Thursday, January 21, 2016

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

I have always viewed Africa as a place of romantic adventures.  The plains of the Serengeti, the Rift Valley, with untold treasures of early hominids, the teeming herds of wildebeests, zebras, antelope, all hunted by lions, leopards, and cheetahs, fascinated me.  The utter darkness and the splendor of the night sky were in places I could only dream of seeing.  No wonder I devoured every story I could find – among them Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, West with the Night by Beryl Markham, and The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner.  Now comes Circling the Sun by Paula McLain.  I reviewed her novel The Paris Wife in 2011, a fictional account of Hemingway and his women.  Her new novel weaves a wonderful tale of all the characters I came to know and love in the African tales – Karen and Bror Blixen, Denis Finch-Hatton, Lord and Lady Delamere, and of course Beryl Markham.

I discovered the Beryl Markham memoir -- along with everyone else in 1984 -- when West with the Night appeared, thanks to a small California Press.  This new novel tells a much more detailed look at the first woman to acquire a class B horse training license in Africa, and the first woman to fly solo from England to Nova Scotia.  Her prose is riveting – not suspenseful – but the kind of writing which will not let the reader go, always begging one more page, one more chapter.  If I remember correctly, I read in a single night, finally closing the book as dawn approached.

Here is a sample of her writing as she describes Beryl’s distress as a child when her mother left Africa for another man, taking her son with her to England.  McLain writes, “What [my father] wanted to know was if I could love this life as he did.  If I could give my heart to this place, even if she never returned and I had no mother going forward, perhaps not ever. // How could I begin to answer?  All around us, half-empty cupboards reminded me of the things that used to be there but weren’t any longer – four china tea cups with gold plated rims, a card game, amber beads clicking together on a necklace my mother had loved.  Her absence was still so loud and so heavy, I ached with it, feeling hollow and lost.  I didn’t know how to forget my mother any more than my father knew how to comfort me.  He pulled me – long limbed and a little dirty, as I always seemed to be – onto his lap, and we sat like that quietly for a while.  From the edge of the forest, a group of hyraxes echoed shrieks of alarm.  One of our four greyhounds cocked a sleek ear and then settled back into comfortable sleep by the fire.  Finally my father sighed.  He scooped me under my arms, grazed my drying tears with a quick kiss, and set me on my own two feet” (14).  Beryl Markham not only gave her heart to Africa, but she gave a part of her soul, along with some blood.  

Paula McLain’s novel, Circling the Sun is a fascinating look at a strong, intelligent, and determined woman, who overcame tremendous obstacles.  Read it now.  5 stars

--Chiron, 1/21/16

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

I have admired Isabel Allende ever since I saw the film The House of Spirits.  I remember leaving the theater and almost running to the nearest bookstore to buy a copy of the novel.  I now have read nine of her 21 works.  I did not care for Daughter of Fortune, and I invoked the “Rule of Fifty.”  Aphrodite – part memoir, part cookbook, and part love story – has always been my favorite.  Until now, that is.  Her latest novel is The Japanese Lover, which has all the things I most admire in Allende’s work: love, passion, food, secrets, history, the full range of senses, and even a bit of magic realism, all of which carry the reader along nicely. 

According to her website, she has written 21 books, translated into 35 languages with more than 65 million copies.  Isabelle has received 14 international honorary doctorates, 50 awards from more than 15 countries.  Two of her novels have been turned into internationally acclaimed movies.  Her works have been adapted for movies, plays, musicals, operas, ballets, and radio programs.  Beyond all this, she oversees The Isabel Allende Foundation, which empowers women and girls worldwide.   

She was born in Peru, raised in Chile, however, she now lives in California.  In place of my usual biographical information, I offer a splendid paragraph by Allende about her “biography.”  She wrote: “It is very strange to write one’s biography, because it is just a list of dates, events, and achievements.  In reality, the most important things about my life happened in the secret chambers of my heart and have no place in a biography.  My most significant achievements are not my books, but the love I share with a few people, especially my family, and the ways in which I have tried to help others.  When I was young, I often felt desperate: so much pain in the world and so little I could do to alleviate it.  But now I look back at my life and feel satisfied because few days went by without me at least trying to make a difference.”  She has taken all her private dreams, hopes, desires, and placed them in her novels.

The Japanese Lover is a complex narrative of three families.  The Belasco family, fabulously wealthy entrepreneurs, who lost many members of their family in the Holocaust; the Fukuda family of second generation Japanese, who, when swept up by the internment policy at the beginning of World War Two, lost everything except the friendship and love of the Belasco family; and, finally, Irina, a poor Romanian girl tricked into an escape plan, which turns out to be a front for human traffickers of children for the sex trade in Turkey.

One of the characters, Irina, seemed at first to be only a minor figure in the novel.  Allende writes, “Irina had grown up in a Moldovan village that was inhabited only by old people and children.  She thought of her own grandparents and, as so often in recent years, regretted having abandoned them.  Lark House gave her the opportunity to give to others what she hadn’t been able to give them, and she kept this in mind as she began looking after those in her care.  She soon won the residents over, including several on the first level, the independent ones. // From the start, Alma Belasco had caught her attention” (9).  Irina becomes the thread which ties the Belascos, the Fukadas, and herself together.

In a somewhat peculiar manner, Isabel Allende devotes each chapter to one of the main characters, but the omniscient narrator reveals all.  The novel has little dialogue.  I found this a bit off-putting, but, somehow, it all made sense in the last pages.  I think time will show Isabel Allende has done her best writing in The Japanese Lover.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 1/16/16

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Robot Scientist's Daughter by Jeannine Hall Gailey

Jeannine Hall Gailey was my mentor and model for poetry through my MFA.  She liked my poetry, and I admired hers.  She has recently published a collection of poems that deal with her childhood near the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), birthplace of the nuclear age.  She details the horrific side effects she, and the nearby residents, suffered as deadly poisons such as cesium, strontium, plutonium, and uranium turned plants, animals, crops, cow’s milk and even mud daubers into deadly vectors of those poisons, leading to cancer, leukemia, and whole host of physical ailments.

Jeannine served as the poet laureate of Redmond, Washington, and her poetry has appeared NPR’s Writer’s Almanac, The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, and Prairie Schooner.  The Robot Scientist’s Daughter is her fourth collection of poems.  She grew up near ORNL, where her father worked on robots to deal with nuclear waste.  Her childhood home now lies under a gigantic concrete slab.

As we struggle to end reliance on fossil fuels for our energy, many advocated the construction of nuclear power plants as a substitute.  No matter how safe, accidents can, do, and will occur.  Even aside from those problems, the disposal of nuclear waste has not been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.  Poetry is the perfect place to explicate these problems.  The sadness and the emotion and the difficulties Jeannine experiences are a warning to us all.  Gailey never plays on our fears, however.  She handles her situation with grace and notes of caution.

I liked many of the poems in this collection, but one stood out for me among all my favorites.  In graduate school, I briefly flirted with chaos theory as applied to literature.  In her poem, “Chaos Theory,” she writes, “Elbow deep in the guts of tomatoes, / I hunted genes, pulling strand from strand. / DNA patterns bloomed like frost.  Ordering / chaos was my father’s talisman; he hated./.imprecision, how in language the word./.is never exactly the thing itself. // He told us about the garden of the janitor / at the Fernald Superfund site, where mutations burgeoned / in the soil like fractal branching.  The dahlias and tomatoes / he showed to my father, doubling and tripling in size / and variety, magentas, pinks, and reds so bright / they blinded, churning offspring gigantic and marvelous./.from that ground sick with uranium.  The janitor smiled / proudly.  My father nodded, unable to translate / for him the meaning of all this unnatural beauty. // In his mind he watched the man’s DNA unraveling, / patching itself together again with wobbling sentry / enzymes.  When my father brought this story home, / he never mentioned the janitor’s slow death from radiation / poisoning only those roses, those tomatoes.” (33).

I can only hope that when we do free ourselves from fossil fuels, we do not insert deadly poisons into our land, sky, water, crops, animals, and our lungs.  In his monumental work, Poetics, Aristotle wrote, “Poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.”  I believe this sums up Jeannine Hall Gailey’s latest collection, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter perfectly.  She uses the “singular” event of poisoning our planet a cautionary tale of the widespread and deadly effects of nuclear power. 

Take up some, or better yet all, of Gailey’s work, and perhaps you will have a different view of our world and the safety of our planet.  5 stars

--Chiron, 1/17/16

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Concluding by Henry Green

I once asked John Updike -- my favorite author -- which writer influenced him the most.  He quickly answered, Henry Green.  I had never heard of this British writer, but I soon became an avid fan of his work.  Green was born near Tewksbury, Gloucestershire, into an educated family with successful business interests.  His father was a wealthy landowner and industrialist.  Green attended Eton College, where he became friends with Anthony Powell and wrote his first novel, Blindness.  He studied at Oxford University, where he began a rivalry with Evelyn Waugh.  He left Oxford in 1926 without a degree and returned to his family business.  He began by working with the ordinary workers in his family's factory.  His second novel, Living, came out in 1928.

After several more novels, Green published an autobiography Pack My Bag in 1940, and his last novel, Doting in 1952.  That was the end of his writing career.  He became reclusive and died in 1973.  Living, Loving, and Party Going were his most admired novels and are most often published in a single volume.

I have managed to collect all of his novels – except for one.  During a visit to one of my favorite used bookstores, The Old Tampa Book Store, I landed a copy of his 1948 novel, Concluding.  As I began reading the first page, I slid easily back into the world Henry Green created.  The interaction between the wealthy and the tenants is an unending source of entertainment.  Green writes in the opening paragraph, “Mr. Rock rose with a groan.  Crossing the open bedroom window he shone his torch light on the thick spectacles he wore.  He shone it up and down.  –It will be a fine day, a fine day in the end, he decided. // He looked down.  He clicked his light out.  He found there was just enough filtering through the mist which hung eighteen foot up and which did not descent to the ground, to make out Ted, his goose, about already, a dirty pallor, almost the same colour as Alice, the Persian cat, that kept herself dry where every blade of grass bore its dark, mist laden string of water.  –Old and deaf, half blind, Mr. Rock said about himself, the air raw in his throat.  Nevertheless, he saw plain how Ted was not ringed in by fog.  For the goose posed staring, head to one side, with a single eye, straight past the house, up into the fog bank which had made all the daylight deaf beneath, and beyond which, at some clear height, Mr. Rock knew there must be a flight of birds fast winging, --Ted knows where, he thought. // The old and famous man groaned again, shut the window,  He began to dress.  He put working clothes over the yellow woolen nightshirt.  The bedroom smelled stale, packed with books not one of which he had read in years.  He groaned a third time.  –Early morning comes hard on a man my age, he told himself for comfort, comes hard.  –How hard?  Oh, heavy.”  (5).

I can see the scene and smell the fog, as if I were beginning something by George Eliot – perhaps The Mill on the Floss.  As I finished these opening words, I knew Henry Green would not disappoint.

Oddly enough, none of Green’s novels sold more than 10,000 copies.  He was far more popular among writers than the reading public.  According to Wikipedia, Green has been referred to as a “Writer’s, writer’s, writer.”  His impressive list of admirers included John Updike, W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Eudora Welty, Anthony Burgess, and Rebecca West.  Start with the trio of Living, Loving, and Party Going, and work your way to Concluding.  I bet you will become an admirer of Henry Green, too.  5 stars

--Chiron, 12/31/15