Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

In order to feed my craving for more of Hilary Mantel, author of two Booker Prize winning novels of the court of Henry VIII, I picked up a copy of the recently published collection of stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.  I have about another year until the third and final volume in the trilogy of Henry, Thomas Cromwell, and the rest of the Tudors of what I consider one of the most interesting dynasties in history.  So these ten stories will have to tide me over until then.

Mantel exercises all of her literary power in this collection.  Only one story – about a 17 year-old-girl with anorexia – disturbed me right out of my enjoyment.  The other nine however, are serious, astute, and pleasurable reads.

The first item, “Sorry to Disturb,” tells a tale of a husband, who never speaks to his wife.  She is affected by an oppressive culture, and her husband’s silence only adds to her misery.  The next, “Comma” is a rather peculiar story of two children – both from average middle class families.  Kitty is precocious and Mary developmentally challenged.  Mary transfers to another school, and and loses touch with Kitty.  They bump into each other on the street years later.

In “The Long QT,” Jody catches her husband kissing Lorraine, and a surprising result occurs.  The next, “Winter Break,” involves a couple on a pre-paid vacation, who jump in the first available taxi, and are off for a bumpy ride.  Bettina works as receptionist in a medical building.  She tries to befriend a peculiar, lonely woman, but that plan backfires in “Harley Street.”  In “Offenses against the Person,” a teen discovers her father’s affair with a co-worker.

One of the most interesting stories is “How Shall I Know You?”  The narrator is on a book tour, and must put up with grungy hotels, terrible food, and an unending series of dull and clichéd questions.  I sense a bit of biography her from Mantel.  “Terminus is a creepy story about a woman who sees her dead relatives on a train.

That brings us to the title story, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983.”  A woman expects a boiler repairman for her home near No. 10 Downing Street.  When the bell rings, she admits him.  He turns out to be an assassin, who takes over her house.  A rather thrilling story to end the collection.

I always enjoy English writers for what they add to my vocabulary.  Hilary Mantel’s collection of short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is intelligent, interesting, and a worthy read.  I don’t “mind the gap” in the Tudor Trilogy as much as I might with these great stories.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 10/23/14

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Back in the tumultuous 60s, I tried Kurt Vonnegut, because everyone had one or another of his books at the ready for spare moments of reading.  Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, and Jailbird seemed to be popular titles.  I read Mother Night, and a little later, Breakfast of Champions, but didn’t care for them at all.  About this time, I began to develop my love for the works of John Updike, so Vonnegut faded from my reading radar.  Recently, a friend suggested Cat’s Cradle, and I owe hearty thanks in that direction.

Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922.  He passed away in 2007.  He is known for his dark humor and imagination.  Graham Greene declared, Vonnegut “was one of the best living American Writers.”  I remember him as a writer everyone read, but no one would admit to owning any of his books. 

Cat’s Cradle is a peculiar book in style, structure, and story-line.  About 125 chapters make up the story, and most are only a page or two.  This fragmented reading can cause some confusion, but large chunks of the book can be digested in each reading.  The narrator, Jonah, wants to write a biography of a scientist involved in the Manhattan Project who had peculiar habits at best.  He wanted to stay working at a small foundry, where his numerous patents were shamefully exploited by his employers.  He also wanted to work with the construction of the bomb, but he wanted to work alone.  When he died, his children scattered, and the narrator must track one of them to a near mythical island in the Caribbean, San Lorenzo.  The islanders all adhere to a mysterious, Zen-like religion, Bokononism, which the dictator has outlawed.  The islanders all follow this religion in secret, because the punishment for practicing it is a slow and painful death on “the hook.”  This tyrant, known as “Papa” Monzano, is near death, and the heir apparent is Frank Hoenikker, son of scientist Dr. Felix Hoenikker the subject of the biography.  Jonah becomes entangled in the politics and religion of the island.
Vonnegut, was, to say the least as peculiar as some of his novels.  Sampling his style here might leave my listeners as bewildered as I was while immersed in the story.  Vonnegut’s moments of humor are as dark as a reader might expect, and those are to be savored.  Here is a small sample, so good luck.  As “Papa” lies dying, he asks for the last rites from his doctor, a shadowy former SS doctor.  Vonnegut writes, “‘I am a very bad scientist.  I will do anything to make a human being feel better, even if it’s unscientific.  No scientist worthy of the name could say such a thing.’  /  And he climbed into the golden boat with ‘Papa.’  He sat in the stern.  Cramped quarters obliged him to have the golden tiller under one arm.  /  He wore sandals without socks and he took these off.  And then he rolled back the covers at the foot of the bed, exposing ‘Papa’s” bare feet.  He put the soles of his feet against ‘Papa’s” feet, assuming the classical position for boko-maru” (219-220).

Cat’s Cradle becomes another novel I have added to the list of works which need to be experienced, rather than merely read.  Readers tend to two extreme views of Vonnegut: either, “I read all his books when I was in college; I love him,” or “Too weird for me!”  I now place myself in the middle of these two extremes.  If you read Vonnegut in the heady days of the 60s – or if you didn’t – he is certainly worth a re-visit.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/17/14

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

I have never done this, but I am going to quote verbatim the author’s biography on the dust jacket of this weird, wild, wonderfully funny book, What If?  Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist, is the creator of the webcomic xkcd and the author of xkcd: volume 0.  The International Astronomical Union recently named an asteroid after him; asteroid 4942 Munroe is big enough to cause a mass extinction if it ever hits a planet like Earth.  He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.”

The subtitle, oddly enough placed above the main title, is “Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.”  I laughed on almost every page, while remembering some of the absurd questions I asked as a youngster.  Sadly, my most absurd question is not here: “What would happen to a ball dropped into a hole which went clear through the planet?”  It was at a Boy Scout Summer Camp, and the recipient of this question, rolled his eyes and said, “Wait, stop, we are way off target here, we are talking about eclipses of the moon!”  I often cut off my students who begin with, “This might be a dumb question…” by telling them “there are no dumb questions, only dumb answers.”  I guess now I will have to add No dumb questions, only some pretty funny absurd ones.”

Here are some examples of Munroe’s wit and humor.  “What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?”  Answer: nearly everyone would die.  Then things would get interesting.  At the equator, the Earth’s surface is moving … a little over a thousand miles an hour,” resulting in “a sudden thousand-mile-per-hour wind. […] everyone and everything between 42 degrees north and 42 degrees south …about 85 percent of the world’s population – would suddenly experience supersonic winds.  The highest winds would only last for a few minutes near the surface; friction from the ground would slow them down.  However, those few minutes would be long enough to reduce virtually all human structures to ruins” (1).

Some of my favorite questions include, “If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince [from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novel, The Little Prince” (102).  I wondered about this the first time I read this wonderful ostensibly children’s story.  Here’s another, “What if I jumped out of an airplane with a couple of tanks of helium and one huge balloon?  Then, while falling, I release the helium and fill the balloon.  How long of a fall would I need in order to slow me enough that I could land safely?” (150).  Some people obviously have way too much time on their hands!  And finally, “If two immortal people were placed on opposite sides of an Earthlike Planet, how long would it take them to find each other?”  He did say absurd questions!  Spoiler alert: 3,000 years.  Other questions involve draining the oceans (204), and guessing on every SAT multiple Choice question (278).

For lots of fun and laughter – and some serious questions – pick up a copy of Randall Munroe’s book, What If? Serious Scientific Questions to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 10/12/14

The Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood

I once drove about six hours from Philadelphia to Boston to hear Margaret Atwood read from her then latest novel, Cat’s Eye.  Set in Toronto, the book was her first novel after A Handmaid’s Tale.  Atwood is a writer I collect assiduously, because I have never read anything she has written that I have not thoroughly enjoyed.  Stone Mattress: Nine Tales is her latest work.  The peculiar title intrigued me, and I want ted to read simply to find out about a stone mattress.  This title story did that and so much more.

All nine stories focus on relationships between men and women.  The first three were lots of fun, since they detail the story of Gavin, a mediocre poet, who did have some early success, and three of his partners.  In the first, “Alphinland” is narrated by Constance, Gavin’s first.  She is a writer, who has penned a popular series of fantasy tales set in Alphinland.  Gavin disdained her work when they were married, but the popularity of the stories has provided Constance with a comfortable lifestyle.  She has put all her friends, family, and Gavin into the stories with only the thinnest of disguises.  Aging rapidly, she wanders around her apartment listening for the voice of her recently departed mate, Ewan.  The voice helps her remember things, such as “take a flashlight” when she walks through a storm to buy some food in a town with no power.  Atwood writes, “What they didn’t understand was that – increasingly – she did take it seriously.  Alphinland was hers alone.  It was her refuge, it was her stronghold; it was where she could go when things with Gavin weren’t working out.  She could walk in spirit through the invisible portal and wander through all the darkling forests and over the shimmering fields, making alliances and defeating enemies, and no one else could come in unless she said they could because there was a five-dimensional spell guarding the entryway” (22).

The second story, “Revenant,” describes Gavin’s last wife, Reynolds.  She tries to keep up Gavin’s reputation, but he is a crusty, mean old man, who does not want the attention.  Reynolds sets up an interview with a graduate student, believing she was interested in Gavin’s poetry.  To his dismay, Naveena’s thesis involves the Alphinland stories, and she wants to confirm the alter ego of Gavin.  Gavin discovers Reynolds has sold his papers to a university.

The third story involves Jorrie a former partner of Gavin, who reads his obituary in the paper.  She decided to attend the ceremony, and discovers all three women are present.  Lots of awkward fun there!

The last two stories, “Stone Mattress” and “Torching the Dusties,” round out the collection and end this marvelous book with two exciting stories.  Sorry, no spoiler alerts!  Read the collection and find out exactly what a “stone mattress” is, and then end up with a thrill ride nearly reminiscent of her great novel, A Handmaid’s Tale.”  

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales will make many readers fans of Margaret Atwood.  The visit to The Harvard Bookstore Café ended with a half dozen of her novels in my collection signed.  And it was worth every mile I drove.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/12/14

You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

My wife has been after me to read You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik for some time.  Finally, I gave in and started to read.  The main character, William Silver, teaches at the International School Paris.  His techniques in the classroom, his method of questioning, his assignments, the readings, and discussions eerily mirror what I do in the classroom.

According to the author’s bio on the back cover, Maksik received teaching and writing fellowships from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  Currently, he holds the Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellow position at the University of Iowa.  You Deserve Nothing
is his first novel – and what an intense and deeply psychological novel it proved to be.

William teaches literature and composition.  The novel centers on a Senior Seminar at the prestigious high school populated mostly by the children of American diplomats and businessmen and women.  Besides William, two other characters narrate the story in separate chapters.  Marie is a 24-year-old woman at the school, Gilad is a 24-year-old man, and Silver is 38.  The first chapter of each character gives the age, and I was confused, because I believed this to be a high school, which I confirmed by researching the school.  Other interesting characters include Arial, a stunningly beautiful young woman in Silver’s seminar, and Colin, and Irish lad with a temper.

The parts of the novel -- from the viewpoint of the students -- details all the anxieties, fears, hopes, dreams, and problems expected of adolescents.  Silver has a public personae, which the students adore, but his private life is another matter.  He holds his students to a high standard, which he himself cannot attain.

Maksik prose cleverly draws the reader into the story.  In the beginning, I felt as if I were reading John Knowles’ A Separate Peace; however, it quickly shifted to Francine Prose’s Blue Angel.  These three novels of teachers and students, provide stunning insights into relationships among teachers, students, and administration.

The prose flows leisurely.  Maksik writes, “The optimism, the sense of possibility and hope comes at the end of August.  There are new pens, unmarked novels, fresh textbooks, and promises of a better year.  The season of reflection is not January but June.  Another year passed, the students gone, the halls silent.  You’re left there alone.  The quiet of a school emptied for the summer is that of a hotel closed for the winter, a library closed for the night, ghosts swirling through the room” (19).  Literature thrives and revolves around connections.  I have experienced nearly 30 of these Augusts, Decembers, and Junes.  I have had students closely resembling Narie, Ariel, Gilad, Colin, Abdul, Hala, and others.  I have had colleagues chillingly close to Mia – another English instructor at the ISF.

For language and an explicit scene, this provocative adult novel forces the reader to deal with the characters and their actions and then decide who makes good decisions and who makes decisions which alter the course of several lives.

I enjoy novels about teachers, professors, and students.  You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik belongs the best of this sub-genre.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/4/14