Sunday, January 31, 2010

Poem of the Week: "The Island," by A.A. Milne

During the dregs of winter, I really begin to miss the ocean. When I was growing up, my father's extended family would rent a house on the beach for one week every July in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Most of my fondest memories come from those vacations, when my cousins and I would run wild on the beaches, eating ice cream and watching dolphins follow the shrimp boats in the early morning. To this day, I am still ridiculously nostalgic when it comes to the ocean. So today, I'm posting a happy little children's poem by A.A. Milne (he of Winnie-the-Pooh fame) about this subject.

The Island, by A.A. Milne

If I had a ship,
I'd sail my ship
I'd sail my ship
Through Eastern seas;
Down to a beach where the slow waves thunder -
The green curls over and the white falls under -
Boom! Boom! Boom!
On the sun-bright sand.
Then I'd leave my ship and I'd land,
And climb the steep white sand,
And climb to the trees
The six dark trees,
The coco-nut trees on the cliff's green crown -
Hands and knees
To the coco-nut trees,
Face to the cliff as the stones patter down,
Up, up, up, staggering, stumbling,
Round the corner where the rock is crumbling,
Round this shoulder,
Over this boulder,
Up to the top where the six trees stand....

And there I would rest, and lie,
My chin in my hands, and gaze
At the dazzle of the sand below,
And the green waves curling slow
And the grey-blue distant haze
Where the sea goes up to the sky....

And I'd say to myself as I looked so lazily down at the sea:
"There's nobody else in the world, and the world was made for me."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rest in Peace, J.D. Salinger

In case you haven't heard, J.D. Salinger passed away today at the age of 91. As cliche as it is, The Catcher in the Rye was one of my transformative reading experiences as an adolescent. Although that book means less to me now, it's still one of the great important American literary works.

And although I may not be as enamored with Catcher any more, I still go head-over-heels for Salinger's short stories. His collection, Nine Stories, never ceases to amaze me. I've read it multiple times, and each story becomes more resonant and complex with each reading. So, in honor of Salinger, I am including a passage from my favorite Salinger story, "For Esme - with Love and Squalor."

This passage takes place after a meeting between an American soldier and an adolescent British girl during World War II. The soldier/narrator promises to write a story for the girl, and she reminds him of this before they part ways.

From "For Esme - with Love and Squalor," by J.D. Salinger

Esme was standing with crossed ankles again. "You're quite sure you won't forget to write that story for me?" she asked. "It doesn't have to be exclusively for me. It can -"

I said there was absolutley no chance that I'd forget. I told her that I'd never written a story for anybody, but that it seemed like exactly the right time to get down to it.

She nodded. "Make it extremely squalid and moving," she suggested. "Are you at all acquainted with squalor?"

I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time, and that I'd do my best to come up to her specifications. We shook hands.

"Isn't it a pity that we didn't meet under less extenuating circumstances?"

I said it was, I said it certainly was.

"Goodbye," Esme said, "I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact."

I thanked her, and said a few other words, and then watched her leave the tearoom. She left it slowly, reflectively, testing the ends of her hair for dryness.

RIP, Salinger. Maybe now we'll get to see all that secret work you've been hiding away...

Monday, January 25, 2010

How Would I Describe Anne Tyler's New Novel? Meh.

You all know that I love Anne Tyler and consider her one of the great underappreciated novelist. But I have to admit that I was not so in love with her new book. Noah's Compass, which is Tyler's 17th novel, isn't bad. It just isn't particularly good either. It was one of those books that provided a nice time while I was reading it, but which ultimately frustrated me when I put it down for the last time.

The book has a very Tyler-ian plot. Liam Pennywell, 61, is attacked in his new apartment not long after losing his teaching job. The blow to his head ends up not being particuarly serious, but the fact that he can't remember anything about the attack and its immediate aftermath really bothers him. Meanwhile, Tyler shows his relationships with his ex-wife, daughters, and grandson to be riddled with failures to connect. A new love interest, the goofy Eunice, finally shakes up his boring life a bit. But (SPOIL ALERT) nothing quite works out the way Liam imagined it would. In the end, Noah's Compass is a book about memory and personal failure and how the term "growing old gracefully" is a bunch of crap.

Although she gets lumped in with loads of other women writers who concentrate on domestic life, Tyler has never been as sentimental as many of her peers. She obviously loves her characters and treats them with care, but she isn't afraid to end things on a sour note or leave people feeling lost and unhappy. I've always liked this aspect about Tyler. Her novel Saint Maybe, which is one of my favorite books, just lets its characters be without forcing them into schmaltzy endings or sentimental confrontations. Sometimes, people die still being mad at each other. Sometimes, they remain unaware of their impact on other people for the rest of their days. But for some reason, this exact sense of human honesty that I loved so much in Saint Maybe really turned me off in Noah's Compass.

I think I mostly disliked the book because I didn't really like any of the characters. In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, not a single one of them particularly piqued my interest or compassion. Tyler drew them well enough, without judgment, but I just didn't really care what happened to them by the end. Liam is kind of an asshole, and even though I think we're supposed to find his love interest Eunice charming and quirkly, she mostly got on my last nerve. And then, in the twist about Eunice towards the end, I began to actually hate her, even though I don't think Tyler meant for me to feel that way. It's hard to read a book where you don't want to spend any more time with any of the characters than necessary.

This doesn't mean Tyler has lost her touch, though. In fact, I think if she had pared the book down to a 40-page short story, it would have been quite wonderful (actually, one of my few complaints about Tyler is that she doesn't seem to realize the potential of the short fiction form). Where Saint Maybe was masterful in its use of narration and its handling of time and space, Noah's Compass felt padded and a little too uncontrolled. In fact, about half-way through the book, Tyler makes a mistake in the novel's timing (not matching up character's ages to events that happened to them) that I couldn't believe an editor or proofreader never noticed. This kind of thing always depresses me when I read a book; I really like my authors to have tight reins on what they're doing.

So to conclude, I didn't hate it or love it. It just kind of exists. Although, I have noticed the book is getting good reviews in other places. So maybe it's just me.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Academic Discourse at Miami: Wallace Stevens and the Domestication of Light," by Jay Hopler

One of the few contemporary poets that I follow is Jay Hopler. He did a reading at my alma mater a couple years ago, and I've been hooked on his strange, beautiful, ruin-drenched work ever since. I picked this poem for the week because it connects back to last week's post, Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man." Stevens wrote a lot of poems about Florida, and this is Hopler's response to those poems (it should also be noted that Hopler is often compared to Stevens for his slight absurdism rooted in loneliness and contemporary anxiety). I also chose this poem because I like pieces where poets seem to be talking to each other across time and space, and this is one example of that. Enjoy!

Academic Discourse at Miami: Wallace Stevens and the Domestication of Light, by Jay Hopler

I have no beef with Wallace Stevens
Even if some of his poems do feel like so much tropical slumming.

I only wish he could have lived here, in Florida, instead of simply
Visiting once in a while -; how much more essential his summer-

Minded poems would have been! Not that a poem like "Farewell
To Florida" is solely summer-minded or is, somehow, inessential -

Only, that there exists a difference between the tropical light one
Finds beaming in a Stevens poem and the tropical light one finds

Burning in the tropics. Florida's light is far more aggressive, far
More violent, than Stevens knew -

It gets inside your head and shreds
Things, dismantles memory, shorts out the will; even now, at six

O'clock of a Friday evening, the light here in Florida is clanging,
Banging, rattling buildings, burning through the park's green pelt.

This never happens in a Stevens poem.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Favorite Passages: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

This might be one of the nerdiest Favorite Passages entries I've ever posted. For one, it's centered around a novel beloved by nerds, written by two writers who are themselves a bit nerdy. Secondly, you have to have a somewhat decent knowledge of classical composers to get just how funny this really is. But I can't help it. I love this book, and I love this passage.

This takes place towards the beginning of the book, when the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, who have both been roaming earth since The Beginning, get together to figure out what they're going to do about the coming Apocalypse. Remember that neither of them really wants it to happen, as they have grown to love their worldy lives. Enjoy!

From: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

[Aziraphale] turned and faced Crowley.

"We'll win, of course," he said.

"You don't want that," said the demon.

"Why not, pray?"

"Listen," said Crowley desperately, "how many musicians do you think your side have got, eh? First grade, I mean."

Aziraphale looked taken aback.

"Well, I should think -" he began.

"Two," said Crowley. "Elgar and Liszt. That's all. We've got the rest. Beethoven, Brahms, all the Bachs, Mozart, the lot. Can you imagine eternity with Elgar?"

Aziraphale shut his eyes. "All too easily," he groaned.

"That's it, then," said Crowley with a gleam of triumph. He knew Aziraphale's weak spot all right. "No more compact discs. No more Albert Hall. No more Proms. No more Glyndbourne. Just celestial harmonies all day long."

"Ineffable," Aziraphale murmured.

"Like eggs without salt, you said. Which reminds me. No salt, no eggs. No gravlax with dill sauce. No fascinating little restaurants where they know you. No Daily Telegraph crossword. No small antique shops. No bookshops, either. No interesting old editions. No" - Crowley scraped the bottom of Aziraphale's barrel of interests - "Regency silver snuffboxes..."

"But after we win life will be better!" croaked the angel.

"But it won't be as interesting. Look, you know I'm right. You'd be as happy with a harp as I'd be with a pitchfork."

"You know we don't play harps."

"And we don't use pitchforks. I was being rhetorical."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Beth's Top Five Fictional BFFs

Right now, I'm reading Anne Tyler's new novel, Noah's Compass. It's okay so far, but it's centered around a lonely, somewhat self-centered older man. It makes me miss the camraderie between angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley in last week's read, Good Omens. Missing my love of a good literary friendship, I began to think about my favorite friend characters in some great books. So this list is centered around that friend; that wonderful side character who anchors his or her best friend to the world around them.

I must note that I did not include fictional friendships that don't work out, even though that means I had to get rid of some heavy hitters (including John Singer from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter). Rather, these are the BFFs that make the world better - not worse - for the protagonists.

1. Razumihin (Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky): Admittedly, it's been about seven years since I read C&P, but the thing that still sticks with me all these years later isn't the tortured protagonist, Raskolnikov. Rather, it's his trusty BFF, Razumihin. While reading the book, I was struck by how down-to-earth Raz. was in such a high-brow book. Reasonable and with a much better sense of humor than his friend, I enjoyed the book a lot more when he was around. Also, I always thought his relationship with Raskolnikov's sister was kind of adorable. So there you go. I just called a plot point in Crime and Punishment "adorable."

2. Rachel, Stephanie, and Alison (Just as Long as We're Together and Here's to You, Rachel Robinson, by Judy Blume): I had to include all three friends since they take up a couple books where they switch the protagonist role. Judy Blume was the most formative author of my childhood reading experience, and her depiction of the friendship between these three junior high girls really shows how friendships work at that age. It helps that the friendship between the three reminded me of the BFF threesome I was part of when I read these books more than a decade ago. Also, one of those real-life friends was totally the living, breathing version of the Rachel character.

3. Hand (You Shall Know Our Velocity, by Dave Eggers): Eggers has always written friendships really well, but the relationship between Velocity's protagonist Will and his co-traveler/BFF Hand is probably the best example. Hand can be annoying at times, to both Will and the reader, but he's loyal to a fault and provides some nice comic relief. And in certain editions of the book (there are several, actually), he gets his own 50-page section in the middle where he completely reverses everything we know in the book so far. There's a few lines in this section where Hand goes to clean out Will's storage unit that completely break my heart every time I read them.

4. Bruno (The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss): Nicole Krauss is a deplorably under-valued contemporary writer (and, in my opinion, a much better novelist than her more famous husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, who I strongly dislike). In The History of Love, protagonist Leo Gursky has only one real connection left in the world: his friend from childhood, Bruno. As the book goes on, we learn some shocking things about this friendship that don't at all take away from the poignancy of the friendship between two boys who grow up and become lost, figuratively and literally.

5. "Dill" Harris (To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee): There's really nothing you can say about Dill that hasn't already been said. The epitome of a childhood friend, Dill is loyal and funny and brave. Knowing he was based on Harper Lee's actual BFF as a kid, Truman Capote, only adds to his charm.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Poem of the Week: "The Snow Man," by Wallace Stevens

Suddenly, out of the blue this weekend, I decided I need to read more Wallace Stevens. When I was younger, I hated Stevens with his absurdism, his big words and showy line structure. But now that I'm older and smarter, I am finding his stuff stirring and honest. So expect to hear more about my quest to get to know Wallace Stevens better in the next few months (along with my quest to read more W.H. Auden and Robert Lowell; apparently this is the Winter of Dead White Male Poets). In the meantime, here is one of Stevens's most well-known poems, "The Snow Man." Obviously, it fits the month quite well.

The Snow Man, by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Have you seen this? I don't even know what to say. I've been meaning to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for awhile now, and I thought this whole monster/classic hybrid thing was kind of cute. But this might be out of control now. A book about suicide and social morality AND robots? I just don't think this works for Tolstoy for the exact reasons Jay Parini states towards the end of the article.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wonderful Fantastic Great Omens

By now, you are all well-aware of my guilty love for Supernatural, a TV show about brothers hunting down evil things while dealing with the question of their seemingly pre-conceived fates as weapons of heaven and hell. This season, the show's fifth, has centered around the beginning of the Apocalypse. Trust me, I understand how ridiculous it all is (hence my guilty love), but I can't help but watch this show compulsively and constantly. Anyway, all the episode reviews and recaps I faithfully follow constantly compare the show to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's much-loved novel, Good Omens. I knew I had to read it, so when I began this "Year of Reading Neil Gaiman," I added it to the top of the list. Then, luckily, a lovely friend lent me her copy of the book. I am so very very glad she did.

Because here's the thing: During the six days it took me to read Good Omens, I was completely and totally obsessed with it. I love this book. If it doesn't make my Top Ten list at the end of the year, I can't even comprehend the kinds of wonderful books I'd be reading the rest of the year.

At first glance, Good Omens shouldn't be the kind of book I love. It's a funny version of the coming Apocalypse, after all. But I didn't count on Gaiman and Pratchett to do what they did. Full of fantastic and absurd characters, ridiculous yet understandable situations, and an actual (even somewhat complicated) plot, it did nothing but entertain. Towards the start of the book, the newborn Antichrist gets switched with another baby, going to the wrong family unbeknownst to heaven and hell. In the middle of all this, there's Crowley the demon and Aziraphale the angel, two beings who've been on Earth since The Beginning, and they are way too accustomed to their worldly lives to give up on it now. Their pact (one might even call it a friendship) allows them to keep Earth on an evel keel so that heaven and hell can't take over too quickly. They attempt to stop the Apocalypse from happening in the 11th year of the Antichrist (a very imaginative boy named Adam), but of course, things go awry.

Meanwhile, the Four Horsemen are on the loose, the "Nice and Accruate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch" are dead-on, and some poor schmuck named Newt finally gets laid. By the end, we've got a ton of characters (I personally thought Gaiman and Pratchett had created too many characters and it became confusing), but they all add to some perspective as to how this whole thing goes down.

But the book's real virtues lie in its humor and the awesomeness of Crowley and Aziraphale. The book is hands-down one of the funniest things I've ever read. I laughed out loud through the entire thing. One sampling: "Crowley was currently doing 110 mph somewhere east of Slough. Nothing about him looked particularly demonic, at least by classical standards. No horns, no wings. Admittedly, he was listening to a Best of Queen tape, but no conclusions should be drawn from this because all tapes left in a car for more than a fortnight metamorphose into Best of Queen albums." I think I laughed for five minutes straight after reading that. And then I read it aloud to my entire family, who also appreciated it a great deal. The whole book is a lot like that.

Crowley and Aziraphale are fantastic characters, the kind you want to be BFFs with in the real world. Crowley, always in sunglasses and driving an old Bentley, is the epitome of cool and modern. Aziraphale, a rare books dealer, makes a nice foil, all nerves and common sense and morality. The conversations the two of them have in the first half of the book made up my favorite passages. There's nothing I love more in a book than just hanging out with two cool people (well, in this case, not exactly human people). Really, I couldn't have asked for more than having these two as my guides in this F-ed up world.

Anyway, to sum up, Good Omens fulfilled all I can really want as a reader just by being a great read at a time when I really needed some cheering up. Thank you, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I will be singing the praises of your novel for a very long time.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Don't Look Back," by Kay Ryan

I wanted something short and sweet for this Poem of the Week, so I went straight to the poet who best sums up those two goals: Kay Ryan. Ryan can be a bit of a hard poet to get into, but I once saw her read at a little library in central Indiana, and she lit up everyone's cold spring night with her outgoing, slightly crusty personality. Here's a good one that feels especially poignant to me these days.

Don't Look Back, by Kay Ryan

This is not
a problem
for the neckless.
Fish cannot
swivel their heads
to check
on their fry;
no one expects
this. They are
torpedoes of
compact capsules
that rely
on the odds
for survival,
unfollowed by
the exact and modest
number of goslings,
the S-necked
goose is --
who if she
looks back
acknowledges losses
and if she does not
also loses.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tolstoy Link to Share

Here's a really good article from The Guardian about Tolstoy and how Russians view him. I really hope the film the article mentions, The Last Station, gets a release somewhere I can see it because it sounds fantastic.

Also, according to the article, Russian schoolkids read War and Peace when they are 14 or 15. Holy crap! When I was that age, there was no way I would have "gotten" that book.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Favorite Passages: Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

In this blog, I constantly refer to War and Peace and the lit class in which I was required to read it. However, I never mention that we read two other large and unwieldy novels in that class also: Charles Dickens's Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. I'm particularly fond of the latter. Our Mutual Friend is a massive, strange, suspenseful blend of mystery novel and social observation. Up until the last 100 pages or so, in which everything I thought about the book and its characters was completely obliterated by the author, I was in total rapture. And no part of the book made me happier than the terrific character of the creepy school teacher, Bradley Headstone. Besides having quite possibly the best character name ever, Headstone is a perfectly incompetent and murderous Dickens character. So, for this week's Favorite Passage, I decided to use the reader's first glimpse at Headstone, a wonderfully-written Dickens description.

From: Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

Bradley Headstone, in his decent black coat and waistcoat, and decent white shirt, and decent formal black tie, and decent pantaloons of pepper and salt, with his decent silver watch in his pocket and its decent hair-guard round his neck, looked a thoroughly decent man of six-and-twenty. He was never seen in any other dress, and yet there was a certain stiffness in his manner of wearing this, as if there were a want of adaptation between him and it, recalling some mechanics in their holiday clothes. He had acquired mechanically a great store of teacher's knowledge. He could do mental arithmetic mechanically, sing at sight mechanically, blow various wind instruments mechanically, even play the great church organ mechanically. From his early childhood up, his mind had been a place of mechanical stowage. The arrangement of his wholesale warehouse, so that it might always be ready to meet the demands of retail dealers - history here, geography there, astronomy to the right, political economy to the left - natural history, the physical sciences, figures, music, the lower mathematics, and what not, all in their several places - this care had imparted to his countenance a look of care; while the habit of questioning and being questioned had given him a suspicious manner, or a manner that would be better described as one lying in wait. There was a kind of settled trouble in the face. It was the face belonging to a naturally slow or inattentive intellect that had toiled hard to get what it had won, and that had to hold it now that it was gotten. He always seemed to be uneasy lest anything should be missing from his mental warehouse, and taking stock to assure himself.

Suppression of so much to make room for so much, had given him a constrained manner, over and above. Yet there was enough of what was animal, and of what was fiery (though smoldering) still visible in him, to suggest that if young Bradley Headstone, when a pauper lad, had chanced to be told off for the sea, he would not have been the last man in a ship's crew. Regarding that origin of his, he was proud, moody, and sullen, desiring it to be forgotten. And few people knew of it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Magic of Neil Gaiman

Those of you who read my Favorite Passages post from this last Thursday know that one of my New Year Reading Resolutions is to plunge into the waters of Neil Gaiman's novels. I started off the year with one of his story collections, Smoke and Mirrors. It did not disappoint. Some of the pieces were just kind of bizarre, and as a newbie in the fantasy world, I didn't really get them. But the ones rooted in strong human emotion really stuck with me. Stories like "Troll Bridge," "Looking for the Girl," and the sad-but-hilarious "The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories" get at the heart of disappointment, regret, and bitterness. I was also a big fan of "Mouse," "Foreign Parts," and "We Can Get Them for You Wholesale," all of which are good places to start if you're a Gaiman novice. Meanwhile, the strange but beautiful "Murder Mysteries," a detective story taking place in a pre-human city of archangels, completely hooked me from beginning to end. I couldn't get enough of it, to be honest.

I tend to forget how good Gaiman is at horror. Last month, I mentioned how deeply disturbing I found the images in Coraline to be. Smoke and Mirror's final story, "Snow, Glass, Apples," a horrifying take on the Snow White tale, picked up on that same disorienting break between reality and fairy tales. It was surprisingly intriguing.

Then, of course, there's the story Gaiman sneaks into his Introduction, a short real-world-based-fantasy called "The Wedding Present," which carries the most heart-wrenching finale in the entire book. Only a guy as nonchalant as Gaiman could bury such a story in a section most people never touch when they read a book. I love it.

Anyway, a good start to Gaimanpalooza. A good friend recently lent me some Gaiman novels to check out, and I just bought a copy of American Gods, probably his most famous adult novel, so I should be set for the next few months!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Second Chances," by Richard Hugo

A few months ago, I mentioned reading Richard Hugo's White Center. One of the highlights I noted about the book came in the last lines of the poem "Second Chances." This is a lovely but deeply sad poem about its troubled writer, and I thought it was appropriate as lately I've been giving a lot of thought to misdirected lives and the idea of being someone I'm not. So, finally, here's that poem. I hope you like the ending as much as I do.

Second Chances, by Richard Hugo

I can't let it go, the picture I keep of myself
in ruin, living alone, some wretched town
where friendship is based on just being around.
And I drink there a lot, stare at the walls until
the buzzing of flies becomes the silence I drown in.
Outside, children bad mouth my life with songs
their parents told them to sing. One showers
my roof with stones knowing I'm afraid
to step out and tell him to stop. Another yells,
"You can't get a woman, old man. You don't get a thing."

My wife, a beautiful woman, is fixing lunch.
She doesn't know I dream these things. She thinks
I'm fine. People respect me. Oh, she knows all right
I've seen grim times. But these days my poems
appear everywhere. Fan mail comes. I fly east
on a profitable reading tour. Once in a while
a young girl offers herself. My wife knows that, too.
And she knows my happiness with her is far more
than I ever expected. Three years ago, I wouldn't
have given a dime for my chances at life.

What she doesn't know is now and then
a vagabond knocks on the door. I go answer
and he says, "Come back, baby. You'll find
a million poems deep in your destitute soul."
And I say, "Go away. Don't ever come back."
But I watch him walk, always downhill toward
the schoolyard where children are playing 'ghost,'
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.