Sunday, August 30, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Dolor," by Theodore Roethke

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Poem of the Week! This week, I picked Theodore Roethke's "Dolor," a poem for the office supply closet nerd. It's actually a very sad poem about an increasingly corporate culture, but the fondness and tenderness with which Roethke uses the language of work really adds a new dimension. I chose this poem for multiple reasons: 1) it fits my current job search frenzy, 2) it reminds me of my favorite show, Mad Men, and 3), it's a shout out to one of my very good friends who helped me memorize it years ago. Happy Birthday, Clarinet-Playing-Curly-Haired Friend, one week late!

Dolor, by Theodore Roethke

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pail hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The New Schedule

Hello, all. Because I am pretty bad about making regular updates, I have decided to create a regular blog schedule, and I think you should all be aware of it. There are many things I want to be able to do with this blog - share reading experiences, expose people to poetry, create a kind of reading community - and I think my new schedule will help do this. This schedule will start next week:

Sunday: Poem of the Week - To start every week off right, I'll share a poem I love. And as always, I'm willing to take requests!

Tuesday: List/Confessions - I've loved creating lists for this site, so every other Tuesday will be List Day. On the Tuesdays in between, I'll be sharing my Reader Confessions, the things I am often embarrassed to admit as a serious reader.

Thursday: Favorite Passages - You already know what this looks like. Now, it'll be a weekly update.

Friday/Saturday: The Week in Reading - Here, I'll be sharing my random reading experiences of the week, whether it's some interesting article I read or a book I've finished.

And of course, I will make a post anytime I finish reading something I want to share. And of course, there will be special posts for special times, like holidays or birthdays. In matter of fact, you can all mark your calendars for the week of September 24th, which is F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthday. That week will be Fitzgerald Week!

I hope you all approve of the schedule. Please let me know your opinions on the subject in the comments area.

Happy Reading!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Back-to-School Special: Top Ten Books Read For Class

In honor of college classes starting this week, I decided to create a list about the top ten books I was "forced" to read for class. Now, I have always been a big reader, so I discovered most of my favorite books and writers on my own. (In fact, I never had a class that studied my favorite writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, until my senior year of college - eight whole years after I first read This Side of Paradise). But every once in awhile, an assigned piece of literature really shakes me up and bends me to its will. I tried to be as faithful to my class reading experience as possible here. That means I tried to pick books and poems that I probably never would have picked up my own, thereby making their importance as "forced"readings that much more important. Also, I tried to provide some variety to this list - so I included nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and drama. I hope you all have had amazing literary experiences fostered by great teachers and professors through the years. Enjoy the list!

Top Ten Books Read for Class

1. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy: No surprise here. Reading this 1300-page tome for my Great Novels literature class last year actually changed my life. And probably no other book on this list was less likely to be read by my own volition. For the first 350 pages of this book, I complained to everyone within a 10-mile radius about how much I despised every single aspect of the prose, the characters, the plot, etc. I honestly hated it. And then suddenly, in the middle of reading Book Five, it was like unlocking some great secret about literature and the universe. I can't completely describe why I love this book. Just know that it is probably the single greatest accomplishment in all of literature, and my second favorite book of all time.

2. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf: Before reading this for a British lit survey class, all my attempts to read Woolf had resulted in stalemates. But for some reason, this novel really clicked with me, and I couldn't stop reading it. All my other class work suffered for the few days I spent wrapped up in the inner worlds of Clarissa, Septimus, and Peter.

3. Tao Te Ching: I've written about my love for Taoism here before, so I won't go on much about it. I'd never studied anything Taoist until I read the Tao Te Ching for a Religious Lit class, and it struck me very powerfully. Another class read that changed my outlook on life.

4. "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes", by Rainer Maria Rilke: Rilke is probably my favorite poet, so I would have read this poem eventually. But had I not had a professor who led the class in a line-by-line dissection of it, I would never have appreciated it even half as much. This long poem, about Orpheus's doomed attempt to bring Eurydice out of hell, is one of the most devastating things I've ever read. It deserves being read repeatedly, very slowly and carefully.

5. Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder: I love modern German history, but it never felt more real to me than after reading this graceful, award-winning account of an Australian journalist's attempt to understand what living in East Germany was really like before the wall came down. In using the personal stories of several people, Funder explores the way history continues to affect those who lived it and how that history is perceived in the world at large. A great book for everyone, not just history nerds.

6. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov: Everyone knows what Lolita is basically about (pedophilia, how Europeans view America, etc.), but no one told me it would be so much fun to read. The book is as entertaining as it is interesting for its literary merit. The first chapter alone is one of the funniest things I have ever read, although admittedly, not everyone may get the humor.

7. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel: I read this book in the same class where I read Lolita, so obviously, it was a fantastic semester. This graphic memoir gave me an appreciation for graphic literature (or as some people unfortunately call them, "comics"), as well as a better understanding of how we all compartmentalize our memories and personal histories in order to understand them in any conceivable fashion. Bechdel's familial history is very well-done and a great read for book nerds, as the memoir is swimming in literary allusions.

8. The Bald Soprano, by Eugene Ionesco: This play, a prime example of the theatre of the absurd, had me giggling for months. I couldn't resist reading pieces of it aloud to my very confused friends. However, behind the hilarity and wordplay, it's a very disturbing look at the way language and identity fail us in modern society.

9. Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy: In a world that seems inundated with personal memoirs, this early example of the genre was one of the most enjoyable reads of my college career. I didn't read it like an assignment, but as a mode of entertainment. It's heartbreaking, redeeming, funny, and wonderful. Of all the books on my list, this is probably the one I'd be quickest in recommending.

10. "Requiem", by Anna Akhmatova: This long, heavy poem was Akhmatova's response to the Soviets in their first twenty or so years in power. The Soviet leaders did what they could to silence Akhmatova, including killing her ex-husband and putting her son in prison (the basis for the beginning section of the poem), but she won in the end by creating this fantastic work of art that seethes with both anger and a battered, broken hope.

Happy Reading, everyone!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Coming Home

Hello everyone! Sorry it has been so long since my last update. I've been pretty busy moving back home and completely overhauling my room. But the room-redo is nearly complete, and I have an awesome literary-inspired hideout now, complete with my beloved Fitzgerald poster and a lovely little poetry corner.

In honor of coming home, I've decided to share a poem by one of my favorite poets, Philip Larkin, with you. Larkin's poems are deceptively simple and stated, and his endings almost always knock me out. This poem does a nice job of capturing my mixed emotions about coming home. I am disappointed to be a college graduate moving back in with my parents, but I also feel relieved to be somewhere where I feel safe and loved before heading on my own to the other side of the country for grad school (next year, fingers crossed). But coming home is always a tricky process. One has to confront one's precious memories with how things seem now, a little more ragged and smaller than you remember. Larkin's poem perfectly captures this feeling. And pay attention to the perfect and unintrusive rhyme pattern; Larkin might be the master of rhyme in 20th century poetry. Enjoy!

Home is So Sad, by Philip Larkin

Home is so sad. It stays at it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things outght to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

Happy Reading Everyone, and expect some good updates to come, including an entry on Louise Erdrich and some more lists!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Recommended Reading: Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a fairly short entry. I just wanted to let you all know about a really awesome set of short stories I want to officially recommend. Earlier tonight, I finished Jhumpa Lahiri's "Hema and Kaushik" section from her short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth. Through a trilogy of stories about life and loss, she explores both the individual paths and common bond of two would-be lovers, Hema and Kaushik. As a writer, Lahiri never fails to completely blow my mind. Her prose is simple, restrained, and reveals the complicated ways in which people succeed or fail to connect to one another. I've read her other two books, Interpreter of Maladies and The Nameskae, previously, and they were both outstanding, with the former being one of the best short story collections I have ever encountered. The "Hema and Kaushik" stories ("Once in a Lifetime," "Year's End," and "Going Ashore") are all fantasic as individual pieces and as a whole.

In exploring how these two characters became the people they would become by the time fate throws them together as lovers in Italy, Lahiri creates a complex and interesting way of looking at two people who are meant to be together, and at the same time, meant to be kept apart. Hema and Kaushik are both great characters to spend reading time with, and the worlds they reside in are presented clearly and carefully. More impressively, the final sentence of the last story ranks among the most heartbreakingly perfect last lines ever written, in my opinion. But most of all, I was surprised and amazed by the way Lahiri tied everything together in the final pages of the story: the significance of water, the weight of individual actions, how every moment affects the next, etc. Gustave Flaubert once said a good writer must be "like God is in the universe - present everywhere and visible nowhere." I honestly can't think of many examples who fit this description as well as Lahiri. Please, I beg you, find and read some of her work.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Beth's List of Top 10 Beach Reads

Today, a friend's blog called my attention to a new list put out by NPR on the 100 Best Beach Reads. Obviously, I immediately counted how many of the 100 I had read (21, in case you're wondering). I really enjoyed prowling through the list and trying to figure out why people would want to read certain books on their vacations that most people never attempt in their lives. I actually found out that War and Peace had made the list of 200 finalists. War and Peace! It's one of my favorite books and I still wouldn't make it my personal beach read. The list gives a glimpse into the reading lives of Americans (well, the kind of Americans who listen to NPR anyway), and I found it very interesting.

But, to be honest, my first thought upon seeing the article was simply, "Holy crap, do I love lists!" So in honor of that lovely self-reflection, I decided to make my own reading list today. I decided to make my own beach reading list based on 10 years of family summer vacations spent being a beach bum in Hilton Head, South Carolina. These are the books that I became attached to as someone who loves the ocean breeze as much as she loves book. So here you go, Readers Everywhere: Beth's List of Top 10 Beach Reads.

1. The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli: Short stories make great beach reads, particularly in the lazy evenings after dinner, and Fitzgerald always reads like a summer night to me.

2. The Season of Lillian Dawes, by Katherine Mosby: I don't know exactly what it is about this book that I like so much. The writing is lovely and the story (about hidden identies, inheritances, and brothers) is solid if not exactly exciting or hugely original, but this book is equally perfect poolside AND when stuck inside the beach house during a storm.

3. The Complete Poems of Theodore Roethke: Poems always read better outside, although I've never understood why. This book includes "The Storm," a great poem about the ocean.

4. You Shall Know Our Velocity, by Dave Eggers: Eggers's conversational style and ability to be emotionally satisfying without becoming cloying or sentimental is perfectly suited for vacation. And this book, although it had me nearly in tears occasionally, was a great escape as it followed two guilt and grief-laden travelers through many adventures and lies.

5. Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell: A perfect vacation book that's part-travelogue, part-history. I learned more from reading this book on the beach than I learned for half a year in my high school American History class, and Vowell is the funniest and most charming writer around, in my opinion.

6. The Perfect Hour: The Romance of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ginevra King, His First Love, by James L.W. West III: A brief, interesting, and sad read about Fitzgerald's first failed love affair. I don't know if it would be interesting to anyone but Fitzgerald fanatics such as myself, but I thought it was an extremely satisfying beach read.

7. Emma, by Jane Austen: I don't know how much of this has to do with the book's charm and how much it has to do with my love for George Knightley. Part of me was hoping he was living in the beach house right next door the entire time I was reading it...

8. Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver: Okay, okay, I admit I didn't actually read this book on the beach (I read it largely in my parents' living room). But it was the only Kingsolver novel not on the NPR list, and because it has always been my favorite book by her, I felt greatly offended. This book is fantastic, and it's home to my biggest literary crush of all time: Jax Thibodeaux

9. Three Comrades, by Erich Maria Remarque: I apologize for this entry, being that it's the most depressing book on this list. But this long, enjoyable, and well-written book about friends and fellow German soldiers after World War I sustained me not only through a rainy vacation week, but the long car ride there and back as well.

10. Sea Swept, by Nora Roberts: That's right. A Nora Roberts book. I confess I do enjoy a good romance every once in a while, especially when I'm somewhere hot, lazy, and with lots of access to winecoolers. Deep down, even an NPR girl like myself is a little trashy.

I hope you enjoyed the list, and I really hope you all have had some amazing beach reads of your own! Happy Reading!