Friday, October 30, 2015

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

According to the brief bio in my copy of The Known World by Edward P. Jones, he won the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award for his debut collection of short stories, Lost in the City.  Jones won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Known World.  He resides in Washington, D.C., and this is his first novel.  I am profoundly sorry this beautifully written work escaped my notice for so long.

This poignant tale of slave holders and slaves in Virginia takes place in the decades before the Civil War.  The head of the family was Augustus, who was a skilled carpenter; he and his wife Mildred had a son Henry.  Augustus’ owner allowed him to keep a portion of his wages, and he saved enough to buy his freedom, that of his wife, and later, Henry.  Caldonia Townsend was Henry’s wife.  All of these people were African-Americans.

Jones describes the day Henry died, “A few women had cried, remembering the way Henry smiled or how he would join them in singing or thinking that the death of anyone, good or bad, master or not, cut down one more tree in the life of the forest that shielded them from their own death; but most said or did nothing.  Their world had changed but they could not yet understand how.  A black man had owned them, a strange thing for many in that world, and now he was dead, maybe a white man would buy them, which was not as strange.  No matter what, though, the sun would come up on them tomorrow, followed by the moon, than dogs would chase their own tails and the sky would remain just out of reach” (60-61).  I read, re-read, and read again this and numerous other passages which brought tears to my eyes.  A must read.

I had heard of the complicity of rival African tribes capturing enemies and selling them to the slave traders, and I dismissed stories of African-Americans owning slaves.  However, Jones’ meticulously researched novel reveals much of the details of slavery at that time.  Henry was not able to buy slaves on the market, but he used his former owner as a straw purchaser of slaves.

Other characters included William and Ethel Robbins, white slave holders of 113 people, who owned Augustus and his family.  Then we have suspicious cousins from North Carolina, who railed against the freedoms some of the slaves enjoyed in the fictional Manchester County, Virginia.  Then we read of speculators, who would buy blacks, with assurances no harm would come to them, then immediately resell at a profit without any assurances at all.  Then the white sheriff, along with patrollers, who kept an eye on the movement of slaves around the plantation where they lived and worked.  However, not all these characters are what they seem to be, and several undergo rather startling changes.

The horrors of the Holocaust, numerous instances of genocide of millions around the world, and the slave trade all speak of the incomprehensible cruelty among humans.  The insidious slave trade was maintained by wealthy white people who ruled their “property” with a whip in one hand, a Bible in the other, and a black woman in their beds.  The more I learn of this shameful period in American and world history the more dispirited I become that we can survive as an intelligent, kind, and loving species.  What were these people doing owning their own people?  The mind boggles to think of what life must have been like for these poor wretched people.

Readers might know a lot about the history of the antebellum South, but read The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and I defy anyone to have a heart so stony not even a single tear is shed.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/22/15

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

In my rich, interesting, and varied reading life, I have made friends with numerous strange and weird novels.  From Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves – the story of a house larger on the inside than on the outside – my mind has been bent, my logic challenged, and my thought processes twisted beyond understanding.  However, a new novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor has topped them all for sheer bewilderment.  Welcome to Night Vale stemmed from a podcast posted by the authors and presented as a radio show for the fictional town of Night Vale, which reported on the strange events that occur there. The series was created in 2012.  Cecil Gershwin Palmer is the host, main character, and narrator of the novel.

The podcast typically airs on the first and fifteenth of every month, and consists of "news, announcements and advertisements" from the desert town, located "somewhere in the Southwestern U.S.”  In an interview with NPR, Joseph Fink said that he "came up with this idea of a town in that desert where all conspiracy theories were real, and we would just go from there with that understood.” 

The novel is part suspense, part mystery, mostly comedic, and all mind-bending.  To give a taste of the novel, I will offer a few short passages, none of which will give away any the plot, but all will reveal details of the story.  That’s my version of a typical line by the authors.  Buckle up, here we go:

“Clocks and calendars don’t work in Night Vale.  Time itself doesn’t work” (4).  “There was always some world-ending cataclysm threatening Night Vale.  Feral dogs.  A sentient glowing cloud with the ability to control minds (although the Glow Cloud had become less threatening since its election to the local school board)’ (5).  Most mind-bending of all is this description of Jackie Ferro, a perpetual 19-year old woman who ran a pawn shop.  The authors wrote, “She understood the world and her place in it.  She understood nothing.  The world and her place in it were nothing and she understood that” (5).  Jackie meets a mysterious man she does not recognize, and decides “to make a list of everyone who might know about” him. […] She pulled out “a promotional pen from a festival put on by the city a few years ago.  THE NIGHT VALE SHAKESPEARE IN A PIT FESTIVAL.  FALL INTO THE BARD’S WORDS, it said.  The broken leg had been painful, but she did love the pen” (43). 

Jackie visits “Old Woman Josie” to find out if she knows anything about her missing son, Josh.  “She turned.  There was a being that was difficult to describe, although the best and most illegal description was ‘angel.’  Angels are tall, genderless beings who are all named Erika” (58).  Of course they do not exist. // “‘I was just doing some trimming,’ the being said.  They were holding hedge trimmers and standing by an empty patch of dirt.  There were no plants of any kind anywhere near them” (58).

I could go on like this for way more time than I have, or don’t have, or wish I didn’t have, or have, but this fun and breezy read will offer many hours of humor, suspense, tears, joy, and mystery.  Classified as a YA novel, adults are forbidden to read it.  In fact, everyone should read it.  Let me be the first to give you a hearty “Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.  5 stars. 

--Chiron, 10/20/15.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The State We’re In by Anne Beattie

In my early days of book collecting, I avidly searched out authors whose books I admired.  My goal was signed copies.  I was not so careful in those days, because I have a lot of inscribed copies that are book club editions, or sometimes many editions removed from the first.  I only cared about the signature for my own personal collection – never about collection values.  Most authors gladly signed my books, but sometimes I had to use some minor subterfuge to gain access to those authors shy about meeting strangers.  When I heard Anne Beattie had been asked to speak at Rutgers University, I headed there with a few of her novels.  I learned there would be no signing after the lecture, but I told the guard I was a free-lance writer and reviewer, and wanted to talk to her about an article I was writing.  She agreed to see me, and she graciously signed my copies and answered a few questions, which I dutifully wrote into my notebook.  All true, although the article never found its way into print.  When I admire an author, I will go to many lengths to establish a connection – no matter how brief.  Now, Beattie has come out with a collection of short stories, The State We’re In.  While I really love her novels, I am thoroughly seduced by her short stories.

These 15 stories are loosely connected.  Most deal with teenagers suffering under the onus of parents, who are all, to my mind, parents normally concerned about the welfare of their offspring.  The peek into the mind of teenagers at the beginning and middle of their rebellious years awakens memories of my teen years and reminds me of what my students endure today.

One character who appears in the first story, “What Magic Realism Would Be,” and in the seventh story, “Endless Rain into a Paper Cup,” is Jocelyn.  In “Magic Realism,” she agonizes over an assignment in her English class, and in “Endless,” Uncle Raleigh, now worries about her passing algebra.  He encourages her, because he knows she is smart.  Beattie writes, “‘Thanks for saying something nice to me.’ // ‘That’s because I believe you deserve niceness, Jocelyn.’  […]  ‘If you don’t mind, could you print [your essay] out, because I can’t read that little screen, as you know.  And as I tell you every night.’ // She got up from his office chair, where she’d been slumped, writing and picking at her pedicure.  She turned on his printer.  When it printed out, it was not quite two pages. // ‘Yesterday’s was three pages,’ he said immediately. // ‘She’s tired of reading long papers.’ Jocelyn lied to Raleigh and Bettina – certainly to Bettina – and to her sort of best friend, who was lucky enough to be in Australia this summer, even if it did have to be with her family and her retarded – really, actually retarded – brother, the challenged Daniel Junior, who picked his nose right in front of you” (3).  No political correctness in Jocelyn, and she certainly spares no one.

In “Endless,” Jocelyn has a conversation with her English teacher.  Beattie writes, “Ms. Nementhal held open the side door.  Jocelyn trotted ahead of her, her ears a little zingy, for some reason.  Just listening to Ms. Nememthal had been exciting.  She seemed to think she could do anything.  If Jocelyn ever got into any college, it would be a miracle.  Her mother said that tutoring for the SAT was too expensive, and she couldn’t disagree.  All you could do was read stuff on the Internet and get pointers from your friends, the most helpful so far being that the questions were essentially simple, but they pointed you in a direction that made you question your own perceptions, so you’d change things at the last second and answer wrong” (76).  English professors can be quite influential.

I found the occasional use of second person a bit off putting, but I see that in my students’ essays, so I guess that’s the way of the world.  Anne Beattie has been included in four O. Henry Award collections, in John Updike’s The Best Short Stories of the Century, and in The Best American Short Stories of 2014.  She has won numerous other awards.  She  currently teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia.  If Anne Beattie is an unfamiliar name, The State We’re In is a fine entre into the world of Anne Beattie.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/3/15

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Pulitzer Prize winner, Anne Tyler, has been a favorite of mine for a long time, I have already read all of her novels, so when a new title appears, it becomes a major event in my mind.  She writes relatively slowly – about 2-3 years or more between books.  A Spool of Blue Thread, her twentieth novel, has been shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize.  She is the first American woman to be so honored.  My fingers, toes, and eyes are all crossed as I await the announcement in mid-October.

The most interesting thing about the novel is its structure.  The novel is a story of four generations of a family in Baltimore, Maryland.  Tyler begins with Red and Abby Whitshank, who have two daughters, a son, Denny, and a boy taken in by Abby as an infant when his parents are killed in an auto accident.  They conceal this last bit of information from Douglas – nicknamed “Stem,” until he has reached adulthood.  Oddly, the other children know about the circumstances of his birth but never tell Stem.

As the novel opens, Denny has disappeared from the family.  Every few months, he calls from some unusual place, far away from his parents, only to cut off contact, until he resurfaces somewhere else.  Suddenly, he shows up at his parents’ home with a child, Susan.  The novel then shifts to the story of the meeting and courtship of Red and Abby.  Abby is about to give into Dane, who wants to marry her, but she has an eye on Red.  Then the narrative shifts to Junior and Linnie, Red’s parents, how they met and eventually married and had a daughter, Merrick. The novel ends with the sale of the family home – built by Junior – and the removal of Red to an apartment.  This part – foreshadowed in several of the chapters, struck me so deeply with its verisimilitude.  I am experiencing the same anguish as my parents pass mile marker 90.

Tyler has a gentle, smooth, and completely absorbing style.  She draws characters as round and full as humanly possible.  By telling the story in reverse order – from youngest to eldest – Tyler excavates the Whitshank family tree.  Late in the novel, Junior and Abby “interview” Dane, who is between jobs and working for Junior.  A narrator takes up an observation about Junior and Linnae.  Tyler writes, “How could this man have been the hero of Mrs. Whitshank’s romance?  Whether you found it dashing or tawdry, at least it had been a romance, complete with intrigue and scandal and a wrenching separation.  But Junior Whitshank was as dry as a bone, droning on relentlessly while the other diners ate their food in dogged silence.  Only his wife was looking at him, her face alight with interest as he discussed the value of hard labor, then the deplorable lack of initiative in the younger generation, then the benefits conferred by having lived through the Great Depression.  If young folks today had lived through a depression the way he had lived through a depression – but the he broke off to call, ‘Ah! Going out with your buddies?’ // It was Merrick he was addressing.  She was crossing the hall and stopped to face him. ‘Yup,’ she said.  ‘Don’t wait supper.’  Her hair had become a mass of bubbly black curls that bounced all over her head” (255).

In several of Tyler’s novels – especially The Accidental Tourist – a quiet, reserved man becomes enamored by a bubbly, vivacious woman.  Despite the man’s protests, he succumbs to the charms of the woman, and as the novel ends, it is clear to the reader, the guy is falling for the girl.  In A Spool of Blue Thread, the bubbly girl turns out to be 18-year-old Linnie, who has a desperate crush on Junior.  He is trying to survive the depression by doing odd jobs.  He cannot afford another mouth to feed.

All things considered – to borrow a phrase from NPR – Anne Tyler’s wonderful saga of four generations will surprise and delight the reader.  In A Spool of Blue Thread, I believe everyone can find a family member which that seems ever so tantalizingly familiar. 5 stars

--Chiron, 10/2/15

Friday, October 02, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

Ah for the days of my youth when I read SciFy, but I lost interest in the 60s watching the real thing as rocket after rocket blasted into space.  When a member of my book club selected The Martian by Andy Weir, I eagerly looked forward to see what some new SciFy novels had to offer.  The fact that I saw the trailer for the soon-to-be-released film starring Matt Damon added to my interest. 

According to the inside cover, Andy Weir landed a job as a programmer for a national laboratory at the age of 15.  He describes himself as a lifelong space nerd.  This is his first novel.

I knew the premise before starting to read, and I figured how it would end – sorry no spoiler alert – and I was not surprised.  But none of that took away the suspense or the excitement of the story, which alternates between log entries by Mark Watney, the stranded astronaut, conferences at NASA, an occasional explanation of what happens to Mark by an unnamed narrator, and communications with the crew which escaped a catastrophic dust storm after believing Mark had died. 

The novel has lots of humorous moments.  As he overcomes problems of survival, his log entries become more and more entertaining.  Weir writes, “LOG ENTRY: SOL 381.  I’ve been thinking about laws on Mars. // Yeah, I know, it’s a stupid thing to think about, but I have a lot of free time. // There’s an international treaty saying no country can lay claim to anything that’s not on Earth.  And by another treaty, if you’re not in any country’s territory, maritime law applies. // So, Mars is ‘international waters.’ // NASA is an American nonmilitary organization, and it owns the Hab [living quarters on Mars].  So while I’m in the Hab, American law applies.  As soon as I step outside, I’m in international waters.  Then when I get in the rover, I’m back to American law. // Here’s the cool part: I will eventually go to Schiaparelli and commandeer the Ares 4 lander (positioned for the next Mars mission].  Nobody explicitly gave me permission to do this, and they can’t until I’m aboard Ares 4 and operating the comm[unication] system.  After I board Ares 4, before talking to NASA, I will take control of a craft in international waters without permission. // That makes me a pirate! // A space pirate!” (259-260).

Mark has a facility for repairing things and jury-rigging fixes using duct tape, spit, and anything else he can salvage.  Some of this activity really stretched my credulity, but heck, this is SciFy!  However, I did have a minor problem or two with the novel.  The calculations and measurements are all in metric, and I know little two nothing about converting those numbers to the merry old English system.  I also thirsted for some more descriptions of the Hab, the rover, and other items he needed to survive.  Furthermore, a couple of inexplicable gaps in the story occurred.  Most of the time, the various sources of information tied these together.  For example, the Chinese space agency makes a brief appearance, then they are forgotten for a hundred pages or so, then a brief mention tying up that loose end.

But all that aside, Mark Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, provided lots of suspense, unexpected developments, some hanky-panky among the crew returning to Earth, and Annie, a rather salty spokesperson for the Ares Project, who kept the world updated on Mark’s situation.  5 stars

--Chiron, 9/20/15