Saturday, May 09, 2015

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is a national – no an international treasure -- but she is first and foremost, “Our treasure.”  At 84, she continues to produce some of the finest works of fiction published today.  Her eleventh novel came out in April 2015.  When a Morrison novel enters my reading radar, I pounce and place it on the top of the pile.  At 178 pages, God Help the Child packs every bit of joy, anger, hatred, prejudice, love, as any of her works.  All this energy and emotion becomes embedded in a story a finely drawn as a silk sheet as it gently glides to cover us.  

God Help the Child is Morrison’s first novel set in the present day.  How timely with the events of Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore to name a few.  Lula Ann, or Bride – as she calls herself – has a stunning beauty which attracts the attention of men and women alike.  Not only gorgeous – I am thinking of Halle Berry – but she has a rare and sensitive intelligence.  She also displays a justly confident spirit.  As the novel opens, Sweetness says, “It’s not my fault.  So you can’t blame me” (3).  The event she disavows is the birth of her daughter, Lula Ann.  The baby is blue-black, and Sweetness cannot bear to even touch the child.  Lula Ann repulses her.  The father, Louis, abandons the family, accusing Sweetness of infidelity.

This reminds me of Kate Chopin’s short story, “Desiree’s Baby.”  In the story, a couple argue and fight over the color of a baby.  The husband cruelly says to his wife, “You are not white!”  He expels her from the house, and she takes the baby and disappears.  But this 19th century story set in Louisiana is the thinnest of shadows of Morrison’s novel.  She digs deeply into the psyche of Lula Ann, who

Each chapter has a different Narrator.  Sweetness opens and closes the novel, and the others – Bride, Brooklyn, Bride’s best friend at the cosmetics company which employs both of them.  Sofia and Rain are also important characters.  On several occasions, and omniscient narrator intervenes and spreads lots of insight into the characters.

Morrison’s words overflow with emotions and tension.  In a chapter narrated by Sweetness, Morrison writes, “Oh, yeah, I feel bad sometimes about how I treated Lula Ann when she was little.  But you have to understand: I had to protect her.  She didn’t know the world.  There was no point in being tough or sassy even when you were right.  Not in a world where you could be sent to a juvenile lockup for talking back or fighting in school, a world where you’d be the last one hired and the first one fired.  She couldn’t know any of that or how her black skin would scare white people or make them laugh or trick her” (41).  How awful and painful it must be to have to shelter a child from centuries of hate and prejudice.  It sickens me and makes me ashamed that my country – the land of freedom – allows the ugly and pernicious actions of some people to result in murder, riots, and mass incarceration.

Read Toni Morrison’s latest novel, God Help the Child and begin to try and understand what African American mothers have experienced for more than 400 years.  An inadequate 5 stars.

--Chiron, 5/6/15

Peony in Love by Lisa See

Back in 2008, I read Lisa See’s interesting novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  The story, set in China, thoroughly examined the role and treatment of women in 19th century China.  I had a vague notion of “foot binding” but no detailed information.  After Googling images, I was horrified.  When a book club member suggested See’s 2007 novel, Peony in Love, I winced just a little.  This time the author sets her story in 17th century China.  Embedded amongst all the feet, the I discovered a love story like no other I have ever read.  I forgot the feet and switched to the heart.

The Organization of Chinese American Women named Lisa See the 2001 National Woman of the Year.  She has written several novels, all of which revolve around lost or covered up stories and the relationships among women.

Peony is a young girl of about 15 – only weeks away from her marriage to the son of a moderately well-off family.  Peony has never seen her intended, but at an intermission in an opera, The Peony Pavilion, she steps out and meets a handsome young man and immediately falls in love.  As her wedding approaches, she fears a wizened old man would be her husband.  She pines for her mysterious young man to the point of starvation and exhaustion. 

The array of unusual customs and habits of the period staggers the imagination.  After a meal, Peony hears a drum and cymbals calling the women to the garden.  Peony is first out the door.  See writes, “I needed to proceed cautiously, fully aware that men who were not family members stood within our walls tonight.  If one of them should chance to see me, I would be blamed and a bad mark set against my character” (9).  Hard for us to grasp such a mindset in today’s society. 

In addition to other men, Peony has a deep and abiding commitment to respect and honor her father.  See writes, Peony ‘had lived fifteen years without having committed a single act that anyone in my family could call unfilial” (11).  Peony becomes a writer, commenting on the opera she has seen.  He father gives her a present.  “He went to a camphor-wood chest, opened it and pulled out something wrapped in purple silk woven in a pattern of willow.  When he handed it to me, I knew it was a book. […] I loved books.  I loved the weight of them in my hands.  I loved the smell of ink and the feel of the rice paper.  ‘Don’t fold over the edges of the page to mark your place,’ my father reminded me.  ‘Don’t scratch at the written characters with your fingernails.  Don’t wet your finger with your tongue before turning the pages.  An never use a book as a pillow” (25).  A wise man indeed.

I did see one anachronism, which I always enjoy finding in novels.  Peony mentions “Piles of fruit […] in cloisonné dishes” (52).  While the Chinese did produce dishes with pieces of metal that pooled glaze of a certain color, the term, cloisonné first appeared in French in 1863.  Peony could not have known that word, which means “compartment.”

As a note in the front of the novel explains, the opera, The Peony Pavilion, was first produced and published in 1598.  See based Peony on Chen Tong born about 1649.  The Three Wives Commentary on the opera, became the first book of its kind written and published by women anywhere in the world.  The factual basis for this story makes it all the more horrific and wonderful.  Lisa See’s Peony in Love, is a wonderful historical novel, which opens windows on a secretive and hidden period in Chinese history.  See has several other novels, and I think I hear them calling from my PC.  5 stars

--Chiron, 5/1/15

J by Howard Jacobson

One of these years, I am going to assemble all the novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and read them along with the jury, and then try and guess which will win.  For years I have been waiting until the final announcement before buying any of the nominees.  But lately, I have been reading some novels written by previous winners, and I have enjoyed them every bit as the winners.  My wife gave me a copy of J by Howard Jacobson, who won the Booker in 2010 for The Finkler Question.  Jacobson’s 2014 novel, J, shows me exactly what I am missing among the also-rans.

Set on an island surrounded by seas that “lap no other shore,” the mysterious villagers, suspicious of strangers and each other, constantly apologize for even the slightest of offenses.  The government suppresses all history, heirlooms, photos, and anything which might remind the people of “What Happened, If It Happened.”  Many residents have secret stashes of letters, diaries, and old books, which they use to try and piece together the past.  Chilling reminders of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, with tinges of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Kevern Cohen meets the stunningly beautiful Ailinn Solomons who arrives one day on the shore.  Kevern experiences love at first sight, and Ailinn is attracted to Kerern after some prodding by Esme Nussbaum, her guardian.  Many of the characters have cryptic phone calls about the couple, including a shady police inspector, a gnarly barber, and Esme.

Jacobson writes, “Esme Nussbaum looked around her while Rabinowitz spoke.  Behind his head a flamingo pink LED scroll repeated the advice Ofnow had been dispensing to the country for the last quarter of a century or more.  ‘Smile at your neighbor, cherish your spouse, listen to the ballads, go to musicals, use your telephone, converse, explain, listen, agree, apologize.  Talk is better than silence, the sung word is better than the written, but nothing is better than love’” (17-18). 

This sounds innocuous, but apparently, music has been censored, the telephones are all tapped, and everyone reports -- to some unknown person -- what they have heard and seen.

The title of the book is actually a capital “J” with two horizontal lines across the middle.  The custom has been to put two figure across your mouth each time a word is spoken which begins with a “J.”  Almost every J has two lines on the printed page, except for one word: “just,” and as the novel progressed, I began to notice words without the two lines.  Curiousier and most curious.  This novel cries out for a second read.  While I have a pretty solid theory about “What Happened, If It Happened,” not all the clues lead to the same conclusion. 

Kevern’s father left him several boxes labeled for opening at important stages of his life.  He fears opening the one marked open when you are about to become a father.  These boxes disturb Kevern, because, as Jacobson writes, “Hoarding, surely, was random and disorganized, the outward manifestation of a disordered personality.  His father’s boxes hinted at a careful, systematic, if overly secretive mind” (51).  Kevern suffers from OCD, and he worries about everything.

Howard Jacobson’s J will provide lots of absorbing reading.  Part mystery, part love story, and part dystopia, it warns me about what I might be missing in those second novels which lose out every year.  Certainly many of them must deserve  5 stars.

--Chiron, 4/24/15

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Rock Springs: Stories by Richard Ford

Quite a few years ago, a friend recommended Independence Day by Richard Ford.  It was the early days of my “Rule of 50,” so I decided to stop around page 23.  Then, recently, in an assignment in a graduate class, the novel loomed before me.  I had no choice but to claw my way through the nearly 500 pages of smallish font.  To my surprise, I engaged the character, Frank Bascombe almost immediately.  I began to see the character types Ford drew, and I quickly came to an understanding of his purpose in writing this story.  That fact that he reminded me of Richard Russo only added fuel to my reading.  Since then, I have been accumulating the rest of his works.

Rock Springs: Stories is an interesting collection of tales of middle America and the characters straddling the line between good and evil, love and hate, success and failure. Ford’s prose is simple and straightforward.  Most of the characters have a matter-of-fact attitude towards their situation.  In the title story, Earl and Edna are driving a stolen car across the country with their daughter Cheryl in the back seat.  The car breaks down, and they do worry about a state trooper stopping to help – but only for a minute or two.  They want to make it to the next town so they can steal a new car.

I really didn’t have one favorite story – I enjoyed them all equally.  However, I did enjoy this exchange between the narrator, Russ, and Arlene, his wife in the story titled “Sweethearts.”  “‘What do you think when you get into bed with me every night?  I don’t know why I want to know that.  I just do’ Arlene said.  ‘It seems important to me.’ // And in truth I did not have to think about that at all, because I knew the answer, and had thought about it already, had wondered in fact, if it was in my mind because of the time in my life it was, or because a former husband was involved, or because I had a daughter to raise alone, and no one else I could be absolutely sure of. // ‘I just think,’ I said, ‘here’s another day that’s gone.  A day I’ve had with you.  And now it’s over.’ // ‘There’s some loss in that, isn’t there?’ Arlene nodded at me and smiled. // ‘I guess so,’ I said. // ‘It’s not so all-bad though, is it?  There can be a next day.’ // ‘That’s true,’ I said. // ‘We don’t know where any of this is going, do we?’ she said, and she squeezed my hand tight. // ‘No,’ I said.  And I knew that was not a bad thing at all, not for anyone in any life. // ‘You’re not going to leave me for some other woman now, are you?  You’re still my sweetheart.  I’m not crazy, am I?’ // ‘I never thought that,’ I said.” (67-68).

Other stories involved sons reminiscing about their childhoods, a crotchety old man who finds children playing with fireworks bothersome, and some Native Americans trying to scratch a living in the plains of Montana.

These stories all please on different levels.  I found much empathy for the struggles of these “ordinary Americans,” and I wanted them all to get what they wanted.  I think you will find – as I did Richard Ford’s 1987 collection of short stories, Rock Springs, a most pleasing companion on a rainy afternoon.  5 stars

--Chiron, 4/12/15

Sister by Rosamund Lupton

During my younger days, I had a passion for genre fiction – fantasy and science fiction – but mysteries and detective fiction never held my attention.  A good friend picked Sister by Rosamund Lupton for our March Book Club, so I read with a slight sense of "I won't like this!"  As it turned out, it was not so much a detective novel as a psychological exploration of a family torn apart following the death of a child, a divorce, the scattering of siblings, and finally the disappearance of a young woman, Tess -- an art student with quite a free spirit.  Much to the dismay of her mother and sister, she had a bit too much of a free spirit.

Bea and Tess, as they called each other, had developed an extremely close relationship, even though Bea had left London for a design job in New York.  She spoke frequently with Tess, and as Bea mentioned several times, “they had no secrets.”  Bea boards the next flight to London and moves into her sister’s flat, hoping to reconnect with Tess.  The police seem oddly unconcerned about the disappearance of Tess, and Bea convinces herself she is alive and will soon turn up.  The novel takes a dark turn when a cast of characters begin to appear.

When her body turns up in a crusty, disgusting public toilet, Bea begins formulating all sorts of scenarios to explain her death.  The police firmly belief the death resulted from suicide.  I won’t say why, because those details are all part of the plot.  I searched for a quote to exemplify Lupton’s tight, suspenseful prose, but most of them revealed plot details, which are full of cleverly placed red herrings.  For example, three men are mentioned as have a Labrador retriever for a pet.  The author fooled me, because they had nothing to do with the crime.  So, I settled on the first paragraph.  Lupton writes, “Sunday Evening.  Dearest Tess, I’d do anything to be with you, right now, right this moment, so I could hold your hand, look at your face, listen to your voice.  How can touching and seeing and hearing – all those sensory receptors and optic nerves and vibrating eardrums – be substituted by a letter?  But we’ve managed to use words as go-betweens before, haven’t we?  When I went off to boarding school and we had to replace games and laughter and low-voiced confidences for letters to each other.  I can’t remember what I said in my first letter, just that I used a jigsaw, broken up, to avoid the prying eyes of my house mistress.  (I guessed correctly that her jigsaw-making inner child had left years ago).  But I remember word for word your seven-year-old reply to my fragmented homesickness and that your writing was invisible until I shone a flashlight onto the paper.  Ever since, kindness has smelled of lemons” (1).  

Believe it or not, several phrases and images in this first paragraph connect directly to numerous points in the plot.  I love a psychological novel, and the bond these two sisters had revealed them both to be interesting characters, with a complex relationship to each other, their mother and absent father, their dead brother, Leo, and numerous other characters in the novel.

Sister, by Rosamund Lupton, will draw you into this complex web, and wonder at their strengths and weaknesses.  To fans and non-fans of suspense I highly recommend this debut novel by a young British writer.  5 stars

--Chiron, 3/26/15