Sunday, February 28, 2010

Poem of the Week: "What I Understood," by Katha Pollitt

Every once in a while, I stumble across a poem that I really like but don't know why. This is one of those poems. It doesn't have the kind of devastating affect or interesting language that I usually look for in a great poem, but for some reason, it really grabs me. I think there's two things that attract me to this poem: the lonely and simple image in the middle of teachers in their empty rooms, and the idea that we are "saved" by the smallest things. This idea of loving the world through a bird or inanimate object really gets at why I love poetry. Because it's the little things that matter in a poem - the easily tossed word, the flash of color or texture. So, here's a poem about little things:

What I Understood, by Katherine Pollitt

When I was a child I understood everything
about, for example, futility. Standing for hours
on the hot asphalt outfield, trudging for balls
I'd ask myself, how many times will I have to perform
this pointless task, and all the others? I knew
about snobbery, too, and cruelty—for children
are snobbish and cruel—and loneliness: in restaurants
the dignity and shame of solitary diners
disabled me, and when my grandmother
screamed at me, "Someday you'll know what it's like!"
I knew she was right, the way I knew
about the single rooms my teachers went home to,
the pictures on the dresser, the hoard of chocolates,
and that there was no God, and that I would die.
All this I understood, no one needed to tell me.
The only thing I didn't understand
was how in a world whose predominant characteristics
are futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment,
people are saved every day
by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.
This year I'll be
thirty-nine, and I still don't understand it.

Friday, February 26, 2010

This Week in Embarrassing Reads: The Squeakuel

Or in this case, more like a prequel. Remember a couple weeks ago, when I confessed that I read Nora Robert's The Heart of Devin MacKade / The Fall of Shane MacKade double-novel? Well, I then preceded to go back and read the double-book that comes before it, featuring The Return of Rafe MacKade and The Pride of Jared MacKade. I'm not going to lie. I enjoyed it. A lot. If you want to read something wonderfully cheesy and intellect-free, I'd recommend the whole MacKade series in a sweaty heartbeat.

Unfortunately, the awesomeness of the super-hot, super-sweet, badass MacKade brothers has ruined me for other books (and men) for the last week. So that, mixed with traveling last weekend, has kept me from doing any posts lately. Never fear, though. I'll be back at it next week. I think next week will revolve around books that are gut-wrenchers. I'm talking about real sob stories here. See you then!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Happy Birthday, Carson McCullers!

Tomorrow is the birthday of one of my literary heroes - Carson McCullers (1917-1967). McCullers is best known for her Southern gothic novels, but she is also one hell of a short story writer (check out "The Sojourner," "Poldi," or "The Haunted Boy," and tell me your heart doesn't break in the final lines). I first read McCuller's most famous novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (which she published at the age of 23!!!) when I was in middle school, and I've been hooked on classic American literature ever since. Her work is dark, a little disturbing, drenched in atmosphere, and very beautiful.

But my real love of Carson McCullers lies in her perseverance. She suffered from neurological problems her entire life, and by the time she hit middle age, she was almost completely paralyzed on her left side. But writing was more important to her than anything in the world, and she forced herself to write at least one page a day even when she was in unbelievable pain. I can only hope to continue loving writing like that for the rest of my life. When people ask why I'm a writer, I often toss out my favorite Carson McCullers quote: "I wouldn't want to live if I couldn't write."

So, happy birthday, Carson McCullers! You've been an enormous inspiration in my life. In celebration, here is the opening section of her wonderful novel The Member of the Wedding.

From: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid. In June the trees were bright dizzy green, but later the leaves darkened, and the town turned black and shrunken under the glare of the sun. At first Frankie walked around doing one thing and another. The sidewalks of the town were gray in the early morning and at night, but the noon sun put a glaze on them, so that the cement burned and glittered like glass. The sidewalks finally became too hot for Frankie's feet, and also she got herself in trouble. She was in so much secret trouble that she thought it was better to stay at home - and at home there was only Berenice Sadie Brown and John Henry West. The three of them sat at the kitchen table, saying the same things over and over, so that by August the words began to rhyme with each other and sound strange. The world seemed to die each afternoon and nothing moved any longer. At last the summer was like a green sick dream, or like a silent crazy jungle under glass.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fun Link

Today the AV Club did a great piece on overused literary adaptations. They made a list of the most over-used examples of books turned into movies. For obvious reasons, I was most intrigued by their ideas about The Great Gatsby. It might be my favorite book in the entire world, but I absolutely loathe the film versions (particularly the Robert Redford version because Robert Redford is an absolutely terrible Jay Gatsby). Now, thanks to this article, I am super-obsessed with the idea of a really image-based director tackling the book. Fitzgerald's novel is so heavy in imagery and dreamlike obsessions that it would be awesome to see a director interested mainly in those concepts take on the book.

Anyway, enjoy the list!,38199/

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Required Reading

I have a confession to make. Despite being a big reader and having been through four years of the modern writing workshop process, I have never read more than a single story by Alice Munro. Munro is probably the single most-respected short story writer of the last thirty years. Her name alone conjures up ideas of perfection and relevance. But I never had enough exposure to her work to make much of her as a writer.

So when I had the chance to check out her new story collection, Too Much Happiness, I figured I better absorb it while I could. I wasn't disappointed. There's a reason Munro has so much clout in literary circles. Her writing is tidy but hides vast spectrums of human experience and emotion. I was particularly impressed with the way she uses tense and narrative. A single paragraph might slip in and out of verb tense forms, making time morph into single moments. Munro's stories are all about memory and definitive moments reflected on over time, so these little touches in sentence form are really quite masterful.

I also admire the way Munro writes without judgment. Her characters are perfect little pieces of human nature that she never labels or treats unfairly. I might not like them as people, but I can't argued that they aren't well-crafted characters. I love the way the people in her stories constantly bump up against each other, affecting each other in unknown ways. Her characters have impacts on each other that they don't even realize, just as people do in reality. Old friends have unspeakable, even horrible, bonds that they fail to forget as they'd like. Children and parents can be equally guilty in their failures to communicate. Munro just gets humanity, and it makes her stories quite fantastic.

Be warned, though, that Munro isn't in the business of cute premises or wrapped-up endings or feelings of human comfort. Some of this stuff is pretty dark, particularly "Child's Play," and stories like "Deep-Holes" are almost painful to encounter. Personally, my favorite stories in the collection were "Fiction," which is getting a lot of praise among critics and does some really awesome things with narrative and the nature of telling stories, and "Face," which is quite heartbreaking and features a pretty incredible final sentence.

All in all, this should be required reading for anyone who writes or reads short fiction. I have to admit that the book has already begun to influence a piece of writing I'm currently working on. So obviously Munro made an impression.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Flirtation," by Rita Dove

I figured I might as well post a love poem in response to today's celebration of Valentine's Day. Unfortunately, I've never been one for love poems. Not because I'm bitter or even because I'm cynical. I just think most of them sound the same. The only ones I like are the ones that are extremely specific to a moment or event, and even those get old after awhile. So for today's poem, I wanted something short, sweet, and simple. Luckily, the Poetry Foundation's website was here to help. (Side note: If you are looking for a poem for any occasion, the Poetry Foundation's Poetry Tool is an absolute one-stop shop. They've done an awesome job putting it together.) There, I found this lovely little poem by Rita Dove, one of my favorite living American poets. I hope you enjoy the day, whether you're celebrating V-Day or not.

Flirtation, by Rita Dove

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgewood plate
Anything can happen.

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

Quiet’s cool flesh—
let’s sniff and eat it.

There are ways
to make of the moment

a topiary
so the pleasure’s in

walking through.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Favorite Passages: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

I know what you're thinking. Gilead again? Isn't she beating a dead horse, etc? Well, I'm not going to apologize. And here's why:

So we've established that it's Valentine's Day, a holiday I don't celebrate (with the exception of some delightful zombie-themed valentines I gave to friends last year). But this coming weekend has made me think about love. And one of the first conclusions I came to was that I don't read very many happy love stories. I'm not talking about romances. I'm just talking about positive, well-written depictions of love and relationships - romantic, familial, or friendly. So today, I decided to find a passage that describes the way I personally want everyone to think about love. And the only passage (besides Captain Wentworth writing that letter to Anne Elliot in Persuasion) that really came to mind was this one from Gilead.

It's not surprising this happened, of course. Gilead is, hands-down, the most perfect portrait of a life that I've ever read. It's about highs and lows, tremendous joy and tremendous grief, life and death, heaven and hell. So it's inevitable that Marilynne Robinson's passage contain a perfect passage about love and it's simultaneous misery and grace.

In this passage, narrator/minister John Ames, meditates on a newfound discovery about his godson, the extremely troubled Jack Boughton. I don't want to give away the book, since I secretly wish everyone in the world would read it, but this discovery makes Ames think about his relationship with his young son, who this book's narration is addressed to, and Ames's wife. The fact that this passage is located towards the end of the book, with Ames's death imminent, makes it extra poignant.

All I can think when I read this passage is that the optimist in me only really wants everyone in the world to be loved like this, whether it's by a family member, friend, or lover.

From: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

I can tell you this, that if I'd married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I'd leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother's face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying that I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world - your mother excepted, of course - and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face. Those kind Boughton brothers and sisters would be ashamed of the wealth of their lives beside the seeming poverty of Jack's life, and he would utterly and bitterly prefer what he had lost to everything they had. That is not a tolerable state of mind to be in, I'm well aware.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Literary Matchmaking

You can blame it on a mix of Jane Austen, PBS, and Valentine's Day. Although I've never paid much attention to V-Day (my parents don't really celebrate it, so I never grew up with much respect for the holdiay), it's hard to ignore it completely. So I already had love on the mind before I watched the conclusion to Masterpiece Theater's latest version of Austen's Emma. Misguided Emma Woodhouse is the great matchmaker of literature, and even though she is not as clever at it as she might suppose, she's still famous for her romantic machinations. So she inspired this particular list: literary matchmaking.

Here's how it works. I take two single characters who could use a little excitement in their lives from two separate books (often books from different decades, even centuries), and put them together. This is just a tiny list, but it gives you a pretty nice view of my messed-up literary viewpoints. Just call me the of obscure made-up people. Oh, and be careful - spoilers abound!

1. Cecelia Brady (from The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald) and Gabriel Gibbs (from The Season of Lillian Dawes, by Katherine Mosby): Call this couple "the loveless narrators." Cecelia, the narrator of Fitzgerald's unfinished critique on Hollywood, harbors a buried crush on protagonist Monroe Stahr while watching him struggle as a producer. Gabriel Gibbs, meanwhile, watches the dramatic love story unfold between his genius older brother Spencer and the mysterious Lillian Dawes, even though he is also in love with Lillian. Cecelia and Gabriel are perfect for each other, with their voyeuristic tendencies and unrequited loves. Not to mention that their author-creators have very similar writing styles.

2. Bryon Douglas (from That Was Then, This is Now, by S.E. Hinton) and Briony Tallis (from Atonement, by Ian McEwan): This is a relationship built mainly on guilt. At the end of Hinton's novel, poor Bryon is unable to cope with his regrets over ruining his best friend's life by getting him thrown in jail. And Briony Tallis might well be one of the guiltiest guilt-trips in contemporary literature, destroying the love affair and lives of her sister and her sister's doomed lover. She attempts to redeem herself by writing a version of their story with a happy ending, but it's no real help to her own torment. Hopefully, these two can find some redemption in each other. Also, look at how cutesy-similar their names are! (On a side note: If you haven't read the book or seen the movie version of Atonement, do so ASAP. I'm not sure there's a better or more dramatic depiction of how writers use others to their own advantages only to find it an impossibly painful task. Also, the narrative techniques used are masterfully-done.).

3. Severus Snape (from the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling) and Mary Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen): I know, I know. It's a stretch. But come on! Two people who act as if it's their duty to bring down everyone around them could not be more perfect for each other. Both of them are so unpleasant, and yet you can't help but feel quite sorry for them as people. Put these two together, and I think you'd be surprised at the chemistry that might explode. It might be a little tense at first; they might even hate each other. But what's that Shakespeare line? "My only love sprung from my only hate," or something like that? Exactly what would happen here, I think.

So what about all of you, readers? Any literary matches you can imagine?

Monday, February 8, 2010


Hey, all! Here's some notes and apologies and whatnot for the last weird week:

- I apologize for not posting a Poem of the Week yesterday. Because of my job and the Super Bowl (yes, I stop everything to watch the Super Bowl), I ran out of time to post. But don't worry, Poem of the Week will be back to its usual schedule next Sunday.

- I am currently reading two books right now: W.H. Auden's Selected Poems and Alice Munro's new book of short stories. I'll post reviews as soon as they're finished.

- This week, I'll be posting a new list and some other stuff, since I've been so errant in posting lately.

- And finally, for those of you who watched the Super Bowl, let me say that I was really dismayed with how sexist the commercials were this year. I felt like every other commercial portrayed women as nagging, shopaholic, bitchy objects of sexual lust. Women watch the Super Bowl too, corporate America!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

This Week in Embarrassing Reads...

Were you wondering why I haven't updated on any new reads lately? That's because I've been indulging in some cheesy reading time. And with me, that can only mean one thing: I've been reading Nora Roberts. That's right. Nora Roberts. As in she of the dark-haired heroes, ridiculously cutesy small town love affairs, and surprisingly strong dialogue. But what can I say? Sometimes, when life has me a little down and I can't find anything in particular I feel like reading, I could use a little cheese. So this weekend I finished Nora Roberts's two-for-one The MacKade Brothers: Devin and Shane. Both of the short novels were dumb as hell, but I have to admit I quite enjoyed them, especially Devin's story, which was particularly high in treacle factor. So sue me.

Now, let's never speak of this again.