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Archive for the ‘Language Focus’ Category

JacketIt doesn’t seem like you’d find romance, emotional conflict, and a profound cultural shift in a grease-filled garage, but Wayne Harrison has found a way to do it–and for some reason that setting gives the themes a lot of punch. I mean, who would expect that guys who spend their lives elbow-deep in transmissions, radiators, and carburetors would live deeply-felt lives?

Harrison’s story centers on Nick Campbell’s Out of the Hole garage, where legendary mechanic Nick has taken on 17-year old Justin as a Vo-Ag intern. Over the course of a summer, Justin practices diagnosing and repairing the good old cars with names like Barracuda, Chevelle, Challenger, Firebird, GTO. Those cars could be completely disassembled, re-engineered and rebuilt to burn the rubber off the fat racing tires. Think Greased Lightning or just about any Springsteen car.  And Nick is a master, even written up in Road Rage magazine for his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of just what it takes to milk that last bit of torque to create the unconquerable street car.

Nick is married to Mary Ann, a beautiful, intelligent woman who runs the business end of the shop, and with whom Justin inevitably falls in love. Even after his apprenticeship is up, Justin flees his unwelcoming school for the camaraderie of the shop, and eventually takes a job there. Old-timer Ray, Bobby the ex-con, Nick and Mary Ann are the friends and uncomplicated family Justin needs. But Nick and Mary Ann suffered a tragedy while he was gone, and it’s having an effect on the shop–Nick’s work is getting dangerously shoddy and he and Mary Ann are barely talking. Mary Ann turns to Justin for comfort, which turns into a sexual relationship. Now 19, Justin sees a perfect future in which he takes Mary Ann for himself. There’s one problem: Nick.

Justin still regards Nick as a mentor, a combination father figure, brother, and teacher.  And the opportunity to work on Nick’s latest project, restoring and racing a Corvette ZL-1, one of two in existence, is irresistible. The owner also has a big dream to build a chain of shops specializing in customizing those big engines. See, the future is here. The EPA’s new emissions restrictions essentially require computerized controls, and those can’t be diagnosed by guys listening to spark plugs and tasting the gasoline. Plus they make the cars wimpy–no more living and dying on the line for cash or pink slips with the new generation.

Harrison pulls off both sides of the story with seeming ease. The world of cams and quarter-mile racing opens up even to the most auto-phobic, and the interaction between the characters is natural enough to touch the heart of any gearhead. As those worlds head towards collision, neither set of readers will be able to ignore the power of the writing.

Check the WRL catalog for The Spark and the Drive

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JacketIn this corner, weighing in at three pounds, with a chemical punch that rules the body is The Brain! And in this corner, managed by clueless trainers and sycophantic followers, is Everything Else! It’s the eternal match-up of Nature vs. Nurture! Tonight’s referee is Herman Koch, but there are no rules about punching below the belt, no timekeepers, and judges who can’t score the bout until it’s way too late. Ding!

OK, that’s a poor imitation of the ongoing boxing match between those who say criminals are born and those who say they are made. As a story, The Dinner is more like a tag-team wrestling event with a fundamental questions at its heart: Does a parent’s love encompass protecting their children from the consequences of their deeds?

Herman Koch has structured his approach to the question as the progressive courses of a dinner (hence the title) between two brothers and their wives. Paul, the narrator, is a teacher; his brother Serge a politician cruising to the top of Dutch political life. We see everything through Paul’s eyes, beginning with the bitter aperitif of Paul’s loathing for his pretentious brother and ending with a horrific after-dinner drink at a nearby pub. This single viewpoint frequently breaks the action up as individuals and pairs leave the table for private conversations we aren’t privy to, or we follow along as Paul does things the others don’t know about.

Over the course of the evening we learn that Paul’s son Michel and Serge’s son Rick were involved in a terrible crime. Paul recognized the boys from security footage, but the police and public haven’t, and every day brings new and more strident calls that the criminals be brought to justice. Does Paul have the courage to confront his son, to tell his wife, brother, and sister-in-law, to expose the boys and ruin both families? And does Paul’s bitterness have roots in a deeper conflict?

Koch has successfully incorporated the technology that has rendered so much other fiction out-of-date. Swapped cell phones, stolen emails, YouTube videos, and deleted voice mails all play a significant role in bringing the conflict into the open, and in offering a solution to the dilemma. But at its core, this is a story about people, ethics, and that old battle of Nature vs. Nurture. That one’s not going away any time soon.

Check the WRL catalog for The Dinner

(Coming in Summer 2015 as a Gab Bag – I’ll post that as soon as it’s up)

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orfeoWhat does it take for a musical composition to become “classical music”? Some pieces now in the canon caused riots and inspired revolutions when first performed. It seems, though, that when composers set out to declare revolution, they didn’t really connect with audiences. That’s the situation Peter Els found himself in as a young man.

Peter Els is the main character in Richard Powers’ Orfeo, and our tour guide through the worlds of orchestral music and biological terrorism. Seventy years old when the novel begins, his career as a composer over, his only creative outlet lies in the brave new world of manipulating bacteria for his own enlightenment. It’s just too bad that his equipment triggers a full-out alarm at Homeland Security, which reacts in a heavy-handed fashion. With little warning, few resources, and the weight of public opinion quickly turned against him, Peter flees.

On his journey, he recites an apologia of his extinguished career. Els grew up in a time of musical turmoil, where old-fashioned notions of rhythm and structure (“beauty” is the reviled term) were thrown out in favor of dissonance and audience involvement. He had two compatriots in his personal revolution – Richard Bonner, a manic director and producer brimming with wild ideas; and Maddy, a singer who agrees to try one of his experimental pieces and ends up marrying him.

But low-paying jobs that enable his creative flow, and his devoted fatherhood to their child are not enough for Maddy, and they divorce. Peter goes into a hermitic existence, which he breaks only when Richard blasts back into his life with an earthshaking commission. After an extended and agonizing creative process, the piece debuts to rave reviews; however, Peter sees an unfortunate parallel to current events, refuses to give permission for future performances and breaks all ties with Richard. Alone, he takes a position as an adjunct professor in a middling music program where he nonetheless affects his students and brings out their best.

Els admires many of his contemporaries, among them Harry Partsch and John Cage. But he also shows us the ambitions and results of composers ranging back to Mozart, and the future of sounds created by popular musicians who adapted them from the revolutionaries of the late 20th century. Like Mr. Holland, he  teaches by understanding where we are and leading us to a new level.

Still, he’s on the run, and his efforts to recapture and even make amends for his past are fraught with danger. His genetic engineering interest sparks a national debate, driven by hysteria and the need for a villain by the national media but Peter Els has his own voice and uses it to maximum effect to counter the fear that has been created in his name.

Powers’ back-and-forth structure allows him to develop Peter Els against a background of familiar but vague current events, as if his art shelters him from the real world until that art crumbles. He isn’t always a sympathetic man, but freely admits his shortcomings. By the time we reach the unclear conclusion, his story doesn’t need an ending. It’s his life, and the music, that stand on their own.

I don’t know if Richard Powers knew about these guys when he started working on Orfeo; if not, it’s an ideal case of life imitating art. Ironic, since all Peter Els wanted to do was have his art imitate life.

Check the WRL catalog for Orfeo

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trillinThe art of essay writing is one that requires a sharp eye, a command of the language, and a wide-ranging interest in the human condition. Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite contemporary essayists, has all of these in abundance. I first encountered Trillin in the 1980s as a writer about food and eating, with the delightful collections American Fried, Alice, Let’s Eat, and Third Helpings, now conveniently collected as The Tummy Trilogy. Later, I discovered his clever and pointed political commentary (in verse) for The Nation, where he has the enviable post of “verse columnist” (see Deadline Poet for examples). Next came Trillin the novelist, as I found Tepper Isn’t Going Out on the shelves here. So you might say I am a Trillin fan across the board.

Quite Enough of offers readers new to Trillin an assortment of his writing on food, sports, politics (and especially politicians), science, languages (especially Yiddish), and his own life. Originally from Kansas City, Trillin retains an affection for barbecue even as he revels in the food opportunities he encounters in and around the Greenwich Village neighborhood where he has lived for many years.

Like others of my favorite essay writers Trillin excels at writing about people’s lives. He clearly has an affection for the characters about whom he writes (even when he also clearly disagrees with them), and lets their voices come through. His short political poetry often skewers politicians for what they say and do, but Trillin writes with a certain playfulness that if it does not blunt the sword at least makes the blow a bit tempered.

This collection is a great place for readers to start who have never read Trillin before (though readers of The New Yorker, The Nation, and other magazines may have come across some of these pieces in their original publications). With four decades of pieces to choose from, there is really something here for everyone. Good reading for an autumn afternoon.

Check the WRL catalog for Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin.

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kooserI have written here about Ted Kooser before, as part of my annual April poetry posts. As I was browsing the new book cart, I was happy to discover that he has a new collection of poems out, and that we had gotten a copy here at the library.

Here, as in his previous collections, Kooser presents us with ordinary lives and quotidian objects, but invests them, through his feel for language, with a power we might not have seen on our own. That is his achievement as a poet, to make the ordinary extraordinary. There is a sense in the poems of endings and losses. Not in an awful way necessarily, but more in a recognition that all things, including the poet’s life, will reach an end. But there is hope too. I particularly was touched by “Swinging from Parents”:

The child walks between her father and mother,
holding their hands. She makes the shape of the y
at the end of infancy, and lifts her feet
the way the y pulls up its feet, and swings
like the v in love, between an o and e
who are strong and steady and as far as she knows
will be there to swing from forever. Sometimes
her father, using his free hand, points to something
and says its name, the way the arm of the r
points into the future at the end of father.
Or the r at the end of forever. It’s that forever
the child puts her trust in, lifting her knees,
swinging her feet out over the world.

Another wonderful section of the book was titled “Estate Sale.” Here Kooser offers a series of short poems on things that have been left behind by people whose lives have moved on. The sequence concludes with these lines:

And among these homely things,
an antique gilded harp,
its dusty strings like a curtain
drawn over the silence,
stroked by fingers of light.

Check the WRL catalog for Splitting an Order.

 

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oxfordI thought that I had finally exhausted the possibilities of Victorian ghost stories to write about at Halloween time. I have covered the Jameses, Henry and M.R., LeFanu, as well as all the anthologies (here, here, and here), or so I thought. But one dark, rainy, October afternoon, while prowling the quiet stacks of the library in forlorn hope of discovering something occult, I came across a mysterious, worn, leather-bound tome whose title, as best it could be read, was Necronom…. OK, it was actually an unusually warm autumn day, bright and sunny, the library was packed, and the book was a trade paperback copy of The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert. It was a good find nonetheless, and most likely safer than dipping into the Necronomicon, that accursed text.

Here, the editors have assembled a fascinating collection of less common ghost stories from both well-known writers of the Victorian period as well as those whose star has perhaps fallen (or maybe never really rose). Le Fanu is here as is Elizabeth Gaskell. Fantasist George MacDonald has a place as do Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and E. Nesbit. Many of these authors are better known for other genres of work than ghost stories, but I can attest that they all can raise the hair on the back of your neck in a fashion suited to the season. A host of lesser known writers also appear in the collection. I particularly enjoyed R. S. Hawker’s “The Botathen Ghost” from 1867, a story of a haunted preacher in 17th-century England.

Like most early ghost stories, these tales appeal more to psychological terror than the gore and violence that seem to dominate contemporary horror writing. Revenants, arcane objects, and unusual books and paintings are often at the center of the tale, and handling them as often as not is definitely the wrong thing to do. These are great stories for reading aloud, as many of them probably were intended to be. But also just fun reading in the fall when the dark comes early, and the shadows begin to creep.

Check the WRL catalog for The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories.

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oconnorDid you ever pick a book up off of your parents’ bookshelves and find yourself wondering about their reading interests? It happened to me when sometime in my early teens I pulled down a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories and started to browse around. I was horrified. There were hitchhikers killing old ladies, grandfathers killing granddaughters, salesmen stealing hearts and prosthetic legs. Was this what my mother was reading? Well, it was, and as I grew older, I came more and more to appreciate what she found in these stories, and what I missed in my earlier reading of O’Connor.

Faith is a serious business, and it has serious implications for those who profess their beliefs. Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, both short stories and novels, is all an exploration of the way our beliefs shape our actions, for better, and for worse. In the darkest or most grotesque parts of these stories, I think that O’Connor is asking her readers to consider how the actions that might appall us seem perfectly reasonable to those who are taking them. These characters, like Martin Luther, “kann nicht anders.” They can only hope, again like Luther, that God will help them.

The stories also are about grace, and I think that this is the part that I missed when first reading them. It is through the presence of grace that a sense of redemption can be found in O’Connor’s work. For O’Connor, and her characters,  grace is simply there; it is not to be earned or merited. So she calls us to live our lives open to the experience of that grace. My mother was right (as always): these are great stories that challenge us to look into our own lives and see where our beliefs are leading us, and also to be open to the daily grace that pervades the world.

Check the WRL catalog for The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

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