Sunday, January 27, 2019

A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler

Rondeau from Bach, enjoy!

A Good Scent from a Strange MountainA Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Olen Butler served in Vietnam as Military Intelligence and as a translator during the war the in the sixties and part of the seventies. Fluent in Vietnamese, he said his favorite time was walking the back streets of Saigon and crouching in the doorways, getting to know a people that he considers to be some of the most warm-hearted and open people he has ever known.

A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain is a collection of short stories each from a different person's point of view. Some of the narrators are men, some are women, some are old, others are young. Some stories are narrated by successful business men, others by house wives, one by a prostitute and one by a man we are not sure is crazy or not. What they all have in common is that they are Vietnamese and live in the Lake Charles district of Louisiana.

Most of these narrators have lived during the Vietnam war, but a couple of the protagonists are young people who were born and raised in America.

This book won a Pullitzer prize and while I felt at times the writing was a bit stilted, the voices of the narrators were strong and convincing.

I suppose some would ask "how an American man can speak with the voice of people from another country?". I don't know. I'm not Vietnamese and maybe his voice is not absolutely authentic, but that is beside the point. To me it was as if someone went somewhere and had an adventure and told me about it. They can only tell me what they saw and how they perceived things. Maybe if I went on the same adventure, I would see things differently; but that doesn't matter. We all love to hear other peoples' stories and I am glad that Butler wrote his down because not only has he opened a portal to another country and people, he has revealed also himself and certainly his great interest, and even love for the Vietnamese people.

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Josh says this photo will keep people from taking me seriously as an author.  Do you agree?

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Chronicles of My Mother by Yashushi Inoue; Translated by Jean Oda Moy

Here is Polytonal Studies by Arthur Farwell, a favorite 20th century composer of mine.

"Good morning Facebook family and friends! I hope y’all have a great day! Love y’all!"

That is the greeting by the young man below.  He begins each day with writing this on his wall.  I get it in the morning on my  Facebook feed.  Every single morning.

 I accompanied Antione (pronounced Antwan) on the piano while he was an undergraduate student at ETBU, where I work.  He plays Euphonium and he was a delight to work with.  He worked hard and finally finished his Bachelor's degree and has been accepted into the Master's of Music program.

I have the greatest respect for Antione.  As a teenager he went to a school where, because he tried hard, did better than anyone else.  His two best friends decided they would rather deal in drugs.  Trying at all put him out ahead of most of his classmates.

But it was not as good as he thought, because when he began to attend college, he realized he was academically behind his fellow classmates.  He shared with me how angry and  cheated he felt. But he did not quit.  He struggled, and after wondering if he was going to make it, finally graduated this past December.  

Antione told me that his eventual goal is to teach at a high school like the one he attended and prepare those children so the odds won't be as great against them as they were for him.

And even if those students are in a low performing school, their odds won't be as great as Antione's.

Because when Antione was six years old he lived in a trailer with his mother and older brother.  While he was asleep in bed, the trailer caught fire.  His brother managed to pull him out even though he was trapped in a room which had become a fiery furnace, and saved his life, but the incident left Antione with profound scarring on his face and body.  He could have just decided to take a ride on the disability card, but he didn't.

If I may say so, Antione is my hero and I wanted to share his story.  The above photo shows him at his graduation this past December where he was surprised by an uncle who, though on duty,  arrived from the Army to see him graduate.  One hero embracing another.

Edit: I asked Antione to check my record of his story for accuracy and he wanted me to note that five of his siblings were also in the trailer at the time of the fire and that his high school friends are no longer his friends.  Next time I will have someone check before I publish their story.

Chronicle of My MotherChronicle of My Mother by Yasushi Inoue

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the book, Shirobamba, we read about Yasushi Inoue's childhood in a small village in Japan, while the world is on the cusp of WWI and an era is about to be wiped away worldwide. Shirobamba's story of everyday life in Japan preserves a culture and time period that was soon gone.

In Shirobamba we briefly meet Inoue's mother, when she is young and beautiful, whom he does not live with, because she and his father live in Tokyo, where his father is an army doctor. Apparently having more than one child was too much for his mother to cope with so she sent him back where he is raised by Granny, a woman he is not related to but was once his great-grandfather's mistress.

His mother comes one time to the village and makes it her mission to make everyone miserable. Everyone needs to be corrected and reproved for all their deficiencies, of which, according to his mother are many. We see a domineering, self-absorbed woman who is unpleasant to be around. When she leaves on the train, looking back and glaring at everyone in disapproval while she waves, someone says, "Well, she's gone." And Granny says, "What a relief!"

Everyone laughs and Inoue's young Aunt says, "Yes! What a relief!"

That is the mother of which we get a glimpse in Shirobamba.

Chronicle of My Mother is comprised of three essays, each about four years apart. The first one, Under the Blossoms, starts with Inoue's father's death. Inoue gently describes his mother's gradual mental deterioration, starting in her late seventies and the behavior it causes as she lives with him, then, in turn, with his brother and sisters. Light of the Moon takes place four years later and the last essay, The Surface of Snow, four years after and his mother's final days.

The oncoming dementia begins to erase years of his mother's thinking. They realize that her mind is retreating backwards. First she cannot remember anything that happened in her eighties, then nothing beyond her sixties, until she is a teenager and she forgets her husband, no longer recognizes her children, and, because they are now "older" than her she starts addressing them as "Grandfather" and "Grandmother".

There is a lot of struggle and battle of the wills as his mother demands to go home, when there is no home to go to, or when she asks the same question over and over again because she does not remember asking it. Inoue and his family have the unsettling experience of finding his mother haunting the house, walking through the halls and into people's bedroom, peering at their faces with a candle she holds.

I can only tell what this story is about, but I cannot capture Inoue's poignant literary skill, as soft and beautiful as a poem picture scroll (Japanese landscape painting: shigajiku).

That is what Yasushi Inoue has written: a shigajiku of his mother.

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Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Here is Beethoven's Symphony no. 1.

And here is some cuteness to brighten your day.  My blue quaker Sophie is a snuggler.  This is how she goes to sleep every night.

The YearlingThe Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was not expecting to enjoy this book as I did. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings simply was not an author I had a remote interest in. I went to the library and happened to see some books for sale for a dime. There was one containing the letters of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Max Perkins. I had no idea who Max Perkins was and I did not care for Rawlings.

But there is something about a thick hardcover selling for a dime that I find irresistible. So I bought it and eventually read it.

I am glad I did, because by the time I finished the 628 page tome, I was enamored with both Max Perkins and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; hence this review of my latest finished read, The Yearling.

On the one hand, this book is about the day to day survival of families living off of the land in Central Florida in the 1870s and has a lot in common with Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books. They both show the joy and hardship of trying to survive by one's own exertion on an often stubborn and unyielding land. The only difference would be location and time period (well, the House Books started in the 1860s; I suppose you could say they overlap). And while the House books take place over several years, The Yearling happens inside one year. Wilder's family farmed on the plains of the mid west. The Baxter family farmed in woods and near swamps and bayous in the humid heat of Florida. However, many of the animals, bears, wolves, panthers, were the same; the Baxters also had alligators to hunt.

We see the Baxter family as they plant, hunt, get sick, endure hurricanes, and plague and we suffer with them. Reading The Yearling is truly a vicarious experience.

Like the Little House series, which are from the viewpoint of a child, Laura, the limited narrator in The Yearling is Jodi, a boy on the edge of puberty. The overall theme of the book is about Jody leaving childhood and entering into adulthood.

The Ingalls family may have had Native Americans to contend with, the Baxters had the Forresters, a wild, lawless, backwoods family that could be good friends or horrible enemies, often depending on how much they had to drink.

While the Little House books had their charm and poignancy and will always be a childhood classic, and also a classic for adults like me, The Yearling also has its place for sheer power in writing.

I found the descriptions of animals killing each other, killing the Baxter's cattle and the men killing bears and panthers to be disturbing, not because I think it was wrong, they had to do what they had to, I'm just glad we don't have to do that anymore.

And, of course, there is the Yearling. Jody's father had to kill the mother to treat a Rattle Snake bite. Something about the deer's liver drawing out the poison or so they believed back then. Anyway, that left an orphaned fawn. Jody takes the fawn home and it becomes his dearest friend, which is sad in its own way, because it reveals the isolation and loneliness a child can experience when he has no siblings or neighbors as companions.

Jody's mother is no Caroline Ingalls. Caroline had a quiet dignity, self-contained, and almost aristocratic, ladylike bearing. Ory or Ma Baxter, is as tough as leather. She buried five or six children. Jody is the only one to survive infancy. She's learned that it's hard to survive and all too easy to die. But she is not without her moments and every now and then her love for her husband, Penny, and Jody peek through.

The father, Penny, balances out his wife's pragmatic, no-nonsense, philosophy with compassion and wisdom.

While the fawn is mostly peripheral to the story, as the book progresses it creeps closer to the center of the story until he comes crashing down as the climax and centrifugal force that propels Jody into manhood. It is a painful life lesson and one that few people would want to learn today and I'm glad I can live a life of ease and grocery stores.

While some may consider this a boy's novel; I would almost consider it too dark for boys. I would not have read it to my son when he was Jody's age. He cried at the end of "Where the Red Fern Grows."

I'm grateful those hard lessons are not required anymore in my first world existence.

In conclusion? A fine, powerful novel, superbly written and fully deserving of the Pulitzer Peace Prize that it won in 1939.

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Felix Mendelssohn's E minor Violin Concerto performed by the legendary Jascha Heifetz.

That is the grate in my bathroom.  Yes, Hercule follows me everywhere and sometimes he refuses to leave.  The grate is old and rusty and needs to be removed, but where would my little green T-Rex perch?

In Cold BloodIn Cold Blood by Truman Capote

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 1957, in Holcomb, Kansas, a rancher, Mr. Clutter, his wife, and teenage daughter and son were found by friends in the home hog tied and dead. Each had been shot in the head. Nothing was stolen. Months went by before anyone had an inkling who could have done such a horrible thing and why.

In Cold Blood is Truman Capote's documentary account of this tragedy, from before the Clutters were murdered to when the perpetrators were finally apprehended and brought to justice. This book was a watershed in that it launched the "New Journalism". Non-fiction written as a novel, rather than dry reporting.

I started this book expecting not to like it. I felt that Capote was exploiting a callous crime for the sake of thrusting himself in the lime light through sensationalism, and, indeed, this book did launch his career, even though he had already published many works, in fact most of his best work, prior to this book, which was published serially in The New Yorker in 1965. But In Cold Blood is what made Capote a celebrity.

The book did start slowly, and at first I thought the writing was a bit juvenile. However, the story picked up speed and soon I was completely involved in the lives of the poor family whose lives were cut short, the townsfolk who reeled in the aftermath and finally, the murderers.

The murderers get the most attention, no doubt because the victims were dead and could not be interviewed, so the least is said about them. Truman Capote and Harper Lee spent an extensive amount of time interviewing the criminals, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, who were in prison by this time and also the detectives and policemen who helped bring them to justice.

In the end I must say this book was written forcefully yet objectively and with an adept understanding of human nature.

Capote does not sugarcoat the two young men or their murder, but he makes them real live human beings. He effectively describes their psychology, allowing the reader to understand how two young men could kill a whole family in cold blood.

It is the first novel in a long time where I keep expecting to pick the book back up and have to remind myself that I finished it. It seems the people, even though they are all (or most of them) gone, they somehow have become a part of my life.

That says something about the power of Truman Capote's writing.

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