Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Alice Hoffman Is This Year's Neil Gaiman

Book Reviewed:  Blackbird House, by Alice Hoffman

If 2010 was the year of Neil Gaiman, then 2011 is the year of Alice Hoffman.  I became very attached to Gaiman last year, reading a lot of his work in a matter of months.  The same thing is happening with Alice Hoffman now.  I'm not sure I like her quite as much as I like Gaiman, but I really enjoy reading her books.  They give me the fuzzy feeling of lying in bed and listening to someone spin a tale as I nod off into more fantastical territory.  That's a quality that very few authors inspire in me. 

I picked Blackbird House as my next Hoffman read because it shares a format with her book, The Red Garden, which I loved.  This time around, a series of stories follows the different inhabitants of the Blackbird House, built in Massachusetts before the Revolutionary War.  The House sees its share of hope and heartbreak, love and tragedy.  The first story, "The Edge of the World" (which is also my favorite in this collection), sets up a tone the rest of the stories follow.  Some are more successful than others, and some of them aren't evenly crafted.  Hoffman has a tendency to save the big turning points until really late in her stories, and this doesn't always work.  Also, only a few of the characters (Larkin Howard, Violet Cross, the entire Hadley family) genuinely won me over in this collection, unlike The Red Garden, in which I was constantly falling for a new character. 

I still think that Alice Hoffman can spin a yarn like no one else out there, though.  I love to just sit down with one of her books and become immersed in it, even when I don't find all the components satisfactory.  I also give her credit for the way she weaves parallels and mirrored images throughout her stories.  It gives the entire book a little extra heft.  I have the feeling all of you are going to get sick of hearing me talk about her before I get sick of reading her.  Apologies in advance. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

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

I just finished Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency, and the very first poem in the collection struck me at once.  "To the Harbormaster," carries a lovely, rhythmic, and sensual language that speaks perfectly to its subject.  I think it's a quiet and beautiful poem that hints at darker things, and I hope you all enjoy it!

To the Harbormaster, by Frank O'Hara

I Finally Get Around to Reading Frank O'Hara

Book Reviewed:  Meditations in an Emergency, by Frank O'Hara

It took me longer than it should have, but I finally got around to reading the important mid-20th-century American poet, Frank O'Hara.  I only knew a couple O'Hara poems before picking up Meditations in an Emergency last week, one of which is "Mayakovsky," a poem I really love.  O'Hara, who was also an art critic and museum curator, had a major impact on American poetry during his time, and he's been an important influence on generations of poets since.  You can't take a poetry writing workshop and not run into at least one O'Hara poem.  He's funny; his language is striking and inventive; and his work isn't overcooked.  Most people can find at least one O'Hara poem they like.

I quite enjoyed Meditations in an Emergency, if only because it's different from any other poetry books I've read in a while.  It's obvious that some of my favorite contemporary poets - Jay Hopler and Richard Siken in particular - have read and internalized O'Hara's work, which edges up to the line of absurdity without fully going over it.  O'Hara often gets lumped together with John Ashberry, and I'm not sure I like that comparison.  Ashberry is a much-loved poet, but I've never enjoyed reading his work.  O'Hara's writing, while similar, never feels quite as "out there."  O'Hara knows how to be artistic without showing off, a feat I dont think Ashberry manages.

Anyway, this is great little collection.  I probably wouldn't put O'Hara up there with Larkin or Apollinaire in terms of my poetry-worship, but I do think his work is quite wonderful.  My favorite poems here include the title piece, "Mayakovsky," "To the Film Industry in Crisis," and "To the Harbormaster."

I should also add that reading this book makes me want to go out and read the work of the Russian/Soviet poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, the namesake of the above-mentioned favorite poem and a huge influence on Frank O'Hara.  Plus, his life was all kind of drama, a trait to which I can't help but be attracted.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

More Alice Hoffman

Book Reviewed: The Story Sisters, by Alice Hoffman

I enjoyed Alice Hoffman's The Red Garden so much that I decided I should read more of her work.  I started with The Story Sisters, her most recent novel before Garden, because I liked the book jacket synopsis.  Unfortunately, I was didn't enjoy this book nearly as much as I wanted to. 

The Story Sisters follows the three titular characters - Elv, Meg, and Claire - over a decade and a half of their lives.  We first meet the girls when they are young teens, several years after a horrible event that has united Elv and Claire against the outside world.  In order to escape some disturbing memories, Elv creates and lives deep inside a fantasy world in which she occasionally pulls her younger sisters.  Eventually, this leads to drug abuse and general recklessness.  Claire is deeply loyal to Elv and shares her secrets, but she also sees just how far Elv has fallen as they get older.  Meg, the middle sister, falls out of Elv's world and begins to wish her dangerous big sister would just disappear.  This leads to a series of tragic and melodramatic events that affect the next fifteen years of the sisters' lives in various ways. 

Like Dan Chaon's You Remind Me of Me (my worst read of 2010), there's tragic event after tragic event befalling these characters.  Luckily, unlike Chaon, Hoffman seems to have a real affection for her characters, and I respond very well to that affection.  I like an author who seems to want good things for her creations even when she's throwing piles of turds at them.  I wasn't always responsive to this book, and for a long time I harbored a deep dislike of Elv that mirrored Meg's own feelings towards her big sister.  I thought the last hundred pages of the book, though, really saved the whole thing.  There are some great characters here that will remind readers of other Hoffman creations.  I'm thinking of Pete the detective and Phillipe the doctor in particular.  Despite often rolling my eyes at the occasionall over-the-top dramatics in the book's first 200 pages, I couldn't help but get choked up a bit at the end.  I like a good redemption story, and The Story Sisters delivers in a big way on this theme. 

Despite not being particularly excited about The Story Sisters, I'm going to stick with reading more of Alice Hoffman's work in the coming months.  She gives me that pleasant, warm feeling that comes from spending time in the middle of an engrossing story, and she occasionally delivers a really lovely sentence.  I can't help but like her strange, magical worlds. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Poem of the Week: "That Light One Finds in Baby Pictures," by Jay Hopler

I've been a big Jay Hopler fan ever since I saw him do a reading at my alma mater a few years ago.  He was a great reader and very friendly when he signed my copy of his book, Green Squall, which won the Yale Younger Series prize in 2005.  Hot weather like we had up here today always makes me think of Hopler, who lives in Florida.  Most of his poems have that sticky, humid feeling to them.  Here's one I like quite a lot.  Enjoy!

That Light One Finds in Baby Pictures, by Jay Hopler

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Strange and Rewarding World

Books Reviewed: Hey, Wait..., by Jason; I Killed Adolf Hitler, by Jason; Werewolves of Montpellier, by Jason

The graphic novelist Jason must inhabit a world different from our own.  It's the only way he could twist it around in the ways he does and still manage to make succinct observations about the human condition.  Originally from Norway, Jason has lived in various places in Europe and America, and he publishes at least a couple new graphic novels a year.  I think I can safely say that he's my favorite comics writer.

I've read a lot of Jason's work over the years, and many of you have probably heard me talk about my love for his book, The Left Bank Gang, which re-imagines various Lost Generation writers as haphazard bank robbers.  It's a wonderful piece - funny, suspenseful, and very moving.  I've read a handful of his stuff in the years since.  Jason is clearly a sci-fi/comic/monster-movie nerd, and his anthropomorphic animal characters are often slightly touched by an otherworldliness.  Recently, I decided to go back and read some more of Jason's work.

I Killed Adolf Hitler is about time-travel, but it's also about the ups and downs of a relationship.  The protagonist is a hitman (a legal career in this world, apparently) who is hired to use a time machine to off Hitler.  He attempts to do so, but not without some consequences to both himself and the world.  The book is barely about Hitler.  Instead, it's about the relationship between the protagonist and his one-time girlfriend.  The end of the book is a sweet reflection on the way past wrongs hurt less over time.  Jason's artwork is quite lovely in this book, particularly in a scene where an attempted hit is reflected in a television screen.

Werewolves of Montpellier is one of Jason's more recent works, and like I Killed Adolf Hitler, it maps out the story of a relationship between a man and a woman (well, male and female animals as the case may be).  I didn't find this one quite as affecting as some of Jason's other melancholy work, but I did appreciate the way this story unfolded.  I think Jason's greatest asset as a visual storyteller lies in his transitions.  He handles the transitions between scenes in a way most writers could only dream about.  They are near-perfect.  This story has werewolves and self-loathing and lots of hilarious depictions of drinking, but it just didn't have the emotional connection I usually look for in Jason's books.

Finally, there's Hey, Wait..., which I've read before.  I love this book; it's my second-favorite Jason book after The Left Bank Gang.  At the beginning of the book, we meet a boy and his best friend, two inseparable kids having constant adventures.  Unfortunately, a tragedy occurs that forever shapes the life of one of those boys.  He grows up into a bitter adult constantly haunted by guilt and a failure to connect to others.  The book's ending is dark and beautiful.  This is one of Jason's earliest books, back when he was still using black and white.  The absence of color only heightens the book's sense of longing and strife.  It's a heartbreaking book, which is a minor miracle when you consider that it only takes about fifteen minutes to read.

Reading Jason's work is always a pleasure.  His deceptively simple art and narrative sixth-sense masks a world that's seething with human emotion.  You may be looking at pictures of walking and talking animals, but you are seeing a world that all too closely mirrors your own.

Note:  If you're new to Jason, I'd recommend starting with Why Are You Doing This?, which is an emotionally-rich thriller.  And of course, if you are a literature fan, you can't go wrong with the clever and melancholy The Left Bank Gang.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why Didn't Anyone Do Anything Sooner?

Book Reviewed: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson

I had a whole pile of books I intended to read last week, but they all fell to the wayside as soon as I heard In the Garden of Beasts was coming out.  Erik Larson is famous for writing The Devil in the White City, a nonfiction thriller about a serial killer that used the 1983 World's Fair in Chicago as a way to find his victims.  The book was on the bestseller list for years, and I read it a few years ago.  Larson is a good writer, and he knows how to pace his nonfiction in a way that's informative but not boring.  I haven't read any of his other books (also about real murderers), but I wanted to seek this one out because I'm really interested in German history, particularly the history of Berlin (which, I should note, happens to be my favorite place in the whole world).

In the Garden of Beasts is centered around the Dodd family.  William Dodd was a history professor in Chicago who found himself stuck with the appointment of American Ambassador to Germany in 1933.  Dodd, his wife, and their two adult children all moved to Berlin, hoping for the experience of a lifetime.  Well, they certainly got it.  They moved to the city only months after Hitler became chancellor.  Stormtroopers already had control of the city, and secret prisons and labor camps had already sprung up around the country.  Unfortunately, Dodd's advisers only cared about one thing: Germany paying its post-war debts back to the U.S. 

While Dodd is trying to figure out how to talk reason with the Nazis and working to avoid stepping on toes, his twenty-four-year-old daughter, Martha, was having the time of her life.  Intelligent, well-spoken, and attractive, Martha had affair after affair with all matter of men in America.  This lifestyle only increased once she arrived in Berlin.  For her first year in Berlin, she found the Nazi idea of revolution to be intriguing and even romantic.  She had an affair with Rudolf Diels, a prominent Nazi and the first Gestapo leader.  (Diels turns out to be one of the most interesting figures in this book, both a monster and martyr, as he always remained an outsider in the Nazi party and eventually testified against his former party comrades).  She also had a long-lasting and intense love affair with Boris Winogradov, a Soviet spy who would change the rest of her life.

Larson balances the two stories of Dodd and his daughter in order to get a fuller picture of Berlin at this important moment of history.  While I couldn't help but feel sorry for (and at times a little angry at) Dodd, I couldn't find much love for Martha.  She's an absolutely fascinating figure, but she comes off as naive and unlikable a good deal of the time.  A lot of the Americans in Berlin made note of her bad reputation, and I couldn't help but agree with them despite my more feminist insticts.  Girl needed to learn to stop being so reckless.

I found In the Garden of the Beasts to be at its most fascinating when examining the American response to Nazi actions.  This book's events take place before the "Final Solution" and the Nazis' most heinous crimes, but it's not hard to see how they grew more and more evil over time.  If Americans had only looked a little harder at what was happening in Germany, who knows what would happened?  George Messersmith, the U.S. Consulate to Germany at this time, wrote long, in-depth reports on Nazi crimes, including the surprisingly frequent attacks on visiting Americans - both Jews and Christians - who did not properly show respect to parades and salutes.  But the foreign service officials in Washington D.C. refused to acknowledge how bad the problem was.  Larson also writes about the startling antisemitism that ran so deep in America at the time.  Even the most sympathetic characters in this book seem to hold some kind of grudge against Jewish people.  Larson demonstrates how beliefs like antisemitism and isolationism led to American ignorance to Nazi terror.  This book explores a time in history that doesn't make anyone look like a hero.  It's an important lesson to learn.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Vivaldi," by Stuart Dybek

Last month, I reviewed Dybek's The Coast of Chicago and mentioned that Dybek is a great writer because of his acute sense of place. Well, here is a poem from Dybek's other career as a poet.  It features his deep love and knowledge of Chicago, as well as Dybek's obsession with music.  Enjoy!

Vivaldi, by Stuart Dybek

Friday, May 13, 2011

Now I Have to Go Watch the Movie "Primer"

Book Reviewed: Eating the Dinosaur, by Chuck Klosterman

I have something of a complicated relationship with Chuck Klosterman.  I like to read his books because they are full of interesting, clear-eyed essays on pop culture.  But I have the feeling that if I ever met Klosterman, I wouldn't like him.  I disagree with him quite often, but that doesn't take away from his work.  If anything, it adds an extra layer to it.  I feel like we're having an actual discussion; it's as participatory as reading nonfiction gets. 

I finally got around to reading Klosterman's 2009 collection, Eating the Dinosaur.  I liked the book, although I'd be hard-pressed to say that any of the essays stuck out to me quite as much as other Klosterman essays I've read and liked.  That being said, I think Klosterman's grown into a better writer, and he's mellowed a bit with age.  His work doesn't seem quite as defensive as it sometimes felt in the past.  I enjoyed the mature, steady approach these essays took.

My favorite essays in this book include "Oh, the Guilt," which compares the production of Nirvana's In Utero album with the events leading up to the Branch Davidian disaster in Waco, Texas, and "Tomorrow Rarely Knows," which is a fun piece on the ethics of time travel.  "Tomorrow Rarely Knows" made me go out and rent the acclaimed indie film Primer, which Klosterman says is his favorite pop culture depiction of time travel.  I look forward to watching it this weekend.  I think the most interesting essay in this whole collection, though, is the final piece, "FAIL."  "FAIL" is about the theories Ted Kaczynski (aka "The Unabomber") had on modernization and technology, which Klosterman is disturbed to find out he agrees with in many ways.  It's hard for me to read this essay and not agree with Klosterman's arguments about all the ways the internet is making real life more difficult.  As much as I love being on the internet - streaming Netflix, tweeting, and reading TV recaps all at the same time - I can't help but see all the ways this is detrimental to my intellectual and social life.  I thought this was the best essay of the group because it presented unpopular but interesting ideas with strong writing.  It made it worth reading all of Eating the Dinosaur.

Note:  I should mention that in the essay "Tis for True," Klosterman writes a paragraph that made my opinion of this book tip decidedly in its favor.  Klosterman mentions that one of his favorite TV shows is Friday Night Lights, even though he knows it's emotionally manipulating.  He writes, "...Even when the on-screen action is ridiculous, it always has a physical impact on me.  Friday Night Lights can make my stomach hurt, even when my mind says, 'This is silly.'"  For any of you FNL fans out there, this may be the most perfect description of this show ever written.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Adventures in Re-Reading: The Bean Trees

Book Re-Reviewed: The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver

It wasn't until I was reading The Bean Trees last week for my book club that I realized how long it's been since I've read this book.  I first read The Bean Trees when I was fifteen, and I re-read it once or twice more in high school.  But due to my super-love for the book's "sequel," Pigs in Heaven (which I re-read once every couple years), I hadn't picked up Kingsolver's debut in at least seven years.  Reading it now, I couldn't believe how much of the book I had forgotten.

The Bean Trees is one of those books that I'd call a "crowd-pleaser."  It works for die-hard literary fiction fans as much as it works for casual readers.  I think Kingsolver has one of the most readable writing styles out there.  You can sit and read her for hours without even realizing it.  I finished this particular novel in just a couple days for this very reason. 

At the beginning of the book, we meet Taylor Greer (not her real name, by the way), a young woman who's determined to get out of her small Kentucky town.  She buys a car and heads west.  She doesn't have a particular plan or even an end goal, but that doesn't matter because nothing goes quite right anyway.  She gets stuck with a broken little girl who she takes in as her own, and then she gets stuck in Tucson, Arizona.  In Tucson, she makes friends and finds her inner strength.  It's a pretty simple story, but Kingsolver fits in some big themes about immigration and amnesty law, friendship, and making family where you can get it.  It ended up being the perfect book to read in time for Mother's Day, too.  The literary world is obsessed with stories of fathers, but The Bean Trees is a love letter to mothers.

There were two things that stood out to me on reading this book for the first time in years.  For one, I had forgotten how big a role unrequited love plays in this story.  Taylor harbors a major crush for a married immigrant named Estevan.  This whole plotline had completely escaped my memory for some reason, so the lovely way Kingsolver handles it was a wonderful surprise for me as a reader.  Secondly, I am glad I read this book as someone who is significantly older and more experienced than I was the first time around.  As a a teenager, I remember looking up to the character of Taylor and admiring her.  Now, I understand her.  Taylor Greer has always been one of my all-time favorite literary characters, and reading this book a second time made me appreciate what Kinsolver did with her just that much more.  She's not particularly smart or talented or special in any way, but she's strong and funny and very human.  It's reassuring to know there's such well-written female characters out there, as lately I find myself really annoyed by 90% of the female characters out there in all genres of fiction.

If I had to pick just one Barbara Kingsolver book to take on a desert island with me, I'd still reach for Pigs in Heaven.  After all, this is the book that features Jax Thibodeaux.  But when it comes to introducing Kingsolver to new readers, The Bean Trees is where I'll point them.

Note: Here's an open letter I wrote to Kingsolver about my wishes for another book about Taylor, Turtle. and crew.  I told you I was a fan.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Lunchbox Love Note," by Kenn Nesbitt

In honor of Mother's Day, here's a cute little poem about the love of moms.  Enjoy, and don't forget to thank your own mothers!

Lunchbox Love Poem, by Kenn Nesbitt

Thursday, May 5, 2011

My First Foray into Sandman Territory

Book Reviewed:  Sandman Vol.3: Dream Country, by Neil Gaiman and various artists

One of my favorite things on the internet is NPR's Monkey See pop culture blog, which is run by the funny and smart Linda Holmes.  Every once in a blue moon, Monkey See puts on the "I Will If You Will Book Club."  In April, Holmes and NPR book/comics critic Glen Weldon (who is VERY funny) announced that the latest pick would be volume three of Neil Gaiman's famous and much-loved Sandman series.  Volume three, entitled Dream Country, features four stand-alone comics from the series.  I decided I should follow along this time around, especially since I'm a Gaiman fan who's never read any of the Sandman books. 

The IWIYW Book Club discussion is still ongoing, but I decided to just go ahead and finish the whole book so I could return it to my library for someone else to enjoy.  This was my first encounter with The Sandman, but I am certain it will not be my last.  These comics are strange and at times a little alienating (I've read enough graphic novels to be fairly comfortable with the genre, but I still struggle a bit with reading them), but they are quite a bit of twisted fun.  The world of Sandman is bizarre and never dull.  The title character who ties all the parts of the series together is the god of dreams, often called Morpheus.  He's menacing and helpful in equal measure and sometimes both at once.  Dream Country features four stories: "Calliope," which is about a writer's muse; "A Dream of a Thousand Cats," which is exactly what it sounds like; "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which is a re-imagining of Shakespeare's play; and "Facade," about a superheroine who wants to die but can't.  All of these books are about the thin line between reality and the dream world.

Of these four stories, I would say that "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is the most thought-provoking and outwardly weird, but I found "A Dream of a Thousand Cats" to be the most unsettling because of the ideas and tone it presents.  The kind of world-building fantasy that marks the Sandman books isn't up my alley per se, but I still found this book sufficiently creepy and interesting.  It might take a while for me to get to, but I do plan on reading more Sandman in the future.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

So Good

Book Reviewed: The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman

Lately, I've been talking a lot about books that are written really well.  Books like Mrs. Dalloway or The Moviegoer.  There are a lot of books that are made by their tight prose or luscious descriptions.  But sometimes I don't care about any of that stuff.  Sometimes I just want to be told a good story.  That's why I read writers like Neil Gaiman or Stephen King.  I want to be entertained, to be taken away from real life for a little while.  Last week, I was pining for a good story. 

Oh man, did I find one.  Or in this case, a whole bunch of them.  My librarian friend posted a review of Alice Hoffman's The Red Garden a few weeks ago, and the book shot straight to the top of my to-read list.  I love books set in very specific places, so when I saw that Hoffman's newest book was about the history of a fictional Massachusetts town, I knew it was for me.  I am so very glad I picked this book up to read.  I loved the pants off of it.

The Red Garden is a novel told through a series of short stories that read almost like fairy tales.  The first story takes place when the town is founded in 1750, and the last story takes place in the present.  The stories explore the lives of the people living in Blackwell, Massachusetts in all the years in between.  Hoffman is something of a magical realist, and this book takes up that mantle in very subtle ways. The townspeople, many of whom have ties back to the town's founding, live lives seemingly touched by mystical forces.  But as my friend points out in her wonderful review (seriously, click on the link above and read it), these things don't solely define their lives.  This book is about the human condition, as cheesy as that sounds.  It's about people losing themselves and finding themselves.  There's tragedies and celebrations; happy endings and sad.  There are several very moving love stories, as well as some touching stories about finding family in unexpected places.  The Red Garden has something for everyone.

I have the feeling I'm going to be recommending this book all over the place in the coming months.  I really, really enjoyed it.  It completely took me out of my own stressful life and made me really care about its characters.  I only finished it a couple days ago, and I already want to pick it up and start reading it again.  That's some of the highest praise I can give a book.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Poem of the Week: "25th High School Reunion," by Linda Pastan

Here's another poem I found in the Good Poems, American Places anthology.  Lately, I've found that time has really mellowed out everyone I knew in high school, myself included.  When I run into people I didn't much care for as a teenager, I'm amazed to find that we can have a civil conversation that doesn't feel like an invisible race.  It seems that real life has turned us all into human beings again.  This poem shares that exact sentiment.  I love the last three lines.

25th High School Reunion, by Linda Pastan