Sunday, January 11, 2015

Searching for Caleb by Anne Tyler

Page 50 of Ann Tyler’s early novel, Searching for Caleb, is the end of chapter three.  Around page 40, I decided I would give this novel to exactly page 50.  But suddenly, the story became really interesting, and I plowed right through that barrier.

According to the dust jacket on her latest novel, Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1941 and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina.  She has written eleven novels, and Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.  Most of her novels detail the lives of slightly dysfunctional families, but she does so with a dry and subtle wit.  Almost all her novels I have read are set – at least in part – in Baltimore, Maryland.

The novel opens with a somewhat dreary portrait of the Peck Family.  The patriarch, Daniel Peck, inherited a rather exhausting array of rules governing his family.  The least peculiar of which involved carrying cream-colored paper, and an addressed and stamped envelope.  These “bread and butter” notes were to be written immediately upon leaving the home of family or friends after a visit.  The notes were formulaic.  A brief thanks for the hospitality followed by a specific mention of some bright spot in the visit.  Daniel required mailing at the first post office spotted on the way home.  He
did not trust corner mail boxes when they changed from Army green to red and blue.

The story revolves around Justine – Daniel’s granddaughter -- her husband, Duncan, who also happened to be her cousin, their child Meg, and Caleb.  Caleb left home unannounced in 1912.  He never contacted any members of the family.  As Daniel aged, he clung to a single, odd photo of Caleb, with a cello, in the doorway of the second floor of a barn.  The compound of houses provided living space for all the children and grandchildren.  He becomes obsessed with finding his brother. 

After Caleb, Justine and Duncan were the first to break away from this restrictive family circle.  Justine loved all of her relatives, especially Daniel, so she reluctantly left with Duncan to start a goat farm.  As Duncan became bored with this project, he suddenly changed to chickens, then antiques.  Tyler describes the young couple’s arrival at their new house.  She writes, “‘Look! Someone left a pair of pliers,’ she said.  ‘And here’s a chair we can use for the porch.’  She was a pack rat; all of them were.  It was a family trait.  You could tell that in a flash when they started carrying things in from the truck – the bales of ancient, curly-edged magazines, zipper bags bursting with unfashionable clothes, cardboard boxes marked Clippings, Used Wrapping Paper, Photos, Empty Bottles.  Duncan and Justine staggered into the grandfather’s room carrying a steel filing cabinet from his old office, stuffed with carbon copies of all his personal correspondence for the twenty-three years since his retirement. In one corner of their own room Duncan stacked crates of machine parts and nameless metal objects picked up on walks, which he might someday want to use for some invention.  He had cartons of books, most of them second-hand, dealing with things like the development of the quantum theory and the philosophy of Lao-Tzu and the tribal life of Ila-speaking Northern Rhodesians” (31).

An example of Tyler’s humor involves Justine, who hated sweetened tea.  On a visit to her daughter, Meg’s home – shared with her mother-in-law, Mrs. Milson – Justine is given a glass of sweetened tea, despite the fact Meg asked the elderly woman to fix her some without sugar.  The excruciatingly polite Justine, sips the tea without complaint.  Then she notices candy on the coffee table.  “Justine chose that moment to reach toward the green glass shoe on the coffee table – sourballs! Right under her nose! – and chose a lemony yellow globe and pop it into her mouth, where she instantly discovered she that she had eaten a marble.  While everyone watched in silence she plucked it out delicately between thumb and forefinger and replaced it, only a little shinier than before, in the green glass shoe.  ‘I thought we could have used more rain,’ she told the ring of faces” (227).

Anne Tyler’s Searching for Caleb is a lot of fun.  She expertly handles all the peculiarities and foibles one can imagine in an overly eccentric family.  Try any of her novels, and you will be hooked as I am.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 1/10/15

Friday, January 02, 2015

Blue Horses and A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is quickly becoming one of my favorite poets.  Her latest collection, Blue Horses, pleases the eye and ear every bit as much as all of her previous works I have read.

As is true of many of her poems, Oliver focuses on nature.  The selections in this collection, however, seem quite a bit more philosophical than most of the others I have experienced.  For example, the first poem in the collection combines these two ideas.  In “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond,” Oliver writes, “The slippery green frog / that went to his death / in the heron’s pink throat / was my small brother, // and the heron / with the white plumes / like a crown on his heard / who is washing now his great sword-beak / in the shining pond / is my tall brother. // My heart dresses in black / and dances” (1). 

I also love the humor in her poems, particularly “First Yoga Lesson.”  “‘Be a lotus in the pond,’” she said, “‘opening / slowly, no single energy tugging / against another but peacefully, / all together’.” // I couldn’t even touch my toes. / “‘Feel your quadriceps stretching?’” she asked. / Well, something was certainly stretching. // Standing impressively upright, she / raised one leg and placed it against / the other, then lifted her arms and / shook her hands like leaves.  “Be a tree,’” she said. // I lay on the floor, exhausted. / But to be a lotus in the pond / opening slowly, and very slowly rising -- / that I could do” (7).

As always, Oliver’s poems contain vivid images, which take the reader onto the floor, on a mat, stretching.  She accomplishes this feat over and over with the plainest of language.  I can’t get enough of her way with words.

When I found Blue Horses, I noticed a slim volume by Oliver nearby: A Poetry Handbook.  I am so sorry I missed this explication of all the intricacies of poetry originally published in 1994.  I recommend this slim volume for anyone interested in poetry.  I found her Introduction highly informative.  Here a few random paragraphs.  Oliver writes, “Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school.  This is true also of painters, sculptors, and musicians.  Something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given, or earned, or formulated in a manner too mysterious to be picked apart and redesigned for the next person. // Still, painters, sculptors, and musicians require a lively acquaintance with the history of their particular field and with past as well as current theories and techniques.  And the same is true of poets.  Whatever can’t be taught, there is a great deal that can, and must be learned.”   
Oliver says she wrote this book, “in an effort to give the student a variety of technical skills -- that is options.  It is written to empower the beginning writer who stands between two marvelous and complex things – an experience (or an idea or a feeling), and the urge to tell about it in the best possible conjunction of words.

Just a smidgeon over 200 pages, these two works by Mary Oliver – Blue Horses: Poems and A Poetry Handbook – are excellent starting points for those curious about what makes a poem a poem and handy guides for those who want to sharpen their skills.  Both 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/31/14

Monday, December 29, 2014

An Italian Wife by Ann Hood

I met Ann Hood back in 1989 at an American Booksellers Association Convention.  Her line was not long, but the novel she signed seemed intriguing.  I liked it, but it did not overwhelm me.  Recently, I stumbled upon The Obituary Writer published in 2013, and that gave me a whole new view of Ms. Hood.  Her latest novel, An Italian Wife, represents quite a departure from her earlier works I have read.

This explicit novel tells the story of four generations of Italian women.  It begins with Josephine, then her seven children, seven grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren.  What all these women show is the transformation in the way women view and react to the men in their lives.  It covers them through World War I, World War I, and into VietNam.

Josephine is an entirely innocent 14-year-old when her mother marries her off to a man eleven years her senior.  After a horrific wedding night, he promptly leaves for America, promising to send for her when he has established himself in the new world.  Fortunately, Josephine does not conceive a child, and nine years later, word comes she will leave for America within a few days.  Now 23, Josephine does not want to leave her family, friends, and familiar routine.

In an example of this transformation, Hood describes the experience of Francesca, Josephine’s oldest grandchild, who lost her husband at Normandy.  She writes, “Francie Partridge grew up Francesca Caserta less than a mile from Meadowbrook Plat.  As she navigated the familiar path home, her car filled with the lilacs she had gathered for her grandmother, Francie felt like she was driving a long distance, traveling to a place far away.  Once she passed the French church, where the French Canadians went to mass, she entered the Italian part of town.  Instantly, everything looked different.  Vegetable gardens replaced backyards; shrines to the Virgin Mary stood in place of barbecue grills or patio furniture; fig trees and cherry trees dotted yards instead of leafy maples and elms.  People sat on front steps and sidewalks.  Men at folding tables at the edge of the street played cards, smoked cigars, drank homemade wine.  Everyone was yelling – fighting, calling children, talking too loud.  Francie hated it here.  Hated the noise, the smells, the plastic Virgins watching her” (179).

Each generation of women has a completely different attitude toward sex.  Warning: the novel contains numerous scenes of explicit sexual encounters of all sorts.  I did not see this in The Obituary Writer, which I recently reviewed and enjoyed.  I do not recall this from her earlier work, either.  However, she shows how women have been “bought and sold” and used and abused over the years.  Until they begin to control their own bodies in the seventies.  The novel also traces radical changes in the attitude these women had toward religion. 

While some readers may be offended, Hood paints a terrific portrait of the changes women have endured, desired, and accepted over the years.  In addition, she shows how war has destroyed veterans and torn families apart.  This excellent, absorbing novel deserves 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/29/14

Monday, December 22, 2014

Odd Books:Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock & The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

An interesting sort of books these days are those with something more than printed words on the page.  These books have nooks and crannies for peeks into some secret worlds.  Sometimes they have strange and bizarre art work.  I am not talking about graphic novels.

Nick Bantock has created a series of four books beginning with Griffin and Sabine.  Griffin receives a strange and beautifully decorated post card with an exotic postmark from Sabine.  Naturally intrigued, he writes back and thus begins a correspondence every bit as strange, beautiful, and exotic as the first post card.  Some pages have envelopes attached.  Lifting the flap reveals a folded letter.  This window into the mysterious Sabine made me feel as though I had eavesdropped on a growing romance.

The story takes numerous twists and turns over the three volumes which follow, including, Sabine’s Notebook, The Gryphon, and The Golden Mean.  They all take the story on twists and turns around the globe with a quite mysterious ending.

Haruki Murakami adds to this genre with The Strange Library.  This unusual volume has flaps which fold over the top and bottom, and it only needs a wax seal to complete the strangeness of this story.  A child who loves books, returns a few to the local library with the intention of borrowing several others.  Then a slightly strange and scary man invites the boy to look at some interesting books he might like in Room 107 in the basement of the library.  The boy is locked in a room with four folio sized books about taxation in the ottoman empire – a topic he inquired about for his next borrowings.  The librarian tells him he must memorize all four volumes, or he would suffer unspeakable pains.  A friendly jailer visits him and fills in some information, but he encourages the boy to memorize if her ever wants to escape Room 107.  The a mysterious, ethereal young girl approaches and offers a means of escape.

Together these three attempt to escape this nightmare.  The young boy who narrates the story frets about his mother who expects him home for dinner and his pet starling. 
The ghostly girl delivers gourmet meals to the boy, and another weird character, the “Sheepman” brings donuts for an afternoon snack.

Haruki Murakami
Nick Bantock
The circulation librarian checks his returned unusual books – How to Build a Submarine and memoirs of a Shepherd.  The woman directs him to the basement and room 107.  In his typical style, Murakami describes the strange librarian.  “A little old man sat behind a little old desk in the middle of the room.  Tiny black spots dotted his face like a swarm of flies.  The old man was bald and wore thick lenses.  His baldness looked incomplete; he had frizzy white hairs plastered against both sides of his head.  It looked like a mountain after a big forest fire. // ‘Welcome my boy, […] How may I be of assistance?’ […] ‘I want to learn how taxes were collected in the ottoman Empire’” (Part 2, no pagination). 

Although not described as YA fiction, this tale seems appropriate for older children.  All these books are wonderfully creative excursions into an uncommon literary genre.  They offer a pleasant afternoon of reading.  5 stars

--Chiron, 12/22/14 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Last Night by James Salter

James Salter might be the best, under-appreciated writer working today.  His stories are deft, clever exposes of the inner lives of men and women.  His second novel, Cassada, recounts his experiences in World War II.  He left the military in 1957, after the publication of his first novel, The Hunters.  Last Night is his latest collection, and they exemplify the “slice of life” stories so common these days.  These brief peeks at turmoil and joy, success and disappointment, all leave the reader space to imagine the ending or the consequences.

Salter has written five novels and two works of non-fiction.  His first collection of stories, Dust and Other Stories, won the Pen/Faulkner Award in 1989.  Last Night is his second collection.  These ten stories all delve into relationships – strong and weak, new and old, broken and fixed.  The most intriguing story is the first, “Comet.”  Philip and Adele are about to exchange wedding vows.  Salter writes, “[Philip] didn’t make much money, as it turned out.  He wrote for a business weekly.  [Adele] earned nearly that much selling houses.  She had begun to put on a little weight.  This was a few years after they were married.  She was still beautiful – her face was – but she had adopted a more comfortable outline.  She would get into a drink, the way she had done when she was twenty-five.  Phil, a sport jacket over his pajamas, sat reading.  Sometimes he walked that way on their lawn in the morning.  She sipped her drink and watched him” (6).  The story ends with Walter searching the sky for a comet.  Adele can make it out in the haze of her alcohol consumption.  Now I have to imagine what the comet represents.  That’s the fun of these stories.

Another interesting story is “My Lord You.”  This story describes the interaction among six friends.  Ardis is new to the group, and when Warren arrives intoxicated, he frightens her.  The poet makes a pass at Ardis, and the other shrug it off as a result of his drinking.  Like all of the stories in this collection, an unexpected ending awaits the reader.  “Such Fun” opens a window into the lives of three women – Leslie, Kathrin, and Jane -- who dissect their relationships, past, present, and potential.  This story has the most humor and the least subtlety than the others.

I had a tough time deciding which story I would feature as my favorite.  Because it is last, and because most writers end a collection with their best story of poem, I chose the title story for this honor.

As a touching story, “Last Night,” details the final days of Walter Such’s wife, Marit, who is seriously ill.  With the aid of a physician, the plan is to assist her suicide.  Salter writes, “It was the night they had decided would be the one.  On a saucer in the refrigerator, the syringe lay.  Her doctor had supplied the contents.  But a farewell dinner first, if she were able. It should not be just the two of them, Marit had said.  Her instinct.  They had asked Susanna rather than someone closer and grief-filled, Marit’s sister for example, with whom she was not on good terms anyway, or older friends.  Susanna was younger.  She had a wide face and high, pure forehead.  She looked like the daughter of a professor or banker, slightly errant.  Dirty girl, one of their friends had commented about her, with a degree of admiration” (121).

As a great introduction to this interesting writer, Last Night fits the bill perfectly.  5 stars 

--Chiron, 12/20/14

The Palace of Books by Roger Grenier

When I first heard about Roger Grenier and his latest work, The Palace of Books, I was certainly intrigued.  When I first looked at this book-length essay, I lost some of my enthusiasm, but I began to read with my rule of fifty in the forefront of my mind.  As I neared that “line in the text,” I began to understand Grenier’s ideas, so I accelerated onto the end.  Grenier has written a thoroughly enjoyable analysis of literature for readers and writers.  He organizes this essay – not by genre, time period, author, or country – but by ideas.  He weaves a wonderful tapestry connecting various works dating back to the ancient Greeks and Chinese all the way into the 20th century.  He seems to effortlessly draw examples from the library of his mind.

This slim volume will appeal to anyone interested in reading and/or writing.  He deftly connects quite a few dozen works of literature, because they demonstrate the continuity of devices writers use to accomplish or abandon their intentions in a particular work.  Each chapter poses an idea then takes the reader on a whirl-wind tour of authors who have tackled that problem, or, in some cases, those unable to avoid the inevitable because of death, or worse writer’s block.

My favorite chapter is “Private Life.”  Grenier introduces each chapter of the essay with a question.  For example, “Is knowing the private life of an author important for understanding his or work” (56).  I have always believed the answer to be yes, because the author’s life provides a context for the work.  It may or may not help in the understanding, but at least it becomes a piece of the puzzle.  Grenier seems more concerned with how much weight a reader places on this information.  He writes, “As long as you have not asked yourself a certain number of questions about an author and answered them satisfactorily, if only for your private benefit and sotto voce, you cannot be sure of possessing him [or her] entirely.  And this is true, though these questions may seem to be altogether foreign to the nature of his [or her] writings” (56).  So we agree, at least in part.

Roger quotes Chekhov’s Notebook, “How pleasant it is to respect people!  When I see books, I am not concerned with how the authors loved or played cards; I only see their marvelous works” (58).  He then quotes J.B. Pontalis, who “suggests with a touch of malice that Proust and Freud […] don’t want their own private lives examined: if Proust’s perversion of torturing rats was discovered” (59).  Sometimes this obsession with privacy can have tragic effects.  I recall the destruction of an unfinished novel and the diary of Emily Brontë by her sister Charlotte.  What treasures have we lost?  Should we Google J.B. Pontalis to find out who he is?  I did.  He also quotes a mysterious person I could not identify, known only as “Aragon,” who wrote, “My instinct, whenever I read, is to look constantly for the author, and to find him, to imagine him writing, to listen to what he says, not what he tells; so in the end, the usual distinctions among the literary genres – poetry, novel, philosophy, maxims – all strike me as insignificant” (60).  I am with “young Aragon of 1922.”  Grenier adds, “One retreats into oneself in order to communicate better with others” (61).  If the book has a flaw, it might be the lack of any reference to some of the more obscure writers he mentions.

 Finally, Grenier writes, “If I were asked what a literary creation amounts, to, I would say that it’s about choosing among past or present realities.  Faced with a character or a story, you say to yourself, ‘that one is for me, that one isn’t for me.’  By that I mean it does or doesn’t correspond to my sensibility, my way of understanding life, and finally to an esthetic, to a certain music that emanates from that esthetic.  Memory obviously goes along with choosing and doubtless has already made its own choice” (67).  Amen.

For an interesting tour of literature and a literary mind, I highly recommend The Palace of Books by Roger Grenier.  5 stars

--Chiron, 12/16/14