Archive for December, 2018

Chastised And Pious

We become somber monks,
stripping rooms of excessive decorations.
Silence replaces the din
of parties that kept us up past bedtime.
After overindulgence comes
the resolution to return to simplicity.
Bright lights give way to
dark nights sending us to sleep before nine.
Summer’s distant horizon
has shrunken to the size of a snug cocoon.
On such cold evenings,
spiked eggnog is replaced by herbal tea.
A holiday’s intemperance
demands strict penance from January.
Chastised and pious,
sensation is numbed beyond temptation.
But unrepentant at heart,
we still daydream of Spring’s debauchery.

Outline / Rachel Cusk

In the opening chapter of Outline, the story’s narrator is on a flight to Athens to teach a class.  She begins a conversation with an older man, a Greek, who is returning home.  This chapter sets the blueprint for the following nine chapters.  Each features a different conversation where the narrator is able to get people to talk about themselves.  What they often reveal are troubling stories about events in their lives, including failed marriages, disappointments regarding their children and chosen careers. 

Meanwhile, the narrator remains a puzzle, as the clues to her life story are sparsely proffered.  It takes some time for the reader to assemble a scant biography: that she lives in London, has children, is divorced, and works as a writer.  As far as I could tell, the narrator’s first name is revealed only once throughout the book.  While the conversations seem one-sided, a picture of the narrator is slowly composed in the reader’s eye.  Outline lacks a plot driven narrative.  Instead, the book concentrates on how people present themselves when telling details about their lives, trying to color the details in their favor.  And the narrator’s questions and reactions to the revelations also have much to say about who she is as a person.

This novel is the first book in a trilogy. Cusk has written a number of memoirs before this, focusing on being a young mother and about a later divorce.  While fictional, and clearly not forthcoming with details about its narrator, Outline, too, has the feel of a memoir.  I’m excited to move on to Transit and Kudos, the other two novels in the trilogy.  If they live up to the first book’s promising start, Cusk will become an author I elevate to my “must read” list in her future endeavors.

Epicenter

East of here,
in a dreamscape’s grainy
black and white
language has fallen silent.

To the west,
traffic, dinner, and birds
drown out
a sun that has yet to set.

North to south,
a faint whisper of breeze
finally coaxes
the day’s heat to abate.

In the epicenter,
I’m hushed to reverence
as moonrise maps
our street’s topography.

The Heart Of Things : A Midwestern Almanac / John Hildebrand

The Heart of Things is a collection of essays that Hildebrand first published in Wisconsin Trails magazine.  The stories are arranged to follow the calendar year, from January through December.  He focuses on the rhythm of life in small town America, capturing the small details in a sympathetic and often lighthearted manner.  Each essay is short, running only from two to four pages.  But in this case, boiled down to a rich essence, less is more.  Whether observing the weather, nature, family or home, his descriptions of life in northwestern Wisconsin are sharply drawn.

Hildebrand is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.  Being an outdoor enthusiast, stories of hunting, fishing, and canoeing play a big part in the book.  In these activities, he employs his keen eye to describe Wisconsin’s rural environment.  Among the topics covered are church suppers, Friday night football, farming, and the natural world’s importance to local communities.

Following the 2016 elections, there was much discussion about city dwellers being unfamiliar with the concerns of rural America.  While The Heart of Things barely touches upon political issues, it certainly does provide a snapshot of daily life in smaller communities around the state of Wisconsin.  These essays show that while there are certainly differences between rural and urban inhabitants, there are many more areas where we are more alike than not.  I found Hildebrand’s prose elegant and thoughtful.  This is a book I will be recommending widely to friends.

The Moment Before

There was a moment
before words became articulation,
hardened into intent.
Time enough for the heart to intervene.
For second thoughts
to douse anger’s blossoming flame.
How can I ask
forgiveness when sound’s shape
could have been
instinctively choked back down by
a throat’s contraction.
Remorse cannot excuse the sword
allowed to sharpen
in that kiln those long seconds
before the thrust.
Never mind I already regretted
my clenched fist.
The black of my soul exposed.
Even as the bile
was spewed, I knew the wound
would draw blood.

That Old Cape Magic / Richard Russo

This novel’s central character is Jack Griffin, a professor in his 50s, living in New England with his wife.  The plot focuses on his marriage as well as the troubled relationship he has had with his parents over the years.  Fondly remembering his early adulthood spent as a screenwriter in Hollywood, a midlife crisis finds him tempted to return to California to try his hand at it again.  That Old Cape Magic centers on two eventful summer outings to Cape Cod, using a flashback-filled narrative to provide Jack’s full life story.

On the first of these summer trips to the Cape, he is traveling there to join his wife.  It is the place where they honeymooned following their wedding, and they hope to recapture the magic felt then.  But for him, the area holds a deeper meaning.  It is where he vacationed every summer with his parents as a boy.  The second reason for this trip is to find an appropriate location to scatter his father’s ashes.  Unbeknownst to him, when this trip ends he will not be returning home, and he will still be carrying his father’s ashes in the trunk of his car.  The second half of the novel describes his return to Cape Cod the following summer.  He is there to attend his daughter’s wedding.  This time, he is carrying with him his mother’s ashes as well.  Hanging over the proceedings is the question mark of whether he will be able to save his troubled marriage.

Russo excels in creating flawed male characters who are always stumbling across their own two left feet.  Jack is no exception.  He is likable even though I kept wanting to knock some sense into him.  Another of Russo’s talents is the ability to create comic situations that ring uncomfortably true to life while still tickling the funny bone.  In That Old Cape Magic, he again successfully weaves humor into the story’s drama.  Despite these pluses, I found this novel lacking the heft and punch of his earlier works.  While still an enjoyable read, the plot was far too predictable and a bit tired.  For readers new to Russo’s work, his earlier novels (especially Straight Man) would be a better place to start for a proper introduction.

My Mother’s House, And Sido / Colette

While classified as fiction, the two novels in this combined volume are clearly thinly veiled memoirs of Colette’s childhood and family, focusing especially on her mother, Sido.  As these recollections highlight, Colette’s mother was a compelling force not only in her own family, but also as a person much admired in her community.  Until age twelve, the author grew up in a rural French village during the late nineteenth century.  As Colette describes it, the environment she grew up in was a slice of paradise on earth.  After reading about her mother’s abundant garden, a house cluttered with books and all kinds of pets, as well as a loving relationship with her second husband, I was inclined to agree with Colette’s opinion.

Of course a child has little understanding of the difficulties their parents face in life.  Sprinkled throughout these vignettes are hints of money troubles, family discord, and health issues.  Wisely though, Colette concentrates mostly on the joys and wonderment the world presented to her in childhood.  She lovingly captures the magic and innocence of a place that remained a touchstone throughout her life.

Sido was a master gardener, and the plants she grew and the rhyme of the passing seasons play a large part in the stories Colette tells.  So does her relationship with her siblings and father.  A war veteran who lost a leg in battle, he represents the dreamer who infuses Colette with the desire to become a writer.  But it was her mother’s energy and “can do” attitude that served as the inspiration to succeed in the craft.

I was unfamiliar with Colette’s books before a friend recommended My Mother’s House, and Sido to me.  Within a few pages into the first story, I was captivated by her marvelous prose and the magical recreation of a childhood.  The author’s reminiscences capture not only the special qualities of her mother;  they preserve forever a remembered paradise as seen through the eyes of an observant child.

Haiku Mélange

A mélange of
green pepper, onion
and mushroom
tempered by tofu

Add garlic
and drown in
the mash of
garden tomatoes:
it’s sauce

Confrontation

At 3:07 in the morning
on a bathroom run
I’m confronted
by an elderly gentleman
looking startled
there in the mirror with
disheveled hair.

Having gotten out
of bed without putting
my glasses on,
he does not recognize
me at first either.

The Accidental / Ali Smith

In this novel’s marvelous opening section, the reader is introduced to Astrid, a precocious twelve year old girl. She is on holiday with her family, and up before dawn, trying to film its first moments.  In a rambling stream of consciousness, the reader becomes privy to her jumbled thoughts.  A good many authors have trouble adequately portraying the inner life of children and adolescents.  Smith excels at it here.  Alas, while the story that follows is interesting, Astrid’s appearances in it are few and far between.

She is on holiday in a rented house with her mother Eve, stepfather Michael, and older brother Magus.  In the chapters that follow, the reader gets to see the world through each of the family members’ eyes.  All four are unhappy or troubled in some way when first introduced.  It is the arrival of a stranger at their door who will change how they see their lives and relationships with each other.  

The stranger at the door is Amber, a thirty-something woman who is invited into the household after her car has supposedly broken down.  While the four other characters are given a voice in the book, Amber’s inner thoughts are not heard, except in the story’s preface and conclusion.  At first, I wondered if Amber represented an angel sent to rescue the family from its troubled state.  However, her presence becomes more sinister as the story unfolds.  It is her chilling voice that is allowed to conclude the novel.

In Smith’s stories, her characters are so expertly drawn that they immediately step off the page and become a living presence.  Such is the case in The Accidental.  In it, Astrid’s family is presented with warts and all.  However, a twist in the second half of the novel sends the story into an unexpected direction, and for me, a less satisfying one.  On reaching its finishing pages, I found myself wishing Smith would have focused more on Astrid.  Having opened the book with such a bang, the remainder of the story struggled to live up to such a promising start.  Even so, it is still a work that enhances Smith’s reputation as a gifted author.  For readers not familiar with her work, The Accidental will provide a captivating introduction.

Catch And Release

Firmly anchored to the rear deck,
with a weekend beard
and protruding cigar never lit,
our neighbor fly casts
into the green depths of his yard.
Careful to avoid
birdbath and reposing Buddha,
he threads the needle
between deciduous and evergreen.
Hydrangeas bypassed,
he teases his barbed jig beneath
the budding peonies.
Robins peevishly hop to avoid
harm as a snaking line
disturbs their pursuit of worms.
Angling for whatever,
be it twig, leaf, or mere snag,
he awaits a strike.
Possessing no license and
unconcerned with
the restriction of a bag limit,
carelessly he trolls.
Still, his modus operandi is
catch and release,
he reassures us with a wink.

The Minutiae

There is always another task.
Dinner to prepare. A child demanding
me me me. That classic novel
languishing unfinished on the nightstand.
The clutter of our own
contradictions to sweep under the rug.
All those ruffled feathers,
yours and theirs, still in need of soothing.
Even as one’s essential self,
like a second language, clamors to be
understood, tomorrow’s
homework assignment takes precedence.
Preoccupied, we drown in
the minutiae of endless numbered days,
waiting for the oven’s ding.