Friday, June 25, 2010

164 (2010 #29). Nostalgia's Thread

by Randall R. Freisinger

I've always loved Norman Rockwell's illustrations, so when I saw this book of poetry based on some of his paintings among the LibraryThing Early Reviewers books a couple months ago, I requested it. When the slim chapbook arrived in the mail, I was first surprised that the ten* poems it contains were not accompanied by the Rockwell paintings of their titles.

But then it occurred to me: perhaps that is the point. I could have just looked up the painting online as I read the titles for each poem, but I decided to see if the free verse itself evoked the painting for me.

They did. Freisinger did an excellent job of describing each painting within its poem, with details that helped me recall it. I'm pretty familiar with Rockwell's work, though, and I'm not sure this approach would work for those who are not.

(*The ten paintings are really just nine - or eleven, considering that the tenth poem is about an imaginary painting based on two of Rockwell's other paintings.)

The first page of the book notes that the poems "remind us that visual art is never static, the beholder's eye never innocent. They bear witness to the fact that each cultural era must reinterpret its rich artistic inheritance within the context of its current collective experience." The publisher's website also states that "they were conceived just prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and written in their wake."

That probably explains the negative or depressing tone of the poems, which, besides an evocative description of the painting, also contain either a speculation about the life/lives of the subject(s) of the painting, or the reaction of poem's narrator who is viewing the painting. They speak of aging, death, grief, wife-beaters, estranged children. One poems ends, "what you long for most of all is one last graceful exit." I've always found Rockwell's work to be cheering or at least uplifting, so the desultory mood of these poems was a downer.

I also got the impression that the poet doesn't really like Rockwell's art. In one poem, he refers to "that first time he knew whose painting it was and he also knew he was not supposed to like it." In another, the narrator "studied art in college and remembered the dismissal and scorn her teachers preached for mere illustrations of The Real." All of the poems are rather cynical.

While I was puzzled by the abrupt and awkward division into stanzas in some of the poems, the lines themselves have lovely language and metaphors. All in all, this was a book that made me think, and not only to recall the painting described.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This advance reader edition will be passed on to someone else to read and hopefully review.]

Sunday, June 13, 2010

163 (2010 #28). Honolulu

by Alan Brennert

I got this book through interlibrary loan, intending to read it before or during my recent trip to Hawaii. Unfortunately, I was too busy (and therefore too exhausted) from work to get it read on top of planning the trip and reading my local book club's May selection. Therefore, I didn't start reading it until I got back from the trip on May 31.

Honolulu begins in the early 1900s in Korea, with a girl whose parents have named her Regret. In an effort to escape the limiting life of women in Korea in that era and perhaps get an education, in 1914 she becomes a "picture bride" for a man in Hawaii. Unfortunately their photos don't depict reality, and Regret winds up with a drunk gambling sugar cane plantation worker who beats her. When such a beating causes a miscarriage, she escapes to Honolulu and starts calling herself Jin, the name given to her by a former prostitute in Korea who taught her to read.

In Honolulu, Jin encounters real people from history that Brennert has woven into her story. Some are well-known, such as Queen Liliʻuokalani and Duke Kahanamoku. Others are more obscure: Joseph Kahahawai Jr. of the infamous Massie Case, Chang Apana (the real-life detective who was the model for Charlie Chan), and even the inspiration for the W. Somerset Maugham short story Miss Thompson, later retitled Rain (Brennert gives her the fictional first name of May). Jin is a seamstress and winds up working for Ellory Chun, who registered the trade name for Aloha shirts (although he may not have come up with the idea for them). The book provides an entertaining and informative picture of life in Hawaii from 1914 to 1937 from the point of view of the "locals" - native Hawaiians and Asian immigrants like Jin and her fellow picture brides and their families.

I read Brennert's Moloka'i about a year and a half earlier and loved it. In my opinion, Honolulu is not quite as good. I think Brennert tries a little too hard to incorporate the various real-life characters into the story, and it comes off as feeling forced. Nevertheless, it's still good historical fiction, as I could relate it to places I'd seen, and I have been inspired to read more about the people and events of the time.

There are a couple of quotes in this book I really liked, and both come near the end of this 354-page book (360 with Brennert's helpful author's note). While Jin visits her family in Korea in 1937, her mother shows her a chogak-po, a patchwork cloth she has made:
She pointed out a half dozen of the black rectangles, scattered randomly. . . "I added these on the day my mother died. . . because that was my mood that day. There is no pattern to where I placed them, as there is no sense to be made of death. One's eye may not go to them first, but next to them the blues look bluer, the reds richer, the golds more brilliant. Without them the cloth is pretty, but without character or contrast."
In the epilogue, while celebrating her 60th birthday in 1957, Jin says,
Hawai'i has often been called a melting pot, but I think of it more as a "mixed plate" - a scoop of rice with gravy, a scoop of macaroni salad, a piece of mahi-mahi, and a side of kimchi. Many different tastes share the plate, but none of them loses its individual flavor, and together they make up a uniquely "local" cuisine. This is also, I believe, what America is at its best--a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This book was borrowed through interlibrary loan and has been returned.]

Saturday, June 12, 2010

162 (2010 #27). The Big Rich

Subtitled, "The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes,", this nonfiction book by Bryan Burrough was the selection of my local book club for May 2010. While not an easy read, it was quite interesting, and is thoroughly researched, footnoted, and documented.

Focusing on four oilmen and their families--H.L. Hunt, Sid Richardson, Clint Murchison, and Roy Cullen--Burrough tells how they came to wealth and what they (and their offspring) did with it.

The most interesting character was H. L. Hunt, the bigamist. But the book also touches on some other oilmen, such as Glenn McCarthy (the inspiration for Edna Ferber's Giant) and George Strake, the namesake of the high school my brothers attended (and whose granddaughter was in my high school class).

Despite growing up in Houston in the 60s through mid-70s, I was only vaguely familiar with some of these names, because most of the action in the book took place prior to that time. I'd heard of Herbert and Nelson Bunker Hunt and the silver fiasco, because that happened around 1980. I also knew there were a number of buildings around Houston with Cullen in their names. After moving back to Texas about four years ago (after 21 years away), I learned about the legacy of Richardson and his Bass nephews in the Fort Worth area. I had no idea that Murchisons once owned the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Stadium, or that Hunts built Reunion Tower and Mansion on Turtle Creek. I also did not know that McCarthy built the Shamrock Hotel in Houston - or that it had been torn down!

All in all, I learned a lot from this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in Texas history.

[This book was borrowed from my university library and has been returned.]

© Amanda Pape - 2010