Thursday, December 31, 2009

Favorite Passages: Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

I have come up with a short list of New Year's Reading Resolutions. They include reading more female and contemporary poets, reading more short stories, and re-reading Fitzgerald's novels. But the resolution I'm most excited about is my goal to read as much Neil Gaiman as possible. I've written here a few times before about how much I admire Gaiman as a writer and as a champion of storytelling. His books are strange, fantastical adventures, but they are always rooted in human feelings and relationships. The emotional underpinnings in his fiction are just as important as any scary monster or complicated plot. So while I spend the next three months waiting to hear back from graduate schools, I plan to read a lot of Gaiman to take my mind off things. I think it will be a fantastic time.

In the meantime, here's a passage from his children's novel, Coraline. In this scene, young Coraline is telling a story about her missing father to the mysterious and helpful Black Cat. Coraline is looking for her parents in some weird parallel ghost-world, and she uses this story about a day when her father and her explored nature to explain why her quest is so important. This entire section is really poignant because at the beginning of the book, Coraline feels a bit ignored by her parents, and this scene demonstrates how when it comes down to the moments that matter, Coraline and her parents will fight for each other.

From: Coraline, by Neil Gaiman

"We must have walked for about twenty minutes. We went down this hill, to the bottom of a gully where a stream was, when my dad suddenly said to me, 'Coraline -- run away. Up the hill. Now!' He said it in a tight sort of way, urgently, so I did. I ran away up the hill. Something hurt me on the back of my arm as I ran, but I kept on running.

"As I got to the top of the hill I heard somebody thundering up the hill behind me. It was my dad, charging like a rhino. When he reached me he picked me up in his arms and swept me over the edge of the hill.

"And we stopped and we puffed and we panted, and we looked back down the gully.

"The air was alive with yellow wasps. We must have stepped on a wasps' nest in a rotten branch as we walked. And while I was running up the hill, my dad stayed and got stung, to give me more time to run away. His glasses had fallen off when he ran.

"I only had the one sting on the back of my arm. He had thirty-nine stings, all over him. We counted later, in the bath."

The black cat began to wash his face and whiskers in a manner that indicated increasing impatience. Coraline reached down and stroked the back of its head and neck. The cat stood up, walked several paces until it was out of her reach, then it sat down and looked up at her again.

"So," said Coraline, "later that afternoon my dad went back again to the wasteland, to get his glasses back. He said if he left it another day he wouldn't be able to remember where they'd fallen.

"And soon he got home, wearing his glasses. He said that he wasn't scared when he was standing there and the wasps were stinging him and hurting him and he was watching me run away. Because he knew he had to give me enough time to run, or the wasps would have come after both of us."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Rest is Awesome

I finally finished The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross's awesome history of 20th century classical music. For those of you who don't know, I love music. The only thing that comes anywhere near my love for books and poetry is my obsession with classical music. And it just so happens that most of my favorite classical pieces come from the 20th century. My two favorite composers are Bela Bartok and Dmitri Shostakovich. So I am basically the ideal audience for Ross's book. And I was not disappointed.

Ross performs the miraculous feat of writing very meticulously about music while still making it accessible to general readers like myself. I admit that having taken a music appreciation course and a basic music theory class in college helped me to understand what Ross talked about, but as someone who can't read or really comprehend music in any tangible way, the book was still easy to read. Ross even manages to be unbiased and even-minded, although the careful reader can still see where his prejudices might lie (hence entire chapters on Sibelius and Britten, as well as constant references to Mahler).

I have to admit I enjoyed the first half of the book much more than the second half, probably because these parts take place during more interesting historical times - the world wars, Soviet Russia, etc. My favorite chapters were the ones on music under Stalin and Hitler. The Stalin chapter, "The Art of Fear," centered around Shostakovich and Prokofiev, with riveting details about how their government trapped them as both artists and as people. I've always found Shostakovich an extremely fascinating figure, and Ross is obviously as intrigued by him as I am. He spends a lot of the rest of the book referring back to the tragic Soviet composer. "Death Fugue," the chapter about Hitler's manipulation of Austrian/German music is completely bone-chilling. Ross's depiction of a government that values and undermines its art at the same time is terrifying and relevant. This is what makes the book so wonderful. Ross can seamlessly compare the history of the West in the 20th century with the history of its music.

Probably my favorite thing about the book came from its depictions of famous composers. Ross finds ways to be quietly funny and serious at the same time, celebrating and poking fun at a huge personality like Pierre Boulez at the same time. I came away from the book wrinkling my nose at the snobbishness of Schoenberg and Prokofiev, crushing on that rascal Alban Berg (I think I need to go out and pick up a recording of Wozzeck right away), and feeling deeply sorry for Jean Sibelius. I was particularly interested in the book's section on the influences of folk music on 20th century classical composers. While some composers like Bartok (whose Concerto for Orchestra happens to be my #1 favorite musical piece) took the preservation of folk music in classical forms very seriously, other composers (particularly Schoenberg and the hypocrite Stravinsky) thought the entire concept was ridiculous and derided Bartok for the rest of his life. For some reason, I found these little composer tiffs extremely poignant.

Anyway, all you really need to know about The Rest is Noise is that, for this particular reader, it was a total joy to spend time with. It gave me the chance to geek out about my love for classical music in a way I haven't been able to since I graduated college, and for that, I will always hold the book dear.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Poem of the Week: "The Beats," by Charles Bukowski

As many of you already know, I really don't like the Beat generation writers. I find them self-indulgent, annoying, and a bit misogynist. Also, they haven't aged well with time. So when I was reading the last section of Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, I couldn't help but compare the strange avant-garde composers of the 1950s and 60s with the Ginsbergs and Kerouacs of the same time period. Although Ross obviously has enormous respect for these composers (Cage, Reich, etc.), just the descriptions of their lives annoyed me. I realize that's more my fault than theirs; I've just never been a big fan of the avant-garde or music that's more mechanized than emotional. But anyway, all this put me in the mind of Charles Bukowski's poem "The Beats." Bukowski is not a poet I'm particularly fond of, but every once in a while one of his poems really makes me pause to think. This is one of them.

The Beats, by Charles Bukowski

some keep trying to connect me with
the beats
but I was vastly unpublished in the
I very much
disliked their vanity and
all that

and when I met most of them
later in my life
I still felt that most of my
feelings toward
were the

some accepted
that; others thought that I
should change my

my viewpoint remained the
same: writing is done
one person
at a time
one place
at a time

and all the gatherings
and tenderings of
proclamations toward the
had very little
to do
with anything.

any one of those
could have made it as a
shoe salesman or a
used car

and they still
instead of bitching about
the change of the fates and
the ways


from the sad university
these hucksters of the
despoiled word
working the
still talking that
dumb shit.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!!!
I hope all of you have a wonderful Christmas. I have already had a very nerdy Christmas, complete with two signed books, Robert Lowell's Collected Poems, a Mad Men t-shirt, and old movies. This blog will be back up with its regularly scheduled posts next week!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Beth's Best Reads of 2009

Well, everyone, it's that time of year when every pop culture website and publication comes out with its Best-Of-The-Year lists. So, here's another one! These are the eleven best books I read this year. They are from all sorts of years and writers, encompassing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. There were two guiding principles in the making of this list: 1) the books had to be read in the calendar year of 2009, and 2) they had to be first-time reads (no re-readings, which usually make up about half my reading selections in any given year). Reading-wise, this was a great year, and I hope to make next year just as great.

Beth's 11 Best Reads of 2009 (in order from great to greatest):

11. My Antonia, by Willa Cather: When I read this book for an American lit class, I didn't expect to like it so much. I can't really explain why this novel made such an impact, but I think it's because of the way Cather writes so proudly of the prairie and the small town her characters inhabited so many years ago. Not to mention all the sad but earned nostalgia involved, something that always seems to get to me as a reader.

10. The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti: This book isn't particularly insightful about the human soul or human connections, but it IS fun and entertaining. This American Dickensian tale about a 19th-century orphan and the strange cast of characters surrounding him had me sneaking reads at any available moment, all in the name of some good plotting and a nice central mystery.

9. Men in the Off Hours, by Anne Carson: Carson's book of hyper-intelligent, allusion-heavy poetry isn't for everyone. But the literature-loving student in me adored it. Special props go out to the book's poems about Edward Hopper, Tolstoy, Anna Ahkmatova, and Lazarus.

8. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, by Alex Ross: Okay, okay, so technically I haven't finished this book yet (I'm about 2/3 of the way through), but it WILL be finished by December 31st, and it's such an enlightening, well-written history of 20th century classical music that I had to put it on here.

7. Home, by Marilynne Robinson: Nobody does the domestic, small-town novel like the amazing Robinson. This book, a companion to Gilead, touches upon familal connections in the astute, intelligent, and extremely humane way that only such a fine author could create. Gorgeously-written and paced slow as a snail, it's not a book for lovers of plot and adventure. But by the end, it left me in well-earned, bittersweet, unmanipulated tears.

6. Stop-Time, Frank Conroy: We read this memoir in my final college seminar, and I absolutely loved it. Conroy writes honestly about his hardscrabble, strange childhood, and he does it all without ever feeling sorry for himself or wallowing in misery. Instead, the book is very funny, beautiful, and full of glory and pain in equal measure.

5. Persuasion, by Jane Austen: Based on the recommendation of a major Austen fan who claimed it was her favorite book by the author, this made a wonderful summer read. Slight and charming, it features my now-favorite Austen male character, the upright and romantic Captain Wentworth, letter-writing extraordinaire.

4. Spooner, by Pete Dexter: At first, this novel grabbed me because it was so funny and well-written. But somewhere in the middle, it also became a very honest portrayal of the relationship between a man and his stepson. It's a tribute to Dexter's agility as a fiction writer that he can place a theme of connection in the ways we try and fail to love others smack in the middle of a humorous novel complete with ugly dogs, bar fights, and neighborly disputes.

3. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: I read this children's novel during a single weekend this spring just for fun, and I had no idea it would turn out to be such a fantastic experience. Gaiman is an extremely gifted storyteller who writes loving and humane tales even in the midst of ghosts, vampires, and villains. A funny, absorbing, and occasionally heartbreaking read.

2. Philip Larkin: Collected Poems, by Philip Larkin: I've gone on and on about Larkin all year, and it all started in March, when I bought and read his collected poems (of which there is a surprisingly small amount) all in one week. Larkin writes about everything - life and death, love and grief - with equal intelligence, wit, and grace. I recommend him to everyone, poetry readers and non-poetry readers alike.

1. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson: This is an extremely non-surprising win for those of you who've kept up with my blog since this summer, and there's really nothing more I can say about it. Except this: It's one of those books that made me extremely proud to be human. Absolutely wonderful.

Honorable Mentions: Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich; Coraline, by Neil Gaiman; The Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Poem of the Week: " 'We Don't Know How to Say Goodbye...'," by Anna Akhmatova

Right now, I am reading Alex Ross's fantastic history of 20th century classical music, The Rest is Noise. So far, my favorite chapter has been the one on music in Stalin's Soviet Union. The chapter centers around my favorite composer, Shostakovich, and it's completely heartbreaking to read about how the government's oppression of art literary destroyed so many amazing composers. Of course, this all put me in the mind of Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet I've referenced many times before in this blog (Ross even mentions Akhmatova and quotes some of her poetry in his book). So here we go, a sad but lovely little poem Akhmatova wrote in 1917 about a final visit with a friend who was set to be imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. I urge you to go and check out more work by the poet, as she is a very important human voice amidst the sweep of Russian/Soviet history.

"We Don't Know How To Say Goodbye...", by Anna Akhmatova
Translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward

We don't know how to say goodbye:
we wander on, shoulder to shoulder.
Already the sun is going down;
you're moody, I am your shadow.

Let's step inside a church and watch
baptisms, marriages, masses for the dead.
Why are we different from the rest?
Outdoors again, each of us turns his head.

Or else let's sit in the graveyard
on the trampled snow, sighing to each other.
That stick in your hand is tracing mansions
in which we shall always be together.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Favorite Passages: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

So I totally dropped the ball yesterday and forgot to wish Jane Austen a very happy birthday. I can't believe I missed the opportunity to remember such an important and beloved writer. Luckily, my Austen-obsessed friend picked up my slack in her own blog. Anyway, as a form of penance, today's Favorite Passage concerns itself with the lovely Miss Austen. I am including two short passages centered around one of my favorite Austen characters, the always-witty and loving father Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.

The first passage comes after Lizzy has turned down Mr. Collins's proposal. Lizzy's mother is furious her daughter would do such a thing, but then as he always so awesomely does, Mr. Bennet sets everything straight:

Mrs. Bennet rang the bell, and Miss Elizabeth was summoned to the library.

"Come here, child," cried her father as she appeared. "I have sent for you on an affair of importance. I understand that Mr. Collins has made you an offer of marriage? Is it true?" Elizabeth replied that it was. "Very well - and this offer of marriage you have refused?"

"I have, Sir."

"Very well. We now come to the point. Your mother insists upon your accepting it. Is not it so, Mrs. Bennet?"

"Yes, or I will never see her again."

"An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. --Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."

This second passage comes towards the end of the book, after Mr. Bennet has given his blessing to Lizzy to marry Mr. Darcy. This piece of dialogue always cracks me up. For those of you who've read the book, or at least seen the wonderful BBC mini series with Colin Firth as Darcy, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do:

Elizabeth had the satisfaction of seeing her father take pains to get acquainted with him [Mr. Darcy]; and Mr. Bennet soon assured her that he was rising every hour in his esteem.

"I admire all my three sons-in-law highly," said he. "Wickham, perhaps, is my favourite; but I think I shall like your husband quite as well as Jane's."

Happy Belated Birthday, Jane!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Top Five Words of 2009

As you can probably guess, I love words. I love their meanings, the sound of them, how they look on paper. So it's no surprise that every year a handful of words completely absorb me. Here's the five words that got under my skin in 2009. Feel free to add your favorite words of the year in the comments below.

Top Five Words of 2009

1. susurrus - noun: soft whispery sound; There is no question this word is my most beloved of '09. There's so many things to love about it: the way it sounds, the squashed way it looks on paper, the fact that pronouncing it makes it sound like its own meaning - This word rocks! And, to no surprise, I fell in love with it because of the way it was used to wonderful affect in Gilead.

2. litany - noun: repetitive recital, almost like a listed prayer; Given in the right context, this word is absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, it tends to be overused as a synonym for a tedious telling of a story or list. That makes me sad; I am totally reclaiming this pretty and sacred word for the purpose of heartbreak and beauty only.

3. eyesore - noun: something unfortunate to look at; This is a word I've heard a million times. But lately, its existence has really gotten to me. I mean, think about it - isn't this a supremely weird term? And yet it's so descriptive and painful and affective. I can't help but like it.

4. fallow - adjective: not used, often used to describe plowed or unused fields; This word also sounds a bit like its meaning when said aloud. I've always thought it sounded like the words "field" and "shallow" thrown together, which is exactly what it means. It's a word that sounds so nice in poetry or pastoral prose.

5. fiduciary - I have to admit I don't actually understand what this word means. It has something to do with trusts and money and blah blah blah. But for such an important-sounding meaning, the word sounds completely ridiculous. It has the sound "oosh" in it!

So there you go, the five words of Beth's year. I hope to incorporate them all at least once this week.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Poem of the Week: "You Can Have It," by Philip Levine

Those of you who know me well know that my favorite literary topic (really, my favorite musical, film, and television topics, also) revolves around brothers. I don't know why, although I assume I'm fascinated by the relationships between men because as a woman, I don't fully understand them. Anyway, because I've been listening to the song "Blue Ridge Mountains," by the Fleet Foxes (who have a surprisingly large number of songs involving brothers), I've had brothers on my mind. So naturally, I turned to Philip Levine's poem, "You Can Have It," which is about a memory the speaker/poet has of his twin brother coming home exhausted from work as he prepares to leave for his own job. Levine explores the blue-collar existence of the urban Midwest (specifically, Detroit) better than any other poet in America, and this poem is just one fine example of his work. So here you go, a brother poem, which is a tad ironic when you consider that my own brother comes home for the holidays this week.

You Can Have It, by Philip Levine

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labors, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray box-car at a time

with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 in the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purpose
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctor's appointments, bonds,
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

On the Sensory Pleasures of a Book

Today at the store, I overheard a woman talking about her Kindle, that electronic device Amazon makes where you can download books and read them onscreen. I considered asking her if she liked the Kindle and might suggest it. Then I argued against myself, resolute in my old Hey-Kid-Get-Off-My-Lawn opinion that Kindles and like devices are an abomination against reading. I know that's not true, and as someone who fears the end of reading for pleasure, I know I should be happy people are reading any way they can. But I can't help it. Because you see, I love books. I'm not talking about the stories or characters or words. I'm talking about the actual object of a book.

I am currently reading Alex Ross's critically-honored history/listening guide to 20th-century classical music, The Rest is Noise. I'm only 20 pages in, but so far I love it. It's full of interesting facts. Did you know Tchaikovsky hated Wagner, for instance? But beyond the book's intellectual pleasures is its sensory delights. This book appeals to my senses in a way few have lately. It's cover has that nice not-glossy smoothness, and the pages almost feel silky, the print perfectly in place. The smell is quite lovely too - very papery and vaguely sweet. I can't help but participate in the sensory details of the book as I'm reading it - touching it, sniffing it, weighing it in my hands (did I mention it has a satisfyingly hefty weight to it?). My obsession might be a tad weird, but I can't help it.

So anyway, this post doesn't have much to do with anything. I just wanted to get out my Kindle frustration. And more importantly, I wanted to recommend you check out the trade paperback of The Rest is Noise, if only just to smell it and stroke it. Is that so inappropriate?

Yes, actually, I think it might be.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Favorite Passages: "The Minor Wars," by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Every once in awhile, I read a short story that's so good I put it on par with my favorite novels. One of these short stories is Kaui Hart Hemmings's "The Minor Wars," which I encountered in an anthology in 2004. It's a lovely and sad little story about a father and his young daughter in Hawaii as they watch over their wife/mother, Joanie, who's in a coma after a speedboat accident. The wife lived a dangerous, overly passionate life that led to her accident, and it's obvious there are many distances between her and her husband and their daughter. The man's relationship with his little girl, Scottie, is also deeply troubled by years of trying too hard to ignore each other's pain. The story feels effortless and complex at the same time, and it remains one of my favorite examples of the power of short fiction.

Interestingly enough, Hemmings wrote a novel, The Descendants, that expanded this story, also told from the father's point of view and including all the same characters plus a few more. Unfortunately, I just couldn't get into the book. What made the characters endearing in "The Minor Wars" made them kind of unlikeable and boring in novel form, and I never got past page 70. Some day I may go back and try the book again because of how much I like Hemmings's writing, but until then, I am perfectly happy to make do with this story.

This passage is where the title comes from, as the narrator father and Scottie spend time at the beach. Scottie has purposely allowed herself to be stung by a swarm of man-of-wars, and her father is completely incredulous about it and angry that she calls them "minor wars" instead of their proper names. Just before this scene, they've encountered Troy, the coma mom's probably-lover who was with her at the time of the accident. This trip to the beach also takes place after another exhausting visit at the hospital, where the narrator has learned that Scottie purposely squeezed a sea urchin and injured herself.

From "The Minor Wars," by Kaui Hart Hemmings

She scratches herself. More lines form on her chest and legs. I tell her I'm not happy and that we need to get home and put some ointments and ice on the stings. "Vinegar will make it worse, so if you thought giraffe boy could pee on you, you're out of luck."

She agrees as if she was prepared for this - the punishment, the medication, the swelling, the pain that hurts her now and the pain that will hurt her later. But she's happy to deal with my disapproval. She's gotten her story, and she's beginning to see how much easier physical pain is to tolerate. I'm unhappy that she's learning this at ten years old.

We walk up the sandy slope toward the dining terrace. I see Troy sitting at a table with some people I know. I look at Scottie to see if she sees him and she is giving him the middle finger. The dining terrace gasps, but I realize it's because of the sunset and the green flash. We missed it. The flash flashed. The sun is gone. The sky is pink and violent like arguing little girls. I reach to grab the offending hand, but instead I correct her gesture.

"Here, Scottie. Don't let that finger stand by itself like that. Bring up the other fingers just a little bit. There you go."

Troy stares at us and smiles a bit, looking completely confused.

"All right, that's enough," I say, suddenly feeling sorry for Troy. He may really love Joanie. There is that chance. I place my hand on Scottie's back to guide her away. She flinches and I remove my hand, remembering that she's hurt all over.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Poem of the Week: "To Sleep," by John Keats

Earlier this weekend, I spoke to a friend who was taking a class on the British Romantics. She's become a lover of Percy Shelley, and when she told me this, I probably made a face. Because when it comes to the Romantics, there is only one person who matters to me: John Keats. I love Keats. I don't want to spend my entire day reading him, but a life without a Keats poem here and there would be empty indeed. Plus, he's such a fascinating figure in and of himself, so tragic and talented. Here is one of my favorite Keat's poems. I am particuarly fond of the final lovely couplet.

To Sleep, by John Keats

O soft embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower'd from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
So soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the amen, ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength in darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Rainer Maria Rilke!

Today is the birthday of my all-time favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Favorite Passages: About a Boy, by Nick Hornby

Because I am going down to my alma mater to have some awesome adventures with some of my awesome friends, I am in a very good mood. Hence, this week's Favorite Passage being from one of my favorite funny books: Nick Hornby's About a Boy. I'm sure most of you have seen the movie, which is surprisingly good for a book-adaptation, but know this: The book is a hundred times better. It's funny and sad and sweet all at once, with Hornby's prose (much like Pete Dexter's) shifting from laughter to tears in two words. This passage, from the middle of the book, occurs as the main character, Will, is driving and spots Marcus, the pathetic boy to whom he's become a kind of unwilling mentor.

From About a Boy, by Nick Hornby:

Will loved driving around London. He loved the traffic, which allowed him to believe he was a man in a hurry and offered him rare opportunities for frustration and anger (other people did things to let off steam, but Will had to do things to build it up); he loved knowing his way around; he loved being swallowed up in the city's life. You didn't need a job or a family to drive around London; you only needed a car, and Will had a car. Sometimes he drove just for the hell of it, and sometimes he drove because he liked to hear music played at a volume that would not be possible in the flat without a furious knock on the door or the wall or the ceiling.

Today he had convinced himself that he had to drive to Waitrose, but if he was honest the real reason for the trip was that he wanted to sing along to "Nevermind" at the top of his voice, and he couldn't do that at home. He loved Nirvana, but at his age they were kind of a guilty pleasure. All that rage and pain and self-hatred! Will got a bit...fed up sometimes, but he couldn't pretend it was anything stronger than that. So now he used loud angry rock music as a replacement for real feelings, rather than as an expression of them, and he didn't even mind very much. What good were real feelings anyway?

The cassette had just turned itself over when he saw Marcus ambling down Upper Street. He hadn't seen him since the day of the sneakers, nor had he wanted to see him particularly, but he suddenly felt a a little surge of affection for him. Marcus was so locked into himself, so oblivious to everyone and everything, that affection seemed to be the only possible response: the boy somehow seemed to be asking for absolutely nothing and absolutely everything all at the same time.

The affection that Will felt was not acute enough to make him want to stop the car, or even toot: he had discovered that it was much easier to sustain one's fondness for Marcus if one just kept one's foot down, literally and metaphorically. But it was funny, seeing him out in the street in broad daylight, wandering aimlessly...Something nagged at him. Why was it funny? Because Will had never seen Marcus in broad daylight before. He had only previously seen him in the gloom of winter afternoon. And why had he only seen him in the gloom of a winter afternoon? Because Marcus only came round after school. But it was just after two o'clock. Marcus should be in school now. Bollocks.

Will wrestled with his conscience, grappled it to the ground and sat on it until he couldn't hear a squeak out of it. Why should he care if Marcus went to school or not? OK, wrong question. He knew very well why he should care whether Marcus went to school. Try a different question: How much did he care whether Marcus went to school or not? Answer: not a lot. That was better. He drove home.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Something Fun

Thanks to an old NPR article I found yesterday, I discovered this little diversion: Neil Gaiman reading all the chapters of The Graveyard Book. Gaiman, who is a fervent believer in the power of oral storytelling, posted a video of him reading each chapter at different reading events across the country for free on the internet. It's a really fun collection. I've been listening to it as I get ready in the morning, and I absolutely love it. Gaiman is a fantastic reader, and his voice is both lulling and powerful. It's something worth checking out, particularly Part Five, my favorite (and the shortest) chapter from the book, Danse Macabre.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes," by Rainer Maria Rilke

This Friday is the birthday of my favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. I will probably post another Rilke poem on that day, but when it comes to an absolute master like Rilke, you can never start celebrating too early. So here's one of my favorite Rilke poems, "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes." It's a heartbreaking version of the classic Greek myth. It's so gorgeous and sad that I have admit I teared up while typing it out below.

Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes, by Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.

There were cliffs there,
and forests made of mist. There were bridges
spanning the void, and that great gray blind lake
which hung above its distant bottom
like the sky on a rainy day above a landscape.
And through the gentle, unresisting meadows
one pale path unrolled like a strip of cotton.

Down this path they were coming.

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.
His senses felt as though they were split in two:
his sight would race ahead of him like a dog,
stop, come back, then rushing off again
would stand, impatient, at the path’s next turn, —
but his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.
Sometimes it seemed to him as though it reached
back to the footsteps of those other two
who were to follow him, up the long path home.
But then, once more, it was just his own steps’ echo,
or the wind inside his cloak, that made the sound.
He said to himself, they had to be behind him;
said it aloud and heard it fade away.
They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:

The god of speed and distant messages,
a traveler’s hood above his shining eyes,
his slender staff held out in front of him,
and little wings fluttering at his ankles;
and on his left arm, barely touching it: she.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars —:
So greatly was she loved.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,
she could not understand that it had happened.

She had come into a new virginity
and was untouchable; her sex had closed
like a young flower at nightfall, and her hands
had grown so unused to marriage that the god’s
infinitely gentle touch of guidance
hurt her, like an undesired kiss.

She was no longer that woman with blue eyes
who once had echoed through the poet’s songs,
no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,
and that man’s property no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.

She was already root.

And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around —,
she could not understand, and softly answered

Far away,
dark before the shining exit-gates,
someone or other stood, whose features were
unrecognizable. He stood and saw
how, on the strip of road among the meadows,
with a mournful look, the god of messages
silently turned to follow the small figure
already walking back along the path,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Remember last week when I mentioned I was excited to start reading Lev Grossman's new novel, The Magicans? Well, I only made it one-third of the way through before putting it down. It wasn't that I didn't like the book. While I was reading it, I actually enjoyed it a lot. But the second I set it down to do anything else, it completely left my mind. It wasn't calling to me from the table to be picked back up again, which is a pretty important part of reading.

I have a few theories about why the book wasn't ultimately doing it for me. I think these reasons are fairly universal in a lot of ways. They describe the reasons why I, and maybe you too, can't finish certain books. Here they are, in no particular order:

1) The writing wasn't anything special. The writing snob in me has become more and more interested in good prose the last few years. A lot of the books I liked best this year have been ones where the writer's prose has completely grabbed me. Grossman just doesn't have IT. The story was extremely imaginative. The writing wasn't. Grossman is obviously highly educated and loves literature, and I think sometimes both those things can be a negative when it comes to having an interesting writing voice. And I think that bothered me more than I care to admit.

2) The characters are kinda assholes. As a "serious" reader, I like to think that I don't have to like characters in order to love reading about them. Unfortunately, that concept wasn't working for me this time around. Almost every single character reminded me of the kind of person I really dislike both in the real world and in literature as a whole (overly confident know-it-alls, divas in training, the smart shy girl who is only shy the way girls in books are, etc).

3) It reminded me of my life a little too much. At first, this was one of the things I loved about the book. Even though it was about people going to college to learn magic, it more closely understood the actual feelings involved in going to college than any other book I've read. The main character, ridiculously intelligent and confident that he's always the smartest guy in the room, suddenly finds himself in a place where everyone is like that. They might even be better than him. This wraps up my first year college experience pretty nicely (insert being an experienced writer/reader for being really smart). But as the book continues and becomes more about emotional and academic failures, the more it began to get to me in a bad way. It's kind of the last thing I wanted to read while filling out grad school applications and working my minimum-wage, part-time job.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if I actually go back and finish this book in the next year. But right now, it's suffering from Wrong Place, Wrong Time Syndrome. The story is very imaginative and Grossman understands the weirdness of being between childhood and adulthood extremely well, but in the end, the book just wasn't doing it for me. Sorry.

I will still be posting in the next weeks with the usual Poems of the Week and lists and whatnot, but I am not picking up anything to read until my grad school apps are completely finished in the next two weeks, so there won't be any new reviews. I apologize.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you all have a lovely Thanksgiving and a nice post-holiday weekend!

As a bonus, I'm including a link to the AV Club's List of their favorite books from the last decade. I adore the AV Club, but I was a little disappointed in this predictable, bleh list. But, in a note of excitement, guess what book made the cut? Gilead! Gilead is having a good year, what with making all sorts of best-of-the-decade lists and President Obama naming it as one of his favorite books. Despite my worry over the list's originality, it's still nice to get some more reading recommendations.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Seven Literary Things I'm Thankful for This Year

In honor of this week's Thanksgiving, I decided to do a list appropriate for the holiday. Here is my list of all the book-related things I am super-thankful for in the year 2009.

1. Marilynne Robinson - I'm not sure any other author's prose has had such an affect on me ever. Her writing is so perfect that it's devastating. Even better, Robinson's three novels - Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home - are some of the finest things I've ever had the pleasure to read. All of them are full of truth about life and cover so many important bases (life and death, tragedy and hope, guilt and redemption). Robinson's the first novelist since I was in high school to have such a profound affect on me as both a writer and a person.

2. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman - No more needs to be said about this book than I've said here a million times before. I'm thankful this book came around at the time it did because it's entertaining and funny and bittersweet and everything I needed during an emotionally confusing time.

3. Anne Carson interacting with Anna Akhmatova in Carson's "TV Men: Akhmatova" - Probably the most important literary discovery I made this year was my newfound love for women writers. I spent years preferring the work of men, but for some reason, as I've gotten older and realized just how much being an independently-minded woman means to me, I've found that female writers are much closer to my own voice . Being able to read a poem where Anne Carson, contemporary critic and poet, carries on a kind of dialogue with Anna Akhmatova of what it means to be a female writer taking part in a pained society, really meant something to me.

4. This blog's first annual Fitzgerald Week - I don't know about you guys, but I had a blast with September's week-long celebration of my favorite writer's birthday. F. Scott Fitzgerald is The Shit, and I was sooo happy to celebrate his work with fellow readers.

5. Confessing my love for fanfiction - It's been a secret passion for a couple years now, but this summer I finally realized that I could admit I loved reading fanfiction, consequences be damned. I'll say it again: I love fanfiction, especially the Supernatural Brotherhood AU series I mentioned a few months ago.

6. Pete Dexter's prose in Spooner - I wouldn't call Spooner a favorite book necessarily, but man, was it a fun read. I'm extremely envious of writers like Dexter, who can manage to make you laugh and cry with a single simple sentence. He's not the master prose artist or truthteller that Marilynne Robinson is, but at the time I read it, Spooner really took me out of my own life, which is exactly what good fiction should do.

7. Philip Larkin's Collected Poems - How could I call myself a poetry fan without Larkin in my life all this time? After buying his Collected Poems on a lark (heh), I couldn't stop reading it. His stuff is simple and hardly says anything groundbreaking (unlike, say, Rilke, who is ridiculously original), but the way he presents his work through rhythm and meter and heightened language is extremely admirable. Plus, the man knows how to make an emotional gut-punch in his endings like no other.

I hope you all have a lovely Thanksgiving and are thankful for your own literary moments this year. Feel free to share them below!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Poem of the Week: "The Underground," by Seamus Heaney

It's amazing we've made it this far in our Poem of the Week posts without getting to Seamus Heaney. Heaney is one of my favorite poets, and probably the first poet whose work I read obsessively. I love Heaney's use of language to evoke mood. His poems are achingly beautiful in their depictions of his homeland, Ireland, and in their studies of the people and forces acting upon it. He's interested in how the historical past continues to affect the present, a favorite theme of mine.

I picked Heaney this week because of Notre Dame. Yesterday, I went to the last Notre Dame home football game (surprise, surprise, they lost), one of the few places in the world where having red hair isn't necessarily unique. It's weird to me that a school named after a famous Paris cathedral is so Irish-obsessed, but since I've always secretly wished I was Irish, I'm kind of okay with it. So, like any young poet who loves poems about bogs, hearing the word "Irish" made me think: SEAMUS HEANEY!

So here you go, a Seamus Heaney poem. This isn't necessarily one of my favorite Heaney poems, but I think the way it evokes a specific scene and mood is really cool. Also, the last two lines are fantastic. And if you like this poem, rest assured that there will definitely be more Heaney ahead.

The Underground, by Seamus Heaney

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, mooning around, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Barred and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The November 20th Wish List

This is a new feature here on Not Your Mama's Bookshelf. Every few weeks, some books catch my eye that I want to purchase and read right away, but which have to be put on the back burner due to other concerns. So, I thought I'd include those books in a bi- or tri-weekly list (depending on how much is going on at the time). Here's the first entry!

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett - I keep seeing this novel referenced in reviews of my favorite so-bad-it's-good TV show, Supernatural, which is tackling the Apocalypse this season. Plus, we all know my crazy-love for Gaiman right now, so don't be surprised if I'm getting my hands on this in the next few months...

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross - This long nonfiction book got absolutely glowing reviews when it came out a couple years ago. It's a history and listener's guide to twentieth century classical music, which just so happens to be my most favorite kind of music. This seems like it might be a good read for the January doldrums.

Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving - This is Irving's new book, and even though Irving's last few books have been a little disappointing, I still think he's one of the best contemporary storyteller in the U.S. I hope to get to this sooner or later...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Favorite Passages: War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

I know, I know. Really? We're mentioning War and Peace again? But I promise there's a reason for the post today. Because this week marks the one year anniversary of my falling in love with War and Peace! About this time last year, I went from being a Tolstoy-hater of the first degree to suddenly being in love with every single aspect of his magnum opus, even the philosophy I vehemently disagree with the and the moments that abandon characters I love. So of course, I needed to make War and Peace the topic of this week's Favorite Passage.

It's hard to pick just one great passage from a book that tackles nearly every single theme ever found in literature, but I went with my gut and picked this one. This is a brief moment between our two main characters (well, as close as you can get to having main characters in a book rumored to contain 500 distinct people), Pierre and Prince Andrei. Andrei's heart has recently been broken by Natasha Rostova, who has had a disasterous flirtation with Anatole Kuragin, Pierre's brother-in-law. This moment carries, in my opinion, the single best sentence in the novel - the one where Prince Andrei smiles like his horribly unpleasant father. It's such a great way of showing that despite the many transformations we see in Andrei, at the root of it, he's a victim of his own upbringing and social class just like everyone else. Tolstoy is a genius, and I think we see that in the pained dialogue between these two friends.

From War and Peace (Book Eight), by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude:

Pierre saw that Prince Andrei was going to speak of Natasha, and his broad face expressed pity and sympathy. This expression irritated Prince Andrei, and in a determined, ringing, and unpleasant tone he continued.

"I have received a refusal from Countess Rostova and have heard reports of your brother-in-law having sought her hand, or something of that kind. Is that true?"

"Both true and untrue," Pierre began; but Prince Andrei interrupted him.

"Here are her letters and her portrait," said he.

He took the packet from the table and handed it to Pierre.

"Give this to the countess...if you see her."

"She is very ill," said Pierre.

"Then she is here still?" said Prince Andrei. "And Prince Kuragin?" he added quickly.

"He left long ago. She has been at death's door."

"I much regret her illness," said Prince Andrei; and he smiled like his father, coldly, maliciously, and unpleasantly.

"So Monsieur Kuragin has not honored Countess Rostova with his hand?" said Prince Andrei, and he snorted several times.

"He could not marry, for he was married already," said Pierre.

Prince Andrei laughed disagreeably, again reminding one of his father.

"And where is your brother-in-law now, if I may ask?" he said.

"He has gone to Peters...But I don't know," said Pierre.

"Well, it doesn't matter," said Prince Andrei. "Tell Countess Rostova that she was and is perfectly free and that I wish her all that is good."

Pierre took the packet. Prince Andrei , as if trying to remember whether he had something more to say, or waiting to see if Pierre would say anything, looked fixedly at him.

"I say, do you remember our discussion in Petersburg?" asked Pierre, "about..."

"Yes," returned Prince Andrei hastily. "I said that a fallen woman should be forgiven, but I didn't say I could forgive her. I can't."

"But can this be compared...?" said Pierre.

Prince Andrei interrupted him and cried sharply: "Yes, ask her hand again, be magnanimous, and so on?...Yes that would be very noble, but I am unable to follow in that gentleman's footsteps. If you wish to be my friend, never speak to me of that...of all that! Well, good-by. So you'll give her the packet?"

Pierre left the room and went to the old prince [Prince Andrei's father] and Princess Mary.

The old man seemed livelier than usual. Princess Mary was the same as always, but beneath her sympathy for her brother, Pierre noticed her satisfaction that the engagement had been broken off. Looking at them, Pierre realized what contempt and animosity they all felt for the Rostovs, and that it was impossible in their presence to mention the name of her who could give up Prince Andrei for anyone else.

After dinner the talk turned on the war, the approach of which was becoming evident. Prince Andrei talked incessantly, arguing now with his father, now with the Swiss tutor Desalles, and showing an unnatural animation, the cause of which Pierre so well understood.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Creepy Coraline

I decided to pick up a copy of Neil Gaiman's much-loved children's book, Coraline, based on two things: 1) He wrote The Graveyard Book, and you all know how I feel about TGB, and 2) my brother recently saw the critically-honored movie version of the book and highly recommended it. I am one of those people who prefers to read the book before a film has a chance to ruin my views on it, so I went ahead and got to the book so I could see the movie soon.

Coraline did not disappoint. It was exciting and packed with intense images. The heroine was a great character, very real and full of a child's misguided courage. And Gaiman's writing, as always, was full of fine moments. But here's the thing with Coraline: It's terrifying.

I'm not kidding. This has got to be one of the scariest books I have ever read. This is the stuff of my worst nightmares - lumpy dough versions of people, rats, bugs, blood, and violence. Some of the book's visuals (and even a few of its illustrations, done by Dave McKean, who often works with Gaiman) made my blood run completely cold. The plot of the book is pretty simple: Coraline finds a door in her family's flat that leads to a world that is like hers, but different. For example, her parents have been replaced by an "other mother" and "other father," figures with buttons for eyes who become scarier and scarier as the book goes on. Eventually, Coraline is completely trapped in this world and has to save the souls of her parents and three ghost children in order to escape. She does so, and with finesse, but things aren't necessarily all hunky-dory by the book's end.

I liked Coraline. It was a brief, entertaining read. But holy crap, I will not be able to get some of this stuff out of my head for awhile. Remember my list at Halloween about good scary reads? This would definitely make the cut. Yikes!

What's Next: Lev Grossman's The Magicians, which got some great reviews and is being called a "grown-up's Harry Potter." I'm excited to start it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Critic Meets the Poet: Anne Carson

I admit I'm not totally sure what to make of Anne Carson's book of poems and essays, Men in the Off Hours. I think Carson is a genius, and the way she plays with the ideas of poetry and criticism inspires me to think outside the box about my own work. But sometimes, her stuff is so heavy in allusion and wit that it takes away from the kind of emotionally compelling work I look for in other poets. Sometimes, it feels like Carson is a little too smart for her own good.

But even as I say that, I admit that I really, really liked this book. Some of the pieces in it were nothing short of amazing, with the way Carson builds on layers of meaning and language. The standouts in this collection are the long poem series. One, "Hopper: Confessions," was made up of 10 voice pieces centered around his artwork. Some of the lines in this series were quite wonderful and often surprising. Also, the entire set reminded me of going to the Indianapolis Museum of Art last winter with a good friend. The museum had a series of Edward Hopper's sketches for a single painting, so that you could see the piece build and change with time. The way these poems moved around his subjects reminded me of that exhibit.

The best poems in this collection come from the book's largest section, entitled TV Men. These long poems were centered around historic literary subjects. Many were about the subjects' lives but told through the perspective of someone intent on filming said lives. These poems were strange and extremely allusion-heavy (it helped to know a little about the subjects before reading the poem), but they were often beautifully written, addressing questions about humanity and love, politics and art. "Tolstoy" perfectly captured the often-contradictory strings in the writer's life, and as I mentioned in yesterday's Poem of the Week entry, Carson obviously struggles in understanding the man. The TV Men: Lazarus poems were also fantastic, with probably the best lines in the entire book.

But for me, the real standout was the TV Men: Akhmatova series. Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet who struggled for artisitic control with the Soviet government, is a complicated figure, and Carson turns her into this beautifully complex, heartbreakingly tragic heroine. I read the "Akhmatova" poems at a busy hamburger joint during my work lunchbreak. It was strange balancing these sad, personal poems with the hubbub around me, but the effect only added to the idea of chaos that poor Akhmatova dealt with through her entire life. She was a writer haunted by loss and government pressure, and Carson really seems to "get" her. It was awesome to see such understanding between two important, hyper-intelligent female poets from opposite sides of the world, of the century.

That's what I like about Anne Carson. As a literary critic, she often cannot separate her work from her love for the work of others. For this reason, her poems become extremely personal essays about what it means to worship at the literary altar of writers as petty and complicated as ourselves.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Lazarus (1st Draft)," by Anne Carson

This weekend, I finished Anne Carson's collection of poems and essays, Men in the Off Hours. I'll do a full write-up on it tomorrow, when I've had time to gather my thoughts on these often strange, often beautiful, extremely allusion-heavy works. This poem, "Lazarus (1st Draft)," is one of my favorite standalone pieces in the book. The figure of Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead, repeats often through the book, but this is his first appearance. Probably the reason I love this poem so much is because it casually mentions Prince Andrei, my beloved philosopher/soldier/man-about-town from War and Peace. Carson clearly loves and struggles with Tolstoy as much as I do, which is just one of the many things I love about her as both a critic and a poet.

Lazarus (1st Draft), by Anne Carson

Inside the rock on which we live, another rock.
So they believe.
What is a Lamb of God? People use this phrase.
I don't know.
I watch my sister, fingers straying absently about her mustache,
no help there.
Leaves stir through the house like souls, they stream
from the porch,
catch in the speaking holes, glow and are gone.
what Prince Andrei said when they told him Moscow had burnt
right down to the ground.
He said Really?
A man who had been to the war! had seen our lives are just blind arrows flying.
There he sat
on his cot all the same, trying to get the string to the bowhorn.
Actions go on in us,
nothing else goes on. While a blurred and breathless hour
repeats, repeats.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Favorite Passages: The Road Back, by Erich Maria Remarque

If you were to ask me who I thought the single most underrated writer of all time was, my answer would be Erich Maria Remarque. Sure, his novel All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most famous anti-war books of all time. But as a writer, he is extremely overlooked. He wrote at least ten other novels besides All Quiet, and they are nearly all out of print in America. In Germany, his home country, it's still possible to find a Remarque novel floating around, but over here, it's as if he was never more than a one-hit wonder.

Well, I won't stand for it. Remarque is one of my favorite novelists, and although all his work starts to look the same after awhile (all of it centers around the effects of the world wars for Germans), all his books are startlingly beautiful. They have the thinnest of plots, but the characters are all lovingly created. Most importantly, Remarque fully understands and sympathizes with the inability of the human mind to deal with tragedy. Nearly all his characters are dealing with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, struggling to maintain connections with other people after losing so much. His books are extremely well-built, both emotionally and physically, with life building up to a character's breaking point. He's a master of internal turmoil.

My favorite Remarque novel is The Road Back. Written only a year after All Quiet, it is often called a "sequel" to that book (and it's true that most of All Quiet's characters get name-checked in the novel). The Road Back takes place as World War I comes to a close, as the narrator, Ernst, and his friends struggle to re-adjust to society. They feel alienated from their government, their families, and their hometowns. Unable to find work and feeling as though their country betyrayed them, they cannot cope with the new world order in Germany. The book is extremely haunting. I first read it in high school, and I still remember sitting on my living room couch, crying fiercely through the last 50 pages or so. And even though it's a sad book, it completely explains what happened to Germany between the world wars, leading to the rise of Hitler. In fact, Remarque's early novels were so disillusioned with Germany and the rise of fringe nationalist political parties, that the Nazis made sure all his books were destroyed when they came to power.

This passage from the book comes towards the very beginning, before Ernst truly learns the meaning of the word "jaded." Ernst and his fellow soldiers are headed on the long path home as the war comes to a close. Remarque often uses the beauty of nature to counteract the horror of uprooted humanity, and this passage displays how Ernst finds peace in his surroundings even as the dead and dying are all around him.

From The Road Back, by Erich Maria Remarque
Translated by A.W. Wheen:

As I marched on with pack and lowered head, by the side of the road I see an image of bright, silken trees reflected in the pools of rain. In these occasional mirrors they are displayed clearer than in reality. They get another light and in another way. Embedded there in the brown earth lies a span of sky, trees, depths and clearness. Suddenly I shiver. For the first time in many years I feel again that something is still beautiful, that this in all its simplicity is beautiful and pure, this image in the water pool before me - and in this thrill my heart leaps up. For a moment all that other falls away, and now, for the first time, I feel it; I see it; I comprehend it fully: Peace. The weight that nothing eased before, now lifts at last. Something strange, something new flies up, a dove, a white dove. --Trembling horizon, tremulous expectancy, first glimpse, presentiment, hope, exaltation, imminence: Peace.

Sudden panic, and I look around. There behind me on the stretchers my comrades are now lying and still they call. It is peace, yet they must die. But I, I am trembling with joy and am not ashamed. --And that is odd.

Because none can ever wholly feel what another suffers - is that the reason why wars perpetually occur?

That last line is probably one of my favorite in all of literature. I hope you might all feel brave enough to check out Remarque sometime. He never disappoints. What he wrote about really mattered, and not a lot of writers can say that.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Meditation at Lagunitas," by Robert Hass

For the last month or so, I've been meaning to use this poem as my Poem of the Week. Robert Hass's "Meditation at Lagunitas" is definitely in my list of top five favorite poems. It starts out really highbrow and a little hard to understand, but those last eight lines are killer. Of all the poems I have ever read (including Larkin's "Talking in Bed," which I included a few weeks ago along with a discussion about the amazingness of its ending), the final line of this poem is hands-down my favorite final line of poetry EVER. And this is definitely a poem to read aloud, so that last line has even more beauty and impact. In fact, the first time I ever heard this poem, a professor was reading it to our class. And the way he read it runs through my mind every time I see it.

Meditation at Lagunitas, by Robert Hass

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island minnows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

An Open Letter to Barbara Kingsolver

Dear Barbara Kingsolver,

I think you are, without a doubt, one of the best living American writers. I am super-excited about your new novel, The Lacuna, which I plan to buy as a present to myself as soon as my grad school applications are finished later this month. Also, we share the same alma mater, which is cool. But I have a request - nay, a suggestion! - to make.

Bring back Taylor and Turtle and Jax and the gang. The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven are two of my favorite novels, and I miss your versions of the American West and nontraditional families. More importantly, the characters from these books are truly fantastic. I asked Taylor Greer to fight zombies with me. And Jax Thibodeaux? I'm in love with the man. These books and these characters have felt like a part of my life since I first read them in high school. Every couple years, I return to them so I can be part of the universe again. But you know what? Two is nice, but THREE IS BETTER!

That's right. For years, I have been secretly wishing and hoping and praying that maybe, just maybe, you'd be interested in writing a third book about these people. I would love to see how Jax and Taylor are adjusting to the possible married life, or how Turtle is handling the shift between her real family and her adopted family. Or maybe we could see what LuAnn is up to, or Alice? I know you've gotten away from these early family-centered novels to explore more political work. You are very interested in the environment, which is great, but is there anyway you could maybe mix that interest in with a plotline involving Jax? Also, you could get some politics into such a book if you make it take place in Jax's hometown of New Orleans. Imagine a book where Jax returns there after the hurricane and sees his estranged family. That is a book I would seriously sit in line for days to buy, a book I'd read over and over again.

This is all just a possibility. As a writer, it would get really old to have to keep returning to old creations. But I never felt like Taylor, Jax, and Turtle's story was really finished. Sure, I have my own ideas about what happens to them after Pigs in Heaven ends. I lay in bed at night and fall asleep to the plotlines I create for these kick-ass characters. So maybe, just maybe, you might think about a Taylor Greer trilogy....

Because you know what? For some reason, no one is writing Bean Trees/Pigs in Heaven fanfiction.

Love, Beth

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Poem of the Week: "We Never Know," by Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa is probably the first poet I really remember making me pause and think. I had always breezed through poetry in my teen years, not paying any attention to them. Then, in my first year of college, I was introduced to Yusef Komunyakaa, and suddenly I could no longer toss poems away as useless. His book Dien Cai Dau, about his experiences in the Vietnam War, is full of tragedy and meaning and loss. It's a great introduction to poetry in that it concentrates on a single topic but has surprising ruminations and gorgeous lines. It's a fantastic book that I'd recommend to anyone. This poem, one of the book's shortest, is also one of it's most powerful. "We Never Know" is the poem that made me realize that even the slightest of poetry could contain the same emotional capacity as a 400-page novel. The awesome thing about poetry is that it cares as much for what goes unsaid as it does it what's written. This poem is the perfect example of that power of suggestion.

We Never Know, by Yusef Komunyakaa

He danced with tall grass
for a moment, like he was swaying
with a woman. Our gun barrels
glowed white-hot.
When I got to him,
a blue halo
of flies had already claimed him.
I pulled the crumpled photograph
from his fingers.
There's no other way
to say this: I fell in love.
The morning cleared again,
except for a distant mortar
& somewhere choppers taking off.
I slid the wallet into his pocket
& turned him over, so he wouldn't be
kissing the ground.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

I hope everyone is having a good Halloween so far. In honor of the holiday, I thought I'd share some of my favorite spooky reads with you. Well, some are spooky. Others just fit the holiday spirit but don't provoke terror, which is nice, too. Here are some of my favorite Halloween-ish reads:

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski: This strange novel is definitely one of the creepiest books I've ever read, possibly the most creepy. It's a slow treatise on the psychology of fear, a meditation on the value and failures of narrative, and a haunted house story all in one. It's a hard read, with its stories-within-stories and it's endless footnotes. But when I read it late at night, it took me forever to fall asleep. If you want to really work for your terror, this is the book that'll do the trick.

Salem's Lot, by Stephen King: There are lots of people who claim Stephen King is actually not that scary to read, but whatever. When I read this horror novel, I couldn't sleep facing my bedroom window for weeks. I'd never want to see my vampiric best friend floating outside my window wanting to come in....

"Stone Animals," by Kelly Link: This short story from Link's collection, Magic for Beginners, isn't scary so much as it is deeply unsettling. I can't read it without my skin crawling for no discernable reason. Nothing actually scary happens, but the idea of things and people becoming "haunted" makes me feel weird inside. And the end...well, quite frankly, I have no idea what's up with that.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: By now, you all know my love for this coming-of-age novel exceeds bounds. But it really does make a great Halloween read, what with all the ghosts and the werewolf and the vampire guardian. Not to mention the super-weird ghouls and the clever, lovelord witches. Such an awesome and emotionally-satisfying little book!

"Requiem for a Friend," by Rainer Maria Rilke: This long, challenging elegy for a dead friend is both beautiful and scary. Rilke writes with an authority about the dead that no other writer has ever quite mastered, and this poem may be his greatest treaty on the subject. In the poem, Rilke pleads with his friend (the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker) to stop haunting him, leaving him to his mourning. The poem is creepy, but it's also extremely moving. His grief is so immense you can't help but feel it yourself.

World War Z, by Max Brooks: Well, here it is: the book that made me fear the living dead. This fake oral history on the worldwide war against a zombie outbreak is surprisingly literary and imaginative, even as it piles on the scary and unsettling. For me, the memorable moment takes place when a woman recounts the night she and her family looked out a sliding glass door to see a zombie standing on their back deck. Not long after, her husband is dead and her hometown is completely plagued by the virus. But that early moment when the terror is just beginning to invade is really where the horror lies.

I hope you all enjoyed the list. Feel free to recommend your favorite Halloween reads. And to get everyone in the mood, here's one of my favorite Halloween songs, Saint-Saens's fantastic orchestral piece, Danse Macabre.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Paul Muldoon Reading

Last night, I went to a reading at Notre Dame given by Paul Muldoon. Muldoon, an Irish poet, is an extremely important literary figure. He's won dozens of awards, and he currently serves as the poetry editor for The New Yorker. I like Paul Muldoon - his poems show a love of language and people and places - but he's never been one of my favorites. For some reason, his poems have never caught me the way other poets' have. But that didn't matter last night. Because for an hour, he had me completely captivated. He was funny, rambling, and had that crazy writer look, complete with messy hair and tweed jacket. The man obviously loves poetry and the world it comes from, and it was his love for his work that proved infectious. He spent more time talking about the background for his poems than he actually spent reading them, but that wasn't a problem. I could have sat there and listened to his Irish accent telling me about the history of horse hair used as housing material for hours.

So instead of a Favorite Passage today, I thought I would post my favorite poem Muldoon read last night. He told a charming story about the poem's background, and his love for the people in the piece really came out in full force. If you pay close attention while reading, you'll find some surprising rhyme and sound going on. Enjoy!

The Sightseers, by Paul Muldoon

My father and mother, my brother and sister
and I, with uncle Pat, our dour best-loved uncle,
had set out that Sunday afternoon in July
in his broken-down Ford

not to visit some graveyard - one died of shingles,
one of fever, another's knees turned to jelly -
but the brand new round-about at Ballygawley,
the first in mid-Ulster.

Uncle Pat was telling us how the B-specials
had stopped him one night somewhere near Ballygawley
and smashed his bicycle

and made him sing the Sash and curse the Pope of Rome.
They held a pistol so hard against his forehead
that there was still the mark of an O when he got home.

Note: On Saturday, you can expect a Halloween-related post for the holiday. Also, I just bought Anne Carson's Men in the Off Hours, which I am really excited to read. Carson mixes prose (particularly the essay form) and poetry in really interesting ways, and as a former classicist, her stuff is super-intellectual. This book has essays about Sappho and Virginia Woolf and poems about Tolstoy and Anna Ahkmatova, and it will probably be the "smartest" thing I've read in quite some time. I'm really looking forward to it!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Zombie-Killin'! Ten Characters I Want on My Side in the Case of a Zombie Apocalypse

For those of you who don't know, my biggest fear in life (after heights and choking) is the possibility of a zombie outbreak. Zombies are scary and, in my opinion, a lot more likely to happen than you might think. But if zombies are one of my biggest fears, then the opposite also holds true: There are few things I love more than some real, honest-to-God zombie killing! While watching the very funny and entertaining movie, Zombieland, a couple weeks ago, I really got into the parts where characters wipe out waves of the walking dead with nothing more than a gun and clever human thinking. It got me thinking. I mean, what would I do if I found myself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse? Easy: I'd get a super-awesome team of zombie-killers together to fight our way through the new world order.

Of course, as always happens with me, this led back to books. There are some literary characters I would really really really want on my zombie demolition squad. So who are these lovely and capable fictional folk? I'm glad you asked. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Rorschach (from Watchmen, by Alan Moore): Moore's super-violent, strange, and interesting creation would be the perfect zombie fighter. He wants to defeat evil, and anyone whose read the graphic novel could tell you that he's not afraid to go to horrifying extremes to show someone who's boss. If I were a zombie, all I'd have to do is see his masked face and my head would explode.

2/3. Denisov and Dolokhov (from War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy): Okay, I'm cheating a bit here by including two very different characters from the same book. I've always had a bit of a soft spot for the unlucky, speech-impediment-addled Denisov, but by the end of the book, he proves himself a smart and capable soldier. I have no doubt he can do what it takes to get the job done. Dolokhov, meanwhile, is something of a magnificent bastard. Unpleasant, greedy, and just a plain old jerk, Dolokhov's black heart would never let sentiment or emotion get in his way of killing zombies. Is that his friend Anatole over there munching on some peasant meat? Bam! He didn't even like the guy that much anyway...

4. Allan Woodcourt (from Bleak House, by Charles Dickens): The literal epitome of brave and useful, Woodcourt would no doubt prove useful during a zombie outbreak. He already heals the sick, comforts dying orphans, and marries girls with pockmarked faces. And now, he can add Zombie Killing Machine to his resume.

5. Jordan Baker (from The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald): Yes, I know, I seem a bit obsessed with Jordan Baker. But that girl always comes off as tough as nails, and she can swing a mean golf club. Also, she already cheats at her chosen profession and gets paid for it, so she'd have few moral dilemmas about shooting a zombie Daisy Buchanan in the face. Although by the end of Gatsby, she probably wouldn't have a problem shooting HUMAN Daisy Buchanan in the face either.

5. Captain Wentworth (from Persuasion): Yes, crush-worthy and zombie-war-worthy both. The Bennett sisters might be the zombie-fighting Austen characters to grace Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but us real Austen readers know that Captain Wentworth is the one to put your money behind. And, you know, if the post-zombie-apocalyptic world required some repopulation, Wentworth would be nice to have around, if you catch my drift...

6/7. Silas and Bod (from The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman): Silas, with all his vampiric powers and desire to protect those he loves, would make a truly awesome adversary for the undead. And Bod, a tough kid who's used to hanging out with the (un)dead, would be a fantastic sidekick, if only Silas would let him. These two have fought off some truly deadly foes in the past (human and ghoul alike), and they could do it again in a heartbeat.

8. Taylor Greer (from The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver): Kingsolver is one of the few writers who can create a female character that is rough and tumble without being annoying. Taylor Greer can fight with the best of them, and she is fiercely loyal to those on her side (but if you piss her off, it might take you a while to get back in her good graces). If she became part of your zombie-killing crew/family, you can bet she'd have your back every moment.

9. Otto Köster (from Three Comrades, by Erich Maria Remarque): Truthfully, nearly all of Remarque's characters would make pretty great zombie killers. But Otto always struck me as particularly right for the job. A great friend of the highest order, he watches out for those around him while still being bad-ass. And our crew could always use a sweet car like his, the beloved racer "Karl."

10. Casey Jones (from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles): Okay, so I definitely got this from watching the original live-action movie and not a book, but it's my list, so he stays on it. While watching the movie, a friend told me she thought Casey would prove extremely useful in a zombie apocalypse. She's right. He wants to punish evil (in this case, the evil dead), and like Jordan Baker, he knows his way around deadly sports equipment. One swing of his hockey puck to a zombie's head, and we'd be on our way to winning the war.

I hope you all enjoyed the list. Please sound off below and let me know who'd you want on your side during a zombie war!

Sunday, October 25, 2009


On Thursday, I finally finished Pete Dexter's brand new novel, Spooner. It took me a long time (2 weeks for only 459 pages) to finish, but it was worth all the time I spent with it. This is the first book by Dexter I've ever read, and I think I might have to go and check out the rest of his work now, too. Because Spooner is good at everything that makes a novel a great read: funny, sad, well-written, and filled with wonderful, memorable characters. The book centers around the relationship between the titular Warren Spooner, who begins the novel as an injury-prone, mischief-loving little mishap of a child and ends it as a successful adult who takes care of those around him, and Spooner's stepfather, the super-patient and hardworking Calmer Ottosson. Dexter does an absolutely fantastic job at exploring all the complexities of love and family.

The set-up sounds a little sentimental, but the book is anything but. In fact, it's downright bittersweet in even its lightest moments. The story is all about being human, trying (and failing) to understand the people we want to love. From the very beginning of their time together, Calmer cannot understand Spooner. Dexter lets us readers see both the sad desire for attention Spooner craves as a child and the inevitable frustration and confusion Calmer feels towards the strange creature.

Calmer begins the novel as an upright Navy officer with the world at his fingertips, only to have an almost-funny accident derail his career. He ends up working in the South, marrying Spooner's unhappy mother and becoming a default father. He obviously cares about Spooner and wants to love him, but Spooner makes it extremely difficult. Meanwhile, as Spooner tries to find his way in the world, he often fails miserably, usually getting maimed in the process. He wants to make Calmer happy, but he seems incapable of doing right by the man despite his good intentions. Dexter details this bumpy connection between the two with sentences that somehow manage to be both incredibly funny and incredibly heartbreaking at once. I honestly don't know how Dexter manages to do it, creating a world where we readers can laugh and cry in reaction to a single line. The prose in this book, particularly in the first half, is really something special.

As the book continues, things begin to flip for Spooner and Calmer. Spooner eventually finds happiness and family, and Calmer meets mostly with disappointment and loneliness. In the final chapters, as Spooner cares for the aging Calmer, he gets the chance to show his stepfather just what his love really meant (Spooner thinks of Calmer as "the greatest man he'd ever known, or at least the greatest man who had ever known him"). The ending refuses to nicely tie everything together with a hug and kiss, but it also manages to be an extremely cathartic dissertation on what it means to be connected to a person you can only understand through your own eyes. For Calmer, it means trying to love Spooner despite not fully "getting" him. And for Spooner, it means showing you care in the limited ways you can manage.

The whole book is a joy to read, and it's something I would definitely recommend to anyone who is interested in literature tracing entire lives and relationships.