Sunday, February 17, 2019

ARIEL



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Ariel, Sylvia Plath, Faber and Faber Limited, 1965, 81 pp
 
 
I finished reading another poetry collection on the Read One Poem a Day plan. It was the first poetry I have read by Sylvia Plath.
 
I am no expert on poetry. Except for short bits in my school days I have never studied the genre. I have not wanted to learn about the techniques, the rules, the forms; I have not wanted to dissect poetry too much but rather to simply experience the poems.

Reading Ariel gave me pause though. In many of these poems I could only guess at what she was expressing. The imagery is so sharp it almost caused me pain, physical and mental, yet I could not exactly grasp what she was saying in many of them despite reading them again and again.

Knowing this was her last batch prior to taking her own life, successfully after several attempts, may have colored my reactions. I felt she was in deep psychic pain but was also in a deeper love with life and the world.

After finishing the book I read somewhere that her husband, Ted Hughes, edited the poems for publication. Knowing only the speculations and rumors that he was somehow responsible for her death, I was shocked! Was this another F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda story?

One of the best things about reading as much as I do is how I discover my deep pockets of ignorance. What do I actually know about either of these people? Not much. So I went looking. Now I have a list of biographies about Sylvia and collections of the poetry of both.

I see that I have yet another project. Oh my. In my research I got the sense of a strong creative bond between the two poets. I am the most interested in that and look forward to learning much more. Anyone who could write the poems in Ariel had to have been imbued with the level of creativity I admire in many artists.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

WARLIGHT



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Warlight, Michael Ondaatje, Alfred A Knopf, 2018, 226 pp
 
 
Somehow I have never read Ondaatje's most famous book, The English Patient. I think I saw the movie. I did read The Cat's Table and liked it more than many other readers.
 
I liked Warlight but did not love it wholeheartedly. As in The Cat's Table, there is a boy trying to figure out his parents. In the year following WWII, in London, a 14 year old boy named Nathaniel and his older sister are left in the care of some dodgy characters when their parents leave for Ceylon, or so they are told. It is all quite mysterious concerning those parents.

The kids are supposed to be in boarding school but they hate it there. Their enigmatic guardian, The Moth, arranges for them to live at home and commute to school. Eventually he does not even insist they go at all.

Thus Nathaniel has an unsupervised coming of age that includes his adventures with a criminal friend of The Moth's and a passionate affair with a wild girl. Then life becomes dangerous, the mother reappears, the father never does.

I liked the first section when the parents are gone. Nathaniel is a plucky lad, learning the ways of the world.

The second section after the mother returns and supposedly finishes raising her children was less satisfying. She is the ultimate secretive woman and later in life Nathaniel figures out why. In this section, it is all terribly sad and his life goes nowhere. All the highlights were in that year with The Moth.

The writing is beautiful, I must admit. The story of what happened to the characters is a piece of little known Postwar history and undoubtedly important, but lives are ruined in a John le Carre type of wasted lives story. No redemption.

It was not that I was surprised by how horrible the world can be. I just think the second section laid it on a bit too thick.

The novel is a contender for the 2019 Tournament of Books, pitted in the first round with Call Me Zebra, a book I loved. I predict that Warlight will win that round and that is also sad to me.


(Warlight is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in April, 2019.)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

THE LOVED ONES



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The Loved Ones, Sonya Chung, Relegation Books, 2016, 279 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: In this masterful novel of inheritance and loss, Sonya Chung (Long for This World) proves herself a worthy heir to Marguerite Duras, Hwang Sun-won, and James Salter. Spanning generations and divergent cultures, The Loved Ones maps the intimate politics of unlikely attractions, illicit love, and costly reconciliations.

Charles Lee, the young African American patriarch of a biracial family, seeks to remedy his fatherless childhood in Washington, DC, by making an honorable choice when his chance arrives. Years later in the mid-1980s, uneasy and stymied in his marriage to Alice, he finds a connection with Hannah Lee, the teenage Korean American caregiver whose parents' transgressive flight from tradition and war has left them shrouded in a cloud of secrets and muted passion.

A shocking and senseless death will test every familial bond and force all who are touched by the tragedy to reexamine who their loved ones truly are--the very meaning of the words. Haunting, elliptical, and powerful, The Loved Ones deconstructs the world we think we know and shows us the one we inhabit.
 
 
My Review:
This amazing novel surprised me. It was the next book on my stack of unread Nervous Breakdown Book Club selections, from October, 2016. The title made me expect some kind of "women's fiction." Well, it is family fiction but not the bestseller kind I tend to avoid. 
 
Generations, divergent cultures (Korean, Black American), loss, finding the ones you love outside the box of "loved ones," and so much heart.
 
It is not perfectly written per popular fiction or even literary fiction directives. It goes back and forth through time though in the best possible way. The characters are not likeable. They are real like the rest of us.
 
Actually the writing is fearless, taking the reader to places and emotions that continue to astonish. The way Sonya Chung demonstrates the interactions between politics, society, belief systems, all these weighty topics, through stories that happen to everyday people is what I expect from great fiction. 
 
 
(The Loved Ones is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Monday, February 11, 2019

THE OLD BOYS







The Old Boys, William Trevor, The Viking Press, 1964, 191 pp
 
 
It seems I have been hearing about this author for years, probably because he was shortlisted several times for the Booker Prize. The Old Boys was his second novel. He immediately won prizes and went on to write novels, short stories, and even plays. Whatever he wrote, he kept winning prizes, awards and at last a KBE: Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Though he was born, raised and educated in Ireland, he emigrated to England and stayed there.
 
I was therefore expecting a great deal as I finally came to William Trevor on the 1964 list of My Big Fat Reading Project. The first unsettling surprise was that the "old boys" are quite old, in their 70s. Why would an author starting out in his 30s write about such old guys?

The plot concerns a coming election for the next president of the Old Boys Association which is connected with the boarding school (called public school in England) these old guys attended. Anyone who has read British literature knows about the cruel and unusual goings on in those places, often leaving people scarred for life. I was not excited about reading another one of those stories.

My boredom with these old boys continued to the end but since the story was contemporary with the early 1960s in Great Britain, I found a little to interest me. This is the time and environment that gave us all those great bands from Britain: the Beatles, the Stones, etc. This was when the rebellion was born.

Though no one in the book starts a band, the story of these guys dredging up all their old friendships and hostilities as they dodder through meetings, had a quaint historical feeling, showing me what the lads of the 60s might have been wanting to shake up.

In fact, many British writers in the 50s and 60s did write about the hidebound, stuffy but crumbling and defeated British class system and mores of the Postwar era: Muriel Spark, A S Byatt, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and more. They eventually moved into more modern stories.

I am sure William Trevor did so as well. Since his writing style is already quite good in The Old Boys, I will keep reading his novels as I move through my reading project, hoping to enjoy them more than I did this one.

Have you read this author? If so, which books did you enjoy the most?

Saturday, February 09, 2019

ORFEO



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Orfeo, Richard Powers, W W Norton & Company, 2014, 396 pp
 
 
Last year I read The Overstory. I was majorly impressed. I had not read Richard Powers before but the minute I finished that novel I wanted to read everything he wrote. Rather than go back to his first novel and read forward, as I usually do with an author, I decided to do the opposite. I created a personal challenge to read his novels in reverse order of publication, one per month throughout 2019. Orfeo is the novel that preceded The Overstory.
 
I loved this one as much though for different reasons, the main one being it is centered around music, the deepest love of my life. Peter Els is a composer, just about my age. The novel begins in the present time of post 9/11 days with a catastrophe and then proceeds forward with interspersed sections that trace Peter's entire life. I loved that too because it was like looking at a parallel history to my own.

Catastrophe, mostly self-created, has defined his life. His goals have included composing music that pushes boundaries, seeking connection between music and science (he is also a biologist), and loving his wife and daughter.

These goals clash and bring about a desperate friction between his drive to create and his need for love and human connection. That line from Joni Mitchell: "Caught in my struggle for higher achievement and my search for love" (from the song "Same Situation" on Court and Spark.)

Due to his latest experiment in his home microbiology lab, Peter is being pursued by Homeland Security as a possible terrorist. He goes on the lam, hoping to tie up the loose ends of his life or even possibly escape capture.

After completing this one, I see that to read Richard Powers you must be in shape as a reader. Like being trained for a marathon because you need fitness and stamina. Reading him is exhausting, though in a good way. You must be willing to learn stuff you didn't know before and to suspend disbelief to the utmost.

The reward is to have your thinking opened wide, possibly disarranged, and to find yourself with more ways than previously conceived of looking at life, people, history, science, and the world we live in today. 

Not for everyone, I concede, but I love that.


(Orfeo is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

WOMANISH: A GROWN BLACK WOMAN SPEAKS ON LOVE AND LIFE



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Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life, Kim McLarin, Ig Publishing, 2019, 182 pp
 
 
In this brilliant and truthful essay collection, Kim McLarin covers just about every aspect of living in America as a Black woman. I was enlightened, amused, made quite uncomfortable at times, and impressed over and over by her intelligence. You know I have a thing for intelligent women.
 
Everything she covers is important to a grown or growing woman: on-line dating, depression, racial injustice in the courts, anger, marriage, motherhood, bad partners, revenge vs non-violence, and more. The whole perspective is a Black woman's. I know, it says that in the subtitle, but it bears repeating.

The essay that punched me the hardest, "Becky and Me," considers friendship between Black and White women. As I read I felt there was not any way for me to be a good friend to a Black woman. I had to look at why I have not had a Black female friend since the third grade. I spent hours trying to figure out how I could make a Black female friend at this point in my life and to reason out why I do not even cross paths with Black women in my daily/social activities. I wondered if Kim McLarin would accept me as a friend and truthfully I felt unworthy, unsure of myself, even kind of rejected.

As I gradually got over myself, I realized (not for the first time) that Black Americans have spent way more time observing and figuring out White Americans than we have spent attempting to get a true picture of them. It was James Baldwin who got me started thinking about all that but he is a man.

My education is not complete, nor is my experience. The inherent and continuously glossed over racism in this country will give us problems for a long time to come, perhaps always and forever. This book is a valuable resource I think for both Black and White women and men.

Kim McLarin is bold, intelligent, relentless and brave as a writer and as a human being, but what stood out most for me in her collection was her honesty. A Grown Black Woman Speaks. Yes, she does.


(Womanish is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, February 04, 2019

THE IMMORTALISTS




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The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin, G P Putnam's Sons, 2018, 343 pp
 
 
Sometimes I love a novel because I feel so at home with the emotions, the characters, and the author's theme. That was the case with this book.
 
On a hot summer day in 1969, four children from the Lower East Side, aged 7-13, sneak away to consult a woman rumored to have the power to tell fortunes and name the day you will die. Two sisters, two brothers, led along by the older brother, agree to go because it is hot, it is summer and they are bored. Each one is filled with his or her unique brand of trepidation.

By the time each child has received, separately and alone, that death date, I felt I knew the personality of each. The rest of the novel follows what they made of their lives and how the death date influenced their actions.

It is a wondrous family tale, full of repercussions from the Holocaust, the changing mores of American society over the next several decades, and enough joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams, births and deaths, secrets and revelations, to make every page shimmer.

Chloe Benjamin is a phenomenal writer with imagination to spare and a big, huge heart.


(The Immortalists is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)