Sunday, October 31, 2010

Poem of the Week: "In the Library," by Charles Simic

I loooooove libraries. I've worked in some kind of library every year of my life since I was sixteen. They are, to me, one of the most important institutions in our country. In honor of my library love, here's a nice little Charles Simic poem about these wonderful places and the dedicated people you sometimes find working at them. Enjoy!

In the Library, by Charles Simic

for Octavio

There's a book called
A Dictionary of Angels.
No one had opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She's very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Just Add Zombies: Five Books Re-Imagined

Last year, I celebrated Halloween with one of my favorite posts on this blog: a list of characters who would make great zombie killers. Now, I'm turning to last year's hot literary trend of turning classic novels into horror stories by adding monsters. I'm talking about books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I'm not a very big fan of this just-add-zombies trend in publishing, but what the hell, I'm going to try it anyway! So here are five books I've re-imagined by adding zombies. Enjoy, and let me know if you can think of any good zombified books.

1. To Kill a Zombie: Remember that scene in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingird where Atticus has to shoot a dog with rabies? It's one of the most powerful scenes in an already powerful novel. Now imagine it was a zombie coming down the street towards Scout and Jem. Atticus would regret having to pick up that gun, but he would kill that zombie for sure. And maybe Boo Radley isn't a creep; he's just the one nice zombie in town. He doesn't desire flesh, just love.

2. Zombie Noise: Don DeLillo's postmodern classic White Noise is already a little on the eerie side. The themes of death, fear of death, the absurdity of modern living, and the role of the media could only be heightened by adding zombies. When the book's infamous "Airborne Toxic Event" happens, it could infect the citizens of the super-Midwestern town and make the protagonist's sprawling family a group of extreme survivalists.

3. War and Peace and Zombies: This one's almost too easy. Instead of fighting Napoleon's invading army, the Russian army could wage war against an onslaught of French zombies. All of the book's major scenes could easily encompass zombies. Pierre's continually changing philosophies happen because his opinions about zombies change throughout the book. Prince Andrei dies from a bite in the same drawn-out scenes. Nikolai marries Maria because Sofia's been turned. I'm honestly surprised no one's made this happen already.

4. The Zombie Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfied: disillusioned zombie killer.

5. any Faulker novel + zombies: This is embarrassing for a serious reader such as myself. No matter how hard I try and how many of his books I read, I have never gotten into Faulker. Maybe if we add zombies to the mix I might finally find something to like about his books.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Addictive Poetry

Book Reviewed: Sixty Poems, by Charles Simic

Despite my love for poetry as a whole, there are only a handful of poets I find addictive. I'm talking about poets whose work is so easy and wonderful to read that I can sit and read an entire book of theirs before I even realize I'm doing it. I feel this way about Guillaume Apollinaire, Philip Larkin, and Maurice Manning. Now, I'm adding Charles Simic to the list.

I already liked Simic a great deal after seeing him do a reading at Butler University a couple years ago. But when I picked up Sixty Poems on a whim at the library last week, I wasn't expecting to devour it so quickly or with such joy. Simic is a ridiculously good poet. His imagery is sharp and original, but even at its most absurd it never feels obtuse. His language is clear and descriptive. I had heard or read a few of the poems in this book before, and I still found myself enjoying every single one of these sixty pieces.

I've figured out what makes certain poets' books addictive. It's the point of view. All of the poets I find the most readable are the ones who have a very distinctive point of view. It makes their books flow from one poem to another, following the patterns of a novel rather than a collection. Simic's background experiences as a child of World War II, as an immigrant, and as a city dweller connect in the singular voice in his work. Once I started the book, I had to keep going in order to get further inside his authorial headspace. With Simic, that is a very fun place to be.

This is a great collection of poetry, and I think I'm going to start recommending Simic to non-poetry readers. He's very easy to get into, but his work pays back in dividends once you get to know it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I Really Should Stop Judging Popular Books Before I Read Them

Book Reviewed: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

I have a tendency to judge books that spend long periods of time on the New York Times Bestseller list. I just have a bad gut reaction to things that are popular, I guess. So when it was decided that I would run a book discussion group for my library branch and The Help was the chosen book, I wasn't particularly happy. Kathryn Stockett's debut novel has been high on the bestseller list for about a year and a half now, so I wasn't sure I'd like it. Also, a particularly annoying blurb on the back from a New York Times critic said, "Book clubs with hankies will talk and talk." Gross. Now that I've finished the book, I'd like to punch whoever in Stockett's publishing/marketing team decided to put that blurb on the back. Because it kind of comes off as an insult, one this book doesn't deserve.

Maybe this book makes people cry. I didn't. I thought Stockett handled the story so deftly and with such restraint that she kept it from being emotionally overwhelming. In fact, it was her ability to stay away from overly-emotional language and scenes that made me like this book so much. And I really liked it quite a bit. It's officially time for me to stop judging popular novels.

There's a reason this book has been the number-one book club pick of the last year. With themes about racism, the lives of women, friendship, and societal expectations, it really hits on big, deep themes. I was skeptical of this book's ability to handle a touchy subject - the inner lives of white women and their black domestic help - without veering into sentimentality. So Stockett's strong writing and world-building really surprised and delighted me.

The book is centered around three main characters: black maids Aibileen and Minny and a young, white woman nicknamed Skeeter who grew up with her own beloved black maid. Stockett based the book very closely on her own experiences of growing up in Jackson, Mississippi. The book takes place in the early 1960s, before integration. Skeeter, who wants to be a journalist, decides to write a book about the experiences of African-American domestic workers. She's surprised by the sad and even horrific stories she hears, although she finds out the life of a black Southern woman is more nuanced than she ever thought. Aibileen (who is really the heart of the book) and Minny help her and get their own viewpoint chapters as well. Because segregated Jackson is such a dangerous place to live for both African-Americans and integration-sympathisers, the writing of the book provides a lot of tense drama for the book's plot.

Knowing what the book was about and it's format regarding these three first-person points of view, I wasn't expecting a particularly invigorating take on a subject that has had its fair share of past literary approaches. However, by making the book take place solely in the world of women, Stockett made all the themes feel fresh and provocative. The few men in the book live so far in the background that they're basically nonexistent, except when they are presenting obstacles in the lives of women. Otherwise, this is a book about the differences and the similarities between privileged white women and poor black women. Skeeter's best friend while growing up, Hilly Holbrook, ends up being the book's villain, but even she has her quasi-redeeming moments. No one is cartoonishly bad in this book, but no one's a saint either. Likable characters are still capable of great bitterness or naivety. Hateful characters can be good mothers or loving friends at times. Each narrator - Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter - comes with a complex world of backstory and problems and side characters. The world of the novel is so fully-realized that I couldn't help but get excited over every tiny new development in the book. Also, it was a relief to read a book presenting strong women with complicated inner lives and no romantic pairings. I have my doubts about the last fifty pages or so, but Stockett is a very talented writer who I definitely hope to see more of in the future.

I'm really looking forward to discussing this book in a few weeks at the library. I think its combination of big themes, swift characterization, and avoidance of sentiment or easy promises really does make it the perfect book club pick.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Sonnets to Orpheus #6," by Rainer Maria Rilke

There's not a lot of reason for me to post this poem other than the fact that I really like it. Also, the influences of the dead seem well-suited for the beginning of autumn, a season I tend to associate with memory and loss and bizarre language and images of the dead. Anyway, Rilke is obsessed with the tragic mythological figure of Orpheus, a poet and musician capable of producing the world's most beautiful songs. Rilke even wrote an entire book of sonnets dedicated to Orpheus. All the Orpheus sonnets are incredible and full of strange, beautiful imagery, like this one, which also ruminates at length on the art of poetry writing. This sonnet manages to be both really lovely and super-creepy at the same time. Enjoy!

Sonnets To Orpheus, No. 6, by Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by David Young

Is he of this world? No, he gets
his large nature from both realms. To know
how best to curve the willow's boughs
you have to have been through its roots.

Don't leave bread or milk on the table
at night: that attracts the dead.
But under your own mild eyelids
you can let this conjuror mingle

the sight of the dead into all that you've seen;
and may the magic of earthsmoke and meadow rue
be as true as the clearest relation.

Nothing should spoil good images; whether
they came from a grave or a bedroom,
let him praise finger-ring, buckle, and pitcher.

Note: There won't be a Poem of the Week next Sunday, as I will be out of town visiting friends. Sorry!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Zombie Fail.

Book Reviewed: The Walking Dead: Book One, by Robert Kirkman. Illustrated by Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn

A couple years ago, it was rumored that the cable channel AMC was developing a TV show based on Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead graphic novel series. I'd never read the books and had only a passing knowledge of them, but I was excited for one simple reason: Zombies! You all know how much I loooove zombie stories. This TV show was going to put together two of my favorite things: the living dead and long-range television narratives. I was excited.

Well, my nerdery is finally coming to fruition because The Walking Dead premieres on AMC on Halloween night. I am literally counting down the days, I'm so flippin' excited! In order to pass the time until then, I decided to tackle the original graphic novel series. My library has the complete collection, so I put a hold on a copy of every volume. I didn't expect to be sending them all back so soon. Unfortunately, it wasn't because I read them all so quickly. It's because I decided not to continue after the first book (which is a compilation of the first twelve issues, or the first two volumes, depending on how you're digesting these).

I really liked what I got in Book One of the series, particularly in Chapter Two, which added a lot of world-building to the original story. The series follows a group of survivors in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. The main character is Rick Grimes, a cop who is put into a coma after being shot on duty. He wakes up to a destroyed world where corpses wander the streets and his family is missing. The book doesn't waste much time in reconnecting him with his wife and son, but even these seemingly simple family relationships become complex over time. Rick becomes a kind of de facto leader of a handful of survivors toughing it out in the American South. As the series progresses, many more characters become added to the mix. And a lot die off. Kirkman is certainly not afraid to kill his characters, which I admire quite a bit in a series like this. Anytime I see a representation of a zombie apocalypse and nearly everyone is alive, I get angry. More people are going to die than live, dude. You can't save all the good guys.

All in all, I was fairly happy with the story and setting of this first book. So why am I not continuing with it? Well, there's a lot of outside factors involved, time in particular (as in, I don't have enough). I also don't want to absorb too much of the story before seeing the TV show, since I'm so ridiculously stoked about it. I'm totally a books-are-better-than-visual-media person, but I'm willing to be a jerk about his one. I'm actually more excited about the TV show than the books. Sorry.

I had some problems with Kirkman's characterizations, too. It's too early in the series to say so, but I found the characters kind of flat in this first book. They didn't have much in the way of depth going on, particularly the women, who come off as obnoxious and predictable (and so far, kind of in the way of the badassness of the males, which is a total bummer. I want tough as hell females kicking zombie ass, please). I have a couple characters I kind of like, but no one that I'm fond of as either a hero or a villain, which is a disappointment to me. It doesn't make the stakes very high when you don't have someone to root for in this type of story. It's a possibility that Kirkman mainly intends for these characters to be archetypes, which I think is probably what he's aiming for here. I still don't like them much, though.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of flipping through the next 10 volumes of this series already, and let me tell you, things appear to get really dark. It looks like we're going to see a lot of people lose their humanity and watch even more characters get brutally killed. Which is all fine and good, but not something I'm looking forward to right now. My personal life is stressful at this moment (don't worry; I promise I won't make you hear about it), and I'm looking for books that don't completely bum me out. They can be bittersweet (a la the Hunger Games books) or scary (I have some Stephen King books on the to-read list right now), but I don't want to be too depressed during this time of year. I think these books will work better in the summer, when the days are longer and I have more fun socializing and whatnot. For now, I'm going to put the rest of The Walking Dead on the backburner and concentrate on some other stuff. Or at least until the TV show's season is over and I'm craving more.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Beth Reads Your Local 14-Year-Old's Favorite New Book Series (aka, Beth Enjoys a Dystopian Future and Joins Team Peeta)

Books Reviewed: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

Working at the library, I often find myself having conversations with teens and preteens about what they're reading. As a fan of young adult fiction who rarely has time to actually read much of the genre, I'm interested in hearing about what the kids are reading these days. And lately, they are all finishing The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

Until the final book of the series, Mockingjay, came out in August, I had never heard of Hunger Games. But once that book arrived on the shelves, it was all I heard about it. Every critic was reading and praising the series, and every teenager in our library seemed to have at least one of the books on hold. A co-worker of mine, who has a few teens of her own, read the series and said she enjoyed them. So I agreed to try them out.

It was soooo worth it! Because the three Hunger Games books are pretty awesome. Once I started the first book, I couldn't stop until I had all three devoured in a week's time. I tried to resist the book at first since the writing style itself isn't anything to write home about and I'd had previous bad experiences with this kind of sci-fi-ish tough girl act before. But by page 50, I'd become completely sucked into Collins's fictional world. The trilogy's plot had me gripped firmly in its clutches in a way that very few books do. In fact, it's kind of hard to review these books in a traditional way, so I'm trying a longer form review broken into parts here. I hope you can follow along.

What It's About: In The Hunger Games, we meet our narrator Katniss Everdeen in a dystopian future country called Panem. Panem is made up of the Capitol, which controls the country's power and has all the money and comfort, and twelve districts, the worst of which is Katniss's home, District 12. Katniss and her best friend/possible love interest Gale are waiting for an event called the reaping, where two teenagers are picked from each district to fight in the annual Hunger Games, an event where only one of 24 contestants can survive. In other words, this country celebrates the defeat of a rebel uprising by forcing young people to kill each other in brutal marathons of death and deprivation. Katniss, along with a better-off young man named Peeta, end up being shipped off to the Games, both of them sure they won't make it home. They both play the media and the Gamemakers in order to better their chances in the arena. This entire first book takes place in the context of this Hunger Games competition and the beginning of friendship/romance for Katniss and Peeta.

The next book shakes things up considerably more. In Catching Fire, Katniss accidentally becomes a token of an emerging resistance among the districts. She's punished for her actions by being forced (along with Peeta) to participate in another version of The Hunger Games, this time more brutal and terrifying than before. Meanwhile, a full-scale revolution grips all of Panem and forces the Capitol to take retaliatory measures. Every character is now fighting for his or her life. The book has quite a surprising end (that I won't ruin for you), and sets up our finale.

Mockingjay is the last book, and it's by far the most bleak. By this point, Katniss is little more than a pawn among the powerplayers of the rebellion. Needless to say, shit goes down and Katniss is stuck in the middle with less power than she originally realized. Also, she deals with the fallout of the love triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale. The ending is far from happy, but it's satisfying in the context of both the story and the current media/war-saturated world in which we readers live.

Why This Series Is Awesome: As I mentioned earlier, the writing isn't particularly special, especially since it's in first person and the vocabulary is downgraded for the target audience. Also, I could do without the love triangle, although it did have its moments. However, the books' powers lay in its intelligence of creating a future world that feels uncomfortably near to our own. The way Collins handles the idea of the media is particularly admirable. The savvy of how media affects the outcome of events and masks the true story of any given situation really impressed me. It's rare to find a complex subject like the media handled so well in a novel intended for people who don't even have their driver's licenses.

I think it would be hard to read these book and not find at least one character you really like. I actually was quite fond of Katniss (which is rare, since I rarely like narrating protagonists), and I thought Haymitch, District 12's mentor at the Hunger Games, was a particularly interesting creation. Apparently, there are people who get quite into the underwritten love triangle and pick sides. Frankly, I don't know how anyone can be on Team Gale. He only becomes fully-realized as a character in the third book, and by that point he's shown some pretty weak traits. Peeta, who I'd argue is written to be a little too perfect in the first two books, becomes much more complex in the third. I tried to resist liking him, but it didn't work. Part of this is surely due to his resemblance - both in physical description and personality - to my beloved, honorable Rudy Steiner in The Book Thief . Collins takes her character to some extremely dark places by the end of the series, and I'm surprised she broke them so much. That takes a lot of guts, but it totally paid off in the end.

Finally, these books are awesome because they completely suck you into their powers. Collins writes action better than any writer I've read in a long time, and the plot is intricate enough to be satisfying without causing confusion. In the first book, I had to know what Peeta was up to, how Katniss was going to survive. In the second, I questioned everything that was happening in Panem. And by the third, I couldn't believe the things I was reading. Like I mentioned earlier, these books get pretty bleak in the end. The last paragraph and final sentence of Mockingjay border on the hopeful. After all, this is a series about being human and choosing humanity over violence. But it's not happy, and it doesn't wrap up in a nice bow like most young adult series. Harry Potter this is not.

Why This Trilogy Really Is For Teens: Finally, I'd like to address some of the criticism that has been thrown at the series by more conservative readers. Mainly, many consider these books to be too violent for teenagers and middle-schoolers. I understand where these people are coming from, too. These books can be brutal in their unflinching view of perpetual violence and its effects on the human psyche. But I also think it's strange that people are condemning a book that makes an argument for the end of violence against fellow human beings. I wouldn't be surprised to see this series on some Top Banned Books lists in the next decade, and that scares me. These books have some important things to say, and in a world where the media dictates so much of what we consume in both the real world and the book world, those things shouldn't be ignored by our future thinkers. A lot of teenagers I've talked to are reading these books for the romance angle, but they are coming away with a lot more food for thought. Censors shouldn't take that away.

While I was reading the Hunger Games books, a lot of people asked me how I liked them. My answer was simple: "The fourteen year old in me loves them." I often joke that I have two reading personas: the mature literary critic and the rabid teenage fangirl. This book appealed to the latter, but the former appreciated it too. The three main characters in this book - Katniss, Peeta, and Gale - really brought back the memories of how painful it is to be a teenager. I'm not talking about the romance situation or the awkwardness. I'm talking about the desire to have power at a time when it's impossible to have it. When I was in high school, I had quite a rebellious edge to my beliefs and opinions. I walked around in my Led Zeppelin t-shirt and orange Converse sneakers and called myself a socialist. I became a pacifist and aligned myself as a solid liberal. More than anything, I wanted to make a difference in the world, even a small one. I wanted to change the way the government was run, the way people thought, the way wars were fought. But during these most ambitious years of my life, I also had no real power to do those things. I couldn't even vote. That's why these books work perfectly for teenagers. Katniss's situation as a wannabe rebel who ends up being little more than a pawn really stuck with my inner teenager. It's a hard place to be, and this series gets at the heartache of that disillusionment in a way that rarely gets played to such high stakes in literature. I enjoyed that aspect maybe more than any other angle in all three books. Sometimes, you have to give up the fire and aspire to be a good person instead.

Final Thoughts: There are three reasons to read the Hunger Games books: they go places most young adult literature is afraid to seek out, they take an interesting look at the inner lives of teenagers, and they're fun as hell. Sure, they can be a be a bit bleak and even downright painful at times, but the story is extremely entertaining. I liked these books a hell of a lot, and I'd recommend them across the board.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

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

In continuing the theme of autumn/domestic discontent that was set up in last week's poem by James Wright, I give you this Philip Larkin poem that feels quite familiar to "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio." It's not a happy poem, which is a given since Larkin isn't a particularly happy poet. But I think it paints a very vivid set of images that leave a lasting impression of disillusionment.

Afternoons, by Philip Larkin

Summer is fading:
The leaves fall in ones and twos
From trees bordering
The new recreation ground.
In the hollows of afternoons
Young mothers assemble
At swing and sandpit
Setting free their children.

Behind them, at intervals,
Stand husbands in skilled trades,
An estateful of washing,
And the albums, lettered
Our Wedding, lying
Near the television:
Before them, the wind
Is ruining their courting-places

That are still courting-places
(But the lovers are all in school),
And their children, so intent on
Finding more unripe acrons,
Expect to be taken home.
Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," by James Wright

It's October, which means I can finally post one of my favorite short poems, "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio." I'm a huge James Wright fan, and this is one of his poems I love best. It manages to say a lot in just a few short lines, and the empty spaces are as important as the words themselves.

The posting of this poem is also inspired by my recent obsession with the TV show Friday Night Lights. I think it's one of the best-written and acted shows on television, and I don't think I've ever seen a TV show get down the feel of a small town better than this one. It's one of those perfect shows that somehow exists outside of audience or network influence. I love it, and the football theme brought this poem to mind at once.

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio, by James Wright

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Titonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like stared pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.