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.

Poem of the Week: "Midsummer," by Louise Glück

A couple years ago, during a poetry reading at my alma mater, I read this poem by Louise Glück, an important contemporary female poet whom I have mixed feelings about. I liked the poem a lot, but I was a little worried I might be the only one. However, the reading was a smashing success, and a lot of people praised my choice of poem. Even though it's a poem that takes place during the summer, it's really about the lost chances of a late autumn day such as this, so I thought it would be appropriate for this week.

Midsummer, by Louise Glück

On nights like this we used to swim in the quarry,
the boys making up games requiring them to tear off the girls' clothes
and the girls cooperating, because they had new bodies since last summer
and they wanted to exhibit them, the brave ones
leaping off the high rocks - bodies crowding the water.

The nights were humid, still. The stone was cool and wet,
marble for graveyards, for buildings that we never saw,
building in cities far away.

On cloudy days, you were blind. Those nights the rocks were dangerous,
but in another way it was all dangerous, that was what we were after.
The summer started. Then the boys and girls began to pair off
but always there were a few left at the end - sometimes they'd keep watch,
sometimes they'd pretend to go off with each other like the rest,
but what could they do there, in the woods? No one wanted to be them.
But they'd show up anyway, as though some night their luck would change,
fate would be a different fate.

At the beginning and at the end, though, we were all together.
After the evening chores, after the smaller children were in bed,
then we were free. Nobody said anything, but we knew the nights we'd meet
and the nights we wouldn't. Once or twice, at the end of the summer,
we could see a baby was going to come out of all that kissing.

And for those two, it was terrible, as terrible as being alone.
The game was over. We'd sit on the rock smoking cigarettes,
worrying about the ones who weren't there.

And then finally walk home through the fields,
because there was always work the next day.
And the next day, we were kids again, sitting on the front steps in the morning,
eating a peach. Just that, but it seemed an honor to have a mouth.
And then going to work, which meant helping out in the fields.
One boy worked for an old lady, building shelves.
The house was very old, maybe built when the mountain was built.

And then the day faded. We were dreaming, waiting for night.
Standing at the front door at twilight, watching the shadows lengthen.
And a voice in the kitchen was always complaining about the heat,
wanting the heat to break.

Then the heat broke, the night was clear.
And you thought of the boy or girl you'd be meeting later.
And you thought of walking into the woods and lying down,
practicing all those things you were learning in the water.
And though sometimes you couldn't see the person you were with,
there was no substitute for that person.

The summer night glowed; in the field, fireflies were glinting.
And for those who understood such things, the stars were sending messages:
You will leave the village where you were born
and in another country you'll become very rich, very powerful,
but always you will mourn something you left behind, even though you can't say what it was,
and eventually you will return to seek it.

Note: Today is the birthday of one of my favorite contemporary novelists, Anne Tyler. I wrote about my love for Tyler's underappreciated Saint Maybe a couple weeks ago. Once again, I urge you to check out the book. It's quite wonderful.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Birthday Musings and Some Notes

Well, today I turn 23, which is exciting I guess. Truth is, I don't put much stock in the importance of my own birthday anymore, although I am always happy to celebrate it with friends and family. My birthday also gives me time to reflect on all the great reading I did the year before. And the age of 22 was a great year of reading. I encountered two of the best books I have ever read: War and Peace and Gilead, and I explored the poetry of Philip Larkin and W.H. Auden. Overall, it was a successful reading age. To celebrate, I am including another passage from Gilead, even though you've heard about the book a million times here before. I can't help it; it's genius.

From Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson:

I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping into the air, our insouciant Soapy! Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.

Note: Sorry my posts have been more erratic lately; they may stay that way for awhile. My new job currently has me on a six-day work week, and I will be extremely busy with graduate school applications for the next month or so. I will always post a Poem of the Week, and I will update you all on anything I read or recommend. For example, you will soon hear about Pete Dexter's new novel, Spooner, which I am set to finish in the next 24 hours. It's been a fantastic read so far. Otherwise, I will try to update as often as possible and stay on schedule as time allows. Thanks for being understanding! Happy Reading, everyone!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Talking in Bed," by Philip Larkin

When I am looking for a good poem, or rather a poem to love and squeeze the life out of, I tend to make the decision based on the ending. If I read the final few lines of a poem and it feels like someone has punched me in the gut, I know I've found a winner. Good endings do many things at once: they end with an image or idea that's memorable, they tie together everything that has come before, and they leave you thinking deeper and wanting more. One of the best end-liners of all time is Philip Larkin. I have mentioned Philip Larkin on here a couple times already, and I apologize if I sound like a broken record, but he is just so incredible. His rhyme and meter manages to be complex and simple at the same time, and he buries nuggets of philosophy in images of common, even mundane, tasks and descriptions.

So, here we have "Talking in Bed," my single most-favorite Larkin poem in a long list of favorite Larkin poems (and quite possibly my second favorite poem of all time in all of poetry). It's deceptively simple, and yet so beautiful and sad and honest. And those last two lines: Killer gut-punchers. Enjoy!

Talking in Bed, by Philip Larkin

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind's incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Favorite Passages: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

My list of literary crushes from Tuesday is lacking a few noticeable entries. After all, when you read as much as I do, such a list could easily be pages long. But one of the more noteworthy absences was Holden Caulfield, the easily-identifiable hero of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. When I first read this novel at the age of fourteen, I both loved and hated Holden. He was a little annoying, what with his constant use of the word "phoney" and his recklessness. But in him, I also found a damaged fellow teenager who just needed a confidante. And of course, I wanted to be that confidante.

Here's the problem with The Catcher in the Rye. It's a book that can only mean something to you if you read it at the perfect time - say, when you're an uncertain, bookish fourteen-year-old with a love for tragic, sad boys. Unfortunately, the book has not worn well as I've gotten older and more mature. I still like to read it - it's too full of my own youthful anxieties and troubles to discount - but it's lost a lot of its early luster. Holden's voice can grate on the nerves after awhile, and it's easy as an adult to pick apart his overly-simplified arguments. But there are occasionally breathless and beautiful passages that make the book worth every reading. I've probably read the book five or six times in the last nine years, and certain lines or paragraphs still bring me to my knees. I am most moved by the passages in which Holden tries to deal with the death of his younger brother Allie from years earlier. These are raw and terrible emotions, and Salinger does a great job letting Holden unfold them on his own instead of inserting his writerly intuitions of making everything mean something bigger. When Holden begs Allie for help in crossing a street, for example, it's impossible as a passionate reader not to get caught up in the moment and nearly weep for both these lost boys.

Which brings me to my passage of the week. In this scene, Holden is writing an assigned composition for one of his schoolmates, Stradlater. Instead of doing the assignment as asked, Holden instead decides to write about Allie's death. It's a sad, clear passage so steeped in denial and anger and pain that the Reader Who Enjoys Tragedy in me could not resist it.

From The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

The thing was, I couldn't think of a room or a house or anything to describe the way Stradlater said he had to have. I'm not too crazy about describing rooms and houses anyway. So what I did, I wrote about my brother Allie's baseball mitt. It was a very descriptive subject. It really was. My brother Allie had this left-handed fielder's mitt. He was left-handed. The thing that was descriptive about it, though, was that he had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere. In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he'd have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up to bat. He's dead now. He got leukemia and died when were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You'd have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was about fifty times as intelligent. He was terrifically intelligent. His teachers were always writing letters to my mother, telling her what a pleasure it was having a boy like Allie in their class. And they weren't just shooting the crap. They really meant it. But it wasn't just that he was the most intelligent member in the family. He was also the nicest, in lots of ways. He never got mad at anybody. People with red hair are supposed to get mad very easily, but Allie never did, and he had very red hair. I'll tell you what kind of red hair he had. I started playing golf when I was only ten years old. I remember once, the summer I was around twelve, teeing off and all, and having a hunch that all of a sudden, I'd see Allie. So I did, and sure enough, he was sitting on his bike outside the fence - there was this fence that went all around the course - and he was sitting there, about a hundred and fifty yards behind me, watching me tee off. That's the kind of red hair he had. God, he was nice kid, though. He used to laugh so hard at something he thought of at the dinner table that he just about fell off his chair. I was only thirteen and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don't blame them. I really don't. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand couldn't do it. It was a very stupid thing to do, I'll admit, but I hardly didn't even know I was doing it, and you didn't know Allie. My hand still hurts me once in a while, when it rains and all, and I can't make a real fist any more - not a tight one, I mean - but outside of that I don't care much. I mean I'm not going to be a goddam surgeon or violinist or anything anyway.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What Real Boys Never Live Up To: Beth's Top Ten Most Fervent Literary Crushes

One of the best things about my new job - besides the nice discount on books and the occasional free latte - is that it once again puts me in the land of the living. When I was job-hunting, I spent most of my time alone with only two fighting cats for company. But finally, I am once again taking part in proper social interaction. Of course, this means I am once again thrown in the middle of men I find attractive but unattainable (and occasionally, attractive but unfortunately-mannered). I am prone to the occasional infatuation, but nothing quite lives up to the crushes I develop towards literary characters. It might be unhealthy, but I can't help but constantly fall in love with these wonderful creations. I hope as I present my all-time favorite literary loves, you will spend some time thinking of your own. And who knows? Maybe you have a top-ten list, too...

Top Ten Literary Character Crushes

1. Jax Thibodeaux (from Pigs in Heaven, by Barbara Kingsolver): When I first read Pigs in Heaven about seven or so years ago, I fell head over heels in love with this man, protagonist Taylor Greer's live-in boyfriend. This sensitive rock musician adores his girfriend, writes songs with the aid of Taylor's adopted daughter, and grieves for the many things he has lost. Jax is funny, self-deprecating (well, to be honest, he actually has low self-esteem), and seemingly talented. More importantly, he wants nothing more from life than to be near the ones he loves. It sounds corny, but Kingsolver makes him as imperfect as the rest of us. And I don't know why, but I love the cracks in Jax's character as much as I love the flashes of perfection.

2. Kerry Holiday (from This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald): You might remember this name from my Fitzgerald-related list a few weeks ago. For some reason, I often collect doomed characters as literary crushes, and Kerry is the prototype. From the beginning, it's easy to desire his friendship and attention, with his strong sense of humor and easy-going attitude. Plus, he's as luckless in love as a certain book-obsessed blog writer, so he gets double points. But then, less than halfway through the book, we find out he dies in World War I. And really, I should have known all along from the moment I decided I liked him.

3. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (from War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy): I admit it seems a little strange to develop a crush on a character from one of the longest and most serious literary achievements the world has ever known. But in the literature class I took last fall where we studied War and Peace, the professor asked the girls in the class (for the purpose of comparing Tolstoy's constructions of different characters) if we found Prince Andrei - handsome, intelligent, restless, and doomed - attractive, we were all quiet for a moment. Then suddenly, one by one, we began nodding our heads and fumbling our words. The professor just smiled; point made.

4. Dan Needham (from A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving): Dan is a lot like Jax in the simple fact that he's a bit of a cliched nice guy. He loves his almost-stepson, narrator John Wheelwright, as if he were his own, and he always stands up for people who need help. Plus, he has red hair and is a bit of a nerd - never a bad thing in my book. So while Dan may not be the most exciting literary creation of all time, he's certainly one of the most decent and loving.

5. Captain Frederick Wentworth (from Persuasion, by Jane Austen): Okay, have you seen the letter Captain Wentworth wrote to his beloved Anne Elliot while only sitting a few feet away from her? Wentworth makes me ask, "Darcy Who?" Check and Mate.

6. Atticus Finch (from How to Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee): That's right. I have a crush on Atticus Finch. He's the most respectable man who probably ever graced a page. I don't care if he's older or too interested in doing what's right to be up for much dating. He represents everything that is good in humanity, and that's what makes him crush-able.

7. Gottfried Lenz (from Three Comrades, by Erich Maria Remarque): Another doomed figure, which seems to be Remarque's specialty. I've actually carried a torch for quite a few Remarque characters, as they often are so full of grief and shock that they bring out all my dumb instincts to hug and make cookies and repair holes of humanity in the wake of World War I. Lenz, however, is never less than charming: funny, intelligent, a lover of poetry and beer. He's a goodtime guy haunted by memories of war, and when he gets caught up in the post-WWI political movements (Lenz is anti-Hitler; he seems to be more of a communist), you know it can only turn out badly.

8. Mason "Mace" McCormick (from Tex, by S.E. Hinton): In my Hinton post from a couple weeks ago, I mentioned that I often fell for her super-responsible older brother types. Mason is probably my all-time favorite Hinton creation. He's torn between taking care of his younger brother and getting the hell out of his home time, possibly through a college basketball scholarship. He worries so much he even develops an ulcer. But Hinton refuses to make Mason particularly sympathetic. His temper often gets the best of him (his first real scene in the book involves him beating the shit out of his little brother, the titular narrator), and he's so serious sometimes that he never looks twice at a girl or a painting or even a movie. But the final few chapters of the book reveal a complex teenager who simultaneously wants nothing more than to take care of his brother and himself at the same time.

9. Scripps (from History Boys, by Alan Bennett): I love History Boys. It's about damaged people doing often horrible things based on what they believe. In one scene, as the teachers and students talk about the Holocaust, several characters voice that it's a situation so far beyond factual comprehension that talking about it in terms of historical "interest" is grotesque. And the play works this out on a much smaller level, with both idealism and cynicism raging war against each other. It ends up as a war that no one wins. And stuck in the middle is amiable, God-fearing, "nice" Scripps. It's hard not to feel bad for a guy who sees everything but is pretty much too weak-willed to keep anything from happening. At the end, when we learn that he might never get to be the kind of writer he wants to be, it feels even sadder than it should. So why do I have a crush on him? I have no idea, but that never stops me when I read the play, watch the theater version, or see the movie.

10. Peter Hatcher (from Superfudge and other books, by Judy Blume): Peter Hatcher was my very first literary crush, way back when I was seven years old. For those of you who don't know, Superfudge was the "book that changed my life." It cemented my love for reading, and when I read it the first time, I knew I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I wanted to share stories with people who would love them as much as I loved that book. I over-identified with Peter when I was a kid. I thought I had an annoying brother, and so did he. He was smart but largely normal, which I thought I was. We would have been good friends had we known each other. And now, weird as it may seem, I often wonder what he'd be like now. After all, now we'd both be mature adults making our way in the world without our siblings under foot. Hmmm...I wonder if he's single...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Saint Judas," by James Wright

I didn't pick this Poem of the Week for any particular reason other than the fact that I just really, really like it. I love it. It holds one of my favorite literary passages of all time in the last three lines. Plus, it's a sonnet - my favorite (although admittedly cliched) poetic form. It's a beautiful little poem about guilt and redemption, and James Wright presents Judas's story with so little fuss that it feels like a minor miracle. I hope you like this poem even half as much as I do.

Saint Judas, by James Wright

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Reading Week in Review: Second Chances, Good and Bad

The theme of my reading week came down to two words: Second Chances. One is meant in the positive, with Richard Hugo's poems about redemption and looking back on life. The other kind of second chance holds terrifying possibilities in Stephen King's Pet Sematary. They were two very different reads, but in the end they both dealt with trying to make a bad thing right again.

I finished King's novel at the beginning of the week, and I liked it better than I expected. I really respect Stephen King for his love for the craft of writing and for the way he champions other writers and artists. However, I often find his work a little heavy-handed and self-indulgent. Pet Sematary definitely had its moments of awkward writing, and it didn't particularly scare me. But what I enjoyed about the book wasn't the horror plot or the mood. I enjoyed it for the very mature and terrifying way it handled raw grief. From the very beginning, the book is dripping with forthcoming doom, but that didn't keep me from being completely shaken up by what happens about half-way through.

[SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!] After the main character, Louis Creed, loses his toddler son, I couldn't help but feel every possible stab of grief and horror he and his family encountered. The grief is so profound in this part of the book that it made for a really hard reading experience. When the "horror" aspect of the book began at this half-way point, what made it so scary wasn't the bringing back of the dead or the possible wendigo that haunts the woods. What made it scary was how realistic it was that a man in Louis Creed's position might choose to do what he does in attempting to resurrect his dead child. After finishing the book, I had to admit that had I been in the protagonist's position, I might have very well done the exact same thing. How could you not be tempted to end your own grief and the horrible, thick sadness of your family by bringing back what was lost? So although Pet Sematary in and of itself left me a little cold (I much prefer King's Salem's Lot, which is much scarier and slightly better written), I had to give King a big round of applause for the way he dealt with a very real, fresh emotion that even "literary" writers sometimes shy away from.

The other book I read this week was Richard Hugo's 1980 collection of poetry, White Center. I really like Hugo, which isn't a surprise considering he was a student of Theodore Roethke and a close friend of James Wright, two of my favorite poets. At the time these poems were written, Hugo was a recovering alcoholic who dealt with serious bouts of depression and struggled to re-enter himself into family life. Hugo probably writes the most wonderful descriptions of nature that I have read in poetry. His work is very deft; the man does not waste space on lots of adjectives. His poems are full of short, even choppy, sentences, and the emotional pull is always simmering below the surface. Occasionally, a short line of confession will appear as if by magic and change the entire way you read the poem.

My favorite two poems in the collection are "Second Chances" and "White Center." "White Center" deals with returning to a home that is no longer your own. As the speaker (presumably, Hugo himself) wanders his childhood haunts, he sees himself both everywhere and nowhere in it. It's a really cool piece, and it has one of my all time favorite poetic opening statements: "Town or poem, I don't care how it looks." Meanwhile, "Second Chances" talks about Hugo's newfound, surprising happiness after having been in ruin for so long. But not all is as it seems, as the poet confesses he's still tempted by the old life, and even now, he doesn't feel quite right in his skin. The poem ends with a really cool image in which Hugo uses a children's game called "ghost" to show his discomfort: "a game where, according to the rules, you take / another child's name in your mind but pretend / you're still you while others guess your new name." It's a beautiful, haunting image that goes along well with a strong collection of poetry.

Coming up: I just bought Pete Dexter's brand-spanking-new novel, Spooner, and I'm excited to start it. My new bookstore job has the oh-so-wonderful perk of discounts, so I'm once again buying hardcovers and poetry books!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Favorite Passages: Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler

Lately, I've come to really admire a trick many fiction writers use but only a few are true masters of: the trick of using different viewpoints to the best advantage. By this, I mean works of fiction that peel back layers of the story's complexity by only allowing certain things to pass through at certain times. Probably the best example of this is Ian McEwan's fantastic novel (made into just as fantastic a movie) Atonement, which has the narration shift so that the characters are blind to each other's real feelings and motives and experiences, thereby revealing the true heartbreak of life: that we only get glimpses of understanding and never the whole possbility to "get" anyone. But there are other writers who excel at revealing characters through the blinders they wear around each other. Tolstoy is a master at this device, where one character might talk about his best friend in one paragraph, and in the next, allowing that "best friend" to admit he's just using the other guy to get ahead. It's pretty awesome.

One of my favorite books that uses the shifting third-person limited narrative to tell a beautiful, devastating, and complex story is Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler. I've read this simple and lovely little book at least five times, and it just gets better and better with every read. I think it's a ridiculously under-praised novel, and it's always got a prime spot on my bookshelf. The novel tells the story of the Bedloe family and how they change in the face of tragedy. The protagonist is the youngest son, Ian, who blames himself for his brother's death, then finds a quirky Christian religious outifit and makes penance by raising his brother's three kids (two - and possibly all three - of whom are not Bedloes at all). The narration mainly centers around Ian, but Tyler has several amazing chapters where we shift primarily to the other characters, including those three children as they get older and Ian's shocked and hurting parents. Ian seems to go through life just trying to do what's right, and he often does it without thinking of either the grief or happiness he creates in his wake. These shifting view-point chapters point out the sadness Ian's decisions create in his parents, but they also show how these three poor kids realize the grace that Ian's bestowed upon them, even if he does not realize it himself. It's a haunting and wonderful effect.

So on that note, I've chosen one of my favorite passages from the book, from my favorite chapter (Chapter Four: "Famous Rainbows"), which is in the viewpoint of the middle non-Bedloe child, Thomas. I don't know why, but Thomas is my favorite character in the book. He's so young and trying so hard to be good, and it's just heartbreaking how Tyler infuses him with both a mature ability to attempt reckoning with the world around him and a naive innocence in failing to understand the big picture. In this chapter, Thomas and his sisters are attending a summer day camp run by Ian's church. Here, we see how much Thomas loves the man who's chosen to raise him, even as the little boy deals with his own helplessness in the scheme of things. I hope you enjoy it; this is a book I'd recommend in a heartbeat.

From Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler

Toweled dry and dressed, their swimsuits hanging on the line outdoors and their hair still damp, they gathered for Devotions. Sister Myra said, "Dear Lord, thank You for this day of fellowship and listen now to our silent prayers," and then she left a long, long space afterward. Silent prayers were sort of like Afternoon Swim; you had the feeling she was too worn out to make the effort anymore. Everyone was worn out. Still, Thomas tried. He bowed his head and closed his eyes and prayed for his mother in heaven. He knew she was up there, watching over him. And he knew his prayers were being heard. Hadn't he prayed for Ian not to go to Vietnam that time? And the draft notice came anyway and Thomas had blamed God, but then the doctors found out Ian had an extra heartbeat that had never been heard before and never given a moment's trouble since, and Thomas knew his prayer had been answered. He'd stood up at Public Amending the following Sunday and confessed how he had doubted, but everyone was so happy about Ian that they just smiled at him while he spoke. He had felt he was surrounded by loving feelings. Afterward, Reverend Emmett said he thought Thomas had not really sinned, just shown his ignorance; and he was confident it would never happen again. And sure enough, it hadn't.

"In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen," Sister Myra said.

They all rustled and jostled and pushed each other, glad to be moving again.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Poem to Share: W.H. Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening"

Well, I have to admit I'm having trouble coming up with new and exciting lists. I have lots of ideas, but not a lot of time to carefully investigate each one. Even worse, I have a feeling I would keep mentioning a lot of the same books and writers over and over again. So instead, I'd like to share a super-awesome poem with you all. Every few months, I suddenly become obsessed with a poet. And I think my latest obsession might be W.H. Auden, an English poet who moved to America around the same time as his creative high-point. His poem "As I Walked Out One Evening" is quickly becoming one of my favorite poems. It's quite beautiful, and with its unusual and pretty images and colloquial rhyme and meter, it's a delight to read aloud. I admit I don't totally understand what the poem's about, and I hope you will all agree you don't have to "get it" to like it. Enjoy!

"As I Walked Out One Evening," by W.H. Auden

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
"Love has no ending.

"I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street.

"I'll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry,
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

"The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world."

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
"O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

"In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

"In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
Tomorrow or to-day.

"Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver's brilliant bow.

"O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.

"The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

"Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

"O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

"O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart."

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

I hope you all found something to like in it. I personally am obsessed with the 11th stanza ("The glacier...of the dead"). I've been wandering around all week quoting it in my mind.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too," by Jim Hall

I don't know about the rest of you, but I've been feeling a little down lately. Part of this has probably been the cold, cloudy, rainy weather the last few days. And part of it could just be adjusting to my new job and no longer having any kind of control of my working circumstances. Things should get better in the next week or so, though, and hockey season is just around the corner, so: Yay! But until then, here is a funny poem by the humorous poet Jim Hall. This poem is in an anthology we used in my very first college poetry class, and the professor read it to us one morning while we sat under a large teepee made of lawn chairs (courtesy of DePauw's art students). It was a nice way to start the day. The poem is very funny, but at it's heart, it gets to the problem of being human: trying to conciliate the idea of who you are with what you do. I hope it makes you both think and laugh.

"Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too," by Jim Hall

All my pwoblems,
who knows, maybe evwybody's pwoblems
is due to da fact, due to da awful twuth

I know, I know. All da dumb jokes:
No flies on you, ha ha,
and da ones about what I do wit all
doze extwa legs in bed. Well, dat's funny yeah.
But you twy being
SPIDERMAN for a month or two. Go ahead.

You get doze cwazy calls fwom da
Gubbener askin you to twap some booglar who's
only twying to wip off color T.V. sets.
Now, what do I cawre about T.V. sets?
But I pull on da suit, da stinkin suit,
with da sucker cups on da fingers,
and get my wopes and wittle bundle of
equipment and den I go flying like cwazy
acwoss da town fwom woof top to woof top.

Till der he is. Some poor dumb color T.V. slob
and I fall on him and we westle a widdle
until I get him all woped. So big deal.

You tink when you SPIDERMAN
der's sometin big going to happen to you.
Well, I tell you what. It don't happen dat way.
Nuttin happens. Gubbener calls, I go.
Bwing him to powice, Gubbener calls again,
like dat over and over.
I tink I twy sometin diffunt. I tink I twy
sometin excitin like wacing cawrs. Sometin to make
my heart beat at a difwent wate.
But den you just can't quit being sometin like
You SPIDERMAN for life. Fowever. I can't even
buin my suit. It won't buin. It's fwame wesistent.
So maybe dat's youwr pwoblem too, who knows.
Maybe dat's da whole pwoblem wif evwytin.
Nobody can buin der suits, dey all fwame wesistent.
Who knows?

Note: Sorry that there was no Reading Week in Review for last week. With new job stuff, I didn't have time to get much done. I am still in the middle of reading Stephen King and, as always, looking for the next reading adventure.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Favorite Passages: Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell

I love Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation, her travelogue about the history, places, and people surrounding presidential assassinations. I don't really know why. Maybe I'm fonder of violence and bloodshed than I admit, or maybe I just really like how Sarah Vowell can turn just about anything into an exciting history fact. It could also be my strange obsession with President McKinley's sad-sack assassin, Leon Czolgosz. Whatever the reason, it's one of my favorite books to go back to every year or two because it's so full of humor and adventure and weird American history. I even love the book so much that I own both the hardcover copy AND the audio version, which is full of guest stars reading the actual words of famous figures, like Stephen King as Abraham Lincoln and Conan O'Brien as his son, Robert Todd.

For the last couple weeks, I've been listening to said audiobook while I get ready in the morning. I can hear all about he assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley while I put on my make-up and straighten my hair. It will probably take me another few weeks to finish the CDs (there are 6 of them, all about 72 minutes apiece). It's a lovely way to wake myself up and learn something in the morning. Yesterday, as I prepared for an interview, I listened to Vowell talk about President Garfield's love of reading and his desire for extra leisure time. Today, when I started my first day of my new (and hopefully brief) job, I was reminded of Garfield. I like having a job. It gets me out of the house, and I like being able to pay off bills and save some money as much as the next person. But no matter what job I do, I never value it as much as I value my reading time. Maybe that's a backwards way to look at life, but that's just how it is for a hard-core reader such as myself. Jobs are a necessary evil (at least, until I get my MFA and become a professor, which is what I actually want to do). But reading is the stuff of my life; it's why I get up in the morning and look forward to going home at night. And no one agreed with this more than Garfield. So in the spirit of book geeks everywhere, here's some talk about Garfield and his book-mania. By the way, in the audio book, President Garfield is played by Jon Stewart.

From Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell:

Garfield's diaries are low-key; I doubt even he would have read them, and he read everything. What passes for dramatic conflict is witnessing him, during his tenure in the House, fidget through congressional committee meetings when the only place he wants to be is holed up with his new twenty-six volume shipment of the complete works of Goethe. He tries to cheer himself up about the political and personal hassles keeping him from German poetry, writing, "Perhaps that study of literature is fullest which we steal from daily duties."

If there is a recurring theme in Garfield's diaries it's this: I'd rather be reading. That might sound dull and perfunctory, but Garfield's book fever was a sickness. Take, for example, the commencement address he delivered at his alma mater Hiram College in the summer of 1880. Traditionally, these pep talks to college graduates are supposed to shove young people into the future with a briefcase bulging with infinitive verbs: to make, to produce, to do. Mr. Loner McBookworm, on the other hand, stands up and breaks it to his audience, the future achievers of America, that the price of the supposedly fulfilling attainment of one's personal and professional dreams is the irritiating way it cuts into one's free time. He tells them,

It has occured to me that the thing you have, that all men have enough of, is perhaps the thing you care for the least, and that is your leisure - the leisure you have to think; the leisure you have to be let alone; the leisure you have to throw the plummet into your mind, and sound the depth and dive for things below.

The only thing stopping this address from turning into a slacker parable is the absence of the word "dude." Keep in mind that at that moment Garfield was a presidential candidate. The guy who theoretically wants the country's most demanding, hectic, brain-dive-denying job stands before these potential gross national product producers, advising them to treat leisure "as your gold, as your wealth, as your treasure." As Garfield left the podium, every scared kid in the room could probably hear the sound of the stock market crashing him back to his old room at his parents' house where he'd have plenty of free time to contemplate hanging himself with his boyhood bedsheets.

As for me, coming across that downbeat commencement speech was the first time I really liked Garfield. It's hard to have strong feelings about him. Before, I didn't mind him, and of course I sympathized with his bum luck of a death. But I find his book addiction endearing, even a little titillating considering that he would sneak away from the house and the House to carry on a love affair with Jane Austen. In his diary he raves about an afternoon spent rearranging his library in a way that reminds me of the druggy glow you can hear in Lou Reed's voice on "Heroin."

Upstairs at the house in Mentor [Garfield's Ohio home], Allison [the tour guide] shows me Garfield's private office. She says, "This is where he liked to retreat, maybe at the end of the day, when he needed to get away from campaign life and children and everything. He would come in here and read."

She points at a lopsided armchair, says Garfield had it "specially made for him. He would lean his back up against the high side of the chair and flip his legs over the low side." It's an appealing image, our respectable presidential paragon slouched in a posture with all the decorum of a teenager plopped on top of a beanbag.

Happy Reading, all my Loner McBookworms!