember the days.  The light of the sun blurred and annihilated all color.  But the nights, I remember them.  The blue was more distant than the sky, beyond all depths, covering the bounds of the world.  The sky, for me, was the stretch of pure brilliance crossing the blue, that cold coalescence beyond all color.  Sometimes, it was in Vinh Long, when my mother was sad she’d order the gig and we’d drive out into the country to see the night as it was in the dry season.  I had that good fortune – those nights, that mother.  The light fell from the sky in cataracts of pure transparency, in torrents of silence and immobility.  The air was blue and you could hold it in your hand.  Blue.  The sky was the continual throbbing of the brilliance of the light.  The night lit up everything, all the country on either bank of the river as far as the eye could reach.  Every night was different, each one had a name as long as it lasted.  Their sound was that of the dogs, the country dogs baying at mystery.  They answered one another from village to village, until the time and space of the night were utterly consumed.”  (82).

The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, first came to my attention after seeing the film Hiroshima Mon Amour.  I have wanted to get back to it for quite a few years, and I am glad I did.  This read, I enjoyed it even more than I did 30 years ago.  5 stars

--Chiron, 3/19/14

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

One of the delights of belonging to a book club comes from reading books which might never have come across my radar.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan has become the latest in a long list of wonderful reads suggested by my friends and colleagues.

Robin Sloan’s first novel was enthusiastically recommended by one of the regular members of my club.  Because of teaching responsibilities, I did not sit down to read this novel until a bare 72 hours before the meeting.  After I had only reached page nine, I knew I would love this novel.

The author’s note in the book has only a single sentence: “Robert Sloan grew up in Michigan and now splits his time between San Francisco and the Internet.”

Clay Jannon designs websites for a bagel company, but the great recession of 2008 intervenes, and the company goes under.  He has no luck finding a job, until one day he happens to pass Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which has a “help wanted” sign in the window.  Nearing desperation, he enters to inquire about the job.  He immediately discovers that he has not entered an ordinary book store.  The shelves, which line the walls, go up 30 feet.  A tall, soft spoken, skinny man emerges, and asks, “What do you seek in these shelves?” (8).  He responds, “I am looking for a job” (9).  When Clay admits he has no bookstore experience, Mr. Penumbra says, “Tell me about a book you love.” // “it’s not one book, but a series.  It’s not the best writing and it’s probably too long and the ending is terrible, but I’ve read it three times, and I met my best friend because we were both obsessed with it back in sixth grade.” // “I love The Dragon-Song Chronicles” (9). 

Clay gets the job, and begins to understand exactly how unusual this bookstore really is.  First of all, he rarely has more than one customer a week, and he or she never buys anything.  The customers return a large book, wrapped in brown paper, and ask for another.  Clay checks the computer catalog for the shelf number, takes the customer’s account number, climbs the ladder, retrieves the book, which he wraps in brown paper, and the customer leaves with another book. 

Mr. Penumbra has warned Clay not to look at the books, so this already provides enough mystery for a whole sack of detective stories.  To while aware the night, Clay plays with his laptop and begins making a digital map of the store.  He discovers a peculiar pattern in the books returned and taken.  He meets a young woman, Kat, who works for Google, and Clay shares the details of the bookstore with her.

The mystery takes Clay, Kat, and Neel – Clay’s 6th grade best friend – to New York to the main library and headquarters of the company which owns Mr. Penumbra’s.  The library is presided over by strange men, known as readers, who dress in robes reminiscent of medieval monks.  This library contains books similar to the ones at Mr. Penumbra’s.

This only scratches the surface of the story, so I urge you to track down a copy of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, and immediately begin reading.  This intelligent, informative, funny, exciting, interesting, and most difficult to close for the night novel is a must read.  5 stars.
--Chiron, 3/27/14

Friday, March 07, 2014

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

My Sunday mornings are filled with the dawn sky, a cup of tea, the sounds of birds at the feeders, and The New York Times Book Review.  The first feature in the review I look for is “By the Book” – usually an interview with an author who has a new book or won a prize.  Recently, the column featured Alice Hoffman.  The most interesting question in this series is the interviewees “favorite overlooked or under-appreciated writer.”  Hoffman mentioned Penelope Lively, so I decided to read Moon Tiger, Lively’s 1987 Man Booker Prize-winning novel. 

According to her website, Penelope was born in Cairo, Egypt.  She came to England at the age of twelve and went to boarding school in Sussex.  She subsequently read Modern History at St. Anne's College, Oxford.  Lively now has six grandchildren and lives in London.  She has written 20 novels along with several works of non-fiction and a whole shelf of children’s books.

Moon Tiger is the story of Claudia Hampton, who lies in a bed and passes in and out of consciousness.  She has written historical works and decides she will write a history of the world.  The novel alternates between lucid moments, plans for the history, and remembering her visits to those places.  When doctors, nurses, her daughter, Lisa, or her sister-in-law, Sylvia, stop by for visits, she chats a bit but then falls asleep.  She delineates the chapters of her book, but she always slides toward recalling visits to those places while a correspondent during World War II.  Interestingly enough, these “out-of-consciousness” moments shift between first and third person accounts.  The “History of the World” slowly devolves into a “History of Claudia.”

I found these changes in point of view a bit disconcerting at first, but once I became accustomed to them, the novel carried me along to Egypt.  From that point on, I could hardly put it down. 

Claudia has some disdain for Sylvia.  Lively writes, “She has given little trouble.  She has devoted herself to children and houses.  A nice, old-fashioned girl, Mother called her, at their third meeting, seeing quite correctly through the superficial disguise of pink fingernails, swirling New Look skirts and a cloud of Mitsouko cologne spray.  There was a proper wedding, which Mother loved, with arum lilies, little bridesmaids and a marquee on the lawn of Sylvia’s parents’ home at Farnham.  I declined to be matron of honour and Gordon got rather drunk at the reception.  They spent their honeymoon in Spain and Sylvia settled down to live, as she thought, happily ever after in North Oxford” (23).  I detected a note of jealousy, because Claudia and Gordon were rather close.

Penelope Lively
 So, I have another check mark on my journey through the Man Booker Prize Novels, and I continue to believe this prize represents the best literary fiction.  Alice Hoffman was correct.  Penelope Lively is most definitely underappreciated, and Moon Tiger is a great example of her work.  I have one more of her novels, and then … but you know what I am going to say.  5 stars

--Chiron, 3/7/14

Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens

I first read this book nearly 30 years ago when first published in paperback.  The story has not aged and still enthralls.  Two young American graduate students sell everything they own to purchase a round-trip ticket to South Africa.  They board the plane with about $6,000, and buy train tickets in Johannesburg for Gaberone, Botswana.  Arriving there, they burn through quite a bit of their money waiting for permits to study the wildlife on a game preserve.  A few months later, they buy what supplies they can, including a beat up Land Rover, and set off for the Kalahari Desert with the idea of finding some unstudied animal life.  No experience in the desert and nothing more to guide them than their love and enthusiasm for wildlife speak of tremendous courage and dedication.

Cry of the Kalahari is the story of Mark and Delia Owens' years in Africa.  When their adventure began, in the middle 70s, they had great respect for the animals and the environment.  They carefully observed lions, leopards, jackals, and brown hyenas, along with the myriad ungulates, birds, rodents, reptiles, and insects, while trying not to intrude or disturb them in the least. 

The area of the desert they chose had never been visited by humans.  They made friends with lions and much of the other wild life they encountered.  At first, surrounded by a pride of curious lions, Mark and Delia, seem scared but calm.  Gradually, the lions accepted them as part of the landscape.  Numerous photos depict the close contact between the Owens and the big cats, as well as hyenas, which became the principal focus of their work.

Mark and Delia Owens
The couple shared the writing of the book, and the chapters written by Delia display a somewhat more technical style, while those by Mark are more concerned with observing the landscape, the wild life, and the climate.

Today the couple runs the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation based in Stone Mountain, GA.  Their website is .  Donations are welcome.  Their story is also the struggle for preservation of the predators of the Kalahari, as well as a constant struggle for funding to continue their work.

If you love animals, adventure, courage, with funny moments mixed in, Mark and Delia Owens' Cry of the Kalahari is a must-read.  Five stars.

--Chiron,' 3/1/15