Wednesday, July 28, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #9

Trashy Read #9: Dreaming of You, by Lisa Kleypas

There are a variety of reasons why I consider my general reading life to be completely separate from my romance reading life. And maybe the biggest reason of all lies in my attitude towards the character/reader relationship in different genres. In the case of most fiction, I honestly believe that you don't have to like a book's characters to like the book. If that were the case, there's no way Fitzgerald would be my favorite writer; his characters are deplorable people. But they are built so well and written about so carefully that I can still admire their stories.

However, I feel completely different about romances. If I'm reading a romance, I have to like the characters. Otherwise, I'll give up the book. When it comes to my fun trashy reading, I don't want two terrible people to end up together happily ever after. Yuck. So likability is a major factor for me in reading romance. I have to enjoy the two leads in order to like the book at all.

Luckily, this trashy read had two wonderful main characters. Lisa Kleypas (who, you might remember, I did not love when I read her contemporary romance a few months ago) is considered a bit of a major player in the world of historical romances, and Dreaming of You seems to be her most well-loved novel. Recently, I have discovered that historical romances are my favorite fluffy reads, the kind of feel-good stupidness I need after a bad day. They are so far removed from my own experiences that I can't help but be caught up in the stories (assuming, of course, they are at least somewhat well-written). Sure, the historical accuracy is basically non-existent (and man, was there some major inaccuracy in this book), but I'm willing to overlook that for the sake of a some great characters getting together in the end. So knowing the reputation this book had, I grabbed it when I needed some cheering up last week.

Dreaming of You did not disappoint. Derek Craven had all you could want from a historical romance hero - moody personality, tragic past, a whole mess of issues, and a super-hot body (plus green eyes, my favorite!). Meanwhile, heroine Sara Fielding managed to be sweet, plucky, and smart without being annoying, a rare feat indeed. In fact, she reminded me just a little bit of a certain librarying friend of mine, particularly in the book's first few chapters. When Sara, a writer, and Derek, the owner of an exclusive gambling club, first meet, we know they're meant for each other. Even if takes them a little while to realize it themselves. The plot is kind of meaningless (everybody seems to have a grudge against Derek; Sara has to get rid of a boring fiance and his horrible mother to find happiness), but it doesn't really matter since the book has most of its fun in all the little moments. The likability factor of the characters definitely played a major role in my enjoyment of this book. The fact that Derek and Sara were such strong presences made the sweet little ending that much more adorable.

So overall, a happy read made for a happy Beth.

Next in Trashy Reads: OMG, peeps! I have some super-exciting news. Remember my last trashy read, Loretta Chase's Lord Perfect? Remember when I said that I hoped she'd someday write a book exclusively about the two kids, Peregrine and Olivia, falling in love in the future? Well yesterday, that book was released! It's called Last Night's Scandal, and as soon as I get my hands on it, you know I'll drop everything to read it. Hurrah!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Mayakovsky," by Frank O'Hara

Tonight is the fourth season premiere of my favorite TV show, Mad Men. I love Mad Men because of its slow and deliberate construction of character and story. Everything about it feels more like a novel than a television show. In fact, I tend to think of the show as more of a literary work than a visual media product (although, the show is very pleasing to the eye as well). So to celebrate all things Mad Men, I am presenting a poem that was once read aloud by it's main character.

In the show's second season, the protagonist - the mysterious Don Draper - reads from Frank O'Hara's book, Meditations in an Emergency. In one episode, Draper (played by Jon Hamm) reads the last section of the poem "Mayakovsky," and it works perfectly. So imagine this wonderful poem being read by the soothing and seductive voice of Don Draper. Enjoy!

Mayakovsky, by Frank O'Hara

My heart’s aflutter!
I am standing in the bath tub
crying. Mother, mother
who am I? If he
will just come back once
and kiss me on the face
his coarse hair brush
my temple, it’s throbbing!

then I can put on my clothes
I guess, and walk the streets.

I love you. I love you,
but I’m turning to my verses
and my heart is closing
like a fist.

Words! be
sick as I am sick, swoon,
roll back your eyes, a pool,

and I’ll stare down
at my wounded beauty
which at best is only a talent
for poetry.

Cannot please, cannot charm or win
what a poet!
and the clear water is thick

with bloody blows on its head.
I embrace a cloud,
but when I soared
it rained.

That’s funny! there’s blood on my chest
oh yes, I’ve been carrying bricks
what a funny place to rupture!
and now it is raining on the ailanthus
as I step out onto the window ledge
the tracks below me are smoky and
glistening with a passion for running
I leap into the leaves, green like the sea

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I Came, I Read, I Laughed

Book Reviewed: Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations, by Simon Rich

Last Christmas, when trying to find a gift for my brother, I came across a couple stories from Simon Rich's hilarious Ant Farm. I liked them so much, I bought the book for my brother at once. He loved it. And now, I've finally read the whole thing myself. A collection of super-short humor pieces, Ant Farm is an example of my favorite kind of funny: a little pathetic, a little nostalgic, and extremely true to life. In one piece, Rich imagines what Abraham might say to Isaac on the way back home from "camping." In another, a murdered man is frustrated over his inability to communicate with a bunch of preteen girls playing with a ouija board. It's all a little bizarre, but Rich does a great job basing his humor on observations from his own life: the misunderstandings of childhood, the awkwardness of being a teenager, coming to terms with religion and politics as you get older. Every piece reminded me of my own dumb thoughts through the years, and I giggled my way through the entire collection.

So, because I do think this book is ridiculously fun, I thought I'd pass along one of my favorite pieces from the collection. Enjoy!

"A Conversation at the Grown-Ups' Table as Imagined at the Kids' Table," by Simon Rich

MOM: Pass the wine, please. I want to become crazy.
DAD: Okay.
GRANDMOTHER: Did you see the politics? It made me angry.
DAD: Me too. When it was over, I had sex.
UNCLE: I'm having sex right now.
DAD: We all are.
MOM: Let's talk about which kid I like best.
DAD: (laughing) You know, but you won't tell.
MOM: If they ask me again, I might tell.
FRIEND FROM WORK: Hey, guess what? My voice is pretty loud!
DAD: (laughing) There are actual monsters in the world, but when my kids ask I pretend like there aren't.
MOM: I'm angry! I'm angry all of a sudden!
DAD: I'm angry too! We're angry at teach other!
MOM: Now everything is fine.
DAD: We just saw the PG-13 movie. It was so good.
MOM: There was a big sex.
FRIEND FROM WORK: I am the loudest! I am the loudest!
(Everybody laughs.)
MOM: I had a lot of wine, and now I'm crazy!
GRANDFATHER: Hey, do you guys know what God looks like?
ALL: Yes.
GRANDFATHER: Don't tell the kids.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Ode to French Fries," by Pablo Neruda

I'm about to admit to what amounts to a cardinal sin for the modern, liberal-arts-college-graduate writing student: I don't like Pablo Neruda. There, I said it. I feel better already.

Neruda is one of those super-loved poets who is loved by poetry readers and non-poetry readers alike. He's basically a go-to referencef or everything "poetic" for contemporary "thinkers." Which, honestly, is probably one of the reasons I don't like him. He has his moments, but I've never understood why his poems have managed to reach people in a way that Rilke hasn't. Why?

Honestly, this column isn't here to explore that question (though, just to be clear, I think it's because Neruda is a love poet and Rilke is primarily concerned with death, and most people are secret sentimentalists who prefer the former). Instead, this post is going to celebrate that most glorious of foods: French fries! Because it is summer, and because french fries are awesome. I had some just yesterday, but quite frankly, the fries described in this poem sound like they could trump those anyday. Enjoy!

Ode to French Fries, by Pablo Neruda
Translated by Ken Krabbenhoft

What sizzles
in boiling
is the world's
into the pan
like the morning swan's
and emerge
half-golden from the olive's
crackling amber.

lends them
its earthy aroma,
its spice,
its pollen that braved the reefs.
in ivory suits, they fill our plates
with repeated abundance,
and the delicious simplicity of the soil.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

An Awesome Debut Novel

Book Reviewed: Galveston, by Nic Pizzolatto

Warning: I may be just a tiny bit biased when it comes to this book. Pizzolatto is a writing professor at my alma mater, and I was a senior when it was announced that this book, his first novel, was bought by Scribner. So, admittedly, I might have given this book extra points just for that fact. But frankly, this book is good enough on its own that it doesn't really need those extra points anyway.

Galveston has been praised as a return to the noir genre. Its about criminals and violence and secrets. But it's also about living and dying, burying emotion and finding salvation in unexpected places. The narrator, Roy Cady, works for a criminal organization when he finds out he has a fatal illness at the age of 40. When he goes out for a job, he realizes he's been trapped by his own people. He manages to escape, but he gets saddled with an 18-year-old prostitute named Rocky and, eventually, her toddler sister. They try to hide out on the Texas gulf coast, but both their pasts catch up with them pretty quickly, leaving all kinds of damage in the end.

Roy is a really interesting narrator, and Pizzolatto does him a great service by giving him two "jobs": providing the action as the protagonist AND telling the tragic story of the girls he's protecting. Maybe the best thing about Roy, though, is how he manages to be both sympathetic and terrifying at the same time. He's extremely violent and dangerous, not afraid to kill or maim to get at what he needs. Yet, by the end, you can't hate him because you see the toll his lifestyle has taken on his humanity.

Meanwhile, Rocky is a complex female character, something you don't always get in a crime story like this. I expected to hate her when I met her, and I doubted Pizzolatto's ability to make her more than just a boring woman-in-peril catalyst. But as the book goes on, she takes on all kinds of new depths, and Pizzolatto makes her act exactly her age: a child and an adult simultaneously. Her story arc goes along quite nicely with Roy's.

If I had not known anything about Nic Pizzolatto or had never had a conversation with him before, I never would have guessed this was a first book by a young author. It's so well written (really, the writing just gets more and more wonderful as the book goes on) and tight that it feels like the work of someone who's been publishing novels for decades. However, I guess this shouldn't surprise me. At my alma mater, Pizzolatto is famous for his intensity. The man is quite a perfectionist when it comes to his writing. I can only imagine the kind of blood, sweat, and tears that went into making this book.

So overall, if you're looking to discover a new writer, I'd highly recommend trying out Pizzolatto and Galveston. It's a fantastic debut with a very satisfying and bittersweet ending (and, of course, a killer last sentence). And if you like that, I'd also recommend his beautiful story collection, Between Here and the Yellow Sea. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Look into the Writing Process of a Master

Book Reviewed: Trimalchio, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I'll be upfront about this post: If you haven't read The Great Gatsby, this review might not make a ton of sense to you. Just thought I'd give you the warning from the top. Oh, and if you haven't read Gatsby yet, what are you waiting for, huh!?

By now, you all know I am obsessed with Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. He's my favorite writer; it's my favorite book. I tend to think of Gatsby as a perfect piece of literature. It's so tight you can make beautiful music when you pluck it. The language is precise and clear and poetic. The characters are hard to love but recognizable. It's all just put together so well that even if you don't like it, you have to admit it has an amazing construction. That's why I try to read the book every summer (and I do believe summer is the best time of year to read it, a time of year that's intense but lazy at the same time). But this year, I decided to try something different. I tried an early version of the novel instead.

Trimalchio is the version of The Great Gatsby that Fitzgerald submitted to his publishers in the fall of 1924. It was only after receiving the page proofs of the book that Fitzgerald turned it into the novel we know today. It's really cool to see how Fitzgerald managed to completely restructure an already well-done book in just a few short months. If anything, it makes you realize that his reputation as a literary giant is definitely earned.

Trimalchio (the title comes from a character from the Satyricon) mostly stayed intact in its final incarnation as Gatsby. Whole passages remain the same, and the plot basically hits the same notes. The differences all exist in the small things, and it's those small things that really make the published book a masterpiece. In this version, Nick Carraway, our moral narrator, is a bit of a snob; Fitzgerald made him much more sympathetic and pathetic in The Great Gatsby. Also in this version, Jay Gatsby's background is stated a little less artfully, and Jordan Baker is made even more of a liar but given more to do. Of course, the thing I noticed about the book is how many adverbs Fitzgerald must have struck from his prose before the final draft, which just goes to show you that I've maybe read Gatsby a few too many times.

So all in all, it was really cool to have a chance to read this early version of my favorite book. It shows you what a genius of revision Fitzgerald was. I've argued for years now that what made Fitzgerald's work great was his ability to get rid of his worst instincts when it really mattered. People who don't write don't understand how hard that is, but trust me: Fitzgerald is a master at turning bad ideas into beautiful moments. Trimalchio proves that.

And now, just because this is my favorite book of all-time, I'm going to go ahead and confess to the levels of my nerdiness in regards to The Great Gatsby. When reading passages of Trimalchio that remained in the final book, I actually teared up from happiness over reading something so wonderfully done. There are short scenes and throw-away sentences in that book that literally make me shake. It's really quite sad. But if that isn't a reason to be a reader, then I don't know what is...

Side Note: This weekend, I also finished Supernatural: The Unholy Cause, by Joe Schreiber. It's a tie-in novel to one of my favorite TV shows, Supernatural. It was so bad that it does not even earn a review on this site. It provided enough entertainment for the couple hours it took to read, but man, was it terrible.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Firecracker Catalogue," by Jay Hopler

This day last week, I was watching fireworks alongside my best friend and former college roommate. Watching the colors explode in the sky, I felt an enormous sense of comfort in the knowledge that all over the country, millions of people were doing exactly what I was doing at that moment, staring at the fizzled sky alongside family and friends. It's not often you can say that about an event, which is what made it such a wonderful, content feeling.

Of course, as usual, the experience reminded me of a poem. When one of my favorite contemporary poets, Jay Hopler, came to do a reading at my alma mater, he read his "Firecracker Catalogue." He told us that as a child, he wanted to grow up and name fireworks, so this was his way of addressing that dream. I always thought it was a cool poem, and a great one to read aloud. Enjoy!

Firecracker Catalogue, by Jay Hopler

Garden of Starlit Flowers

Flaming Chrysanthemum

Blue Umbrellas (w/ report)

All-Blooming Chandelier

Birds of Double Paradise

Happy Lightning Rocket

Innumerable Stars (12 ct.)

Bomb of Heaven Singing

Jumbo Christmas Missile

Jumping Monkey Candle

Pink Carnation Dynamite

Fountain of Silver Kisses

Emerald Parachutes (7 ct.)

Loudly Flowering Bower

Wall of Sunlit Butterflies

Repeating Beehives (blue)

Repeating Beehives (gold)

Bouquet of Wild Comets

Blessèd Festival Cannon

Blessèd Family Firebomb

Friday, July 2, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #8

Trashy Read #8: Lord Perfect, by Loretta Chase

How awesome is Loretta Chase? Pretty damn awesome. I'm pretty sure she can take just about any cliche historical romance plot and create a book that's funny, charming, and a blast to read. She mastered the form with her amazingly perfect Lord of Scoundrels (one of my favorite books I've read this year). And although some of her books are kind of hit-and-miss in general, they are always a lot of fun.

Lord Perfect is a really fun book. The morally upright (and very bored) Benedict Carsington (aka Viscount Rathbourne) is in change of his super-precocious adolescent nephew, Peregrine. The two end up meeting the gorgeous widow Bathsheba Wingate and her clever daughter Olivia. Benedict and Bathsheba are ridiculously attracted to each other, but his family is Very Important and she comes from a horrid family known as the Dreadful DeLuceys. Peregrine begins taking art lessons from Bathsheba and eventually learns that Olivia plans to run away to find some family treasure. He hopes to stop her by going along, but gets dragged into her schemes instead. So Benedict and Bathsheba end up going after them and, of course, end up falling in love.

The story is very charming. Benedict isn't like most alpha-male historical heroes. Rather, he's a little stuffy at first but eventually opens himself up to show a good sense of humor and a strong heart. Bathsheba works hard to make a life for her and her handful of a daughter. And then, there's Peregrine and Olivia, who I hope really get an eventual book of their own. Because there is no way those two can't grow up, find each other again, and fall in love. At least in my mind that's what happens.

So anyway, as usual, Loretta Chase does not disappoint. She's quickly becoming my go-to romance writer. I adore her, and if you haven't checked her out yet, I'd really recommend you do.

Next in Trashy Reads: Although I have a glorious pile of both historicals and contemporaries to read, I'm quite taken with more "serious" books right now. So it may be a few weeks until our next entry. But who knows? Maybe I'll be in the mood for a trashy read before then...