Saturday, March 27, 2010

Poem of the Week: "This Hour and What Is Dead," by Li-Young Lee

Is there any contemporary poet with language as beautiful and quiet as Li-Young Lee? I kind of doubt it. When I stumbled upon this poem last night, it actually made me cry. It's so gorgeous and sad and soft, like much of Lee's work. I figured out this poem is actually from his book The City in Which I Love You, which I own but have only ever skimmed. Guess what I'll be reading this week...

This Hour and What Is Dead, by Li-Young Lee

Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking
through bare rooms over my head,
opening and closing doors.
What could he be looking for in an empty house?
What could he possibly need there in heaven?
Does he remember his earth, his birthplace set to torches?
His love for me feels like spilled water
running back to its vessel.

At this hour, what is dead is restless
and what is living is burning.

Someone tell him he should sleep now.

My father keeps a light on by our bed
and readies for our journey.
He mends ten holes in the knees
of five pairs of boy’s pants.
His love for me is like his sewing:
various colors and too much thread,
the stitching uneven. But the needle pierces
clean through with each stroke of his hand.

At this hour, what is dead is worried
and what is living is fugitive.

Someone tell him he should sleep now.

God, that old furnace, keeps talking
with his mouth of teeth,
a beard stained at feasts, and his breath
of gasoline, airplane, human ash.
His love for me feels like fire,
feels like doves, feels like river-water.

At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind
and helpless. While the Lord lives.

Someone tell the Lord to leave me alone.
I’ve had enough of his love
that feels like burning and flight and running away.

Friday, March 26, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #1

After my confession yesterday, I've decided to start a new post category, hereafter known as "This Week in Trashy Reads." Since I don't necessarily read a "trashy" book every week, these posts won't be posted on a regular basis. But a handful will definitely sneak in each month.

Yesterday, in my review, I mentioned that one of the best things about the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books crew is their ability to point me in the direction of some good romance novels, rather than the terrible crap that normally represents romance. So when I saw this glowing review for Julie James's Something About You, I new I had to check it out. I was not disappointed.

There are few things I am a total sucker for when it comes to romance novels. (To name a few: series about brothers, damaged heroes - particularly ones with tragic/traumatic pasts, and anything involving nerds or small towns). One of these is the "I hate you, NO! I love you" approach. Cameron Lynde and Jack Pallas have a complicated past, in which FBI agent Jack blames U.S. attorney Cameron for ruining an extremely important case. But Jack doesn't know what really went down, and neither is very fond of each other. But when Cameron is the only witness to a murder, Jack and her are pushed back together. Obviously, emotions and hot sex ensue.

But I wasn't really into this book for the plot, which was quite vanilla, really. In fact, for the first hundred pages, I was almost bored. Then things get steamy. But that really wasn't why I liked the book, either. Rather, I enjoyed it because it was actually quite funny, and all the side characters were very charming. I particularly liked Jack's partner, Agent Wilkins, who is adorably honest and quippy, and Cameron's best friend Collin, who is gay but (as the Smart Bitch site points out) not at all a cliche. Also, by mentioning romance novel cliches throughout the book in well-done bouts of dialogue, it manages not to feel so trashy.

So, in the end, this was a really fun read that didn't need to have substance to get me interested. Yay for trashy books that take my mind of things!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The One Where I Finally Admit I Am Becoming an Avid Romance-Reader

Those of you who know me know I consider myself a pretty serious reader. I like the Tolstoy and the poetry and judging the reading choices of others. But, I have to admit I mostly like reading for the chance to get to be inside made-up peoples' heads as they do made-up things. And sometimes, I don't want those things to so serious and morally-complex and achingly well-written. Sometimes, I just want to escape.

So I am finally willing to confess that I am becoming addicted to romance novels. They are so cheesy and wonderful! I love to read them just before bed, when my mind is less likely to handle more sophisticated thinking (and, you know, having a hot-looking fictional dude be the last thing on your mind before sleep ain't so bad either). And now, I've found some compatriots in my newfound joy: Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, the "Smart Bitches, Trashy Books" creators.

A couple weeks ago, I shared the link to Wendell and Tan's amazing website, which is hilarious but intelligent, celebrating the highest of the low-brow. Then, I found out they had a book. Naturally, I went right out and ordered it. And man, was it it worth it. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels was exactly what I needed to feel better about my secret habit. The guide is as funny as the website, and probably twice as smart. There are chapters about the development of romance literature (Old Skool vs. New Skool, according to Wendell and Tan), the importance of hero and heroine constructions, the way sex is used, and the terrifically terrible plots. There's even a chapter about the tragedy that is the romance novel cover.

The book was an absolute joy to read and exactly what I needed after the big ball of depressing from last week. Even better, Wendell and Tan know everything there is to know about romance novels and how they are constructed by writers, then enjoyed by readers. For example, there's this wonderful passage about constructing the perfect romance hero, which hits a little too close to home for ol' lecherous Beth (as any of you who know about my eyelash obsession can back up):

And after the eyes, there's one element you cannot forget: the eyelashes. No hero has stubby, forgettable eyelashes. They're always long, deceptively sooty, and visible from at least two to three acres away. When the heroine gives her survey of the hero, and notes the things about him that she cannot help but stare at, his eyes, and then his eyelashes, are nearly always mentioned. Long eyelashes are the first key that This Is the Hero because somehow eyelashes have become synonymous with some deeper, hidden sensitivity and kindness. No one who has long, sweeping eyelashes is evil, obviously.

Anyway, to make a long story short, this book is great. Even better, it provided me with the names of some romance writers to check out (since I'm stuck in a bit of a Nora Roberts rut). If you suddenly find yourself reading romance on the side, you absolutely have to check out Wendell and Tan's website and book.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Van Gogh's Prayer," by János Pilinszky

Flipping through my back issues of Poetry magazine is always hit and miss for me. Sometimes, I'll find something suprisingly good. Most of the time, I roll my eyes at how hard the poets and the magazine try and fail to capture my attention. But this morning when I was flipping through the March 2008 issue, I found a poem I'd forgotten I loved. I'd even penned a giant asterisk in the corner of the page to mark it. And yet, two years later, I failed to remember it. So I reread it and enjoyed it all over again. So, here is that poem, by a Hungarian poet whose work I will now be looking up. I think it is quiet and simple and very lovely.

Van Gogh's Prayer, by János Pilinszky
Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri

A battle lost in the cornfields
and in the sky a victory.
Birds, the sun and birds again.
By night, what will be left of me?

By night, only a row of lamps,
a wall of yellow clay that shines,
and down the garden, through the trees,
like candles in a row, the panes;

there I dwelt once and dwell no longer --
I can't live where I once lived, though
the roof there used to cover me.
Lord, you covered me long ago.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Big Ball of Depressing

When Dan Chaon's first novel, You Remind Me of Me, came out in 2004, I was working weekends at a little independent bookstore. I loved those days as a teenager, spending my shifts reading publication materials and trade magazines. I couldn't get enough of reading new book reviews and being "in the know" about the publishing and bookselling industries. One of the books I remember really making a mark, with all its positive reviews and surprising popularity for a piece of literary fiction, was Chaon's novel. But, like Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (which is another book everyone was freaking out about back then), I wanted to read the book post-hype. And like Gilead, it took me five years to get to that point.

So, I finally read You Remind Me of Me this week. And you know what? I'm already kind of regretting it. Because, you see, this book might just be the single most depressing piece of fiction I've ever read.

Here's the thing: I've read books that are much sadder - books full of death and war and tragedy. This book didn't have much of any of that. Also, as you all know, I really like sad books. But for some reason, You Remind Me of Me was a little too much of a mood-spoiler even for me. The characters' lives were so thematically hopeless and pathetic and crushing that I could hardly take it. Plus, it didn't help that Chaon did not add a single bright spot to divert my attention. The book was just a grinding, nonstop road of misery.

Obviously, I must have found the book compelling enough. I have no qualms about giving up on books I don't like in the middle, but I kept all the way to the end with this one. Partly that was from some idea that the book HAD to become happier. I thought there was no way Chaon could sustain this kind of pain for so long. But no, I was wrong. Somehow, the book became even more hopeless by the end. I also continued to read the book because Chaon's writing was occasionally very nice (although he's far too wordy for my taste in general) and because I appreciated the way he let the characters make their own dumb choices without interference on his part. That's a lot harder for a writer than most people realize.

Frankly, this book should have been right up my alley. It's about brothers (one given up for adoption, the other doomed to stay with his screwed-up mother) who don't meet until they are adults. It's about a father and son (the adopted brother and his little boy, who have the strongest and most loving relationship in the book). It even takes place in small prarie towns (like Gilead!). But I wasn't having it. The two brothers - adopted Troy and dysfunctional Jonah - have such unrelentingly depressing lives that I could hardly take it. I'm not saying that it's not realistic. It very much is. Yet, Chaon refuses again and again to let even the smallest smile cross the faces of his characters and his readers.

Anyway, this book hit the trifecta of sadness for me: failed mothers, doomed children, characters who literally don't have a single connection to the rest of the world. Those things depress the hell out of me. As I told my mom when I finished the book, "If there were some scenes of killing dolphins in here, it would have hit the trifecta!" At the end, my favorite character, Troy, does get a somewhat pleasant second chance at a better life. But nothing really turns out for anyone else. And even worse, I never found it in me as a sympathetic, sophisticated reader to understand the terrible, terrible decisions these people (particularly Jonah) kept making time and time again.

Critics liked Chaon's book because it was honest, well-written, and had a complicated story structure that moves across time and space. And truth is, Chaon had all these things going for him (particularly, in the structure, which ended on a surprisingly perfect place in time as the brothers' mother, Nora, is in labor with Jonah in 1971, tying the book together quite nicely). Yet, I'm now skeptical of all these critics. Because where they saw honesty in writing and subject, I found a strange genre I have now dubbed "misery porn." Because, holy shit, was this a big ball of depressing.

So now that I have all that off my chest, I'm going off to cleanse my palate with a trashy romance novel.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Picnic, Lightning: Ten Books That Make Me Laugh

A couple of weeks ago, I posted my list of ten books that make me cry. So, to make up for that bit of sadness, this week I've decided to share my list of ten books that make me laugh. These are the books that make me chuckle for one reason or another. They aren't all necessarily "funny" books, but they are all written by authors who know a thing or two about being witty.

Picnic, Lightning: Ten Books That Make Me Laugh

1. Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett: What can I say about this book that I haven't said before? It's quite possibly the best example of situational humor I've ever read. Do you know what's funnier than a demon who talks to his house plants in hopes to threaten them into growing faster? Nothing. That's what.

2. Take the Cannoli, by Sarah Vowell: Technically, any of Sarah Vowell's hilarious books could have made this list. But her first book, a collection of charming essays about pop culture and American history and being a nerd, is probably the one that makes me laugh the hardest. Even better, it actually taught me some important tidbits of history. For me, the highlight is the essay "Species-on-Species Abuse," about a trip to Disney World that Vowell took with a friend.

3. About a Boy, by Nick Hornby: The books that are the most fun to read tend to be ones with an even mix of pathos, books with the ability to be funny and sad in a single sentence. Hornby's novel about growing up follows this rule beautifully, with a story that can break your heart in one moment and make you grin like a fool in the next.

4. Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris: Like Sarah Vowell's work, everything David Sedaris writes is absolutely hilarious. But for some reason, of all his books, Me Talk Pretty One Day is my favorite. I don't know if it's because we meet Sedaris's over-the-top brother, Rooster, in this book, or because it contains possibly my favorite Sedaris essay, "Jesus Shaves." I just know this one makes me laugh the hardest.

5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers: As a teenager, Eggers's popular and award-winning memoir was my favorite book. It's fallen a little bit in rank now that I'm older and a little less charmed by overt cleverness, but I'd still call it one of the best memoirs ever written. It's as sad and smart as its title suggests, but it's also a real tickler at times. The humorous highlights most often come in the interactions between Eggers and his much younger brother. It helps that Eggers writes their funny dialogue with flat-out perfect precision.

6. Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov: There's a reason Nabokov's oft-assigned novel is so infamous. It takes a really uncomfortable subject - pedophilia - and puts a human face on it. This book is about almost everything - love, loss, life, European vs. American culture - so it's no surprise it's so beloved by critics and lit professors. But few people mention how funny it is. The first handful of paragraphs alone make me giggle. This is actually where I got the title for this list, as narrator Humbert Humbert gives us a short version of his family history: "My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three." It's the kind of humor that makes you feel guilty for laughing.

7. Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: The Best of McSweeney's Humor Category, by Various Writers and Editors: Before I discovered The AV Club, McSweeney's was my favorite website. Started by Dave Eggers (see # 5), it showcases short pieces displaying a very intelligent and culture-savvy kind of humor. So when the site's editors released this collection, I quickly snatched it up. It did not disappoint. Once again, it's the kind of humor that only certain people feel comfortable with. Like this.

8. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens: Without a doubt, this is my favorite Dickens novel. It's also considered one of his darkest and most mature. But for some reason, anytime the amazing character of Bradley Headstone comes on the scene, I start cracking up. He's a terrifying psychopath, sure, but his actions are so crazy they border on funny. Honestly, this book probably makes me laugh because I am so appreciative of what Dickens does in it, not because it's actually humorous.

9. The Bald Soprano, by Eugene Ionesco: The first time I read this famous absurdist play, three years ago for a lit class, I continually stopped to read passages out loud because it was so damn funny. It was only after I finished the book and began to write a paper on it that I realized how horrifying it actually was. It's a scrambling of language and sense meant to show our lack of identity and communication. But holy shit, is it amazingly laugh-inducing. Bobby Watson, anyone?

10. Superfudge, by Judy Blume: What can I say? Maybe it's incredibly immature of me, but I can't help but giggle anytime I think of Fudge's myna bird yelling, "Shut up, Stupid!" to everyone it sees.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Misgivings," by William Matthews

Matthews is a poet I can take or pass on, depending on the day. However, this poem from his final collection After All: Last Poems, really sticks with me. The subject is something I think we can all relate to - if not with a lover, then a friend or roommate or family member (really anyone that you spend too much time with). Sometimes thinking about getting tired of the people we love is worse than the actual fallout. The final stanza of this poem is really something, I think. That final image is so arresting that it just kind of sits there in the time and space of my mind. Enjoy!

Misgivings, by William Matthews

"Perhaps you'll tire of me," muses
my love, although she's like a great city
to me, or a park that finds new
ways to wear each flounce of light
and investiture of weather.
Soil doesn't tire of rain, I think,

but I know what she fears: plans warp,
planes explode, topsoil gets peeled away
by floods. And worse than what we can't
control is what we could; those drab,
scuttled marriages we shed so
gratefully may augur we're on our owns

for good reasons. "Hi, honey," chirps Dread
when I come through the door, "you're home."
Experience is a great teacher
of the value of experience,
its claustrophobic prudence,
its gloomy name-the-disasters-

in-advance charisma. Listen,
my wary one, it's far too late
to unlove each other. Instead let's cook
something elaborate and not
invite anyone to share it but eat it
all up very very slowly.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Art of the "Troubled Boyhood" Memoir

I finally read Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life! I don't know how I managed to get this far in my life without reading this seemingly-loved-by-everyone memoir. Years ago, I read his novella Old School and really liked it. One of my favorite college professors loved Tobias Wolff and would assign his work quite often. This Boy's Life was even made into a movie starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio, who I was completely obsessed with at the age of eleven. There are a million reasons I should have read this book years ago. But the most egregious thing about not reading Wolff's memoir earlier lies in it's genre. It's a classic example of what I like to call the "troubled boyhood" memoir, which has long been one of my favorite literary genres.

Two of my all-time favorite nonfiction books are also classic examples of the wayward-child memoir genre: Frank Conroy's beautiful Stop-Time and Sean Wilsey's messy, funny Oh the Glory of It All. I don't know why I am so drawn to memoirs about male writers who struggled with mean, luckless, extremely entertaining pasts. I think it's because the boys in these books live lives completely different from my own childhood. They lie and steal and cheat; I had a guilt complex the size of Antarctica. They hitchhike and have adventures; I could barely get myself to leave my own room. Their families are models of dysfunction; my family ate dinner together and went to Disney World. So because the books of Wolff and others of his ilk explore worlds so vastly different from my own, I just eat them up.

But there's also something weirdly maternal about my love for these books and these writers. When I read passages in which Wolff or Conroy or Wilsey suffer some kind of emotional or physical abuse from the adults in their lives, I get furious. These poor, poor children, I think. I don't even seem to realize that if I knew any of these writers as children, I'd probably want to shake some sense into them as well. But sometimes, the lack of care in their lives is really disturbing, and the sentimentalist in me just wants to wrap them all in a hug and whisper assurances. Luckily, all three of these writers are so good that they take away any pity you might feel by being self-deprecating or admitting to being jackasses. In the case of Conroy, particularly, you are too absorbed by the gorgeous writing to get too upset. I think this is why I really love the "troubled boyhood" memoir: because it reminds me of what good writing does time and again: makes us feel a huge range of emotion (pity, frustration, fear, love, etc.) in just the smallest turns of phrase.

So, obviously, I really enjoyed This Boy's Life. Wolff manages to take some painful topics - his parents' divorce, his estrangement from his brother and father, his cruel stepfather, his own delinquent behavior - and write about them in a light, funny, moving way. Then, every once in awhile, there's so much honesty in Wolff's voice that it's really quite breathtaking. Take, for example, this passage of the book, in which Wolff talks about how he too easily forgave the father who basically abandoned him, making him a hero he wasn't around enough to ever blame or see fault in:

This way of thinking worked pretty well until my first child was born. He came three weeks early, when I was away from home. The first time I saw him, in the hospital nursery, a nurse was trying to take a blood sample from him. She couldn't find a vein. She kept jabbing him, and every time the needle went in I felt it myself. My impatience made her so clumsy that another nurse had to take over. When I finally got my hands on him I felt as if I had snatched him from a pack of wolves, and as I held him something hard broke in me, and I knew that I was more alive than I had been before. But at the same time I felt a shadow, a coldness at the edges. It made me uneasy, so I ignored it. I didn't understand what it was until it came upon me again that night, so sharply I wanted to cry out. It was about my father, ten years dead by then. It was grief and rage, mostly rage, and for days I shook with it when I wasn't shaking with joy with my son, and for the new life I had been given.

This passage comes int he middle of section in which a middle-school-aged Wolff is dealing with his possessive asshat of a stepfather. It comes almost from nowhere, letting us know that Wolff manages to make it out as a good-hearted man who still cannot escape his past abandonment. The single paragraph really adds to the poignancy of the entire book. I love when writers do this kind of stuff. And this is the kind of stuff that happens time and again in the greatest of the troubled boyhood memoirs. I think I will be reading them forever.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Trying to Have Something Left Over," by Jack Gilbert

I love poems that seem to be about one thing but are really about something else entirely. They might be about some surface concern, but underneath they are about deeper emotions, stormier backstories. Jack Gilbert's poems are great examples of this kind of diversion. In "Trying to Have Something Left Over," one of my favorite poems from his collection The Great Fires, he is writing about a subject that comes up in a couple of his pieces: namely, his affair in Denmark with a married woman who has an infant son. His not-quite-there involvement with this family that doesn't belong to him really makes for some poignant lines. So while it looks like we have a poem about a baby and the city of Pittsburgh, what we're really getting is a heartwrenching story about love and loss. Rereading this poem today, I was really struck by the magnitude of that final line, as it's about so many things at once.

Trying to Have Something Left Over, by Jack Gilbert

There was a great tenderness to the sadness
when I would go there. She knew how much
I loved my wife and that we had no future.
We were like casualties helping each other
as we waited for the end. Now I wonder
if we understood how happy those Danish
afternoons were. Most of the time we did not talk.
Often I took care of the baby while she did
housework. Changing him and making him laugh.
I would say Pittsburgh softly each time before
throwing him up. Whisper Pittsburgh with
my mouth against the tiny ear and throw
him higher. Pittsburgh and happiness high up.
The only way to leave even the smallest trace.
So that all his life her son would feel gladness
unaccountably when anyone speaks of the ruined
city of steel in America. Each time almost
remembering something maybe important that got lost.

Friday, March 5, 2010

My New Favorite Website: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

I am proud to announce the new title-holder of My Favorite Website: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. It's a blog dedicated solely to the reading of trashy books (mostly romances), and it actually gives helpful reviews and links for all kinds of readers and writers, particularly those who are new to the bad habit of reading trashy novels (in other words, people like me).

Check it out! It's absolutely wonderful.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bring Him Back: Ten Books That Make Me Cry

Remember how I said this would be a week to celebrate sad books? Well, here it is. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the ways art emotionally affects me. I can easily sit in a movie theater and be the only dry eye in the place, or I can be the girl crying when no one else is. The difference comes in the way emotion is handled by the writer or director or artist. Basically, there is nothing I hate more in art than being emotionally manipulated. If it seems like a scene has been constructed solely to make me weep, I resist it as much as possible. I want my emotion to come from some deep and honest place. I want tear-jerking scenes to come from unexpected moments that make sense to the characters and the plot. Basically, I want to feel something based on what I imagine the characters actually feel as people rather than constructions. I don't like it when the author seems to make me want to feel something. I'd rather that not be his intent at all. I rather like to think my crying might surprise a writer.

Anyway, these are the ten books that make me cry because they are well-constructed, nicely written, and true to their characters' emotional cores. And I might add that, because I cry so rarely over art, if a book really gets me choked up, it tends to automatically become one of my favorites.

Bring Him Back: Top Ten Books Books That Make Me Cry

1. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving: This one gets me every time, and it's also where we get the title for this list (it comes from the final line, which makes me bawl just by glancing at it). You know from the book's very beginning that the titular character of Owen Meany, the narrator best friend, is doomed. But that still doesn't keep me from crying the entire way through the last 80 pages. In fact, when I read the last chapter for the first time, I was crying so hard in public that a woman stopped to ask me if I was okay. It's not Owen's death or life or otherworldliness that makes me cry. It's the way the narrator, John, is completely unable to overcome his grief even twenty years later. Dead best friends tend to me my #1 fuel for tears, and this book is the primary example.

2. The Road Back, by Erich Maria Remarque: I still remember the first time I read this book. It was a couple weeks for Christmas and I was stuck at home on a snowday from high school. The entire day became a marathon to finish this book. I read the last 200 pages in five hours, and I leaked about 200 tears along the way. The narrator's inability to cope with the fallout of fighting for the German army in World War One is haunting and painful to experience as a reader, and by the time the book comes to an end, you feel like you were right there with him and his former comrades.

3. The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien: War books in general tend to make me pretty emotional (part of that whole dead-best-friend thing). But it's not the many deaths or cruelty of warfare that gets me in O'Brien's autobiographical stories. It's the idea that Tim - the narrator and the writer - is using writing to heal his wounds years later. At the end of the book, Tim talks about a childhood friend who died when he was very young and how he made up stories to keep her alive, the same thing he is doing now as a veteran. The book ends with a simple but heartbreaking statement that can make me weep for hours.

4. Gilead and Home, by Marilynne Robinson: I won't keep you too long on this two-for-one. Robinsons' quiet and uneventful writing makes me cry as much as the profound sadness of her characters' lives does. When I read Gilead for the first time this summer, I tear-soaked the library's copy. Then, a couple months later, the final few pages of Home did the same thing. Robinson never manipulates her readers. She's as brutally honest and simple as they come.

5. Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona, by Ryan Harty: This story collection, the first book from a writer who I think has been extremely overlooked in the last decade, might just be my favorite set of short stories out there. Every single story in here is so carefully put together and realistic. I feel like I know everyone in this book. Which is why even the smallest things in it can make me cry. But his most famous short story, the much-anthologized "Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down," is the saddest of them all. If you have ever put even a moment of thought into parent-child relationships OR robots, expect this one to cut you deep.

6. Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane: Trust me, the book is way better than the movie (although I was actually a fan of the movie version). I can make it through the movie in one piece, but when Lehane gets to the big reveal at the end of his novel, I can't help but break down. He does an excellent job of showing how childhood trauma cuts so deep that it can completely destroy the present and future. Great plot, great characters, and a great emotional climax.

7. Atonement, by Ian McEwan: Both the film version (which I actually saw first) and the book make me cry equally as hard. Like The Things They Carried, McEwan's well-loved novel really explores what it means to be a storyteller dealing with tragedy. When I finally cry at the end, it's not because of what happens to doomed lovers Robbie and Cecelia. Rather, it's what happens to little Briony Tallis, who grows up and writes a book that cannot take away from her own horrible guilt. The fact that she can absolve everyone but herself in fictional form is really the emotional core of this book.

8. The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton: Another dead-best-friend book. Admittedly, Hinton is a little bit emotionally manipulative in this book, what with the Robert Frost-quoting and all. But that doesn't take away from how it feels to be a 12-year-old reading the book for the first time and having your stomach pulled out through your eyeballs because of the emotional rollercoaster the book provides.

9. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: The other kind of well-worn theme that makes me verklempt is the "child grows up" story. At the end of Gaiman's fantastic children's novel, Bod becomes a kind of "real boy," forced to leave behind everyone he loves and face the world for the first time. Meanwhile the reader realizes that his guardian Silas, a vampire who really shouldn't feel much of anything, is as torn about the leaving as Bod is. Gaiman makes really grown-up emotions accessible to everyone in just a few short pages.

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling: Yep, I'm one of those suckers who cried all the way through the battle at Hogwarts. Especially when certain characters die (*cough*FredLupinTonks*cough*). I'm only human, people.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Revisiting an Old Favorite, Ten-Plus Years Later

When I was eleven or so, one of my favorite books was a short children's novel called Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. Centering on a family that cannot die, and the little girl who becomes their friend, the book is brief and quiet with the exception of one moment of great violence. I have clear memories of openly weeping in the book's final pages, completely overcome by grief and confusion over a decision the protagonist, Winnie Foster, makes in the end. This is one of those books I may never get out of my mind, even all these years later. So I decided to reread the book, to see if it produced any kind of the same effect on me.

I have to admit, I didn't shed a tear this time around. I was still sad about the choices and consequences faced by all the characters, but now as a more clear-headed adult, they made much more sense to me. The book manages to pack the heavy themes of morality and mortality in less than 140 pages. The titular family - Mr. and Mrs. Tuck, along with their adult sons Miles and Jesse - took a drink of a spring 87 years ago and have not aged since. Despite many accidents that should have been fatal, they are all still alive and well. They've become drifters, never quite fitting in anywhere and moving on before anyone gets suspicious. When they almost-accidentally "kidnap" Winnie, they tell her their story. Meanwhile, a nasty blackmailing ass-hat in a yellow suit tries to follow them, hoping to bottle their secret and sell it to the world for a high price. Eventually, a surprisingly brutal event takes place that shakes up the relatively somber atmosphere leading up to it. And then, in the end, Winnie makes an interesting choice that requires even a young reader to think about questions of life and death.

But what struck me about the novel this time around was Babbitt's portrayal of a little girl's first crush. Ten-year-old Winnie becomes infatuated with the easygoing, goodlooking teenager Jesse Tuck as soon as she lays eyes on him. It's almost painful to read about Winnie's childish love for him, now that I look back on my own stupid girlhood crushes. Babbitt does a great job of showing a completely innocent infatuation that is doomed from the beginning, and she does it without an ounce of melodrama or emotional manipulation. As a kid, I couldn't help but like Jesse either. Now, twelve years later, it's easy to see how foolish Winnie and I both were. However, the final moment we see from Winnie in the penultimate chapter (which concerns a decision affecting both her and Jesse) still makes me tremendously sad for these dopey kids.

I enjoyed revisiting Tuck Everlasting, even if it didn't have the same emotional impact on me that it had years ago. If you know a young reader with some patience and a strong sense of right and wrong, this makes a great read. And that goes for adults, too, those beings who know all too well what life and death mean.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Interesting Link

Via NPR's Monkey See blog, I found this very interesting piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education. I am not quite sure what to make of David Alpaugh's claims here. Personally, I find much of contemporary poetry to be really boring, and as a poet myself, I find that really disheartening. So I agree with Alpaugh's claims that anthologies are basically ruining the idea of independent writing. But as someone who hopes to get her MFA so that she can not only become a better writer but become a better teacher of writing, I think his argument is a little shaky. I don't think there should be any sort of stigma attached to being either an independent writer or a writer/professor. While I think academia certainly holds the reins a little to tightly on the concept of what makes a poem "good," I also think there are writing professors who publish and teach because they are equally interested in both those goals. Hopefully, you can all come to your own conclusions here.