Monday, February 21, 2011

Adventures in Re-Reading: American Gods and "The Monarch of the Glen"

Books Re-Reviewed: American Gods and "The Monarch of the Glen" (from Fragile Things), by Neil Gaiman

I really wish I had decided to reread American Gods last year before I put together my top ten list in December. Because upon rereading the book this past week, I realized that I should have put it higher than Good Omens. Because while Omens is funny and entertaining, American Gods is a much fuller, more interesting creature. I have noted many a time that the reason American Gods works is that it features a fantastic lead character in Shadow. Well, this remains as true as ever. Shadow might just be one of my all-time favorite protagonists. He's that awesome.

With only the rarest exceptions, I don't tend to revisit books this soon after reading them the first time. But I found myself glancing at the bookshelf and thinking about Shadow a lot. I blame the cold; much of the book features scenes in cold weather that mirrors the state of the characters' hearts. As soon as I began to read American Gods again last week, I remembered what it was that had made this book so special the first time around. The book begins with a great opener: "Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time." In two sentences, we already know loads about the main character. We also know a lot about Gaiman's clear-cut style in this book. If those first two sentences do absolutely nothing for you, this may not be the book for you.

So what is it that makes Shadow such a great character? I wish I could tell you. I'm not exactly sure what it is. He's tragic in many ways, but he's capable of humor and kindness as well. In an interview with Gaiman included at the end of my paperback copy, the author mentions what a frustrating protagonist Shadow was to write because of his reticence. Shadow plays his emotions very, very close to his chest. Which is why the few scenes where we get to see him be physically or emotionally hurt can be so effective. He comes off as a total badass, but there's something desperately broken about him. And to add to the sadness of his tale, it's something that's always there. In the novella "The Monarch of the Glen," in which Gaiman gives us a glimpse of Shadow in Scotland several years after the end of American Gods, he's as rootless as ever. Shadow is extremely human, even in the moments where Gaiman hints that he might not be as human as he thought. That's why his character makes the whole story work even at its most chaotic.

And American Gods is an extremely chaotic book. I have to admit that I've never been one for mythology or legends, which is what this novel is all about. I could easily skip a lot of the stuff involving the gods, to tell the truth. The book's most interesting scenes definitely happen away from the gods, in the freezing town of Lakeside, Wisconsin. I love the Lakeside sections of this book. Of course, part of what makes Lakeside work is its role as a safehaven from the world for Shadow. He's been beat up pretty badly by life, and he feels at home there. Which makes what eventually happens there just that much more interesting.

Anyway, the end of American Gods leaves Shadow adrift in this world, which is why I went back and reread "The Monarch of the Glen" immediately after I finished Gods for the second time. I really love this novella. For starters, it makes me want to visit the remote parts of Scotland very badly. Also, Gaiman's prose is just a little more poetic in this story. There's a lovely little sentence towards the beginning in which Shadow goes hiking: "It was beautiful, a desolate beauty that chimed and echoed with the empty places inside Shadow." So perfect. I'm really glad I reread "The Monarch of the Glen," because I picked up a lot more this time around. Reading this, I realized that we learn Shadow's real name (Balder Moon) and get to see that he might actually be an incarnation of the Norse god Baldur. To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about this revelation. It makes sense. But the beauty of Shadow as a men among gods is just that: he's a man. His humanity is what makes him a good character to follow through the strangeness of Gaiman's world. I don't quite want that humanity compromised.

I know a lot of people who read American Gods last year. Some loved it; some hated it. I'd argue that it's a book that really needs to be read twice. I had a hard time following the plot the first time I read the book. This time, everything made much more sense. The second reading gave me a lot of time to think about the points Gaiman's trying to make, and I responded better to the book as a whole this time around.

Overall, a very successful re-reading. This is why I like to revisit books; so I can grasp them more fully.

Note: There has been talk for years about the idea of an American Gods movie, and the general consensus is that it can't be done. I have come up with a whole different idea. This book is begging to be made into a television series. The first season could concern itself with the plot of the novel. From there on, it could take a more "Monarch of the Glen" path and follow Shadow as he travels around the world and meets legends and monsters and interesting people. Seriously, I think this would totally work and could be really good. I love shows about "outlaw" types without real homes or connections, and Shadow fits that type exactly. That being said, no actor on earth could play Shadow. My brother, who absolutely loves American Gods, and I have this conversation all the time. No one can fit both the descriptions of his big, dark person with the dual strength and vulnerability that Shadow has. Casting for this TV show would inevitably be a disappointment.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting," by Kevin C. Powers

Here's another poem that I discovered via my Poetry Foundation phone app. This poem is pretty damn devastating, getting the most out of its brevity. I was attracted to this particular poem because it reminded me of one of my favorite story collections, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. If you haven't read that book, you really should get on it. It's definitely an important and beautiful work. I'd say "enjoy," but that wouldn't be quite the right emotion required in reading this poem.

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, by Kevin C. Powers

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Best. Game. Ever.

An AV Club post has alerted to me to what is quickly becoming my favorite thing ever: an 8-bit, old-school Nintendo-style video Great Gatsby video game. Seriously, this thing is amazing. Nick Carraway runs around and assaults people with his hat. And if you look around at the website, the whole set-up is extremely funny. I'm developing quite the crush on the guys who developed this thing. I haven't gotten very far in the game, as I am absolutely terrible at video games and quickly get bored with them. But nevertheless, I urge everyone to go out and give this one a try because it's very simple and a lot of fun. And then go out and Fitzgerald's novel because it's even better.


The Great Gatsby Game

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Ode to a Nightingale," by John Keats

On Friday, I was driving down a country road in north-central Indiana and I passed through a town with quite possibly the most awesome name ever: Hemlock. It's just a tiny place with maybe one business, a church and some houses, but that name is seriously badass. I have the feeling this town is named after the harmless tree and not the super-deadly poisonous plant/best friend of suicidal romantics. Either way, as I drove through this sleepy place, all I could think of was the second line of Keats's famous "Ode to a Nightingale." "As though of hemlock I had drunk," indeed.

Ode to a Nightingale, by John Keats

Note: This same stretch of road also introduced me to even smaller towns with names like Phlox and Point Isabel. I even passed a sign pointing me in the direction of a Windfall, Indiana. Seriously, don't you want to live in Windfall, Indiana?!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

More Contemporary Poetry

Book Reviewed: The Common Man, by Maurice Manning

When I was writing up my review for Richard Siken's Crush last week, I realized just how important the Yale Series for Younger Poets has been in my contemporary poetry education. Siken, Jay Hopler, and Maurice Manning - three of my four favorite contemporary poets (Anne Carson being the other) - all had books that were chosen to be part of the series. If you're looking to get into contemporary poetry (an admittedly tough area to dive into by yourself), you really can't go wrong by picking up a book from the Series. Some are better than others, obviously, but there's a reason these books get chosen as the best fare from young poets in America. They are interesting and different and new. It really is a fantastic literary award.

Anyway, that's all a tangent of this review of Maurice Manning's latest book, The Common Man. All of Manning's books have a standalone structure that unites all the poems in the book. These interconnected poems tell a bigger story about a place or a person. I love Manning because of his 2007 collection, Bucolics, which was a series of poems about the relationship between the speaker - an ordinary farmer with a deep connection to nature - and God. It's an absolutely beautiful book full of original and meaningful images. The language is rooted in the speaker's southern rural voice, and all the images come from the land and its creatures. For anyone looking to get into poetry, it's one of the first I'd recommend.

So obviously, I was super-excited for The Common Man. At a reading Manning did at my alma mater a few years ago, he read some of these poems as he was working on them. These are poems about the world Manning knows best - rural Kentucky, where he was raised and still lives today. The poems seem to share a single speaker, someone who's lived in this world forever but has enough distance to look right at it and commentate on it. The language splits its time between being tried-and-true rural, full of expressions and sayings, and being a little removed from the world, a little bit more formal. I'm not sure that split between the language quite works here.

I'm sad to say that I didn't enjoy this book nearly as much as I'd hoped. I still think Manning sets up settings and scenes better than just about any poet out there, but this book seems to lack whatever it was that made Bucolics so special. I think a major problem is the poetic forms. Every poem has the same two-line structure where lines bled into each other almost like prose. In fact, maybe a little too much like prose. With the exception of the interesting language and some of the profound moments of the best poems, this book isn't quite poetic enough. There doesn't seem to be a lot of reasoning between the line or stanza breaks. I felt pretty disconnected to a lot of the work here. It seems to be missing something essential.

That doesn't mean that the book is a failure, though. There are a few poems in here that were absolutely fantastic. Manning knows how to properly end his poems, and his endings often make the best poems here, poems like "The Pupil" and "Three Truths, One Story." For some reason, the book's second half was much better than the first half. The last few poems in the book explore life and death, spirituality and nature as well as anything in Bucolics. The language in these poems is heightened and the imagery is startling and lovely. There's also more of the poetic in these pieces. "The Burthen of the Mystery Indeed," "A Panegyric Against the Consolationof Grief," "Old-Time Preachin' on a Scripture Taken from a Tree," and the gorgeous "Where Sadness Comes From." My favorite, though, was the final poem, "The Common Man." It's a wonderful wrap-up to the entire book.

Looking back on the best poems of this collection is actually making me wonder if I haven't been a bit unkind to this book. After all, the poems I listed above are really something special. I just wish the rest of the book had lived up to them a bit more.

Monday, February 7, 2011

This Week in Trashy Reads 2011 #2

Trashy Read 2011 #2: Hard and Fast, by Erin McCarthy

Remember when I read Erin McCarthy's Flat-Out Sexy and really liked it? Well, I finally got around to reading the second book in her ongoing stock car racing romance series. Hard and Fast was just as easy-going and likeable as its predecessor. This book focuses on Ty McCordle, a fast-living race car driver, and Imogen Wilson, a graduate sociology student. Both characters were introduced in the previous book, and you could see their spark of mutual attraction even then. Imogen tries to focus her thesis on the idea of dating rules and whether or not they work for specific careers (specifically, stock car racing). But she basically gives up on this underdeveloped idea of hers when she begins dating Ty.

Flat-Out Sexy worked so well for me because of the characters. They were so down-to-earth and well-matched. And while I didn't love Ty or Imogen as much as I adored Elec and Tamara, this was still a highly enjoyable read. The characters act like responsible adults, but they also have fun and love being together. McCarthy isn't about putting drama where it doesn't belong, which is an extremely refreshing viewpoint in romance. Sometimes, I thought Imogen was a little too quirky-smart (as in an "she's overly curious and logical, ain't that funny/weird" kind of way) and not particular believable as an actual grad student. I have this problem with every romance I've ever read featuring a "genius" heroine. Why can't she be really smart without constantly stating the obvious? (On a side note: Do any of you romance readers out there have this problem, too? As someone who was a strong student and considers herself intellectually-curious, it always bothers me how un-fun these "smart girls" can be). But in general, Imogen does learn to relax and she's a genuinely good person, as is Ty.

Anyway, McCarthy rules and I'm going to keep following these stock car racing romances of hers. I may not like Nascar or thrill-seekers, but these characters are so believable and well-written that I have to look in on them every once in awhile. Despite those ridiculous, porn-film-esque titles.

Next in Trashy Reads: Probably some historical romance. I have a couple Lisa Kleypas books on my shelf begging to be read.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Road Music," by Richard Siken

As you can see from my last blog post, I am super-obsessed with Richard Siken right now. So of course, I needed to use him for my Poem of the Week. This poem, "Road Music," isn't quite as gut-punchingly wonderful as "Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out," but it's a great example of the way Siken uses imagery to build his poetic world. His words are so precise and exacting in the way they create images. I've learned a lot from him as a writer during this last week I've spent with his book, Crush. Enjoy!

Road Music, by Richard Siken

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

So Good It Blew My Mind

Book Reviewed: Crush, by Richard Siken

Being a poetry enthusiast often means feeling alone. So many people have such strong feelings against poetry that it's not often worth convincing others of its inherent joys. My friends don't like poetry; my family wants nothing to do with it (unless, of course, I wrote it). When I read a great poem, there's really no one to share it with now that I'm out of college. Even when I was in school, it wasn't easy to find fellow poetry lovers.

That's why it's so wonderful to find a poetry friend. My junior year of college, I had a good friend who was a year older than me. We had a few things in common, but we didn't talk about our personal lives all that much. Instead, we were book friends. We set time aside to have lunch at least twice a week, and good writing filled our conversations. We bonded over a mutual obsession with Rainer Maria Rilke. This friend loved Rilke so much that she would memorize his poems and recite them on the spot. Whenever she read anything good, she told me about it. That's how I first encountered Richard Siken's debut book of poetry, Crush. She was assigned the book in a seminar, and she came to our lunch meeting one day and shoved an open page of the book at me. "You have to read this," she said. For years, the only things I remembered about that book were its front cover (and if you've seen it, it sticks with you) and a poem where the speaker claimed to be the dragon of his story. To this day, I remember those lines.

When I decided to immerse myself in good contemporary poetry this year, I went on a search to find this book again. Once I finally discovered who wrote it and what the tile was, I requested it from the library right away. And holy shit, am I glad I did. You guys, this book blew my mind.

I'm not sure what it is about Crush and Siken's writing that I love so much. The poems in it are quite different from the kind of thing I normally read. The imagery is very erotic, very violent, and very simple. But the whole thing is very intense and beautiful. A few of the poems made me gasp as I read them. This is as startling and gorgeous as contemporary poetry gets.

This book made a pretty big splash when it came out. It was named the 2005 pick for the Yale Series of Younger Poets (probably the most coveted poetry award in the United States, given only to debut poets under the age of forty). Critics loved it. Of course, its themes of homosexuality and obsession made some non-fans as well. For this reason, I wouldn't casually suggest this book to just anyone. But if you are a serious poetry lover, or if you want to read something that is just different from your normal picks, you have to pick this one up.

Only a couple times in my life have I read a book that physically pained me, the kind of book where you have to hold your chest to keep your heart from falling out. That's exactly how I reacted to some of Siken's poems. I loved loved loved Crush! In the last couple years, I've lost touch with my poetry-loving friend. But I will always think of her fondly for the sole reason that she introduced me to this book that made me remember why I read and write poetry.

Note: If you want a look at Siken for yourself, I suggest my favorite poem of his (the one with the dragon!), "Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out." I'm not posting a specific link to it here because it's hard to find one where the poem is formatted right without spelling errors, but if you type the title in on Google, you can find the poem for yourself. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

January 2011 in Review

Total Pages Read in January: 1,954

Not too shabby a way to kick off the year, if I do say so myself. I reread one of my new favorite books, The Book Thief. I read some more Neil Gaiman. I even got to spend some time in the minds of my favorite geeks at the AV Club. I didn't read any new books that completely blew me away this month, but I remained very entertained by the things I read in January.

Of course, I didn't touch any classics in January, so I need to make sure I do that at some point in February. I also didn't read any poetry, which I plan to remedy soon. I have three books by three amazing poets sitting on my desk right now. Bring on the ice and cold, baby (and as I'm writing this, we are under a blizzard warning in northern Indiana)! It's time to curl up in bed with a good book.

Now it's your turn: What were your favorite books you read this month? And what are your reading goals for February?

Note: I will be doing these short reviews at the end of every month this year. They are mostly a way for me to keep track of my reading goals and to see how many pages I can read by the end of the year. You don't realize just how much you've really read until you count it up!