Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Reading Week in Review: Second Chances, Good and Bad

The theme of my reading week came down to two words: Second Chances. One is meant in the positive, with Richard Hugo's poems about redemption and looking back on life. The other kind of second chance holds terrifying possibilities in Stephen King's Pet Sematary. They were two very different reads, but in the end they both dealt with trying to make a bad thing right again.

I finished King's novel at the beginning of the week, and I liked it better than I expected. I really respect Stephen King for his love for the craft of writing and for the way he champions other writers and artists. However, I often find his work a little heavy-handed and self-indulgent. Pet Sematary definitely had its moments of awkward writing, and it didn't particularly scare me. But what I enjoyed about the book wasn't the horror plot or the mood. I enjoyed it for the very mature and terrifying way it handled raw grief. From the very beginning, the book is dripping with forthcoming doom, but that didn't keep me from being completely shaken up by what happens about half-way through.

[SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!] After the main character, Louis Creed, loses his toddler son, I couldn't help but feel every possible stab of grief and horror he and his family encountered. The grief is so profound in this part of the book that it made for a really hard reading experience. When the "horror" aspect of the book began at this half-way point, what made it so scary wasn't the bringing back of the dead or the possible wendigo that haunts the woods. What made it scary was how realistic it was that a man in Louis Creed's position might choose to do what he does in attempting to resurrect his dead child. After finishing the book, I had to admit that had I been in the protagonist's position, I might have very well done the exact same thing. How could you not be tempted to end your own grief and the horrible, thick sadness of your family by bringing back what was lost? So although Pet Sematary in and of itself left me a little cold (I much prefer King's Salem's Lot, which is much scarier and slightly better written), I had to give King a big round of applause for the way he dealt with a very real, fresh emotion that even "literary" writers sometimes shy away from.

The other book I read this week was Richard Hugo's 1980 collection of poetry, White Center. I really like Hugo, which isn't a surprise considering he was a student of Theodore Roethke and a close friend of James Wright, two of my favorite poets. At the time these poems were written, Hugo was a recovering alcoholic who dealt with serious bouts of depression and struggled to re-enter himself into family life. Hugo probably writes the most wonderful descriptions of nature that I have read in poetry. His work is very deft; the man does not waste space on lots of adjectives. His poems are full of short, even choppy, sentences, and the emotional pull is always simmering below the surface. Occasionally, a short line of confession will appear as if by magic and change the entire way you read the poem.

My favorite two poems in the collection are "Second Chances" and "White Center." "White Center" deals with returning to a home that is no longer your own. As the speaker (presumably, Hugo himself) wanders his childhood haunts, he sees himself both everywhere and nowhere in it. It's a really cool piece, and it has one of my all time favorite poetic opening statements: "Town or poem, I don't care how it looks." Meanwhile, "Second Chances" talks about Hugo's newfound, surprising happiness after having been in ruin for so long. But not all is as it seems, as the poet confesses he's still tempted by the old life, and even now, he doesn't feel quite right in his skin. The poem ends with a really cool image in which Hugo uses a children's game called "ghost" to show his discomfort: "a game where, according to the rules, you take / another child's name in your mind but pretend / you're still you while others guess your new name." It's a beautiful, haunting image that goes along well with a strong collection of poetry.

Coming up: I just bought Pete Dexter's brand-spanking-new novel, Spooner, and I'm excited to start it. My new bookstore job has the oh-so-wonderful perk of discounts, so I'm once again buying hardcovers and poetry books!

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