Sunday, May 30, 2010

Poem of the Week: "MCMXIV," by Philip Larkin

It's Memorial Day weekend, so I think a war memorial poem is in order. I love this devastatingly ironic Larkin poem about the beginning of World War I, particularly the final stanza. Also, I'd be lying if I didn't say that part of my desire to post this poem comes from it being referenced in one of my favorite plays, Alan Bennett's The History Boys. If you've never seen or read the play or watched the movie, then you might not understand just how much this poem links into the story. But for those who know Bennett's work, you can see the connections he bridges between literature, history, and ideas of bygone innocence. I highly recommend The History Boys, and I highly recommend this poem.

MCMXIV, by Philip Larkin

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word - the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Beth's Ten Favorite Short Stories

Apparently, there's been all kind of talk in the literary world about celebrating National Short Story Month. Some writers think that because poetry gets its own month-long celebration in April, then short stories should get the same. And apparently, many are using May as a kind of unofficial short story celebration. So, even though I don't think short stories really need their own month, I've decided to participate in my own way with a brand new list!

I am a big fan of the short story form. A really good short story can have the same emotional punch as a novel or poem, and I often find that my all-time favorite ending lines in fiction tend to come from short stories. Here is a list my ten favorite short stories, in no particular order.

Beth's Ten Favorite Short Stories

1. "Babylon Revisited," by F. Scott Fitzgerald: There's a reason this story is considered the best short piece of fiction written by The Fitz. Fitzgerald really pooled together all his feelings about the end of the celebratory Jazz Age in this one. It's haunting, beautifully written, and humanizes every single character. And the last sentence is a doozy. Soooo good.

2. "A Temporary Matter," by Jhumpa Lahiri: Lahiri is probably the best short story writer of the last twenty years. Her writing is impeccable. If you can read this story about the end of a marriage in the face of tragedy without getting choked up, you might not be human. This story stuck with me for a long time after I finished it.

3. "For Esme - with Love and Squalor," by J.D. Salinger: I've mentioned before how much I love Salinger's Nine Stories, particularly this story. A story about war and peace and memory, it's ridiculously good.

4. "The Sojourner," by Carson McCullers: This story rarely makes it at the top of the list when critics list McCuller's best work, but I'm a huge fan of it. It's got another killer ending line (in fact, the tone of the story reminds me a lot of Fitzgerald's "Babylon Revisited"). I'm not sure why most of my favorite short stories seem to be about men realizing they can't get back their happier pasts, but what can you do...

5. "Pop Art," by Joe Hill: I only read this story a couple months ago, but it's already managed to make my list of favorites. Sure, stories about the loss of a childhood friend are a dime a dozen, but how many of them are about the loss of a childhood friend who happened to be an inflatable person? And how many of them are so wonderfully understated and tragic and wonderful as this one?

6. "Zoanthropy," by David Benioff: There's really no reason why I should like this story as much as I do. Benioff is a good writer, but he's not exactly Hemingway. And then there's all the weird stuff: lion hunters and spying on neighbors and a super-awkward narrator. But for some reason, I enjoy the story so much while I'm reading it that I can't really make myself NOT like it.

7. "The Minor Wars," by Kaui Hart Hemmings: There's really nothing more I can say about this story than I did in a past entry, but obviously, it had to make this list. Like "Zoanthropy," it's one of those stories that I enjoy reading so much it almost hurts. I think Hemmings just hits all the right notes in this one.

8. "Lull," by Kelly Link: This story is quite possibly the single strangest thing I've ever read. It's a story about storytelling, built up around layers of narrative. There's demons and aliens and a kind of haunted house in it, but there's also that beloved theme about wanting to return to an idyllic, if not exactly real, past. The first few pages make me want to write fan letters to Kelly Link.

9. "Murder Mysteries," by Neil Gaiman: Surprise, surprise; Gaiman made the list. Like Link's "Lull," this one is as much about storytelling as it is about anything else. The title comes from its central story about the first murder investigation in heaven, but there's a hell of a lot more than just that going on here. I don't really like heaven and hell and gods and angels entering into my reading life too much, but Gaiman always manages to push all the right buttons. This is one bad-ass short story.

10. Every story in Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona, by Ryan Harty: This is a major cheat since there's eight stories in this collection. Harty's wife, Julie Orringer, is a much more loved author in the literary world, but for some reason, I am more of a fan of this guy. It's probably because this book's stories touch on a lot of my favorite literary tropes - brothers, parents and children, lonely dudes looking to reconnect with their lives; this book has them all. Harty's writing always looks effortless, and his characters break my heart over and over again. The biggest standouts here are "What Can I Tell You About My Brother," "Crossroads," "Don't Call It Christmas," and the extremely gut-wrenching piece about family and robots and death, "Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down." I think everyone should read that last one. It's really quite wonderful.

Well, there you go, everyone. I'm sure I'll be kicking myself for leaving stuff out in the next few days. You can probably check the comments over the next few days to see some additions.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Apologies All Around

Sorry I have been updating so infrequently. Unfortunately, it's not going to get better for another week. I am in the middle of changing jobs (I'm starting work at a library next week - huzzah!) and visiting friends in various places, so I haven't had much time to read or blog. But I promise after I get settled in a week or two, things will be back to normal pace.

Also, since I am out of town this weekend, there won't be a Poem of the Week on Sunday. Sorry.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Power," by Adrienne Rich

Today is the birthday of Adrienne Rich, a contemporary American poet who is very famous for her political and powerful writing. I spent many years hating Rich for being too into politics and feminism and for being too playful with language. But after writing about her for a paper in my American lit class last year, I began to develop a fondness for Rich. She's not as fun to read as other poets, but her work is important and necessary.

Here's one of my favorite Adrienne Rich poems, "Power." It's about the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Marie Curie, who I've been obsessed with since high school, when I read a biography about her. I like the idea of two fascinating women - Rich and Curie - coming together in this piece. Enjoy!

Power, by Adrienne Rich

Living in the earth-depositis of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #5

Trashy Read #5: Not Quite a Lady, by Loretta Chase

Dear Book: I have read Lord of Scoundrels. And you, sir, are no Lord of Scoundrels. Love, Beth

Admittedly, this book was doomed from the start. It's author, Loretta Chase, wrote one of the classics of the romance genre with Lord of Scoundrels. So it's pretty likely that her other books might disappoint. I knew Not Quite a Lady ranked pretty low on most people's list of Loretta Chase's best books, but I thought the story sounded interesting, so I checked out this historical romance anyway. It wasn't bad. In fact, it had some quite charming moments. But it didn't really do a whole lot for me either.

Lady Charlotte Hayward is an aristocrat who is really good at avoiding marriage because of a secret. Ten years ago, she had an affair as a teenager that resulted in a pregnancy. Her newborn son was given away, and she and her stepmother have kept the entire thing a secret since. She feels guilty, ashamed, etc. Then she meets Darius Carsington, a very hot and very smart fellow arisocrat trying to renovate a nearby property. They quickly fall in love and blah blah blah. It's a pretty typical romance.

There were things I liked about the book. Darius, while not as interesting as my favorite romance heroes, was admirably sweet and relaxed in the second half of the book, and once he and Charlotte became comfortable with each other, their conversations became quite enjoyable, even humorous at times. Also, as she did with Lord of Scoundrels, Chase managed to fit in themes about parents and children alongside her romance. The mirroring relationships between the various children and their parents gave the book some extra support.

But in general, the book felt kind of lackluster in comparison to other romances I've read. Fortunately, I still think Chase is one of the best romance writers out there, so I'll still be reading her stuff. In fact, she visits other members of the Carsington family in several books, so I might be checking some of those out.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Another Neil Gaiman Book...Sorry.

This week I read Neil Gaiman's short story collection, Fragile Things. I know, I know. I promise that soon I will run out of Neil Gaiman books to write about, and then maybe someday another writer might get reviewed on here for once. But I can't help it! I'm obsessed! I haven't devoured so much work by one writer in such a short time period since I first discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald eight years ago.

Anyway, I interlibrary-loaned this book as soon as I read that it contained a novella from the American Gods universe. That little fifty-page piece, entitled "The Monarch of the Glen," did not disappoint. I absolutely adore the character of Shadow (someone's in danger of becoming a future character crush, methinks), so I was very happy to spend some more time with him. Mysterious, lost, haunted and good at heart, Shadow faces another bizarre situation and ends up over his head (this time in Scotland). The final few pages are really quite heartbreaking, with Shadow deciding to "go home," back to the America that previously failed him. I can't commend Gaiman's characterization of Shadow enough. He's an absolutely wonderful creation.

The rest of the book was kind of "meh" for me, honestly. I hate to say it, but this might have been my least favorite Neil Gaiman book I've read so far. Obviously, Gaiman's good enough that that still makes this book better than most stuff out there, but as short story collections go, I liked his book Smoke and Mirrors better. Of course, there were a handful of great pieces. I loved the sweet poem "Locks," which is about storytelling and fatherhood. I liked the weird but interesting "October in the Chair" (also largely about the nature of storytelling), and I laughed through "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire." Meanwhile, "Closing Time" and "The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch" are genuinely frightening, and "Bitter Grounds" is a really cool piece, even if I don't totally understand it. "The Problem of Susan" is also quite a standout, I think, although my lack of knowledge about the Narnia books definitely made it harder to follow.

Anyway, all in all, a satisfying if not particularly thrilling Neil Gaiman book. I will definitely be haunted by Shadow for awhile now...

Note: Don't you love finding things in books? This book had a ticket stub from the South Shore Line. For those of you who don't know, the South Shore Line is a train service that runs from South Bend, Indiana, to Chicago. I found the ticket nestled in the pages of "The Monarch of the Glen." I just love the idea of someone having Shadow for company on the train, especially since the end of the story takes place on a train. Cool beans.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Comfort Read!

Recently, a book-loving-librarian-in-training friend pondered the idea of bibliotherapy. Apparently, bibliotherapy is used to help you overcome your problems by becoming absorbed in the problems of people in books. I like this idea. But I think I'm not so much a practitioner of bibliotherapy as I am a practitioner of comfort reading. Comfort reading is simply the reading of well-loved books that help me de-stress and live inside someone else's head for awhile.

For me, comfort reads are always books I've read more than twice, books that can have happy or sad endings but which all must have the ability to put me inside a little cocoon outside my own existence. Admittedly, I'm pretty choosy about my comfort reads. Just because something is a comfort read doesn't mean it's a great book. And just because I've read a book half a dozen times does not make it a comfort read. For example, my all-time favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, is not a comfort read even though I've read it a bajillion times (probably because it's so genius that I have to concentrate too hard on the language, the themes, and the structure to get too comfortable too fast). Conversely, Katherine Mosby's forgettable novel The Season of Lillian Dawes is nowhere near one of my favorite books, but it's one of the first books I go to for comfort. I've read it so often I feel like I actually live in its world.

Anyway, the point of all this is simple. I love me some comfort reads, and lately I haven't indulged in them enough. I remedied that problem this week by picking up one of my most comforting-est comfort books: S.E. Hinton's Tex. By now, you all know how much I love S.E. Hinton. I loved her when I was young, and I still love her now. Without a doubt, Tex is my favorite Hinton novel. Tex is the narrator, a fifteen-year-old small town kid who can't seem to avoid trouble and who's pretty happy-go-lucky. He has a best friend, Johnny, from a rich family that lives down the road, and he's in love with Johnny's sister, Jamie. Hijinks ensue. But the real heart of the story lies in Tex's relationship with his older brother, Mason. Mason, a basketball whiz busy winning scholarships and adoration, is the de-facto parent in the household, since their father is always gone on the rodeo circuit. Mason is something of a control freak, and with a mean streak to boot. But he's trying his best, so much so that he ends up with an ulcer halfway through the book. Some family secrets get unearthed towards the end of the book that really kick things into gear, and the book's ending is wonderfully bittersweet. Overall, it's a pretty basic story.

But Hinton goes beyond the easy punches to create a really wonderful world here. Tex's narration is charming and not always reliable, as the reader sometimes has to come up with her own conclusions about things. Meanwhile, Mason is an absolutely perfect creation. So much so that I might harbor a bit of a crush on the guy. He's not an angel by any stretch of the imagination. He beats the shit out of Tex at the very beginning of the book, and he can kind of be a bastard. Yet, he tries so hard and gets so little credit that you can't help but feel sorry for him. And he totally makes up for it at the end by being a great big brother. Really, the characters are what make this book worth reading over and over again. Hinton is ridiculously good at making even peripheral characters seem alive. Everyone in Tex is capable of good and evil. No one's really a hero, but no one's a flat-out villain either. Instead, people just come across as completely realistic. Even at its most "extreme" moments, it's simply a book about people trying their best, with mixed results. Tex sums up the whole book pretty well in one of its final paragraphs: "I remembered what Jamie had said, that love doesn't solve anything. Maybe. But it helps."

Anyway, I'm done ranting. This is probably my fifth or sixth time reading Tex, and it never gets old for me, even if I've outgrown its intended age-group. I love the characters, I love the setting, and I love Hinton's worldview. When I'm reading this book, I have no time for the real world, which is all I want from a comfort read.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Poem of the Week: "The One Girl at the Boys Party," by Sharon Olds

This Poem of the Week is brought to you by the word "nostalgia." I wanted a poem by a woman writer today, since it's been a while since I posted one here. So I went to the source of the very first formal lit paper I wrote in college. My first real literature class in college (titled, appropriately, "Introduction to Literature") really taught me how to write a good paper. I was ridiculously excited about the "A-" I got on my paper about this poem. So there you go.

Also, it's just a pretty cool poem all around. Enjoy!

The One Girl at the Boys Party, by Sharon Olds

When I take my girl to the swimming party
I set her down among the boys. They tower and
bristle, she stands there smooth and sleek,
her math scores unfolding in the air around her.
They will strip to their suits, her body hard and
indivisible as a prime number,
they'll plunge into the deep end, she'll subtract
her height from ten feet, divide it into
hundreds of gallons of water, the numbers
bouncing in her mind like molecules of chlorine
in the bright blue pool. When they climb out,
her ponytail will hang its pencil lead
down her back, her narrow silk suit
with hamburgers and french fries printed on it
will glisten in the brilliant air, and they will
see her sweet face, solemn and
sealed, a factor of one, and she will
see their eyes, two each,
their legs, two each, and the curves of their sexes,
one each, and in her head she'll be doing her
wild multiplying, as the drops
sparkle and fall to the power of a thousand from her body.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #4

Trashy Read #4: Smooth Talking Stranger, by Lisa Kleypas

This week, I went back to contemporary romance, the only kind of romance I'd even consider reading before I finished the super-awesome Lord of Scoundrels a couple weeks ago. Ironically, the author I read, Lisa Kleypas, is actually new to the contemporary romance genre. She made her name with historical romances (which I've never read, but might consider doing now), and this is only her third contemporary. Smooth Talking Stranger ended up being one of the breeziest romances I've ever read. There's certainly some trauma going on internally for the narrator/heroine Ella Varner, but the writing is casual and easy, and I finished the book in no time. And even though I liked the book, it was a lot lighter than I tend to like my trashy romances.

The book starts off with Ella suddenly being stuck with the newborn son of her wayward sister, Tara. The girls grew up with a shitty mom and probably some hefty therapy bills, so Ella is determined to make things better for baby Luke (who is appropriately adorable but still as sleepless and floppy as all newborns). She tries to find the father while supporting Tara's decision to go to a mental-health resort. At first, it appears the father is multi-millionaire playboy Jack Travis (hello, cliches!), but that's not the case. Nevermind, though. Jack magically makes things all better, and Ella eventually leaves her cause-loving (and in my opinion, insufferably turdish) boyfriend for him. Some wee bit of plotted drama happens towards the end, but obviously everyone gets their happy, healthy, wealthy ending.

So, by now, you've figured out that I like a fair dose of angst in my romances. So while Ella's past is tragic and her family extremely F-ed up, I never really felt particularly sorry for the characters. Ella might not have Travis-family levels of money, but she's financially secure enough, and besides, Jack ends up paying for everything anyway. I liked this book; don't get me wrong. I liked the unusualness of a first-person narrator in a romance, and Ella is surprisingly likeable and understandable. But Jack, while certainly hot and charming and sweet and blah blah blah, is kind of boring. He doesn't have hang-ups, really, besides a slight case of womanizing that isn't nearly as damning as, say, Dain from Lord of Scoundrels. And then all that money! I couldn't help but mentally flinch any time some unnecessary spending of wealth was shown. Poolside misting machines! Backyard sand imported from Hawaii! How the F am I supposed to find the kind of people who buy these things likeable? Blerg.

So anyway, Smooth Talking Stranger was pretty good. Kleypas's writing is clean and simple, and I liked being inside the heroine's head at all times. Also, this book has a fair amount of what my college roommate and I like to call "Cute Dad Syndrome," meaning there's a hot dude sweetly interacting with a child. It's a sturdy, well-done book with a nice emotional payoff that comes from more than just the hero/heroine's story (baby Luke could be called Ella's hero in this book too, I think). But as someone who's broke and in debt and was a hard-core socialist in high school, I couldn't keep from seeing dollar signs through the entire book. And that's not what I want from a contemporary romance.

On a side note, I've got a big ol' list of historical romances on my must-read list, so prepare to see some of those soon. Oh, Lord of Scoundrels, what have you done to me?!?!