Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Alex Ross Gets Me to Listen to Beethoven

Book Reviewed: Listen to This, by Alex Ross

Last year, Alex Ross's history of 20th-century classical music, The Rest is Noise, was one of my favorite books of 2009. Ross is good writer, and his passion for his subject came out at every moment. I geeked out pretty hard-core over that book, chatting it up with my music-inclined friends and just generally bothering everyone I knew with stories about Shostakovich and Alban Berg. Obviously, I had to get a copy of his new book that came out this fall.

Listen to This is a collection of both original essays and pieces Ross previously wrote for The New Yorker. This time, it's about more than just atonal classical music. There's essays here on everything from Brahms to Radiohead. Overall, the book wasn't as strong as The Rest is Noise. It read a lot slower, and it wasn't quite as interesting. That's not to say that Ross has lost his touch for writing about music with the obsession of a true nerd. All that's still going on here.

As with most essay collections, some pieces are a lot better than others. Some essays I just didn't like because of the subject matter, such as the pieces on Brahms (who bores the hell out of me) and Mozart (which just rehashed a lot of info I already knew). Some pieces are just a lot of fun, like the essays about Radiohead and Bjork and the St. Lawrence Quartet. Finally, there are the "think" pieces which actually taught me a lot, particularly an essay entitled "Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues: Bass Lines of Music History," which is exactly what it sounds like.

There's a lot to love about Alex Ross and his love for music. He's a champion of classical music who hates the term "classical" as much as I do. He's a big supporter of music education and exposing different musical genres to people who wouldn't normally have the chance to hear them. He wants people to clap between movements the way they did a couple centuries ago, and he wants concertgoers and musical directors to lighten up. In other words, Ross is proposing that we change the way we experience a musical artform that most people describe as "dying." I can definitely get behind that.

As usual, the best thing about Ross's writing is the way he persuades me to listen to music I've written off too easily. This time around, he got me to listen to Beethoven's third symphony, "Eroica." I've never been a Beethoven person, but that might change. I checked out a recording of "Eroica" from the library, and I really liked it. Up next: an experiment in listening to Schubert.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Railway," by Fred D'Aguiar

Note: Due to the copyright concerns that have been flying around the internet lately, I'll be posting links to the poems I choose. If I pick a poem that's not posted anywhere else on the internet, I'll go ahead and post it here. Please follow the links and enjoy the poems. I apologize for any inconvenience.

Now onto the show:

I picked this poem because it's so different from what I've been posting lately. The language is really awesome, and the voice is rich in dialect and sound. I hope you like this one and take the time to listen to the audio version that's to the right of the poem's text. Enjoy!

Railway, by Fred D'Aguiar

Saturday, November 27, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #15

Trashy Read #15: The Calhouns: Megan's Mate, by Nora Roberts

I actually read Nora Roberts's series of five books about the Calhoun sisters way back in high school. At the time, Megan's Mate (the last in the series), was my favorite. I remember being in love with the hero, the awesomely-named Nathaniel Fury. So when I was in need of some comfort romance (having had my fill of scoundrels and scandals lately), I went straight to this one. It was exactly as I remembered: quick to read, warm, and sweet.

I mentioned last week that I love Nora Roberts because her heroes and heroines are always good people. They might do stupid things or be unintenionally hurtful or stubborn, but deep down, they have big hearts. Occasionally, I like the dangerous, angsty, hard-to-love heroes of historical romances, but in real life, I tend to fall for the hardworking, funny good guys. These are the kind of heroes Nora Roberts always writes.

Nate Fury (seriously, that name is badass) is just one of these good guy types. Abused by his father when he was growing up, he ran off and became a merchant marine as soon as he turned eighteen. He sailed the world and had a good time doing it, but he returns to his hometown to settle down and go into business with the Calhoun sisters and their various husbands. One of those husbands happens to have a little sister who moves to town at the same time to be an accountant for the family hotel. Megan O'Riley is a single mom who doesn't trust men after being burned years ago by a skeezy political type. Obviously, her and Nate fall for each other and much cuteness abounds. The skeezy ex comes back into the picture long enough to have the crap beaten out of Nate and to scare Megan, but the Calhoun family protects their own and it's all taken care of with rainbows and sunshine.

Honestly, this isn't a perfect book. Like the other books in the Calhoun series, it reads too quickly for the reader to get particularly attached to the plot. And Megan is kind of boring. Of course, like most Nora Roberts books, that doesn't matter. Nate Fury is adorable, kindhearted, and great with kids, with a toughness that makes him sexy. He makes the story worth reading. Also, to be fair, Roberts is a pretty decent writer. Her metaphors can be painful at times, and her language isn't exactly fresh or exciting, but she has a fantastic ear for voice. Her dialogue usually sounds like the talk of actual real people, and she refuses to let her characters be lonely. Side characters become great friends, the hero and heroine like each other for more than just their bedroom skills, and people with bad intentions always get their comeuppance. Seriously, Roberts is the most comforting comfortable comfort writer around.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving! This year, I am thankful for working at a library and for having a loving family and amazing friends. On the literary side of things, I am thankful for discovering Neil Gaiman, Loretta Chase, and Markus Zusak this year.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Another Winner for Teens (and Everyone Else, Too)

Book Reviewed: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Once again, it took a teen book to remind me of the importance of literary fiction. The same friend who implored me to read The Book Thief (a new favorite) suggested Sherman Alexie's first teen novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Knowing the book had gotten rave reviews and already knowing that Alexie was a good writer, I decided to finally try it out. As usual, my friend was right.

The book only took me a handful of hours total to read, but it's impact burns long and slow. Funny and wise, fourteen-year-old Junior lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and he's being drowned alive there. In order to get a better education and eventually escape the cycle of misery he sees around him, he enrolls at a white high school 22 miles away. His family supports his decision, but they seem to be the only ones. His fellow reservation inhabitants feel abandoned and angry.

Junior ends up living a kind of double life, as a "white" student in a good school and as a "part-time Indian" at the reservation. Alexie handles this duplicity wonderfully. You feel for the poor kid, but you don't hate anyone around him. Somehow, Alexie manages to create a hard world without any outright villains. I was worried that Junior would arrive to the white school only to end up facing ridicule and racism. And he certainly gets some of that there, but eventually he ends up being well-liked by his classmates. He dates a popular girl, becomes a star on the varsity basketball team, and finds an ally in the school genius. He even becomes friends with a senior who terrorizes him his first few days; in a fantastic bonding scene, Junior says: "And Roger, being of kind heart and generous pocket, and a little bit racist, drove me home that night." How can you not love that sentence?!

Despite everything he gains, though, Junior still feels the negative reaction at home. His childhood best friend, an abused and angry kid named Rowdy, refuses to stay friends. Junior feels the loss acutely, and I couldn't help but feel it, too. Of course, this loss and its eventual resolution give the book a central thread that pays off very nicely in the end.

My friend thinks this book should be taught in high schools, and I couldn't agree more. During the first half, it's easy to be charmed by Junior's voice and Alexie's great characterizations. The second half builds on the goodwill of the first half by becoming emotionally devastating. Junior faces a serious of huge and terrible losses, each one more painful than the last. It's heartbreaking and painful, but Alexie plays it just right.

This is one of those seemingly-cliched coming of age stories that rings impossibly true. Junior comes out triumphant in the end, despite what he's been through, and the book ends on a nice, hopeful moment. I enjoyed the whole experience.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Father's Old Blue Cardigan," by Anne Carson

Anne Carson is known as a being a poet of the mind, with all her poems packed full of allusions to Greek myth and ancient literature. A lot of people concentrate on her work's intelligence but forget to comment on the intensely personal aspect of it as well. This poem, "Father's Old Blue Cardigan," is as personal as it gets in poetry. It's a heartbreaker, with an ending that portrays Alzheimer's in a particularly honest and poignant way.

Father's Old Blue Cardigan, by Anne Carson

Now it hangs on the back of the kitchen chair
where I always sit, as it did
on the back of the kitchen chari where he always sat.

I put it on whenever I come in,
as he did, stamping
the snow from his boots.

I put it on and sit in the dark.
He would not have done this.
Coldness comes paring down from the moonbone in the sky.

His laws were a secret.
But I remember the moment at which I knew
he was going mad inside his laws.

He was standing at the turn of the driveway when I arrived.
He had on the blue cardigan with the buttons done up all the way to the top.
Not only because it was a hot July afternoon

but the look on his face --
as a small child who has been dressed by some aunt early in the morning
for a long trip

on cold trains and windy platforms
will sit very straight at the edge of his seat
while the shadows like long fingers

over the haystacks that sweep past
keep shocking him
because he is riding backwards.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Well, This Certainly Didn't Make Me Like Christopher Hitchens Any Better

Book Reviewed: The Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens (Robert Atwan, series editor)

If I lived in a world of my own choosing, I'd be an essayist. I am always jealous of people who can write really great essays, people like Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace. Instead, essays are quite possibly the literary genre in which I am the most terrible. I have a hard time writing from a distinctive point of view on something I didn't invent or re-imagine. Even worse, I cannot write about myself at all without sounding slightly stupid and extremely passive. But I love reading essays, and great essayists are absolute heroes to me. So I checked out the latest volume of the Best American Essays series.

Man, was I disappointed. I should have stayed away as soon as I saw that Christopher Hitchens was the editor. I think Hitchens is a good writer and very smart, but he often makes me see red. I mean, this is the guy famous for stating that women aren't funny. But I decided to take a chance and read this book anyway.

It wasn't all bad. In fact, some of these essays are quite good. An essay I'd already read and loved earlier this year, Elif Batuman's "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy," started things off nicely. James Wood, one of my favorite serious literary critics, wrote a great essay about George Orwell, entitled "A Fine Rage," which actually made me like Orwell for the first time in my life. Same goes for Ian McEwan's rememberance of John Updike. Steven L. Isenberg's "Lunching on Olympus," talked a bit about Philip Larkin, so you know I enjoyed that one. And of course, as usual, David Sedaris delivers the goods with "Guy Walks into a Bar Car," which has a sweet ending seemingly hand-made for anyone familiar with Sedaris's essays of the last few years.

But the majority of the essays here just seemed really dull. Only five of the twenty-one essays were by women, which didn't help break up the old white man drudge that seemed to drag this book down so much. I particularly disliked Garry Wills's rememberance of the infamous William F. Buckley, in which Wills tried to make Buckley likeable. Good luck. It's hard to like a guy who thought whites were a superior race and who lived to sail. Yuck.

The above-mentioned essays of note, the ones that were genuinely good, made this book worth about half of my reading time. But I probably should have just read the writers and essay topics I knew I'd like and skipped the rest.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Poem of the Week: "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter," by Ezra Pound

I recently got an iPhone (yes, I feel like a jerk just saying it) and one of the first apps I put on it was from the Poetry Foundation. I'm already addicted to this thing. There are two sets of categories and you can manually move the two categories to get combinations that generate a list of poems by matching subject matter. Even better, you can shake the phone and a random match of categories will show up. That's how I got today's poem. I shook the phone and ended up with the bizarre combo of "Love" and "Boredom." One of the first poems on the list was one I recognized and had forgotten how much I loved: Ezra Pound's "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter."

Pound was very interested in Chinese poetry, and this poem comes straight from that obsession. He thought Chinese poetry from hundreds of years ago matched his belief that image was the ultimate truth and goal of good poetry. Some people roll their eyes at the way Pound basically stole Chinese poems and created super-loose translations of them. No matter how you feel about Pound's issues, though, you have to admit that this poem is something of a stunner. It's voice and series of images is quite gorgeous. Also, considering my dislike of Pound in general, you know I have to like this one quite a bit to showcase it here. Enjoy!

The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter, by Ezra Pound

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-Yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden,
They hurt me.
I grow older,
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you,
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #14

Trashy Read #14: The Masquerade, by Brenda Joyce

A month and a half ago, I promised to make Laura Kinsale's much-loved Seize the Fire my next trashy read. Unfortunately, I had the book through Interlibrary Loan, and it was due back before I had a chance to crack it. Since then, I haven't been able to get further than fifty pages in any romances. Nothing's captured me. But I bought Brenda Joyce's The Masquerade a couple months ago, so I decided I'd better give it a spin.

Frankly, this historical romance wasn't very good. Joyce's writing is serviceable, but she doesn't have that something special that my favorites have. Also, the dialogue is really stiff. Worst of all, the hero, Tyrell, is a big ball of boring. He's okay enough, but he's too dutiful, too hypocritical, and too untragic to do much for me. Plus his name is annoying.

The heroine, Lizzie (yes, Joyce went there) was much more likeable, with a kind of tender bravery that didn't feel too forced. Plus, she was a little plump and had red hair, like a certain person who writes a certain book blog. However, the age difference between the hero and heroine at the beginning weirds me out a little. If I ended up going all-out years later for the man I was in hero-worship with at the age of ten, I'd be married to a Backstreet Boy.

The plot is pretty stupid. Hero and heroine flirt at a costume ball, heroine leaves early, heroine's sister takes her costume and sleeps with hero. Heroine takes the baby on as her own and eventually shows up on hero's homestead with the toddler. They play happy family for awhile, but Tyrell eventually decides to be responsible to his family and marry for money instead. Eventually, Tyrell and Lizzie reunite and get together and blah blah blah.

Had this book been edited to be tighter, I would have liked it a heck of a lot more. As is, it often gets really repetitive and boring in stretches. In the end, this book just wasn't my thing. There are so many historical romances out there that I need something extra to make me really love one. I'm thinking of Chase's fun writing or Kleypas's likeable characters or Kinsale's crazy epic plots. I don't think I'll be revisiting Brenda Joyce in the future.

Next in Trashy Reads: This book marked the end of a run of historical romance for me. All of them are starting to feel too much alike. I'm going to try some contemporary stuff instead. In fact, I think I'll return to my comfort pick and first romance love, Nora Roberts. Her characters, even at their most rebellious and angsty, are always fundamentally good people, and I yearn for that after this run of scoundrel-y historicals. Bring on the nice guys and warm, believable dialogue!

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Little Boring

Book Reviewed: Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney

This is a little depressing for me to write, since I used to be a huge Seamus Heaney fan. For a year or so during college, before I discovered Rilke and had my mind blown, Heaney was my favorite poet. I've always loved his language and sense of place, and I adore my copy of his selected poems. When the library put his new book of poetry on order in September, I quickly put a copy on hold. And you know what? I was kind of disappointed.

To be honest, I felt mostly bored while reading this collection. The usual Heaney trademarks were there - the beautiful words and sounds, the precise lines, the descriptions of the land - but nothing here held much of a spark for me. I don't think it's necessarily Heaney's fault, as he's doing what he's always done in this book. But I've developed a different kind of taste in my poetry reading lately, going for stuff that packs more of a punch at the first reading. This year, I've been devouring Wallace Stevens and Charles Simic, who are extremely different from Heaney. I just wasn't in the right frame of mind for this new Heaney book, and I'm not sure I ever will be again.

If you like Heaney, definitely give this book a shot. There's a reason he's a Nobel laureate and the face of poetry in the late 20th century. He's still a genius. But lately, he's a genius who kind of bores me. Except for a poem here called "Wraiths," which I really loved. That one's a keeper.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Poem of the Week: "How I Became Impossible," by Mary Ruefle

Here's a poem I've liked since reading it in an anthology five years ago. I really like the stuff at the end about polar bears and penguins, since I'm pretty sure I had this same problem up until high school. Enjoy!

How I Became Impossible, by Mary Ruefle

I was born shy, congenitally unable to do anything
profitable, to see anything in color, to love plums,
with a marked aversion to traveling around the room,
which is perfectly normal in infants.
Who wrote this? were my first words.
I did not like to be torched.
More snow fell than was able to melt,
I became green-eyed and in due time traveled
to other countries where I formed opinions
on hard, cold, shiny objects and soft, warm,
nappy things. Late in life I began to develop
a passion for persimmons and was absolutely delighted
when a postcard arrived for the recently departed.
I became recalcitrant, spending more and more time
with my rowboat. All my life I thought polar bears
and penguins grew up together playing side by side
on the ice, sharing the same vista, bits of blubber
and innocent lore. One day I read a scientific journal;
there are no penguins at one pole, no bears
on the other. These two, who were so long intimates
in my mind, began to drift apart, each on his own floe,
far out into the glacial seas. I realized I was becoming
impossible, more and more impossible,
and that one day it really would be true.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Nothing's Changed; I Still Love S.E. Hinton

Book Reviewed: Some of Tim's Stories, by S.E. Hinton

If this blog is remembered by anyone for anything in the future, it will probably be for one of three things: trashy book love, an obsession with Neil Gaiman, and an inexplicable love for the young adult writer S.E. Hinton. It's no secret that I love me some Hinton. So imagine my surprise when, bored at work one day, I scrolled through the library catalogue to find she'd written a book in 2007 that I never knew existed. Oops, oversight. Well, I quickly fixed that problem, got a copy, and read it within a couple of hours this last Sunday.

It's a short little thing, and it's more like two books in one. The first half is where the title comes from, a collection of short stories by an external voice named Tim. Tim is Hinton's male alter ego, a novice storyteller basically finding a way to work through his own life in fictional form. I'm not sure this elaborate conceit was needed for what are essentially basic, very Hinton-like stories. This isn't my favorite thing Hinton's done, but that doesn't really bother me. I'll take any excuse to enter Hinton's fictional world that I can get. These stories are meant for adults, but her characters definitely fit the mold of her earlier young adult books: tough lives stuck in friendships and family relationships that run deep but troubled. The stories are almost always bittersweet, and they come with poignant little illustrations that Hinton did herself. Overall, the effect is heavy but personal. We really get a view into the life of the protagonist Mike (and, by extension, his "creator" Tim), and by the end, you can't help but kind of love him and pity him in equal measure. The final story is particularly gut-punching, and I really liked its open ending.

The second half of the book is a series of interviews Hinton did with fellow Oklahoma writer Teresa Miller. I really enjoyed these interviews, which surprised me. Honestly, I usually hate author interviews. I even avoid interviews with writers I love. Writers often come off as pretentious or boring or trying too hard, but Hinton's interviews made me want to drive to her house and share a bottle of wine. She speaks very honestly about being a famous author by the time she was sixteen (when she wrote The Outsiders, her most popular book) and about all the years she just wasn't working on any books. I was pleased to find out that her personal favorite of her books is Tex (me too, S.E.! Tex rocks!), and I thought it was funny how often she mentioned that The Outsiders was too emotionally over-the-top. She seems very comfortable in her own skin, and she seems to just love writing for the pure pleasure of it. It's a very refreshing attitude.

So, as always, S.E. Hinton rules. Seriously, guys. I would probably let her get away with murder.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pop Culture Saves Lives

Book Reviewed: The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture, by Nathan Rabin

If the AV Club is my favorite website (and it really, really is), then Nathan Rabin is my favorite writer there. I've had a crush on Rabin's often-hilarious writing since I was a measley college freshman who sneaked peeks at the AV Club when I should have been working on papers. Along with current editor-in-chief, Keith Phipps, Rabin has been with the AV Club since its infancy, and he's currently the site's Head Writer. He's not the Club's best writer (I'd give that honor to Noel Murray, probably), but he's the funniest and his love for all things pop culture is ridiculously contagious.

Throughout the years, Rabin has made passing references to a rough childhood. It wasn't until he released his memoir, The Big Rewind, last year that I realized just how rough it really was. His mother abandoned him when he was a toddler, and although his father was basically a saint, Rabin couldn't live with him for many years for a number of reasons (his father had MS, was unemployed and poor, and could barely look out for himself). He spent a month in a mental institution for no real fault of his own, then spent all of his teenage years in a Jewish group home. Eventually, he made it through college and into the national spotlight as a well-loved film critic, but it didn't keep him from being haunted by a past he was too ashamed to speak about. Pop culture was the thing that saved him from a life of misery and regret, and eventually it made him feel comfortable enough that he could start talking about his old life.

Rabin's story is a sad one indeed, but he never gets bogged down in the depressing details. Despite battling with depression all his life, he found a purpose in pop culture that lifted him above his problems. It helps that he has a great sense of humor that works very well in this book.

It took me a while to get my hands on a copy of this book, but I'm glad I finally did. I really enjoyed reading The Big Rewind. It's a little uneven at times, though. Rabin has always struck me as someone who occasionally tries too hard for a joke, and sometimes the book has a little too much forced jocularity in it. Luckily, it's offset by some lovely moments of humanity. Rabin always seems to think he's a jerk, but that's clearly not true. The book's best chapters involve his love for his father, his relationships with group home compatriots, and even his failed love affairs with women as troubled as him. My favorite chapter is "You Know Mom's Crazy, Right," in which he meets with the biological mother who abandoned him when he was two years old. It's a bitter meeting, and we get to see Rabin be equally indignant and unsurprised as he talks about his feelings toward this woman. There's nothing neat or cathartic about this chapter, and yet it's a testament to both Rabin's strength and his father's caring hand.

Overall, The Big Rewind isn't the best memoir I've ever read. But it was often funny, insightful, and even sweet. There's a reason I'm so attached to Rabin and the AV Club institution that he proudly claims to be his only stable home.