Tag Archives: poet

Astral Weeks

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (Anchor, $15.95, 320 pages)

astral-novel

“We were all crazy, that was a given.”

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world.”   Van Morrison (“Astral Weeks”)

This is an oddly engaging novel despite a number of very clear flaws in the telling of the story.   For one, it is difficult to stick with a tale stacked with characters that are simply unlikable.   Our male protagonist, Harry Quirk, is a poet married (but not for long) to Luz.   They live in Brooklyn and he writes “strict poems,” meaning formal ones of the type whose time came and went very long ago.

“When I was a wet-eyed boy starting out in the poetry racket, I pledged my lights to metered, rhymed verse.   My models were old-fashioned, and so was I.”

Harry engages in many irritating behavior patterns (What did Luz ever see in him?), the worst of which is the habit of picking at and cutting his own skin until a severe infection results.   Oh, but this is part of the story because it’s the reason that Harry seeks medical treatment and is first seen by Luz the nurse.

Harry’s best friend is a woman that’s he’s known for decades.   This shouldn’t be major but it is to Luz, who is convinced beyond a doubt that her husband is having a mad affair with this woman.   If Harry is not likable, neither is his long-term woman friend and Luz is definitely not.   In Harry’s words, “I was deeply tired of her unpredictable oscillations between abject devotion and irrational psychodrama.”

“She had wrecked everything I loved with her furious, insecure need to control my thoughts, my mind, my body, like a one-woman government.”

Harry doesn’t make any money with his poems – at least he hasn’t in decades.   But when he splits from Luz (“I was a wild animal who’d been trying to live in a cage.”) he’s able to rely on the kindness of his friend James who runs a very improbable business.   The business is called Custom Case, which designs and builds one-of-a-kind guitar cases for ultra-millionaire rock stars.   Yeah, right…

True to form, however, even our good man James is not likable.   “James was pragmatically cold, deep down, for all his seeming generosity and caring towards his wife.”

One of the key and basic issues with this novel is that Harry’s male voice just does not sound authentic coming from a female writer.   This is not to say this can’t work, it just doesn’t work here especially when Harry’s thoughts are often expressed in very dense language.   And some of the writing by author Christensen is close to painful, as in this sample:  “The brown shingled beach houses of the rich and privileged sat humped amid bare woods and dunes like big harmless cartoon bears.”   Cartoon bears?   Really?   (Maybe this is more embarrassing than painful.)

Still, what keeps the reader involved is the desire to see Harry find and develop a new life free of the shackles of Luz, who “twists any idea  until it matches her need to be right.”   Harry’s a man who’s been freed by accident – by a simple twist of fate – and we wonder if he’ll make the best of the opportunity.

At its end, this is a novel about a human who must find a way to let go of what was lost (like so much of the past in our own lives).   He must do this in order to move on with grace.

Extremely patient, tolerant and forgiving readers may like this story.   It’s hard to see that being true for most readers.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Over the Rainbow

The Cruelest Month: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 320 pages)

A slew of awards and seven best sellers later, writer Louise Penny caught my attention.   As a prominent Canadian mystery writer, she has the credits to sell books easily.   Too bad this one took some getting used to before the charm of her tale took hold.   The rocky start was due in great part to the confusing character names, relationships and eerie references to a past horror experienced by the folks who inhabit a tiny village named Three Pines.   Yes, this is a village-set mystery in the style of Agatha Christie.   Moreover, there are multiple nationalities represented by the characters that make it quite interesting.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the French Canadian officer who is called in to determine whether the person who died during a séance in a spooky abandoned house was the victim of a murder or merely a weak heart.   To make matters complicated, the house was the scene of a previous death that was investigated by – you guessed it, Inspector Gamache.   Gamache has divided loyalties as this is the place where he feels most at peace, despite having traveled far and wide.   His internal struggles with the politics within the police force where he is high in the chain of command provide an engaging counterpoint to the main story line.

Penny’s writing style is lush and layered with quips that reference casual, current day commercial aspects of life such as, “he appeared closer than he looked.”   This comment was made by one of the characters who spied his reflection in an automobile side mirror.   There are also smart segues linked by subject matter as various characters are interviewed separately by two policemen.   In one instance sandwiches are being served in a small cottage and the handoff comes as sandwiches are being served at the town bistro.   These may be small matters but they serve to keep the reader involved through the use of everyday occurrences.   The other-worldly portions of the story and the location provide the escape element that readers of mysteries often seek.

Personal reactions by both police investigators and village folk to the events that transpire after the murder add a human touch and a sense of grounding.   Specifically, the notions of beliefs (Wiccan or Catholic) and relationships (gay/straight and human attachments to pets/animals) are intertwined with the wonder that comes from being in the presence of true artistic talent.   The village of Three Pines is home to Canada’s most prominent poet and one of its best-known painters.

This reviewer was struck by the depth of soul-searching and philosophizing that’s depicted in the book.   There is truly value added to the usual murder mystery in The Cruelest Month.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Many mystery buffs have credited Louise Penny with the revival of the traditional murder mystery made famous by Agatha Christie.”   Sarah Weinman

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Of Missing Persons

The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke (Riverhead Books; $25.95; 320 pages)

Someone once wrote: “We fear death the way children fear going into the dark.”   Meghan O’Rourke

There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading/ When things that seemed so very plain/ Became an awful pain/ Searching for the truth among the lying/ And answered when you’ve learned the art of dying…   But you’re still with me.   George Harrison (“The Art of Dying”)

Meghan O’Rourke has presented us with a serious, somber and thoughtful memoir about the grief she suffered when her mother died at the age of fifty-five.   Although her mother’s age is noted, one has the impression that she would have felt the same burden if her mother had lived to be 100, as O’Rourke was simply unprepared to live in a world without its (to her) most important resident.   As she states so well:  “One of the grubby truths about a loss is that you don’t just mourn the dead person, you mourn the person you got to be when the lost one was alive…  One night (my brother) Liam said to me, as we were driving home from my dad’s to Brooklyn, ‘I am not as sad as I was, but the thing is, it’s just less fun and good without her.'”

In order to deal with her pain, O’Rourke conducted a personal study of death, the standard fear of it, religious beliefs and traditions surrounding it, and the vast amount of research that has been done on the human grieving process.   She even touches upon grief in animal colonies.   One discovery she made in the process is that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ work on the stages of grief has been grossly misinterpreted.   These were not intended to be the stages that mourners – those left alive – go through; they were intended to represent the stages that the chronically ill pass through.

O’Rourke is at her best when she discusses her own fears with us.   She has been afraid, since childhood, of the notion of death but it remained an abstract, if frightening, notion up until her mom’s passing.   Then her grief became all-encompassing and something she could not put aside in order to lead a “normal” life.   Grief, in a sense, made her insane for a period of time but it also taught her some very valuable  lessons – the chief among them being that one has to focus on death in order to truly appreciate life.   As her father told her many months after his wife’s death, he had always focused on what he didn’t have; now he had learned to look at what he did have in the world and in the universe.

After a loss you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead.   It doesn’t come naturally.

There’s a sense of accepting humbleness that permeates O’Rourke’s account – although she was raised a Catholic, she refers numerous times to Buddhism.   If there’s a weakness in the telling, it’s a factor that naturally affects most memoirs, a tendency to make one’s own life sound more important than that of the others that share the planet with the writer.   And, like Julie Metz in Perfection, O’Rourke tends to tell us more than we actually want to know about her social (meaning sexual) life.

At one point, O’Rourke comes off as strangely naive in regard to social relationships.   At the time that her mother died (it’s Christmas), an old boyfriend – whom she once dropped without explanation – comes back into her life, and O’Rourke wonders why, “…he always seemed to be holding back – why, I did not know.”   The reader wants to scream back at her, “Because you dumped him when you went away to college!”   (The ex was simply acting like a normal, scarred, self-protective human being.)

But these are minor points, because O’Rourke succeeds quite well in making us examine death as something both macro and micro; as something that must be fully understood before we can make realistic choices about what is most important in our lives.   In her almost philosophical approach to examining death and dying, she has written not only a monumental love story for the person who has gone missing in her life, she has also placed death in its natural and proper context.

(I think I wanted to grow up to be my mother, and it was confusing to me that she already was her.)

This is, in the end, a work about acceptance – the good with the bad – survival with death, the sudden eclipse of a life and eternal love.   O’Rourke masterfully teaches us about the art of dying, a matter for both hearts and heads (minds).

Very, very well done.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “She is gone, and I will be, too, one day…  all the while my brain will be preoccupied by the question of death.   And that makes it hard, at times, to pay my bills…”


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