Sunday, August 29, 2010

Poem of the Week: "The Taxi," by Amy Lowell

Currently, I'm reading Amy Lowell's Selected Poems. I became interested in reading Lowell, an early-20th century imagist, after seeing this poem in an anthology. The poem grabbed me at once, mostly because of its great last line and amazing violence of the language. So until I get my full review of Lowell's book on here, I thought I'd share that poem with you all. Enjoy!

The Taxi, by Amy Lowell

When I go away from you
The world beats dead
Like a slackened drum.
I call out for you against the jutted stars
And shout into the ridges of the wind.
Streets coming fast,
One after the other,
Wedge you away from me,
And the lamps of the city prick my eyes
So that I can no longer see your face.
Why I should I leave you,
To wound myself upon the sharp edges of the night?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads # 11

Trashy Read #11: Supernatural: Heart of the Dragon, by Keith R.A. DeCandido

Warning: This Trashy Read was not a romance, but it's something I feel guilty for reading nonetheless.

TV and movie tie-in novels are supremely weird things. They attempt to add to a pre-existing story without really adding anything at all. They can't add to a plotline or develop character because the book itself exists outside of the original story's "canon." So in the end, they exist in a weird void where you can read them and maybe enjoy them, but they are completely empty. It's like eating empty calories.

A couple months ago, I read another tie-in novel for my favorite terrible TV show, Supernatural. It was absolutely awful. The writing was bad, the copyeditor did a half-assed job, and the plot was ridiculous. So why on earth did I pick up another one?

I picked this book up for the same reason that I devour Supernatural fanfiction so greedily: The show implies that there's a lot going on in the characters' past and present that we don't see, and I can't help but feel a need to fill in the holes. Part of the enjoyment of a really good series (whether it's a TV show or a book series, like Harry Potter) comes from using your imagination to fill in those holes. But occasionally, it's nice to see what other fans are imagining, too. Unfortunately, unlike fanfiction - which by the anonymity of the internet can take huge steps outside canon and create new plotlines, characters, and insights - published books blessed by the show creator cannot do the same. Which makes for some pretty unexciting reading.

So this book was hardly a work of great literature. But it was waaaay better than the last Supernatural book I read. I won't bore you with the plot. If you don't watch Supernatural (and really, why would you?), you won't understand what I'm talking about anyway. The book did attempt something new, though, by adding storylines that included the main characters' family members in the past (people whose histories we only get glimpses of in the show). I admired that aspect of the book.

In the end, I enjoyed the book well enough to finish it (admittedly, part of this is due to my desire to imagine the goodlooking leads doing anything, even just walking across a room...). But was it a good read? Heck no. It was a lot like drinking Diet Coke - getting only a taste of something I like better in its original form.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Fabliau of Florida," by Wallace Stevens

Today was a bit panic-inducing. When I went to log onto this blog earlier, Google showed that it had been deleted. Apparently, my entire Google account had been compromised (which is why some of you may have gotten spam from my email address...sorry), but once I got the situation taken care of, my blog was right where I left it. I can't even tell you how scared I was that this blog had disappeared. It's been my touchstone in this not-so-wonderful year, and losing it would have really devastated me.

So, to make a long story short, I wasn't much in the mood to go poem-hunting today. But, remembering my faithful readers, I grabbed my Wallace Stevens collection and decided to find something. I opened it right to this poem, which I think is appropriate for this time of year and the wrap-up of summer vacations and laziness. It's short and simple, but like all of Stevens's poems, it shows an inventiveness no other writer can copy (plus, how cool is the phrase "sultry moon-monsters"?!). Enjoy!

Fabliau of Florida, by Wallace Stevens

Barque of phosphor
On the palmy beach,

Move outward into heaven,
Into the alabasters
And night blues.

Foam and cloud are one.
Sultry moon-monsters
Are dissolving.

Fill your black hull
With white moonlight.

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Book Reviewed: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach

Lately, I've been craving good nonfiction reads. I don't know why, but I've gotten a little bored with novels this summer, so I've been putting a fair amount of nonfiction and poetry on my "To Read" list. When the well-loved science writer Mary Roach published her latest book last week, I decided I'd start with her. Roach is famous for funny, easygoing books on specific topics. Her first book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, was a huge success, and she's followed it up with looks at ghosts, sex research, and space exploration.

I decided to go with the topic that was sure to most interest me: the ghosts. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife was available at my library, so I reserved a copy and read it all in just a couple days. I had some mixed reactions to the book, but it sure did make for an interesting weekend. Each chapter stands alone, as Roach (in a funny and unaffected first-person voice) looks into different subjects related to the human soul and its possible existence after death. There are chapters in here about reincarnation, hallucinations caused by electromagnetic fields, and the research of near-death experiences. Through them all, Roach takes a warm view towards the people she meets and stories she finds. Ultimately, despite claims that she's just observing, she comes off as a little too skeptical all the time. I certainly can't claim to believe in ghosts (although I don't not believe in them either, I guess), but it would have been a little cooler to see her just relax sometimes.

Overall though, the book was very enjoyable. For some reason, well-researched, first-person nonfiction books like this read ridiculously easy for me. The student in me just loves to sit there and take it all in. That's why this book took very little time to read. I especially liked the fifth chapter, "Hard to Swallow: The giddy, revolting heyday of ectoplasm," which really lived up to its title. I was equally disgusted and intrigued by the subject, which is much more bizarre and yucky than I imagined. There are so many great anecdotes about the weirdness of scientists and parapsychologists and paranormal researches in here. Even at its most scientifically dry, the book is still a lot of fun. I will definitely be checking out more of Roach's stuff.

Other Books I Attempted This Last Week: I started a trashy romance, Elizabeth Hoyt's To Beguile a Beast, which went flat pretty quickly. I stopped halfway through. Also, I quickly abandoned a book I had really wanted to read: the new novel One Day, by David Nicholls. For some reason, I just couldn't get into it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reading Jane Austen Makes Me Want To Throw My Romance Novels Out the Window

I love my trashy romance novels. They bring me so much joy with such little time or thinking involved. But you know what I love even more? Captain Wentworth writing poignant love letters to Anne Elliot.

You might recall how much I loved Persuasion when I read it for the first time last year. Well, I just reread the book again for a special project for a special friend, and I loved it just as much this time around. Suddenly, all my romance books just seem so darn stupid in comparison. The pain found in the past between Anne and Captain Wentworth is waaaay more acute than any trashy plot, and the happy ending so much more satisfying than the one in your usual romance. So I have to say: rereading Persuasion has made me swear off trashy romances for the rest of the month. We'll see if that actually happens...

Anyway, once again: Read Persuasion! Captain Wentworth is as dreamy as any romance hero ever written. Trust me.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I Like This

I saw this little piece on NPR's website today and quite liked it. I've been a closet John Irving fan for this very reason, I'm afraid. Well no more! You heard it here: I love John Irving! A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of my favorite novels!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Poem of the Week: "New Religion," by Bill Holm

I found this poem on the oh-so wonderful Writer's Almanac on Wednesday and quite liked it. It's a quiet little poem about an awfully big subject, and I love the idea it presents. I've always been more fond of water than air as an element (hence why I harshly judge the decision of Ariel in Disney's Little Mermaid), so the idea of heaven being underwater would be fantastic in my opinion. Enjoy!

New Religion, by Bill Holm

This morning no sound but the loud
breathing of the sea. Suppose that under
all that salt water lived the god
that humans have spent ten thousand years
trawling the heavens for.
We caught the wrong metaphor.
Real space is wet and underneath,
the church of shark and whale and cod.
The noise of those vast lungs
exhaling: the plain chanting of monkfish choirs.
Heaven's not up but down, and hell
is to evaporate in air. Salvation,
to drown and breathe
forever with the sea.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #10

Trashy Read #10: Last Night's Scandal, by Loretta Chase

When I wrote about Loretta Chase's Lord Perfect last month, I mentioned my hope that she might write a sequel concerning the book's secondary protagonists, Peregrine (Lisle) and Olivia. After seeing their bond as children, I was dying to see them grow up, reconnect, and fall in love. Well, I got my wish. Without knowing it, Chase had already written that book, and at the end of July, it was published. When I found out what her new book was about, I actually whooped aloud with joy. Loretta Chase has become my guilty ruin.

In Lord Perfect, the strong-willed and wild Olivia leads her new friend, the young and overly-smart Peregrine Dalmay, Earle of Lisle (in this book, simply called "Lisle") into a treasure hunt that turns out to be somewhat of a wash. Seeing Olivia's crazy schemes clash with Lisle's stubborn intelligence provided a lot of entertainment. So I knew they could only set off sparks as adults.

I was right. Admittedly, I am kind of a sucker for the old romance standard of "childhood friends become lovers." I find something sweet about two people who have known one another for so long wading their way through their attraction to each other years later. So obviously, I knew the plot here was for me. Lisle returns from his expeditions in Egypt only to be given the task of taking care of a Scottish castle his family owns. He is dreading the experience, and he isn't exactly happy about his old friend, the still wild Olivia, coming along. Obviously, they go to Scotland, solve the "ghost" problem there, and fall in madly in love. It's pretty standard. But because Chase has created two such darn lovable people out of Olivia and Lisle, it seemed fresh and enjoyable all the way through.

With the exception of some time-passage issues I had with Chase in this book (she has some awkward segues here that I don't remember being a problem in her earlier books), I really liked this romance. Olivia is hardly the standard romance heroine, and Lisle is extremely endearing. Some of the scenes between the two made me very happy because Chase knows how to work her characters for what they're worth. She is, without a doubt, my favorite historical romance writer. And this one is another winner from her.

Next in Trashy Reads: I'm reading another historical right now (I can't seem to get enough, ah!), but I'm not sure if I'll finish it or not. To tell the truth, I'm a little burnt out on romance and have my eye on a pile of brand-spanking-new literary fiction and a handful of classics instead.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Philip Larkin!

Today is the birthday of my favorite English-language poet, Philip Larkin!

I have been obsessed with Larkin since I read his Collected Poems (a slim little collection, considering he only published four books in his lifetime) a couple years ago. He writes so beautifully about life inside its most mundane details. His work is always honest, sometimes funny, and often brilliant. A master of loneliness, Larkin worked as a librarian at a British University for most of his life, publishing poetry on the side. He's considered a sad poet writing sad poems, but I think the quiet despair of the daily grind is what makes his work so compelling and necessary in our world. The Writer's Almanac has a lovely little section about Larkin on its website today, complete with the story about how his hometown is celebrating him with a plethora of toads. Yay, Larkin!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

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

I know, I know. Another Philip Larkin poem. But this time it has a purpose, I promise! Tomorrow is Larkin's birthday (look for the special post), so it's only fitting that I give him this week's poetry honors, since he's my favorite English-language poet and all. This one's short and sweet, with an image at the end that's both disturbing and funny at the same time. Enjoy!

Days, by Philip Larkin

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

You'll Feel Ten Times Smarter After Reading This Book

Book Reviewed: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman

If I could go to graduate school for literature and magically pick any subject I wanted, language requirements be damned, I would always go for 19th-century Russian novels. I love love love Russian literature. I think Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are two of the maybe 10 most important writers in the history of the world. I think their books depict humanity in its entirety in a way that no other type of literature ever has or ever will. I'll admit it: I'm a total nerd when it comes to my love for big Russian books.

So of course, Elif Batuman's book of essays, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, was right up my alley. The book came out in March, but I just heard about its existence a few weeks ago. When I saw a write-up about the book on NPR, I went straight to my wonderful library's website and put a copy on hold. Then, when it came in a few days later, I dropped all the other books on my "To Read" list to get to it at once. The book came with such glowing reviews, I was sure I'd love it.

Admittedly, the results were a little mixed for me. There are parts of the book I really loved, and I think Batuman is a natural, easy-going writer. But a few things about Batuman's point of view kind of annoyed me, which made for a not always perfect reading experience.

Overall, I really liked the book. Batuman has a lot going for her (including a preference of Tolstoy over Dostoevsky, a trait I share myself). She's obviously a genius, preficient in multiple languages, and she seems to make friends in academia pretty easily. She writes about her love of Russian novels in a way I understand and admire. When she talks about how she loves Dostoevsky's The Demons because of its many imperfections, I feel like I can geek out right alongside her. I feel that way about certain books, too! Her essays tend to focus on a single author or work, with a series of three connected essays, all titled "Summer in Samarkand," tying the book together as a whole.

Honestly, those three "Samarkand" essays didn't do much for me. Parts of them were interesting on a surface level, but I never got into them, partly because her travels in Uzbekistan just didn't appeal to me. Plus, I had no familiarity with the authors she described in those essays, and for once, familiarity was something I was looking for in this book. I just kind of slogged my way through those parts to get to some of the other stuff.

The other four essays were really great, though. For obvious reasons, my favorite was "Who Killed Tolstoy?", which manages to be interesting, smart, and very funny all at once. I actually learned a lot reading it, and the poignancy Batuman finds in the details of the lives of Russian authors, which she does to great affect throughout the entire book, is really wonderful in this essay. Meanwhile, "Babel in California" and "The House of Ice" were very educational. Reading them, I felt perfectly content to just sit and listen to Batuman teach me about things with which I had no experience. I like being able to do that when reading.

I think the most well-done piece in the book, though, is the title essay. The Possessed is both about Dostoevsky and about Batuman herself. In it, she writes about The Demons and how its story mirrored her relationship with her fellow grad students while she was at Stanford. Throughout the book, Batuman tends to sound so confident and mature and intellectual, and I think she lets down her defenses in this piece to tell an honest story about what it's like to be a hyper-smart, overeducated person dealing with other hyper-smart, overeducated people. She falls into odd and even stifling relationships with enigmatic people. She makes and loses friends. And she writes without casting any real judgments on anyone, including herself. Trust me. That is extremely rare for a writer. I was really quite in awe of how she pulled it off. More importantly, it was something I related to completely. When I started college, I found myself attracted to the kinds of unhappy people she found herself around, and it took me a year or so to figure out who I was in all the mess of outside influences. I totally "got" Batuman while reading this essay.

The reason I wasn't completely in love in the book has more to do with me than it does Batuman. I think some of her experiences just hit a little too close to home for me, to the point that the book became alienating at times. For one, she's never known a life outside of school. She jumped from college straight into graduate school and then into teaching herself (although she does admit to taking a little over a year off during grad school in a failed attempt to write a novel). As someone who had to take a (not-so-wanted) break between college and eventual grad school, it kind of annoyed me that she travelled all over the world but had so little experience in a non-school environment. Her overabundance of learning occasionally reminded me of how easily bruised me own ego is. I've never taken well to listening to people not a whole lot older than me who are obviously so much more knowledgeable. Also, she puts down creative writing graduate programs pretty blatantly in her introduction, and although I agree with some of her points, I think she's more uncomfortable around other writers than she's willing to admit. So that kind of annoyed me.

So, in the end, the book's problems had more to with my own issues than they had to do with the book itself. I learned a lot reading The Possessed, and it was fun to spend some time with a fellow Tolstoy nerd. Plus, Batuman reminded me a lot of my own hyper-intelligent, Russian-lit-studying friend, so I felt like I was spending time with someone I knew very well. Overall, a good read.

Plus, the book ends on an absolutely perfect note. Earlier, a friend of Batuman's tells her that he can't believe she continues to study literature, since it seems so pointless. He asks her what she would study if she could start all over again. And in the last paragraph of the book she comes to this conclusion: "If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find them." I could not agree more, Elif! Thank you!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Digging," by Seamus Heaney

There's no real rhyme or reason behind this week's poem. Rather, it's just one of my favorite poems and I recently realized I've never posted it here. I think Seamus Heaney has some of the most beautifully earthy language of any poet who ever published, and this poem is a lovely exploration of how one becomes a writer. Also, it contains one of my favorite images in all of poetry: "Once I carried him milk in a bottle / Corked sloppily with paper." So simple and perfect; it completely makes this poem for me. Enjoy!

Digging, by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.