Thursday, December 30, 2010

Beth's Best Reads of 2010

And now for my most anticipated post of the entire year - a look back on the ten best reads of 2010! I love lists and I love ranking books against each other, so it's always fun and frustrating in equal measure to come up with a list of favorite reads. You've probably predicted a good chunk of these, but hopefully there's a few you forgot I even read. Hopefully, something on this list might find its way on your to-read list for 2011.

Here's the rules. The books can be any age, but I had to read them for the first time in the calendar year of 2010. No re-reads allowed. The books are listed in a countdown fashion, so my favorite read is at the bottom of the list at #1. I'm also attaching my original review for each book. Not all of these books are classics or even particularly outstanding, but they all entertained the hell out me in a year when I really needed entertainment. Enjoy!

10. 20th Century Ghosts, by Joe Hill: This short story collection by Hill (Stephen King's son) features some of the most moving stories I've ever read. Some are strictly horror tales, but several others were simply stories about humans being human. "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" is a fantastic spin on the zombie tale, where everyone is a living person but finding themselves surprised by their own resurrections. It's a classic tale of regret and redemption. Meanwhile, the story "Pop Art" made me cry my little heart out in its final pages. A moving and beautiful piece on childhood friendship, it surprised me in its surefootedness and emotional complexity. Seriously, if you only read one short story in the next year, make it "Pop Art." It's totally worth every second.

9. Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase: This was the year I discovered a profound love for historical romance. The sole originator of that love was this book. Considered one of the classics of the genre, it did not disappoint. I'm not sure what makes this book so great, but much of its success definitely lies in Chase's writing, which is witty and charming. Dain and Jessica make an intriguing couple, and the way the book creates such a neat narrative circle in the end made the form nerd in me very happy. This was perhaps the single most entertaining book I read all year.

8. Alcools: Poems 1989-1913, by Guillame Apollinaire (Translated by Frances Steegmuller): The World War I-era French poet Apollinaire has been one of my favorite poets for a few years now, but it wasn't until this June that I got around to reading one his most famous collections. Alcools is compulsively readable, a rare thing for a poetry book. Once I started it, I couldn't stop. Everything here is so strange and beautiful and modern.

7. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman: Gaiman's most famous novel for adults is on this list simply for introducing one of my favorite characters not only of 2010 but of all time: Shadow. Shadow is maybe one of the most perfect creations I've ever come across in literature: a badass who's loyal to a fault, a good guy who can't stay out of trouble. He's amazingly complex, and the scenes where he hangs out in the mysterious town of Lakeside, Wisconsin, are among the coolest passages I've ever read. As a bonus, American Gods became my non-reading brother's favorite book when he read it this summer. He's even talking about re-reading it. Yay!

6. The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins: A three-for-one deal made up of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, this young adult trilogy was one of the most flat-out entertaining reads I've ever encountered. I was sucked in from the very beginning. The tale of Katniss Everdeen, a teenager in a ruined, post-war state of government, is violent and extremely bittersweet. The final book featured some of the most pessimistic passages I can remember in contemporary literature. Yet, it's honest and terrible and a truly original reading experience. Awesome.

5. Galveston, by Nic Pizzolatto: Without a doubt, this debut novel by a former DePauw professor featured the best sense of place I encountered all year. The story of a convict and the young woman who travels with him in hiding, it's Southern noir in all its glory. The characterizations are good, the plot is strong, and the writing is incredible. Some of the best descriptions of setting I have ever had the joy of reading.

4. Harmonium, by Wallace Stevens: I spent years hating on Wallace Stevens. He's considered one of the greatest American poets of all time, but I always found him too weird. Well, that's changed. The man is a fucking genius, bar none. His inventiveness with language is playful and profound at the same time. He's a poet that's actually fun to read, and I loved this collection - his first - more than any other book of poetry I read all year.

3. Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Rosemary Edmonds): Tolstoy is second only to Fitzgerald on my list of favorite writers. He just blows me away every time. This novel isn't one of his most famous, and it definitely has some major flaws, but you can't argue with the way he sets up scenes and cathartic moments. He's a master of quiet devastation, even in the middle of his longest epics. This book, despite all its queasy philosophical inquiries, was a wonderful, wonderful read.

2. Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: I love love love this book! It was one of my first reads of 2010, and it set the tone for the entire year. It's funny and witty and has some of my favorite characters of 2010, particularly in the love-hating friends Aziraphale (a pretentious angel) and Crowley (a too-charming demon). This book is such a perfect blend of Pratchett's bizarre humor and Gaiman's obsession with mythology that it had to be a winner. Seriously. I could read this book once or twice a year and probably never get sick of it.

1. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak: It shouldn't surprise any of you that this teen novel takes the lead prize. It's a tearjerker, but it manages to make you cry without being overtly sentimental or treacly. It earns its emotions through its puzzling narrative and strong characters. The figure of Death makes a wonderful narrator, and Zusak uses some fantastic foreshadowing to move his story along. All the main characters have a grace that's admirable and honest. The tale of a girl coming of age in Nazi Germany, it's a book about holding onto humanity in the face of evil, as well as an exploration of the power of language and writing. If you can make it through the end without bawling like a baby, you might not be human. This book is a major accomplishment, and I am so very happy to make it my #1 read of 2010.

Honorable Mentions: Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach; Beyond Heaving Bosoms, by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan; The Help, by Katherine Stockett

Well, I hope you all enjoyed this list. What were your personal favorite reads of the year?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Tolstoy, You Magnificent Bastard!

Book Reviewed: Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds

Well, it's official. I'm a Tolstoy fanatic. Russian lit fans tend to be either Tolstoy people or Dostoevsky people (as Elif Batuman argues in her essay collection, The Possessed). By all rights, I should be a Dostoevsky girl. He's funnier, his views are more in line with my own, and he comes from a darker, more interesting point of view. But I'm not a Dostoevsky person. I am a full-blown Tolstoy-ite.

Tolstoy's writing (as filtered through his translators) never fails to blow me away. His fictional world is extremely detailed; Tolstoy never leaves anything out of his descriptions. Characters are fully-realized and capable of great kindness and utter terribleness in equal amounts. When I'm reading a Tolstoy novel, I don't need any stimulation whatsoever from the outside world. I already have everything I could possibly want in front of me. Even during the dullest passages, there is something to admire.

When I picked up Resurrection as my last read for 2010, I wasn't sure what to expect. War and Peace is one of my favorite books ever, but I had a tough time getting through Anna Karenina last summer. I struggle with Tolstoy's philosophies and themes; I disagree with them more often than not. I have to admit: Tolstoy is not an easy writer to get along with.

Resurrection, which was Tolstoy's last novel, is tailored to explore his ideas on religon and society. He's not afraid to point out everything that is wrong with the entire Russian judicial system (or the any judicial system at all, really) or to call the Orthodox church hypocritical or blaming the wealthy for being blind to the country's problems. He's obviously angry about what he sees around him, and he puts it all in this book. The book begins with the murder trial of a prostitute named Maslova (also called Katusha). One of the jurors, Prince Nekhlyudov, recognizes her as a girl he ruined as a young man. Nekhlyudov realizes he's the reason Maslova's life has turned out so badly, so he boldly decides he must join himself to her fate. When she's sentenced to several years of hard labor in Siberia, he decides he not only has to follow her out there, he must marry her as well. In the meantime, he gets caught up in helping other prisoners, realizes owning land is wrong, and loses touch with his fellow landed gentry.

By the end of the book, Nekhlyudov has become a completely different person, a more aware person. Hence, the novel's title. I don't want to give away anything, but things don't turn out exactly as he planned. However, he still comes to the conclusion that giving up his comfy lifestyle is the only way to live an honest and redemptive life. By the end, Tolstoy also brings in the theme of forgiveness, as Maslova comes to her own ideas about what Nekhlyudov has done. In the end, Tolstoy argues, only God can make any real judgments on us. It's an unoriginal theme that comes off very nicely in the final scene between Maslova and Nekhlyudov, a scene that reminded me how good Tolstoy is at creating cathartic moments.

The book's preachiness bothered me, particularly in the last ten pages, which were a bit of a drag (I had very similar feelings about War and Peace, too). However, that didn't keep me from absolutely loving this book. Seriously, it's one of the best reading experiences I've had in quite awhile. It's all because of how well Tolstoy paints scenes. The smallest moments have a grace to them that most authors of such high-minded material can never muster.

Whatever is wrong with Tolstoy as a writer, you cannot argue that he doesn't write some of the best domestic scenes in all of literature. I love the quietness, the longing that goes into these kind of scenes. In the first part of the book, after Nekhlyudov recognizes Maslova at her trial, we are taken to their youth together, when they really were in love with each other. The way Tolstoy writes these scenes took my breath away. In the midst of a very tragic and profound story, we get the description of a ribbon in Maslova's hair, a chaste kiss exchanged before Nekhyudov destroyed everything. It adds to the power of the book, and it makes the characters worth your time and energy.

I really did enjoy the way Tolstoy unfolded his two leads. Even though his views on gender roles are pretty blah, Tolstoy does give a kind of inner life to his female characters that you really don't see in Dostoevsky. Maslova is tough and hard when around Nekhlyudov, but in moments by herself or with her cellmates, you see she's vulnerable and trying hard to deal with what she's been given. Nekhlyudov is a slightly harder nut to crack, but I still found him fascinating. As a young man, he's adventurous and politically liberal, basically something of a budding revolutionist. As he gets older, he becomes a complete snob, taking what he wants only because of his title. His transformation into a kind of saintly figure never felt completely real to me. Towards the end of the book, on his way to Siberia, Nekhlyudov finds himself having dinner with some fellow gentry, and he's so at home there that you can't imagine he's going to make it anywhere else. He's now a man caught forever between two worlds, and I think it's awesome that Tolstoy allowed this kind of shade of gray in a character meant to represent so many of his own philosophies.

In a couple days, I'll be posting the list of my favorite books I read this year. Resurrection will most definitely be on this list. I had such a great time reading and digesting it. If you think you're one of those people who doesn't have time for Tolstoy, think again. This book is shorter than his most famous novels, and it packs quite a punch. Tolstoy blows me away every time. Hopefully, he might do the same for you one day.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas!

Next week, I'll be wrapping up 2010 with a review for Tolstoy's Resurrection, my annual top ten list, and some other fun end-of-the-year stuff. See you then!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Poem of the Week: "A Visit from St. Nicholas," by Clement Clarke Moore

This week's poem should be familiar to you all, seeing as it's one of the most well-known poems in the world. I think it's fun to see the poem in it's entirety, so in honor of Christmas, I thought I'd give you all a chance to reconsider it. Also, note that it's title is NOT "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Enjoy!

A Visit from St. Nicholas, by Clement Clarke Moore

Note: Due to a wedding I'll be attending next Sunday, there will be no Poem of the Week posted. Sorry.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Jane Austen's Birthday: A Guest Post from Amy

Today is the birthday of Jane Austen, one of the most famous writers of the English language. To celebrate, I asked my good friend and fellow blogger Amy, an Austen fanatic, to write something about the author. I hope you enjoy Amy's musings on Jane!

235 years ago today, Jane Austen was born in Hampshire, England. It was there that she grew up reading, writing little plays and stories for her family, and honing the all-observing eye and wit for which she has been remembered these past centuries. Whether you personally enjoy Austen’s writings or not, the continued presence of her oeuvre on bookshelves worldwide, in academia, and in practically every corner of popular culture speaks to the virtues of the lady who should, by all standards of her time, have been insignificant and not worthy of any special notice.

Happy am I that she wrote, though, and that she was significant. And that we still read.

You see, the beauty of Austen’s novels lies in their total reality. True, barouches and assembly room balls and entailed estates are no longer really part of the common experience. But what about friendship? What about negotiating your place in the family unit, or in the neighborhood? What about working through conflicts between what you want and what is expected of you? What about the struggle of wanting to be an adult, and sometimes mis-stepping? What about having faith in yourself?

All of Austen’s characters experience at least one of these things, and for good reason—they are universal themes. We all experience them at some point. We all struggle to be kind to that one person who completely grates on our nerves. We all secretly want to smack upside the head that person who only thinly veils their boasts. And we all do boast, sometimes even when we know we shouldn’t. We all do all of the things that Austen’s characters do, and we encounter the same people (do you know a Miss Bates? a Mr. Collins? a Mrs. Bertram?). Sure, the mechanics of daily life have changed since the Regency period. But what we experience and feel as humans? That has remained remarkably constant.

My point, I suppose, is that reading Jane Austen is like peering through a window into our own lives, albeit dressed up with some finery and the sort of language we’d be so lucky to encounter. When all the waistcoats and muslins are stripped away (metaphorically, of course!), the stories have just as much place in the modern day as they did in the Austen’s time—Clueless, Bride and Prejudice, and the recently-published book The Cookbook Collector are all proof. The strength is in the story, in the wry observations of how people act, of what is in their nature.

It is in my nature to read Austen, and I hope that, in honor of her birthday, you’ll read something of hers as well. Two hundred-years’ worth of readers recommend it.

I want to close by attempting to answer a question posed to me at the library earlier this week: what do you think Jane Austen would have thought about the fact that people still read and discuss her novels so passionately?

I think, publically, Austen would have been properly embarrassed by all of the praise and attention.

In private, though? I think she would have laughed, turned to her sister, and very astutely characterized us all: “I am sure that they all fancy themselves an Elizabeth Bennet or an Anne Elliot, a Darcy or a Wentworth. If only they could see themselves as I see them, as they really are! But, if all human creatures were so handsome and well-principled, I would never have had anything to write about in the first place.”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Winter Trees," by William Carlos Williams

This week's poem is short and sweet, inspired by the tons of snow coming down up here in northern Indiana. I think this poem has a quiet little loveliness to it, and I hope you enjoy it.

Winter Trees, by William Carlos Williams

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Getting Deeper into Zusak

Books Reviewed: Fighting Ruben Wolfe AND Getting the Girl, by Markus Zusak

In a few short weeks here, I'll be posting the list of my favorite books I read this year. There, you will most definitely be seeing Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, the only book to make me sob like a baby since last July (when I read Gilead). Before his famous book about Nazis and death and the power of language (and a million other things), Zusak wrote three other teen novels that gave him a good name, albeit one that wasn't exactly a known. His first two books, Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl, are about the Wolfe brothers in Australia. Cameron Wolfe, the younger brother, narrates both stories, often focusing on his relationship with his family, and in particular, his older brother Ruben, with whom he is very close.

It's always hard to read the early work of a writer with whom you've had a torrid and hot affair with over one great book. Nothing from the younger and usually less mature years is going to come close to the awesomeness you remember with longing. I'm already nostalgic for The Book Thief and I only read it six months ago. Therefore, it didn't surprise me that Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl left me feeling a little disappointed.

They aren't bad books by any means; they just don't have the grace and power of The Book Thief. However, combined they do take about a third of the reading time as that book. In the first book, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Cameron Wolfe describes the troubles of his family. His father is unemployed and depressed; his saintly mother works too hard; his sister Sarah is troubled and parties too much; his oldest brother Steve is successful and doesn't accept his family's problems. Cameron and Ruben, the brother to whom Cameron is basically attached, have somewhat embraced this "wrong side of the tracks" attitude, even though it's pretty defeatist. Cameron is sensitive and observant, Ruben charming and overly tough. They share everything, so when Ruben is invited to join an underground boxing ring, Cameron comes along, too. Fighting gives Ruben a purpose, but Cameron doesn't like seeing the way his brother has changed as a result. The book's last fifty pages are pretty predictable, with the brothers forced to fight each other, but Zusak handles it very well. That single fight scene, while a little overwrought at times, manages to be the best one in the book.

Zusak is a master of the big, important final thirty pages. He repeats this skill again in Getting the Girl. The book centers more on Cameron this time around, as he starts a sweet relationship with one of Ruben's ex-girlfriends. Cameron begins to become less of a loner and develops more self-confidence through this new relationship, and it colors his relationship with his family members. I actually enjoyed seeing the way the other Wolfes developed between Fighting Ruben Wolfe and this book. Their father is once again working, so the family in general is much happier. However, we see the way the relationships between Cameron and each of his siblings affect his life. Sarah helps to empower him, but Ruben works his best to bring Cameron down once he finds out about his ex dating his brother. In my favorite plot development, we get to see Cameron interact with his overly-ambitious brother Steve. The way Zusak plays out the story between Cameron and Steve works out wonderfully, managing to be ugly or beautiful in all the right places. It was a nice touch and added something more to the struggle between Ruben and Cameron. As I mentioned above, Zusak pulls this book's disparate storylines all together in the last thirty pages, where we see the power of familial love and personal strength in a horrible situation involving Ruben and Cameron.

Overall, neither of these books quite lived up to the greatness that was The Book Thief. Zusak's writing isn't as strong here, and the traps he managed to avoid by having the figure of Death as the narrator in The Book Thief fall wide open under the narration of Cameron in these two novels. The observations can be really unsubtle in certain moments, and the writing can swing between being too bare and being too precious. Plus, I have a hard time with lovesick narrators, and Cameron could really get on my nerves at times. I'm not sure which book I liked best of the two. Fighting Ruben Wolfe wasn't written as well, but it had a much more propulsive story. However, the moments between the Wolfe siblings in Getting the Girl really gave that book a power that Fighting didn't have. Overall, as teen novels, I'd recommend these books as a nice antidote to the Twilight-heavy world of the genre. But if you're going to read one Zusak book in your life, read The Book Thief. Don't even bother with these two.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Anne Carson: Still Awesome

Book Reviewed: Glass, Irony, and God, by Anne Carson

My first taste of Anne Carson came in a British Lit class. Carson is actually Canadian, but we were reading writers of the colonies, so she counted. Plus, my professor admitted he had a soft spot for Carson, which is just another reason why he's one of my favorite people. He had us read a brief section of the long poem that "made" Carson, "The Glass Essay." I remember liking it, but it took a couple more years for me to become a real Anne Carson addict.

Anyway, I finally got around to reading the whole "Glass Essay" in one of Carson's most important books, Glass, Irony, and God. It featurs several long, intricate poems and one academic essay. The essay, which ends the book, is titled "The Gender of Sound," and it got the feminist-y side of me all riled up. It's easy to see why Carson is such a respected classicist. Her work here, about the history of views towards women's voices and sounds, is fascinating and not at all stuffy. It made me miss reading this kind of stuff in college, actually.

Her poems aren't too shabby either. My least favorite was "The Truth About God," which felt sort of rambling and overbearing. Carson walks a fine line between her work being affective and being too preoccupied with abstract concepts without presenting interesting imagery to back it up. This is one of the latter, I'm sorry to say. The same goes for "Book of Isaiah." "The Fall of Rome," about feeling like a stranger in the city, has some lovely moments, particularly in its first half, but just didn't grab me.

In my favorite Carson book, Men in the Off Hours, she presents a set of poems called "TV Men," wherein famous figures (usually from classical mythology or history) are presented from the point of view of cameras and television production. They are complicated, bizarre pieces, not for the light of heart. But when they work, they are some of my favorite things to read. Carson has a couple of "TV Men" poems here, and the one featuring Hektor entertained the hell out of me. I seriously think I could spend hours at a time reading these "TV Men" poems.

The best poem, though, was the first one in the collection, the famous "Glass Essay." This essay-poem is complex and interesting, bringing together a lot of Carson's pet subjects in a smart and emotionally-satisfying way. The poem is about the painful end of a relationship for the writer, but it's also about her parents getting old. Carson looks at her life as a woman in contemporary society through the experience of reading and loving Emily Brontë. My favorite thing about Anne Carson is the way she writes about the experience of reading or admiring good writing. She understands that what we read colors our views of the world, and she's always playing with the dynamic of real life versus literary life. I adored "The Glass Essay" because of this exploration, and I could identify strongly with what she was saying. Seriously, this poem might be one of my favorite things I've read all year.

Usually, I would never recommend Anne Carson to a fellow reader because her stuff often comes off as too intellectually precious and self-indulgent. But "The Glass Essay" is easy to read and understand. Also, it's equally satisfying to the mind and the heart. If you are a Carson novice, or if she makes you nervous, you should check out "The Glass Essay."

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Poem of the Week: "The Guardian," by Joseph Mills

Although a good long cry at the end of a great, deserving book can be a cathartic and wonderful experience for me, I don't like getting teary-eyed over poems. Poems can be emotionally devastating or so beautiful they physically make you hurt, but they can't pull of the kind of sentiment that novels or memoirs allow. I like poems that are as intellectually satisfying as they are emotionally satisfying. This poem is the exception. When I ran across it at the Writer's Almanac site, I was surprised to find myself getting worked up at the end. It's such a sad poem and for anyone whose ever seen a situation like this, it really hits close to home. I wish it were a little more stimulating and that the language was a little deeper, but I can't argue with the sentiment here. Enjoy!

The Guardian, by Joseph Mills

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #16

Trashy Read #16: The Best Mistake, by Nora Roberts

Inspired by the Nora Roberts read from last week, I picked up this super-short book to pass some time. Mostly, I just wanted to read something quick late at night while most of the lights were off so I could enjoy the Christmas lights framing my F. Scott Fitzgerald poster.

This is one of Roberts's books from her old days as a series/category romance writer for Harlequin. It definitely reads as such. (For those of you who don't know what a series romance is, all you need to do is go to your local Wal-Mart or grocery store and look at the thin paperbacks with overly-smiley couples on the front. They are published monthly and cost very little; they're the Oreos of the romance world.) A single mom, Zoe (Roberts loves her single moms) takes on an upstairs tenant in her house named Cooper, a local sports writer. Cooper eventually falls for both Zoe and her cute son Keenan. Both worry they are making a mistake but end up engaged by the end.

I don't have much to say about this book, honestly. The characters were pretty underdeveloped, and I missed the friendships with secondary characters that Roberts's longer books always contain. Reading this book was the equivalent of eating whipped cream, but I'm not going to complain. The book literally took me an hour and ten minutes to read, and it was fairly adorable. As usual, Roberts delivers on the warm and fuzzies.

Next in Trashy Reads: Who knows? I have an old Judith McNaught historical sitting on my desk. It's apparently one of the much-loved classics of the genre. I've also been jonesing to reread Lord of Scoundrels. I have no idea what book will pick me next.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Alex Ross Gets Me to Listen to Beethoven

Book Reviewed: Listen to This, by Alex Ross

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

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

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

Now onto the show:

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

Railway, by Fred D'Aguiar

Saturday, November 27, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #15

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Another Winner for Teens (and Everyone Else, Too)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 21, 2010

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

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

Father's Old Blue Cardigan, by Anne Carson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 14, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 13, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #14

Trashy Read #14: The Masquerade, by Brenda Joyce

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Little Boring

Book Reviewed: Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney

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

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

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

Sunday, November 7, 2010

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

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

How I Became Impossible, by Mary Ruefle

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

Thursday, November 4, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pop Culture Saves Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Poem of the Week: "In the Library," by Charles Simic

I loooooove libraries. I've worked in some kind of library every year of my life since I was sixteen. They are, to me, one of the most important institutions in our country. In honor of my library love, here's a nice little Charles Simic poem about these wonderful places and the dedicated people you sometimes find working at them. Enjoy!

In the Library, by Charles Simic

for Octavio

There's a book called
A Dictionary of Angels.
No one had opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She's very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Just Add Zombies: Five Books Re-Imagined

Last year, I celebrated Halloween with one of my favorite posts on this blog: a list of characters who would make great zombie killers. Now, I'm turning to last year's hot literary trend of turning classic novels into horror stories by adding monsters. I'm talking about books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I'm not a very big fan of this just-add-zombies trend in publishing, but what the hell, I'm going to try it anyway! So here are five books I've re-imagined by adding zombies. Enjoy, and let me know if you can think of any good zombified books.

1. To Kill a Zombie: Remember that scene in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingird where Atticus has to shoot a dog with rabies? It's one of the most powerful scenes in an already powerful novel. Now imagine it was a zombie coming down the street towards Scout and Jem. Atticus would regret having to pick up that gun, but he would kill that zombie for sure. And maybe Boo Radley isn't a creep; he's just the one nice zombie in town. He doesn't desire flesh, just love.

2. Zombie Noise: Don DeLillo's postmodern classic White Noise is already a little on the eerie side. The themes of death, fear of death, the absurdity of modern living, and the role of the media could only be heightened by adding zombies. When the book's infamous "Airborne Toxic Event" happens, it could infect the citizens of the super-Midwestern town and make the protagonist's sprawling family a group of extreme survivalists.

3. War and Peace and Zombies: This one's almost too easy. Instead of fighting Napoleon's invading army, the Russian army could wage war against an onslaught of French zombies. All of the book's major scenes could easily encompass zombies. Pierre's continually changing philosophies happen because his opinions about zombies change throughout the book. Prince Andrei dies from a bite in the same drawn-out scenes. Nikolai marries Maria because Sofia's been turned. I'm honestly surprised no one's made this happen already.

4. The Zombie Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfied: disillusioned zombie killer.

5. any Faulker novel + zombies: This is embarrassing for a serious reader such as myself. No matter how hard I try and how many of his books I read, I have never gotten into Faulker. Maybe if we add zombies to the mix I might finally find something to like about his books.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Addictive Poetry

Book Reviewed: Sixty Poems, by Charles Simic

Despite my love for poetry as a whole, there are only a handful of poets I find addictive. I'm talking about poets whose work is so easy and wonderful to read that I can sit and read an entire book of theirs before I even realize I'm doing it. I feel this way about Guillaume Apollinaire, Philip Larkin, and Maurice Manning. Now, I'm adding Charles Simic to the list.

I already liked Simic a great deal after seeing him do a reading at Butler University a couple years ago. But when I picked up Sixty Poems on a whim at the library last week, I wasn't expecting to devour it so quickly or with such joy. Simic is a ridiculously good poet. His imagery is sharp and original, but even at its most absurd it never feels obtuse. His language is clear and descriptive. I had heard or read a few of the poems in this book before, and I still found myself enjoying every single one of these sixty pieces.

I've figured out what makes certain poets' books addictive. It's the point of view. All of the poets I find the most readable are the ones who have a very distinctive point of view. It makes their books flow from one poem to another, following the patterns of a novel rather than a collection. Simic's background experiences as a child of World War II, as an immigrant, and as a city dweller connect in the singular voice in his work. Once I started the book, I had to keep going in order to get further inside his authorial headspace. With Simic, that is a very fun place to be.

This is a great collection of poetry, and I think I'm going to start recommending Simic to non-poetry readers. He's very easy to get into, but his work pays back in dividends once you get to know it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I Really Should Stop Judging Popular Books Before I Read Them

Book Reviewed: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

I have a tendency to judge books that spend long periods of time on the New York Times Bestseller list. I just have a bad gut reaction to things that are popular, I guess. So when it was decided that I would run a book discussion group for my library branch and The Help was the chosen book, I wasn't particularly happy. Kathryn Stockett's debut novel has been high on the bestseller list for about a year and a half now, so I wasn't sure I'd like it. Also, a particularly annoying blurb on the back from a New York Times critic said, "Book clubs with hankies will talk and talk." Gross. Now that I've finished the book, I'd like to punch whoever in Stockett's publishing/marketing team decided to put that blurb on the back. Because it kind of comes off as an insult, one this book doesn't deserve.

Maybe this book makes people cry. I didn't. I thought Stockett handled the story so deftly and with such restraint that she kept it from being emotionally overwhelming. In fact, it was her ability to stay away from overly-emotional language and scenes that made me like this book so much. And I really liked it quite a bit. It's officially time for me to stop judging popular novels.

There's a reason this book has been the number-one book club pick of the last year. With themes about racism, the lives of women, friendship, and societal expectations, it really hits on big, deep themes. I was skeptical of this book's ability to handle a touchy subject - the inner lives of white women and their black domestic help - without veering into sentimentality. So Stockett's strong writing and world-building really surprised and delighted me.

The book is centered around three main characters: black maids Aibileen and Minny and a young, white woman nicknamed Skeeter who grew up with her own beloved black maid. Stockett based the book very closely on her own experiences of growing up in Jackson, Mississippi. The book takes place in the early 1960s, before integration. Skeeter, who wants to be a journalist, decides to write a book about the experiences of African-American domestic workers. She's surprised by the sad and even horrific stories she hears, although she finds out the life of a black Southern woman is more nuanced than she ever thought. Aibileen (who is really the heart of the book) and Minny help her and get their own viewpoint chapters as well. Because segregated Jackson is such a dangerous place to live for both African-Americans and integration-sympathisers, the writing of the book provides a lot of tense drama for the book's plot.

Knowing what the book was about and it's format regarding these three first-person points of view, I wasn't expecting a particularly invigorating take on a subject that has had its fair share of past literary approaches. However, by making the book take place solely in the world of women, Stockett made all the themes feel fresh and provocative. The few men in the book live so far in the background that they're basically nonexistent, except when they are presenting obstacles in the lives of women. Otherwise, this is a book about the differences and the similarities between privileged white women and poor black women. Skeeter's best friend while growing up, Hilly Holbrook, ends up being the book's villain, but even she has her quasi-redeeming moments. No one is cartoonishly bad in this book, but no one's a saint either. Likable characters are still capable of great bitterness or naivety. Hateful characters can be good mothers or loving friends at times. Each narrator - Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter - comes with a complex world of backstory and problems and side characters. The world of the novel is so fully-realized that I couldn't help but get excited over every tiny new development in the book. Also, it was a relief to read a book presenting strong women with complicated inner lives and no romantic pairings. I have my doubts about the last fifty pages or so, but Stockett is a very talented writer who I definitely hope to see more of in the future.

I'm really looking forward to discussing this book in a few weeks at the library. I think its combination of big themes, swift characterization, and avoidance of sentiment or easy promises really does make it the perfect book club pick.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Sonnets to Orpheus #6," by Rainer Maria Rilke

There's not a lot of reason for me to post this poem other than the fact that I really like it. Also, the influences of the dead seem well-suited for the beginning of autumn, a season I tend to associate with memory and loss and bizarre language and images of the dead. Anyway, Rilke is obsessed with the tragic mythological figure of Orpheus, a poet and musician capable of producing the world's most beautiful songs. Rilke even wrote an entire book of sonnets dedicated to Orpheus. All the Orpheus sonnets are incredible and full of strange, beautiful imagery, like this one, which also ruminates at length on the art of poetry writing. This sonnet manages to be both really lovely and super-creepy at the same time. Enjoy!

Sonnets To Orpheus, No. 6, by Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by David Young

Is he of this world? No, he gets
his large nature from both realms. To know
how best to curve the willow's boughs
you have to have been through its roots.

Don't leave bread or milk on the table
at night: that attracts the dead.
But under your own mild eyelids
you can let this conjuror mingle

the sight of the dead into all that you've seen;
and may the magic of earthsmoke and meadow rue
be as true as the clearest relation.

Nothing should spoil good images; whether
they came from a grave or a bedroom,
let him praise finger-ring, buckle, and pitcher.

Note: There won't be a Poem of the Week next Sunday, as I will be out of town visiting friends. Sorry!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Zombie Fail.

Book Reviewed: The Walking Dead: Book One, by Robert Kirkman. Illustrated by Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn

A couple years ago, it was rumored that the cable channel AMC was developing a TV show based on Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead graphic novel series. I'd never read the books and had only a passing knowledge of them, but I was excited for one simple reason: Zombies! You all know how much I loooove zombie stories. This TV show was going to put together two of my favorite things: the living dead and long-range television narratives. I was excited.

Well, my nerdery is finally coming to fruition because The Walking Dead premieres on AMC on Halloween night. I am literally counting down the days, I'm so flippin' excited! In order to pass the time until then, I decided to tackle the original graphic novel series. My library has the complete collection, so I put a hold on a copy of every volume. I didn't expect to be sending them all back so soon. Unfortunately, it wasn't because I read them all so quickly. It's because I decided not to continue after the first book (which is a compilation of the first twelve issues, or the first two volumes, depending on how you're digesting these).

I really liked what I got in Book One of the series, particularly in Chapter Two, which added a lot of world-building to the original story. The series follows a group of survivors in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. The main character is Rick Grimes, a cop who is put into a coma after being shot on duty. He wakes up to a destroyed world where corpses wander the streets and his family is missing. The book doesn't waste much time in reconnecting him with his wife and son, but even these seemingly simple family relationships become complex over time. Rick becomes a kind of de facto leader of a handful of survivors toughing it out in the American South. As the series progresses, many more characters become added to the mix. And a lot die off. Kirkman is certainly not afraid to kill his characters, which I admire quite a bit in a series like this. Anytime I see a representation of a zombie apocalypse and nearly everyone is alive, I get angry. More people are going to die than live, dude. You can't save all the good guys.

All in all, I was fairly happy with the story and setting of this first book. So why am I not continuing with it? Well, there's a lot of outside factors involved, time in particular (as in, I don't have enough). I also don't want to absorb too much of the story before seeing the TV show, since I'm so ridiculously stoked about it. I'm totally a books-are-better-than-visual-media person, but I'm willing to be a jerk about his one. I'm actually more excited about the TV show than the books. Sorry.

I had some problems with Kirkman's characterizations, too. It's too early in the series to say so, but I found the characters kind of flat in this first book. They didn't have much in the way of depth going on, particularly the women, who come off as obnoxious and predictable (and so far, kind of in the way of the badassness of the males, which is a total bummer. I want tough as hell females kicking zombie ass, please). I have a couple characters I kind of like, but no one that I'm fond of as either a hero or a villain, which is a disappointment to me. It doesn't make the stakes very high when you don't have someone to root for in this type of story. It's a possibility that Kirkman mainly intends for these characters to be archetypes, which I think is probably what he's aiming for here. I still don't like them much, though.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of flipping through the next 10 volumes of this series already, and let me tell you, things appear to get really dark. It looks like we're going to see a lot of people lose their humanity and watch even more characters get brutally killed. Which is all fine and good, but not something I'm looking forward to right now. My personal life is stressful at this moment (don't worry; I promise I won't make you hear about it), and I'm looking for books that don't completely bum me out. They can be bittersweet (a la the Hunger Games books) or scary (I have some Stephen King books on the to-read list right now), but I don't want to be too depressed during this time of year. I think these books will work better in the summer, when the days are longer and I have more fun socializing and whatnot. For now, I'm going to put the rest of The Walking Dead on the backburner and concentrate on some other stuff. Or at least until the TV show's season is over and I'm craving more.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Beth Reads Your Local 14-Year-Old's Favorite New Book Series (aka, Beth Enjoys a Dystopian Future and Joins Team Peeta)

Books Reviewed: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

Working at the library, I often find myself having conversations with teens and preteens about what they're reading. As a fan of young adult fiction who rarely has time to actually read much of the genre, I'm interested in hearing about what the kids are reading these days. And lately, they are all finishing The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

Until the final book of the series, Mockingjay, came out in August, I had never heard of Hunger Games. But once that book arrived on the shelves, it was all I heard about it. Every critic was reading and praising the series, and every teenager in our library seemed to have at least one of the books on hold. A co-worker of mine, who has a few teens of her own, read the series and said she enjoyed them. So I agreed to try them out.

It was soooo worth it! Because the three Hunger Games books are pretty awesome. Once I started the first book, I couldn't stop until I had all three devoured in a week's time. I tried to resist the book at first since the writing style itself isn't anything to write home about and I'd had previous bad experiences with this kind of sci-fi-ish tough girl act before. But by page 50, I'd become completely sucked into Collins's fictional world. The trilogy's plot had me gripped firmly in its clutches in a way that very few books do. In fact, it's kind of hard to review these books in a traditional way, so I'm trying a longer form review broken into parts here. I hope you can follow along.

What It's About: In The Hunger Games, we meet our narrator Katniss Everdeen in a dystopian future country called Panem. Panem is made up of the Capitol, which controls the country's power and has all the money and comfort, and twelve districts, the worst of which is Katniss's home, District 12. Katniss and her best friend/possible love interest Gale are waiting for an event called the reaping, where two teenagers are picked from each district to fight in the annual Hunger Games, an event where only one of 24 contestants can survive. In other words, this country celebrates the defeat of a rebel uprising by forcing young people to kill each other in brutal marathons of death and deprivation. Katniss, along with a better-off young man named Peeta, end up being shipped off to the Games, both of them sure they won't make it home. They both play the media and the Gamemakers in order to better their chances in the arena. This entire first book takes place in the context of this Hunger Games competition and the beginning of friendship/romance for Katniss and Peeta.

The next book shakes things up considerably more. In Catching Fire, Katniss accidentally becomes a token of an emerging resistance among the districts. She's punished for her actions by being forced (along with Peeta) to participate in another version of The Hunger Games, this time more brutal and terrifying than before. Meanwhile, a full-scale revolution grips all of Panem and forces the Capitol to take retaliatory measures. Every character is now fighting for his or her life. The book has quite a surprising end (that I won't ruin for you), and sets up our finale.

Mockingjay is the last book, and it's by far the most bleak. By this point, Katniss is little more than a pawn among the powerplayers of the rebellion. Needless to say, shit goes down and Katniss is stuck in the middle with less power than she originally realized. Also, she deals with the fallout of the love triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale. The ending is far from happy, but it's satisfying in the context of both the story and the current media/war-saturated world in which we readers live.

Why This Series Is Awesome: As I mentioned earlier, the writing isn't particularly special, especially since it's in first person and the vocabulary is downgraded for the target audience. Also, I could do without the love triangle, although it did have its moments. However, the books' powers lay in its intelligence of creating a future world that feels uncomfortably near to our own. The way Collins handles the idea of the media is particularly admirable. The savvy of how media affects the outcome of events and masks the true story of any given situation really impressed me. It's rare to find a complex subject like the media handled so well in a novel intended for people who don't even have their driver's licenses.

I think it would be hard to read these book and not find at least one character you really like. I actually was quite fond of Katniss (which is rare, since I rarely like narrating protagonists), and I thought Haymitch, District 12's mentor at the Hunger Games, was a particularly interesting creation. Apparently, there are people who get quite into the underwritten love triangle and pick sides. Frankly, I don't know how anyone can be on Team Gale. He only becomes fully-realized as a character in the third book, and by that point he's shown some pretty weak traits. Peeta, who I'd argue is written to be a little too perfect in the first two books, becomes much more complex in the third. I tried to resist liking him, but it didn't work. Part of this is surely due to his resemblance - both in physical description and personality - to my beloved, honorable Rudy Steiner in The Book Thief . Collins takes her character to some extremely dark places by the end of the series, and I'm surprised she broke them so much. That takes a lot of guts, but it totally paid off in the end.

Finally, these books are awesome because they completely suck you into their powers. Collins writes action better than any writer I've read in a long time, and the plot is intricate enough to be satisfying without causing confusion. In the first book, I had to know what Peeta was up to, how Katniss was going to survive. In the second, I questioned everything that was happening in Panem. And by the third, I couldn't believe the things I was reading. Like I mentioned earlier, these books get pretty bleak in the end. The last paragraph and final sentence of Mockingjay border on the hopeful. After all, this is a series about being human and choosing humanity over violence. But it's not happy, and it doesn't wrap up in a nice bow like most young adult series. Harry Potter this is not.

Why This Trilogy Really Is For Teens: Finally, I'd like to address some of the criticism that has been thrown at the series by more conservative readers. Mainly, many consider these books to be too violent for teenagers and middle-schoolers. I understand where these people are coming from, too. These books can be brutal in their unflinching view of perpetual violence and its effects on the human psyche. But I also think it's strange that people are condemning a book that makes an argument for the end of violence against fellow human beings. I wouldn't be surprised to see this series on some Top Banned Books lists in the next decade, and that scares me. These books have some important things to say, and in a world where the media dictates so much of what we consume in both the real world and the book world, those things shouldn't be ignored by our future thinkers. A lot of teenagers I've talked to are reading these books for the romance angle, but they are coming away with a lot more food for thought. Censors shouldn't take that away.

While I was reading the Hunger Games books, a lot of people asked me how I liked them. My answer was simple: "The fourteen year old in me loves them." I often joke that I have two reading personas: the mature literary critic and the rabid teenage fangirl. This book appealed to the latter, but the former appreciated it too. The three main characters in this book - Katniss, Peeta, and Gale - really brought back the memories of how painful it is to be a teenager. I'm not talking about the romance situation or the awkwardness. I'm talking about the desire to have power at a time when it's impossible to have it. When I was in high school, I had quite a rebellious edge to my beliefs and opinions. I walked around in my Led Zeppelin t-shirt and orange Converse sneakers and called myself a socialist. I became a pacifist and aligned myself as a solid liberal. More than anything, I wanted to make a difference in the world, even a small one. I wanted to change the way the government was run, the way people thought, the way wars were fought. But during these most ambitious years of my life, I also had no real power to do those things. I couldn't even vote. That's why these books work perfectly for teenagers. Katniss's situation as a wannabe rebel who ends up being little more than a pawn really stuck with my inner teenager. It's a hard place to be, and this series gets at the heartache of that disillusionment in a way that rarely gets played to such high stakes in literature. I enjoyed that aspect maybe more than any other angle in all three books. Sometimes, you have to give up the fire and aspire to be a good person instead.

Final Thoughts: There are three reasons to read the Hunger Games books: they go places most young adult literature is afraid to seek out, they take an interesting look at the inner lives of teenagers, and they're fun as hell. Sure, they can be a be a bit bleak and even downright painful at times, but the story is extremely entertaining. I liked these books a hell of a lot, and I'd recommend them across the board.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Afternoons," by Philip Larkin

In continuing the theme of autumn/domestic discontent that was set up in last week's poem by James Wright, I give you this Philip Larkin poem that feels quite familiar to "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio." It's not a happy poem, which is a given since Larkin isn't a particularly happy poet. But I think it paints a very vivid set of images that leave a lasting impression of disillusionment.

Afternoons, by Philip Larkin

Summer is fading:
The leaves fall in ones and twos
From trees bordering
The new recreation ground.
In the hollows of afternoons
Young mothers assemble
At swing and sandpit
Setting free their children.

Behind them, at intervals,
Stand husbands in skilled trades,
An estateful of washing,
And the albums, lettered
Our Wedding, lying
Near the television:
Before them, the wind
Is ruining their courting-places

That are still courting-places
(But the lovers are all in school),
And their children, so intent on
Finding more unripe acrons,
Expect to be taken home.
Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," by James Wright

It's October, which means I can finally post one of my favorite short poems, "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio." I'm a huge James Wright fan, and this is one of his poems I love best. It manages to say a lot in just a few short lines, and the empty spaces are as important as the words themselves.

The posting of this poem is also inspired by my recent obsession with the TV show Friday Night Lights. I think it's one of the best-written and acted shows on television, and I don't think I've ever seen a TV show get down the feel of a small town better than this one. It's one of those perfect shows that somehow exists outside of audience or network influence. I love it, and the football theme brought this poem to mind at once.

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio, by James Wright

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Titonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like stared pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #13

Trashy Read #13: Harper's Bride, by Alexis Harrington

I know, I know. Two trashy reads in a week? What can I say? I've been on a rampage. Unfortunately, this one just wasn't that good. I'm not sure why I finished it, even. All I know is that I just kept reading and eventually the book was over.

The plot is super-simple. An abusive alcoholic trades his wife, Melissa, and their infant daughter, Jenny, to a trader/storekeeper in exchange for a debt. The trader, rugged and handsome Dylan Harper, takes this trade because he feels bad for Melissa and her terrible life. They live together, trying to stay out of each other's lives as much as possible, and eventually fall in love. The end. There's some complications in the forms of a sick baby, their semi-tragic backgrounds, and Dylan's past romantic hurts. But in the end, they come together as a likeable, tough couple hoping to have a family so unlike the ones they grew up with.

The one thing I liked about this story was the development of Melissa's trust in Dylan. Formerly abused and mistreated by both her father and her husband, she has a hard time trusting another man, particularly one as rough-seeming as Dylan. Eventually, she stops flinching every time he's around and figures out he isn't going to hurt her. Harrington handles this transition quite well. She doesn't suddenly trust him overnight; it takes time and patience from both parties. Also, I really liked Dylan's best friend in the story, Rafe. There wasn't a whole lot of depth to him as a character, but I liked him nonetheless and wished he'd had a better deal in the end (and maybe a book of his own).

So why didn't I like this one very much? Well, the writing was simple and completely without a real sense of style from Harrington. It's not bad writing; it just isn't distinguished or interesting in any way. Also, there might have been some comma misuse. And the setting - Yukon during the late 19th-century gold rush - was clever but not as big a presence as I would have liked. The characters were likeable but a little boring and too good to be true. Sorry. I like a little danger or originality in my romances. And this one just wasn't bringing it.

Next in Trashy Reads: Laura Kinsale's Seize the Fire. I'm super excited about this one, guys!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Another S.E. Hinton Book

Book Reviewed: Rumble Fish, by S.E. Hinton

Technically, I've read Rumble Fish before. However, that was ten years ago. I didn't remember a single thing about the book except, strangely enough, a scene where the older brother pours wine over his younger brother's wounds. I have no idea why that scene sticks with me, but I find I can rarely help what memories I carry from books.

After re-reading Tex for the bajillionth time earlier this year, I knew I'd eventually get around to reading this one again. It just took me a while to get there. Rumble Fish is Hinton's shortest book (out of a career of short books, mind you), so it only took me just over an hour to finish. It's not my favorite Hinton book by a long shot, but it had enough of her trademark moves to keep me happy and occupied the entire time.

I think Rumble Fish might be Hinton's least hopeful book. All of her books have really bittersweet endings, where things are left as complicated and imperfect as they began, just in a different way. But his one is particularly painful, as it can't even get up to the "sweet" part of bittersweet. The plot is simple and old hat for Hinton. Our narrator, young Rusty-James is tough as hell, a little criminal in the making. He looks up to his mysterious and legendary older brother, Motorcycle Boy (real name never revealed), who comes in and out of Rusty-James's life and never shows any real affection to him. Rusty-James gets in a fight at the beginning of the book, and the Motorcycle Boy shows up just in time to help him out and take him home. Later, Motorcycle Boy saves Rusty-James and Rusty-James's nerdy friend Steve, but only after dropping an information bomb on his little brother's head earlier in the evening. It's not the kind of loving but troubled sibling relationship we see in The Outsiders or Tex; it's much more destructive and dark.

In the books final pages, something happens that changes Rusty-James's life, but not necessarily for the better. Hinton really ratchets up the violence in the final third of her books, but this one seems particularly devastating because it doesn't lead to any kind of foreseeable good. Unlike the shooting in Tex that heals the wounds between the two brothers or the violence-is-bad lesson of Outsiders, we don't get a chance to see any real impact on Rusty-James. The book's frame, which takes place in the future, shows that his life must be somewhat better. But there doesn't seem to be much in lessons learned here. It's all just very sad.

This book would be a kind of exercise in the miserable if it weren't for Hinton's most laudable talent: her narrators. She pins complex stories on very specific viewpoints, a viewpoint that often lacks perspective and class. Her narrators are often out of the loop when it comes to other characters' emotions and motives, and that's what makes her books so good. Having these kind of unreliable narrators really works to the advantage of the story she's trying to tell. These are stories about wayward kids learning there's a world outside of themselves, and this broken, self-absorbed narration works perfectly to this kind of lesson. I don't know how she does it. Rusty-James is a little stupid, totally unaware of his surroundings, and even more unaware of himself. Yet, it's easy for the reader to sympathize with him completely. Hinton knows how to make the unlikeable likeable.

The character of Motorcycle Boy is also an interesting creation. He's unlike any of Hinton's other violent, charismatic young men. You might compare him to Dally from The Outsiders or Mark from That Was Then, This Is Now, but he never emerges as a sympathetic figure like those two (though admittedly, Mark is really hard to love by the end of his book). However, he's still fascinating. He's such a bizarre and utterly alone human being, and nothing can really change him. Making him partially deaf and colorblind is a smart move on Hinton's part, because the character is himself so unable to live in a world with any kind of sensual complexity or regard for others. He's part of a world that isn't ours, but he's largely to blame for his own problems. We occasionally see a nice moment from him - when he saves Rusty-James from a fight or when he tells Rusty-James about an important and formative event from their childhood, for example. But he's never quite good enough, and therefore it's no surprise what happens to him in the end. He's smart and obviously has a complex inner life, but he also fails to make connections. In Hinton's world, this is where he goes wrong. It's her characters who make connections with other people that eventually become heroic, and Motorcycle Boy never does that. Learning to love and live with other people is what leads the soul's salvation in her books, and it's what makes this book particularly hard to read, since that never quite happens.

So all in all, a decent read. It's not my favorite Hinton book, but then again, it's hard to beat Tex. In fact, this book made me want to go back and reread Tex again. God, that's a great book.