Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Art of Tony Auth : To Stir, Inform, and Inflame by Tony Auth

For almost 40 years, I have admired the editorial cartoons of Tony Auth in The Philadelphia Inquirer.  He skewed politicians, clergymen, and plutocrats of all stripes. 

One of my favorites on page 232 of The Art of Tony Auth : To Stir, Inform, and Inflame shows an obese elephant drinking from a tea pot with a skull and crossbones.  The caption reads, “Obama rescued Goldman Sachs, and the banks, saved the financial industry and salvage America’s auto companies … all in a pathetic attempt to hide his socialism.”  The runner-up – only three pages later – has four panels.  They all have text, which reads, “He wasn’t, you know, born in America.”  He’s not, you know, a Christian.”  He’s, you know, a Muslim or a Kenyan.”  “He’s, well, you know…”  This last panel has a silhouette of Obama, ears and all.  Auth really hit the nail on the head with these two.

Of course, I could stay here all day and pick out dozens more, but that would rob you of the fun.  Pick up a copy and laugh and cry and pick out your favorites.  Tony died in September of 2014.  He has left a big whole in The Inky.

--Chiron, 7/24/15

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Painter by Peter Heller

About two years ago, I read a first novel by Peter Heller.  The dystopian landscape he painted in The Dog Stars, captured my imagination immediately.  I met Heller at a library conference and was further intrigued by the author himself.  He has an impressive resume of non-fiction work, as well as duties on NPR.  Earlier this year, my wife surprised me with a copy of his latest novel, The Painter. 

Jim Stegner is a painter with a checkered past.  He shot a man in a bar, and spent some time in prison.  He has a passion for fly fishing, which he did with his daughter Alce (sic), until she got involved in a drug deal which went bad.  The perp stabbed her numerous times and left her in an alley.  As often happens, this led to the breakup of his marriage.  Now paroled, he has settled in Colorado, established himself with a trendy gallery, and his paintings sell in the middle to high five figures.  On a routine drive to a fishing hole, he finds the road blocked by horse trailer.  Two men attempt to wrangle a horse into the trailer.  One of the men gets a 2x4 from his truck and begins beating the horse.  Jim’s temper gets the better of him, and he attacks the man, breaks his nose, and pushes him into a ditch.  The other man attacks Jim, and he ends up on the ground.  The two horse-beaters leave Jim with the horse.

This apparently innocuous event begins to form a maelstrom sweeping Jim into a mess of enormous proportions.  prose is so intense, I felt myself beside him in the dark woods.  I walked with him, the branches scraped my arms, shadows followed me, I saw figures moving in the brush.  The sense someone was after me overpowered me, and forced me to take breaks from reading parts of the novel.

One particularly intense scene occurs during the end of the novel.  Jim calmly fishes a stream.  Suddenly, “‘OW!’ // Hard pressed under my jaw the cold prod.  Steel.  I knew without a thought that it was a gun. // ‘Prince nymph, good choice.  What I’d use probably.’ // I couldn’t see him.  He was behind me with the handgun held out and up against my throat.  His voice was graveled, as if he hadn’t spoken in a while. // ‘Can’t lose tonight.  Nobody feeding up top, all gathered up in the deeper pools, idling, just waiting for that thing to tumble by.’ // His voice in the back of my ear.  Could smell the chew on his breath, not a bad smell, Copenhagen.  Couldn’t look though, couldn’t turn my head, because there was the cold muzzle hard against the bone.  The quickening of my heart. // ‘Hi, Jason.’ // A long silence while the snout of the handgun held pressure against my head” (353-354).  This encounter continues for a terrifying and tense 10 more pages.  I read the conclusion to this novel in about 4 chunks.  The intensity prevented me from stopping, but I needed the breather.  I expected something terrible to happen almost from the time Jim pushed the man into the ditch.  Things did happen, but not the way I expected.  You will have to figure out the ending for yourself.

This roller-coaster novel swings between pleasant peaceful experiences and terrifying car chases, fly fishing in a mountain stream, scary moments in the woods, and shots fired at a house Jim visited to complete a portrait commission.  I am anxiously awaiting the next novel by the talented author, Peter Heller.  I hope he can top his latest, The Painter.  5 stars

--Chiron, 7/11/15

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I tend to shy away from books I perceive as over-hyped, and sometimes that decision is a mistake.  One friend I particularly trust – who shares my view of the too heavily promoted novel – told me I would like Anthony Doerr.  It is a wonderful thing to have a circle of trustworthy sources.

Anthony Doerr has written several novels and won numerous awards, including 4 O. Henry Prizes, 3 Pushcarts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a handful of others.  He lives in Boise, Idaho.  All the Light We Cannot See is his latest novel. 

Marie-Laurie LeBlanc lives with her father in Paris, France.  She is blind, and her father has constructed an accurate – to the smallest detail – model of their neighborhood.  Using only her sense of touch, she learns how to navigate the city, counting storm drains, benches, fragrant shops, and other landmarks.  Eventually, she is able to walk around the city on her own.  When the German army invades France, Monsieur Daniel LeBlanc flees with his daughter to the walled city of St. Malo, which has resisted invaders for centuries.  He is a gem and mineral expert, and Daniel takes possession, for the Paris Museum of Natural History, a fabled diamond known as “The Sea of Fire.”

Werner Pfennig is a rather precocious orphan, who has a remarkable ability to build and repair radio equipment.  The orphanage is run by Frau Elena, a Protestant nun from Alsace, who sings French folksongs and teaches the children her language.  Together with his sister, Jutta, the children listen to French broadcasts about science, history, literature.  Word spreads of Werner’s talents, and neighborhood residents begin flocking to the orphanage for his help.  The Nazis learn of his talent, and send him to an exclusive school for engineering and science in Berlin.

St. Malo today
St. Malo after the firebombing

A fourth important character is Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel.  He has an extraordinary talent as a gem expert.  As the Nazis vacuum up priceless works of art, von Rumpel searches for The Sea of Fire.  He knows about Daniel and his daughter and the diamond.

How these individuals intersect and come together at the end of the novel requires an amazing web of story-telling I have rarely encountered.  Daniel has purchased – with great sacrifices – some Braille books for Marie-Laurie, and she learns to read.  Doerr writes, “Thos last nights in Paris, walking home with her father at midnight, the huge book clasped against her chest, Marie-Laurie thinks she can sense a shiver beneath the air, in the pauses between the chirring of the insects, like the spider cracks of ice when too much weight is set upon it.  As if this time the city has been no more than a scale model built by her father and the shadow of a great hand has fallen over it. // Didn’t she presume she would live with her father in Paris for the rest of her life?  That she would always sit with Dr. Geffard in the afternoons?  That every year, on her birthday, her father would present her with another puzzle and another novel, and she would read all of Jules Verne and all of Dumas and maybe even Balzac and Proust?  That her father would always hum as he fashioned little buildings in the evenings, and she would always know how many paces from the front door to the bakery (40) and how many more to the brasserie (32), and there would always be sugar to spoon into her coffee when she woke? vv […]  Now? What will happen now?”  (71-72).

As the conflict inches closer to D-Day, the tension mounts.  Three of the characters meet in St. Malo.  Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent tale of World War II from the viewpoint of some of its most innocent witnesses.  I strongly recommend this book for lovers of suspense, joy, misery, fear, and love.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 7/15/15

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

A friend recently mentioned an author, Kent Haruf, and asked if I had ever read him.  She mentioned a title or two, but I drew a blank, Later that day, I happened to wander into a bookstore, and on a table at the front of the shop was Kent Haruf’s latest novel, Our Souls at Night.  The coincidence was too striking to ignore, so I bought the slim novel without even opening the cover.  I am glad I did.

Kent Haruf was born in Colorado.  He earned an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1973.  Before becoming a writer, he worked an amazing variety of jobs ranging from construction to a rehab hospital to Peace Corps English teacher.  All of his novels take place in the fictional town of Holt, based on the town of Yuma, Colorado.  He received a Whiting Foundation award, a special Hemingway Foundation/PEN citation and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.  A number of his short stories have appeared in literary magazines.  He died at the young age of 71 at his home in Salida, Colorado. 

We frequently read of parental cruelty towards children, but children can be as cruel to a parent.  When a member of the sandwich generation extends such cruelty in both directions at once, the results can be particularly tragic for all involved. 

Addie Moore is a widow who lives down the street from Louis Waters, a widower.  Addie was friends with, Diane, Louis’ wife.  Louis knew Carl, but they were not close.  One day, Addie knocks on Louis’ door to propose an idea.  She says, “I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me. // What?  How do you mean?” // He stared at her, watching her, curious now, cautious.  // “You don’t say anything.  Have I taken your breath away?” she said. // “I guess you have.” // “I’m not talking about sex.” // “I wondered.”  (5).  Addie proposes they spend some nights together for companionship and talk.  Louis asks for time to think it over.  The next day he skulks down the back alley with a paper bag containing pajamas and a toothbrush.  He explains he wanted to hide their plan from the neighbors.  Addie says, “I don’t care about that.  They’ll know.  Someone will see.  […]  I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think.  I’ve done that too long – all my life.  I’m not going to live that way anymore.  The alley makes it seem we’re doing something wrong or something to be ashamed of” (8).  Night after night, they talk about their lives, their sorrows, their regrets, past mistakes, and hopes for the future.

Of course, the busybodies in the small town of Holt do see, and the judgments begin raining down on them.  Unfortunately, Addie’s son Gene is horrified and disgusted.  His wife leaves him, and he ships his young son, Jamie, off to Addie for the summer.  This puts a hold of a few days on the plan, but eventually Louis and Jamie bond, and the boy – anxious about his parent’s separation – bonds with Louis.  On the other hand, Louis’s daughter Holly is horrified at first, but she has tons more understanding than Gene.

This sensitive, warm, and delightful story does have a tragic ending, when Gene threatens to cut off contact with her only grandchild.  Addie struggles with what to do. 

Sometimes an off-hand comment, a chance visit, an impulsive move can have the most unexpected results.  Unlike Addie and Louis’ plan, my friend and the bookstore, led to a marvelous afternoon of reading.  Try Kent Haruf’s possibly last novel, Our Souls at Night, and experience the warm glow of friendship, and see where it will take you.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/26/15

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for the curious novel, Olive Kitteridge.  Oprah selected it for her book club.  Several friends recommended it, and I stated to read it, but I found the title character a miserable, thoroughly unpleasant individual.  The “Rule of Fifty” quickly took over, and I had almost forgotten it, when a miniseries of the novel appeared.  Olive was played by Frances McDormand, an actor I greatly admire.  I decided to watch the 4-part miniseries, and I am glad I did.  Normally a film follows a reading, but in this case the film drew me back to the novel for a second go.

Olive is married to Henry, a pharmacist in a small town in Maine, and they have one child, Christopher.  Olive is a demanding wife and mother, and she never misses an opportunity to skewer Henry, or her son, her students, or anyone else not up to her standards.  Olive does not suffer fools lightly.  Henry obviously loves Olive, and he most often silently submits to Olive’s barbs.  Occasionally, he will come back at Olive, but then ends up submitting.  Strout writes, “Olive had refused to go to church the day before, and Henry, uncharacteristically, had spoken to her sharply.  ‘Is it too much to ask,’ he found himself saying, as he stood in the kitchen in his undershorts, ironing his trousers.  ‘A man’s wife accompanying him to church?’  Going without her seemed a public exposure of familial failure. // ‘Yes, it most certainly is too […] much to ask!’  Olive had spit, her fury’s death flung open.  ‘You have no idea how tired I am, teaching all day, going to foolish meetings where the […] principal is a moron!  Shopping.  Cooling.  Ironing.  Laundry.  Doing Christopher’s homework with him!  And you –‘  She grabbed on to the back dining room chair, and her dark hair, still uncombed from its night’s disarrangement, had fallen across her eyes.  You, Mr. Head Deacon Claptrap Nice Guy, expect me to give up my Sunday mornings and go sit among a bunch of snot-wots!’  Very suddenly she had sat down in the chair.  ‘Well, I’m sick and tired of it,’ she said, calmly.  ‘Sick to death’.”  // A darkness had rumbled through him; his soul was suffocating in tar.  The next morning.  Olive spoke to him conversationally.  “Jim’s car smelled like upchuck last week.  Hope he’s cleaned it out.’  Jim O’Casey taught with Olive, and for years took both Christopher and Olive to school” (9).  Now, I can’t help hearing Frances McDormand as Olive. 

Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins
Olive has numerous struggles in her life, not the least of which involve Henry and Christopher.  She also has a secret life, which has a tragic ending devastating to Olive. Unlike the novel, which begins innocuously with Henry opening the pharmacy one morning, the film begins with a scene of Olive contemplating suicide.  This subject comes up several times in the novel with various results following Olive’s chance encounters with other characters outside her family.  Spoiler alert, she does not follow through with her plan. 

I am sorry I did not get back to Elizabeth Strout’s funny/sad, poignant/obnoxious novel, Olive Kitteridge.  A good example of why keeping those novels I abandon early on safely on the shelf patiently awaiting a second chance.  Still, Olive did make me a bit squirmish, so I give it 4 stars

--Chiron, 6/25/15