Thursday, December 29, 2011

Beth's Best Reads of 2011

By now, you all know the drill on this one.  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 2011. 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.

2011 was a great reading year, mainly because my friends and family members were suggestion superstars this year, constantly tossing great books my way.  The pickings this year were so good that I expanded my usual list of 10 books to 15 this year. Of course, all these good books made it extra hard to decide what should top the list.  It was especially hard to decide a winner between my top 2 books, but one of them emerged the victor nevertheless.  I hope you enjoy this list, and please be sure to tell me what your favorite reads were this year!

15.  A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr.  My biggest weakness in fiction is for brief, poetic novels, and A Month in the Country is the perfect example of this type of book.  Carr tells the story of a physically, morally, and emotionally wounded World War I veteran in just a hundred and some pages, but it feels like the stuff of an epic.  What makes this novel so wonderful is the amount of things that go unsaid.  It's what the narrator doesn't tell us that is most devastating, making this one of the loneliest books I've ever read. 

14.  Silk Is for Seduction, by Loretta Chase.  Laugh all you want.  Just as I was losing faith in the historical romance, Loretta Chase's new book swooped in and saved the day this summer.  Marcelline is without a doubt my favorite in a long line of awesome Chase heroines, and her romance with Clevedon is organic and well-deserved.  This is just the first book in a new series by Chase, and if the others are half as good as this one, I will be a very happy Beth. 

13.  I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak.  I've made it no secret on this blog that I'm a huge Zusak fan.  His most famous novel, The Book Thief, topped this list last year.  I Am the Messenger is a deceptively simple story about a young man looking to make his life better.  The plot is implausible, but that doesn't matter.  Because this young adult novel is all about what it means to find the courage to change your life.  The narrator, Ed Kennedy, and his friends and family aren't always great people, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve the chance for forgiveness or love in their lives.  I love how non-cynical Markus Zusak is, and I think his streak of humanity is what makes his books so memorable. 

12.  The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson.  As an unflinching look at the mistakes parents can make in raising their children, The Family Fang can feel a little heavy at times.  Luckily, Wilson finds the humor and warmth in his two protagonists, the screwed-up siblings Annie and Buster Fang.  This novel can make you laugh and wince at the same time, which is no small feat. 

11.  Stranger Things Happen, by Kelly Link.  This book made the list simply for the fact that it contained my two favorite short stories I read this year: "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" and "Louise's Ghost."  The former is a series of love letters from beyond the grave and the second is an extremely bizarre examination of friendship and jealousy.  I think Link is one of the best short story writers out there, and I really wish she'd hurry up and publish a new book. 

10.  The River King, by Alice Hoffman.  If Neil Gaiman was the de facto master of my 2010 list, then Alice Hoffman has taken his place in 2011.  I went on a Hoffman rampage this summer (see No. 4 below), and even though this isn't her best work, I think it might just be her most evocative.  I've never read a book so deep in mood.  By the book's end, I felt as waterlogged as the drowned boy at the book's center.  Seriously, the pages began to smell like a mildewed dorm room while I was reading them.  Hoffman isn't afraid to go dark, and this book is a testament to her supernatural strengths as a straight-up storyteller. 

9.  A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.  I was so impressed by the structure of this award-winning novel this summer that I was sure it would place higher on this list.  Unfortunately, it didn't stick with me on an emotional level the way a lot of the books on this list did.  But I still think Egan is crazy-talented, and the construction of Goon Squad blows me away just thinking about it.  The book has some really wonderful and moving chapters, even if it did feel overly clever as whole.  Egan shows just what narrative derring-do can accomplish in contemporary fiction.

8.  My Year of Flops: One Man's Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic Failure, by Nathan Rabin.  I've been reading Nathan Rabin's AV Club column on movies that bombed at the box office since my freshman year of college, so I knew I'd eventually pick up the book that came out of those columns.  But what I wasn't expecting was how rewarding an experience this hilarious collection would be.  The first movie Rabin tore apart was Elizabethtown (which just so happens to be one of my least favorite movies ever), and this essay appears at the beginning of the book.  Then, after years of writing his flops column, Rabin rewatched Elizabethtown and found that his life had changed so much for the better that he could no longer mock the film's heart.  The resulting essay from that experience is actually quite moving.  Never in my life did I think the snarky Rabin would make me cry, but he did. 

7.  Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë.  When I read this classic novel back in July, I never thought it would make this list.  I found the whole thing to be batshit crazy.  But you know what?  I haven't been able to stop thinking about Wuthering Heights since.  It features some of the least sympathetic characters of all time - crazypants Heathcliff, bitchy Catherine, annoyingly spineless Edgar Linton.  But the things that come out of these people's mouths ranks among some of the most beautiful sentences in literature, and the book certainly entertained the hell out of me.  Had anyone told me how nuts this book was, I never would have believed them.  I'm glad I finally found out for myself. 
6.  The Marvelous Bones of Time: Excavations and Explanations, by Brenda Coultas.  This strange little book - half poetry and half ghost stories - is unlike anything else I've encountered in recent poetry.  Coultas writes poems about Indiana and its surrounding states using the language of place and time, creating a kind of elegy for the abolition movement in her native Midwest.  The ghost stories in the second part of the book are creepy and elusive, hitting just the right nerves in their brief tellings.  Coultas lurks outside of the contemporary poetry scene, and this outsider perspective does wonders for her work, which is entirely her own. 

5.  A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Edited by James L.W. West III).  Rumors of this book began way back in 2010, and I was literally counting down the days until it came out this summer.  Fitzgerald scholar James West put together Fitzgerald's most personal essays in chronological order, creating the first ever view of Fitzgerald's life as told from the author's own point of view.  This book seems tailor-made for a Fitzgerald fan, and I really appreciate its existence.  The essay "Author's House," a feigned interview between a fictional reporter and a one-time famous writer who is clearly Fitzgerald himself, is particularly heartbreaking and worth the price of admission alone. 

4.  The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman.  This is one of those books that flies well below the critical radar, which I think is unfortunate.  Alice Hoffman might not be a future classic author, but she creates atmosphere in her books like no one else writing right now.  The Red Garden is immensely entertaining, an unfolding of characters and moments centered on the ficitonal town of Blackwell, Massachusetts.  This series of connected short stories features some really lovely scenes, ones that I've carried around with me since I read the book back in May.  If you're looking for a book that just tells a great story, this is the one for you. 

3.  Crush, by Richard Siken.  Yes, this book has been around since 2005.  But I didn't pick it up to read until this last February.  I should never have waited so long.  This is a truly great collection of poetry.  Violent, erotic, and energetic, the lines in Crush continually knocked me out while I was reading them.  Poems like "Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out" feel completely vital to not just contemporary poetry, but to the longer view of poetry as well.  Crush is the kind of book that really exemplifies what poetry is capable of doing. 

2.  The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy.  The second I finished Percy's 1961 novel, I knew it was making this list.  I really, really love this book.  Jack "Binx" Bolling is in the middle of a life crisis just before his 30th birthday.  Unhappy with his womanizing, his constant moviegoing, and his transitory ways, he's forced to reckon with his soul and his lifestyle.  The thing that sets this novel apart from other similar stories is its beautiful writing.  Some of Percy's sentences had my head spinning from their sheer perfection.  The Moviegoer is the kind of short, rich novel that deserves to be savored slowly. 

1.  The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker.  This short, conversational novel just barely managed to beat out The Moviegoer as my favorite book I read this year.  It won based solely on what it meant to me personally.  Baker's story about Paul Chowder, a poet who agonizes over writing the introduction for an anthology of rhyming poems, is funny and sad in equal measure.  Baker gets into the head of a poet in a way I rarely encounter, and the things Chowder says about poetry are the kinds of arguments poets have been having for centuries.  But whether you're a poetry fan or not, this novel manages to be entertaining in its breezy and fast style.  I read The Anthologist at just the right time in my life, and it's become the best kind of book to read: the kind that becomes a friend.

This Week in Trashy Reads 2011 #8

Trashy Read 2011 #8: Unlocked, by Courtney Milan

It sounds silly to say, but the historical romance writer Courtney Milan was the biggest reason I decided it was finally time to look into getting an e-reader.  When her novella Unlocked came out in e-book form only a few months ago, it got great reviews.  I had to get my hands on this book, and if getting an e-reader meant finally having a chance to read stuff I couldn't get in paper form, than so be it.  I would get an e-reader.

So it's no surprise that Unlocked is one of the first books I bought for my Kindle (the fact that it only cost 99 cents helped as well).  It's a short, simple little story, but I appreciated how sweet it was.  I've mentioned before on this blog that I enjoy reading Nora Roberts because she always writes protagonists who are good people.  They remind me of the kind of people I'm attracted to in real life.  Unlocked works for the exact same reason.  There's not much of anything in the way of plot going on in this novella, and the actual character development is pretty weak because of the length.  But the hero and heroine are likable and you want good things for them, which goes a long way in my opinion.

Evan Carlton, the Earl of Westfield, returns home after years spent mountain climbing in the Alps.  Before he left England, he was in love with a girl named Elaine Warren.  Unfortunately, Elaine wasn't among the more popular members of the ton, so Evan found himself all too frequently making fun of her with his friends.  He made her life miserable.  So he comes back to make amends.  Elaine is suspicious of him, but she attempts to befriend him eventually.  Of course, she finds she loves him too.  They get a pretty speedy happily ever after.  I really liked the character of Elaine because she should have been a cliched wallflower but Milan never took her in that direction.  Sure, she's easily embarrassed and wary of social events, but she's still smart and funny and enjoys life.  She and Evan are so damn agreeable that you have to root for them.  Also, Evan does something for Elaine and her family about half-way through the book that made my heart jump a little.  I usually roll my eyes at the cheesy stuff in romance novels, but even I had to admit his act was incredibly sweet.

Overall, it's a nice if inconsequential little romance.  Milan is a fairly new writer, and she's won a crazy amount of fans since her 2010 debut.  I will most definitely be reading more of her in the future.  She's not quite as witty or fun as Loretta Chase, but if she keeps doing a Nora Roberts and creating warm, inviting little romances, I'll be a fan for sure. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Creepy But Slightly Overrated

Book Reviewed: Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake

I got a Kindle from my parents for Christmas, and so far I love having it.  It's cheaper and easier for me to buy romances and new books, and my library has digital lending, which means I can now access library books on the go and carry them around in one place.  I will still be buying trade paperbacks and poetry in paper form, but the Kindle should do wonders for my reading habits, I think. 

This is all background to the fact that the first book I bought for my Kindle was a teen paranormal romance.  Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood made NPR's best-of-2011 young adult books list, and the book's description sounded right up my geeky alley.  Cas Lowood, a teenage ghost hunter, goes to Thunder Bay, Ontario, in pursuit of an infamous ghost with the creepy moniker of Anna Dressed in Blood.  Cas is cynical and avoids attachment, focusing only on his goal of one day going after the spirit that killed his father.  In the meantime, he travels all over North America, hunting down violent ghosts.  Basically, this book's set-up sounds like Supernatural fanfiction.  Which is exactly why it appealed to me.

However, when Cas gets to Thunder Bay, his plans don't quite work out.  First, he accidentally makes some real friends with the popular but loyal Carmel and dorky, lonely Thomas.  Then, Anna doesn't turn out to be what Cas expected.  Yes, she's a violent killer.  But that's only because of a complicated and tragic past that trapped her in her haunted house.  Cas eventually falls for and helps Anna, but when his own scary past catches up with him and his new friends, he struggles to figure out just what his new life of friendships and a false sense of security might mean.  Anna Dressed in Blood is the first part of what looks to be a longer series (the next book comes out sometime in 2012), so it's got a rushed ending that isn't wholly satisfying.  Also, while I couldn't help but like Cas, I had trouble with the character of Anna.  It's easy to see how their two lives would endear them to each other, but I'm not sure I quite believed the romantic angle in the second half of the book.  Same goes with the budding relationship between Thomas and Carmel.

Anna Dressed in Blood is not a great book, and I'm not exactly sure why it got so much end-of-the-year praise.  Despite that, it was still a fun read.  There are some genuinely terrifying moments in this novel, and Blake knows how to write creepy in a way most pure horror writers can't even manage.  (This might actually be one of the book's weaknesses: the horror stuff is so good that you can't help but wonder why the book wasn't geared more toward that genre).  I think the relationship between Cas and Anna has the potential to expand in more interesting ways in the later books, though, so I will probably follow the rest of the series as it goes along. 

Note: I am once again working at the library and if any paranormal-reading teens ask me for recommendations, I am throwing this one their way for sure. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Poem of the Week: "As I Walked Out One Evening," by W.H. Auden

Hello everyone!  I hope you had a wonderful Christmas.  I'm afraid I have some mildly bad news.  I think this might be the last regular Poem of the Week for a while.  Next semester, I will be very busy, and it's getting harder and harder to find the contemporary poems I like someplace on the web.  If I find a poem that I absolutely have to share, I will most definitely post it here.  Otherwise, don't expect a new poem every Monday.  Sorry. 

But I leave you with a poem I absolutely love.  I've posted it here before, but that's only because it's so awesome.  Also, it seems appropriate for this time of the year's end, when everything is tinged with a kind of nostalgic sadness.  "As I Walked Out One Evening" includes some of my all-time favorite lines of poetry, and I think you'll like it.  Enjoy!

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mindy Kaling, Can We Be Friends?

Book Reviewed: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns, by Mindy Kaling

I've liked Mindy Kaling for some time now.  Although I gave up on The Office (where Kaling was a head writer since the beginning) three seasons ago, it used to be one of my favorite shows.  And the character of Kelly Kapoor, played by Kaling, is really funny.  So when I heard that Kaling had written a book of short and humorous personal essays, I knew I'd have to read it.

This is a minor book.  It's not going to end up on my year's-best list, and it's most definitely not the most well-written memoir I've ever read.  I enjoyed it anyway.  It's very funny, which is no surprise, but it's also quite candid.  I especially appreciate the way Kaling writes about relationships and how she mocks marital and family conventions out loud but underneath really, really wants a conventional marriage and family.  I rarely read memoirs by women who are willing to laugh at their anxieties over being the ideal "modern woman."  Kaling does this like no one's business. 

I read Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (a title, by the way, that all too accurately describes my own inconsequential identity crisis) while in the middle of writing a long research paper about how 18th-century obstetrical engravings affected the male medical gaze which in turn affected Romantic British poetry.  Yeah, it was a doozy.  So when I curled up after hours of writing about some unpleasant topics, it felt nice to curl up with Kaling's book.  When I finished it, I just wanted to call her up and be like "Men, am I right?!"  Because if you can read this book and not want to be BFFs with Mindy Kaling, then you are made of sturdier stuff than me. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: Sleeping with the Dictionary, by Harryette Mullen; Versed, by Rae Armantrout; Nine Acres, by Nathaniel Perry

I read so many poetry books these days that I find it difficult to post a comment about each one to this blog. So every once in a while, I'll do one of these poetry round-ups to let you know what I've been reading and to give a few brief thoughts on what I thought of each book.

Sleeping with the Dictionary:  I didn't know much about Mullen before we read this award-winning book in my poetry workshop.  Mullen is a language poet, which might just be my least favorite type of poetry.  Despite that, though, I actually found this book to be more fun than I was expecting.  Mullen has a very playful sense of language, which kept the weightier aspects of her material from seeming too burdensome.   Although there's lots of poems that spread across multiple pages in this collection, I found that my favorites were usually the super-short poems.
Versed:  Rae Armantrout is also famous as a language poet, although I don't think language is her prime concern in Versed, a collection that won both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award in 2010.  Armantrout's poems are heavy on the big questions, her language often loaded with abstraction.  This works better some times than it does others.  I tended to like her more personal poems, particularly "Own."  I enjoyed Armantrout's poems while I was reading them, but I'm not sure they're the kind that will stick with me for long.  That being said, I'd be more than willing to read her other books.
Nine Acres:  I might be a bit biased towards this book, as I did have dinner with Nathaniel Perry when he came to campus last month.  He did a very charming reading and signed my book afterward.  Also, he studied under Maurice Manning, with whom you all know I'm obsessed.  So it's no surprise that I liked this debut collection.  Perry used an old farming manual as inspiration for these poems about the rural life, using the manual's chapters as poem titles.  It's a device that gets a tad over-symbolic or over-sentimental at times, but the book is still well done as a whole.  After a semester of reading and discussing a lot of smug theoretical poetry, it was wonderful to just sit down and just read something warm and quiet.  This is one of the few books of poems I've read that I would be perfectly willing to suggest to my non-poetry-reading friends.  It's a very open, friendly collection. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Poem of the Week: "After the Movie," by Marie Howe

I stole this week's poem from my old poetry professor, who sends out a mass email every Friday with his own Poem of the Week selection.  I really loved this last one he sent, so I decided to post it here as well.  It's a much more narrative-y poem than I usually go for, but for some reason, this one just hits some kind of sweet spot for me.  Enjoy!

After the Movie, by Marie Howe

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Yep, That's a Bill Nighy Part if There Ever Was One

Book Reviewed:  Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

I'm not sure how it is that I've gotten to the age of 25 as a lit nerd without once reading Tom Stoppard.  An insanely popular and well-loved playwright, Stoppard is known for his clever use of literature and language.  Finally, though, I have experienced this guy for myself, as we were assigned his play Arcadia for my lit class.  My class is on British Romanticism, but the professor thought it would be interesting to wrap up the semester with a play that's about the study of Romanticism.  She was right, of course.  This play was the perfect end to a semester that was as much about the study of Romantic works as it was about the works themselves.

The play divides its time between two periods: first, 1809-1813, where a tutor named Septimus Hodge works with a precocious genius, Thomasina Coverly.  Septimus is a good friend of Lord Byron, who is mentioned often but never seen.  Septimus is also in the middle of an affair with the wife of a minor and annoying poet, Ezra Chater.  The second time period takes place in the modern time, where a couple of academics, Bernard and Hannah, attempt to discover why Chater eventually went missing.  Bernard believes Lord Byron killed Chater during a duel, but the professor is far too willing to destory his career in the pursuit of fame.

The play's a little confusing at times, with the way it pops back and forth between past and present.  Also, there's a lot of talk of chaos theory and advanced mathematics.  But that didn't stop me from really enjoying the couple hours I spent in Stoppard's world.  As is to be expected, the play is hilarious, particularly when the uber-pretentious Bernard is on the scene.  In the original production of Arcadia, the awesome British actor Bill Nighy played the role of Bernard.  This could not be a more perfect casting choice.  It's impossible to read Bernard's lines without seeing Bill Nighy in your mind performing them. 

Yet, despite all the humor and the math and the stunning structure, the heart of Arcadia is surprisingly heavy.  The poignancy of the final revelation felt like a punch to the gut, and the more I've thought about the final scenes, the sadder it makes me.  Like Alan Bennett's The History Boys, this is a play that's entertaining enough when you read it but which sticks with you for days afterward. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Remaking a Neglected Orchard," by Nathaniel Perry

When I'm reading a really good book of poetry, I often like to use something from the book as my Poem of the Week.  So that's what I'm doing today.  I bought and started Nathaniel Perry's Nine Acres after witnessing him do a great reading on campus.  Also, not to brag or anything, but I got to have dinner with him and some fellow MFAers, where I found out that he was a former student of my beloved Maurice Manning.  Any of you Manning followers out there will definitely be able to see his influence on Perry's work.  Enjoy, and look for a full review of the book later this week in my monthly Poetry Wrap-Up.

Remaking a Neglected Orchard, by Nathaniel Perry 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bittersweet Family Tale

Book Reviewed:  The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson

The last book I blogged about came by the recommendation of a friend.  My latest read was also recommended to me by a friend.  If there was an award for the person in my life with the best book advice, it's Amy.  (After all, she talked me into The Book Thief and turned me into a Captain Wentworth girl).  And she once again hit the nail on the head when she told me she thought I'd like Kevin Wilson's first novel, The Family Fang. 

The Family Fang is a story about family and art and how those things do or don't intersect.  Caleb and Camille Fang are famous performance artists who use chaos to create reactions that they deem "art."  They force their children, Annie (Child A) and Buster (Child B), to join them.  The book revolves around the now grown-up Annie and Buster, who still show irreparable damage from their years of being involved in horrifying art projects.  At the book's beginning, Annie is a somewhat famous actress whose reputation has begun to spiral out of control.  Meanwhile, Buster, a freelance journalist, has been shot in the face with a potato gun.  With no money to pay his medical bills, he moves back in with his parents, whose performance pieces have gotten less popular and more pathetic over time.  Eventually, Annie comes home to lick her wounds, too.  Then, just as Annie and Buster get used to their sad new lives, their parents disappear.  Are they dead, or is it just another one of their art projects?

Kevin Wilson somehow manages to skirt the fine line between tragedy and comedy, never straying too far into one side.  The flashback chapters show some of the performance pieces the Fang family took part in, and they are masterfully done.  I literally could not stop cringing through the flashbacks.  They make you feel impossibly bad for A and B.  The book's other chapters take turns in the third-person-narrated worlds of Annie And Buster.  I couldn't help but love the awkward and luckless Buster, although I do think Annie was a better-drawn and more complex character.  The book's resolution is extremely bittersweet, and I'm still not sure I'm on board with it (I'm talking about the penultimate chapter; I liked the last chapter a lot).  Without giving anything away, let's just say that I was surprised by how dark Wilson was willing to go with his portrayal of Caleb and Camille. 

Although I found the ending a little rushed, I really enjoyed The Family Fang.  It's funny, sad, and well-written, a perfect way to spend a long weekend. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Right Book, Right Time

Book Reviewed:  The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker

Every once in a great while, a book swoops in and saves your life.  Okay, maybe it's not quite that dramatic.  But occasionally, a book does come along at just the right time and makes life marginally more bearable.  This is exactly what happened when my friend Evan lent me Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist last week.

I've been complaining a lot about contemporary poetry lately.  Here I am, studying the art and craft of poetry, and it's doing nothing for me.  I love writing poetry, and I love reading it even more.  But the second people start talking about contemporary poetry, I want to crawl into a hole and die.  It's such a loaded topic.  All these super-smart, artsy types constantly asking you what you read (a question I have grown to hate from the bottom of my soul), and then looking at you with disdain when they don't like your answer.  Poetry has suddenly become exhausting.  So a couple weeks ago, I came very close to throwing in the towel.  I forgot what it was that drew me to poetry in the first place.

Then Evan brought up Nicholson Baker one night and told me he thought The Anthologist would be just the thing.  It had been so long since I'd read for fun that I jumped at the novel at once.  Woohoo, contemporary fiction!  I was giddy with the idea (which, I realize now, is a sign of my own pathetic behavior earlier in the semester).  In a lot of ways, I had built hopes far too high for this book to satisfy.  Luckily, it started right out of the gate running on all cylinders, beating these ridiculous expectations.

I honestly could not have read a better book at a better time.  The Anthologist hit home in a way that was refreshing without being depressing, a rare balance to strike.  It's entertaining enough to be fun, smart enough to be enlightening.  The novel is told from the point of view of Paul Chowder, a mildly-successful free-verse poet.  Chowder has been trying to write an introduction to an anthology of rhyming poems, and he just can't do it.  Distracted by the end of his relationship with a woman he really loved, distracted by his own frustration over poetry, he just can't get his life together.  As the book goes on, and Chowder's spilled-out monologues about poetry become more and more discursive, it's hard to imagine it's ever going to get better for this poor bastard.  Of course, Baker knows what he's doing, and the ending hit all the right notes.

There are so many great moments in this book.  The discussions on what good poetry is, for starters.  The ghost of Theodore Roethke wandering down the street.  The way Chowder keeps injuring himself over and over again.  The lovely final sentences.  The unassuming quality of the prose itself. 

Paul Chowder isn't always likable, and it's easy to accuse him of trying too hard to revert to an old poetry world that can never be regained.  But I didn't care about any of this when I was reading the book.  I just want to read Chowder's thoughts on poets and poems for the rest of my life.  Make no mistake; this is a book best enjoyed by only the nerdiest lovers of traditional poetry out there (aka, me).  But it's also a novel about a man coming to terms with himself.  It's not all pretty phrases and well-planned meter.  Sometimes poetry and life are both about the messy stuff, about cutting your finger while slicing bread, about crying in the middle of a packed room. 

It's ridiculous to say that a Nicholson Baker novel made me believe in poetry again.  But we can't always pick the things that mean something to us.  When I was eight years old, an older cousin gave me Judy Blume's Superfudge and turned me into a reader.  Superfudge seemed like it was written for me and me only.  It's that feeling that made me a writer in the first place.  It's nice to have another book remind me of this seventeen years later.  Sometimes it just takes the right book, that and the right person to drop it into your hands. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Smalltown Lift," by Brian Blanchfield

I'm totally stealing this week's poem from my friend Evan, who brought it to my attention last week.  I think it's just a very lovely, compact poem.  It's not flashy or flighty, which is why I love it.  Enjoy!

Smalltown Lift, by Brian Blanchfield

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Adventures in Re-Reading: Frankenstein

Book Re-Reviewed: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Because us first-year MFAs were the last people to sign up for classes in the Graduate English Department back in August, we got stuck with the leftovers.  I wasn't entirely sold on the class I got - British Romanticism and the Sciences of Life - but it wasn't the worst option either.  Overall, I'm glad I took it.  My professor is funny and smart, and I'm getting a taste of a literary history I know nothing about.  Unfortunately, old poetry and essays about the emergence of science as a legitimate field of study aren't exactly my thing.  Nevertheless, the reading for this class hasn't been all bad.  Best of all, we got to do Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a book I've always liked.

This is the third time I've read Frankenstein.  The first time was back in high school, and I loved it.  It was as angsty and full of guilt as any melancholic seventeen-year-old writer could want.  The second time was in college, in a modern European history survey class.  Now, here I was reading it again, this time to study its connection to science in the late-18th/early-19th centuries.  I fell in love with it all over again.  Frankenstein is a super-solid book, I'm happy to report.

If you've somehow managed to escape your various levels of education without once touching this book, here's the general plot: temperamental, snobby Victor Frankenstein goes to college, learns how to create life, builds a hideous monster, and then pays for his actions for the rest of his life.  One of the most remarkable aspects of Shelley's novel is the way she layers three narratives into such a short book.  The book begins with Walton, an explorer up near the North Pole, and his letters to his sister.  Walton finds a dying Victor Frankenstein and brings him aboard the ship.  Then, we get the narrative in the voice of Victor.  Finally, in the middle of the book, we spend a few chapters in the voice of the "monster."  The book has its faults, but the construction is ingenious.

Is Frankenstein full of massive implausibilities?  Yes.  Is it brimming with an almost ridiculous amount of emotional hysterics?  Yes.  But who cares.  It's a fun, fascinating read that says more about its time period than just about any other piece of Romanticism out there.  I highly recommend it. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Reusing Words," by Hal Sirowitz

I tend to like poems that manage to be funny and astute at the same time.  This is one of those kind of poems.  Enjoy!

Reusing Words, by Hal Sirowitz

Monday, October 31, 2011

Back by Popular Request: Zombie-Killin' Literary Characters

Hey everyone!  Remember a couple years ago, when I did my all-time favorite post for this blog?  About characters I would like to help me fight for humanity in a war against zombies?  If you do, then you might've been hoping for a sequel.  And if you're new to this blog, you might be wondering what is up with my zombie obsession?  To the latter, I answer: I have no idea.  And to the former: well here it is!  Five more characters I want to have on my side in the case of a zombie apocalypse. 

Five (More) Characters I Want on My Side in the Coming Zombie Apocalypse

1. Biff Brannon (from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers)  A surprise, right?  But hear me out: Biff is a pretty steady presence throughout this wonderful Southern gothic.  He runs his diner and watches strange things happen all around him, but he seems like he might be capable of the kind of level-headednes that might work in this situation.  Yes, there's all that weird sexual stuff going on there.  Let's ignore all that, shall we?  Give Biff a gun and I bet he could get the job done (as long as shooting people in the head doesn't remind him of a time when his niece actually did get shot in the head).  Also, doesn't every zombie apocalypse feature a scene where our scruffy band of heroes shoots at the living dead from behind a food counter.  We can get that with this guy. 

2.  Bobby Conroy (from "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead," by Joe Hill, from 20th Century Ghosts)  This choice might seem like cheating since this is a story that features zombies.  That doesn't matter; they're just people in make-up, shooting a George Romero film in Pennsylvania, and Bobby Conroy only comes back from the dead in a figurative sense.  But if you put his ex-girlfriend and her son in harm's way in a real zombie apocalypse, I have no doubt that Bobby Conroy would become the hero he never thought he could be.  So meta!

3.  Ben Mears (from Salem's Lot, by Stephen King)  He's fought vampires, so I think this guy is well on his way to becoming a zombie hunter of the highest order.  Obvious choice, really.

4.  Hareton Earnshaw (from Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte)  What, did you think I was going to go with Heathcliff?  Hells no.  If that guy saw a zombie Catherine stumbling around, he'd be feeding everyone in a hundred-mile radius to her.  Raised largely by the brutal Heathcliff, Hareton has the coldness needed to get the job done.  But if we are to believe the end of the book, he's also developed the necessary pathos to keep his humanity.  Hang those zombies like you hung those puppies, Hareton!

5.  Shadow (from American Gods, by Neil Gaiman)  The least surprising choice, but I don't care.  Shadow is the biggest badass I've ever encountered in literature - haunted and strong, a fighter with a deep sadness.  As soon as I hear even a rumor of a zombie breakout, I'm calling this guy.  It'll be painful for him to kill zombies, with his wife basically becoming one and whatno.  But he'd get over that to help others, I think.  Shadow is nothing if not noble.  And did I mention how badass he is?  Because he's all kinds of badass. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Allegro," by Tomas Tranströmer

As you've probably heard by now, this year's Nobel Prize in Literature went to the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.  I'm pretty happy about this, and I went out this weekend and bought a set of his collected poems that I can hopefully find time to read soon.  Tranströmer writes quite a bit about music, and I think his poem "Allegro" might be one of the best music poems I've ever read.  It's wonderful.  Enjoy!

Allegro, by Tomas Tranströmer

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Horror!

Book Reviewed: Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, by Jason Zinoman

Currently, my days as a graduate student consist of reading Romantic poetry (for my lit class) and somewhat unsatisfying contemporary poetry (for my workshop).  Outside of class, I find I don't have much patience to read the things I actually want to read.  I never thought I'd say this, but I might be spending too much time in the world of words.

For this reason, I decided it was time to read a book on some pop culture subject.  I originally intended to read the usual Chuck Klosterman type of thing, but intentions never really work the way they're supposed to, do they?  I heard theater critic Jason Zinoman give an interview on the AV Club's podcast, Reasonable Discussions, a couple weeks ago.  Zinoman was talking about his new book, Shock Value, a brief history of the "new modern" horror film.  I found him to be funny, intelligent, and well-spoken.  I was sold.  Then, last week, I found the book on display at my campus library.  I grabbed it up.  After all, it's October and I had an entire fall break ahead of me in which I could read whatever I wanted. 

I have a soft spot for film histories.  I was a film fanatic in high school, and though I've lost my former love for watching movies, I still love reading about them.  In any given year, I probably read more film criticism than I do literary criticism, despite the fact that I physically watch very few movies per year now.  So I was already predisposed to like Zinoman's book.  He concentrates on the way the horror genre shifted from goofy monster movies into violent, more personal films completely dictated by the director's vision.  He starts with 1968's Rosemary's Baby and ends with a chapter on 1979's Alien.  During this eleven year span, Hollywood saw the rise in popularity of a grittier type of horror film.  In Shock Value, Zinoman concentrates on the strange genius of people like George Romero, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and screenwriter Dan O'Bannon.  The way Zinoman describes the creation of the movies makes them sound like little miracles, flukes that happened to go big.  He shows his bias sometimes, particularly in his affection for the put-upon O'Bannon.  He also never goes far enough into the gender politics of these movies for my taste.  A couple of times he pays lips service to the themes of exploitation in these dark movies, but he sort of waves away the arguments in order to get to other things.  (Somewhere out there, there must be a book that gets further into the icky factor of gender in horror films.  I intend to find said book.)  But overall, it was a well-written, well-argued look into a genre I know nothing about.

Because here's the funny thing.  I've never actually seen any of the movies Zinoman talks about here.  He starts his book by talking about the influence of Hitchcock, mainly through the prism of Psycho, a movie I have seen and loved (full disclosure: Psycho is actually the movie that turned me into a teen film buff.  I saw it in middle school, and from that point on I was obsessed with movies).  But I haven't seen any of the others, not even The Exorcist.  I've been easily terrified for most of my life, so I've always stayed away from horror movies.  And now that I'm older and actually enjoy the feeling of being scared once in a while, I've lost my interest in movies themselves.  So even though I found this book super-fascinating, I didn't actually have any point of reference.  Luckily, Zinoman is a good enough critic to realize that he has to give some background to things, so I wasn't too lost.  That being said, I've now made it my mission to go find some of these films. 

So if you'll excuse me, I need to go find some time to watch Night of the Living Dead.  Because if there is one thing you dear readers of this blog know about me, it's that I loooove me some zombie-related thrills.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Turgenev vs. Tolstoy (or, the Dual That Never Happened)

Book Reviewed:  First Love, by Ivan Turgenev (Note: The copy I read does not include a translation credit, not even in the library records for the book.  I apologize for this oversight.)

When I find myself having conversations about Russian literature, I often meet people who claim they don't read much 19th-century Russian lit because the books are so long and complex.  To this, I always suggest that they go out and read some Ivan Turgenev.  Turgenev did not do big books.  Most of his work is made up of  stories, novellas, and short novels.  A couple of years ago, I read his most famous book, Fathers and Sons (which is incredible, by the way), and could not believe how much Turgenev managed to cram into those 200-some pages.  That particular novel manages to touch on some major themes about family and loyalty and lifestyle choices but does it with surprising brevity.  Obviously, this puts Turgenev in direct contrast to my favorite Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy.

Tolstoy is not a minimalist.  He's the literal God of his own work.  I have never known another writer so obsessed with controlling how his books are read.  I'm not even talking about the overtly philosophical sections his books often contain.  When I talk about his OCD over his own work, I mean to suggest that his worlds are so fully constructed that they allow very little readerly intervention.  In War and Peace, entire pages are devoted to describing a particular room.  His created worlds are so all-encompassing that they end up controlling the way you read the book.  This isn't to say that you can't analyze Tolstoy's novels while you read them.  In fact, that's about the only way you can approach them (although I will always argue that he's actually a lot of fun to read once you get used to his style).  But there's no negative space, not like the kind we often see in Dickens, another writer of big books (who always seems to know when to quit while he's ahead when it comes to description, I think). 

I think this is one of the reasons my brain starts to short out when I place Turgenev and Tolstoy next to each other in any given context.  They are just so different!  This extends to their personal lives, as well.  They were "friends" who constantly disagreed.  Tolstoy once even challenged Turgenev to a dual, only to end up taking it back.  It's hard to imagine that they ever managed to be in one room at the same time.  Where Tolstoy is all about control and filling all the imaginable spaces of his fiction, Turgenev relies an awful lot on the reader's ability to imagine the world the characters inhabit.

Last week, I read one of Turgenev's most famous novellas, First Love.  It's a fairly simple premise.  Vladimir Petrovich remembers his first love as a sixteen-year-old living in the countryside.  Stuck somewhere between childish emotions and adult desires, Vladimir ends up falling for the slightly older girl next door, Zinaida.  Zinaida is poor, tempestuous, and magnetic.  She has a variety of suitors constantly trying to get her attention.  Zinaida seems especially fond of Vladimir, although she ultimately sees him only as a child.  As the story continues, we get a revelation involving the actual love of Zinaida's life, then follow this revelation as it affects Vladimir over time.  It's a breezy read, but it has a lot going for it, especially in the final thirty pages, when things get particularly interesting.

Like he does in Fathers and Sons, Turgenev just barely sets his scenes, letting the character interactions take up all the figurative room.  And in First Love, he gives narrative control over to his protagonist, in whose first-person voice we see all the action.  It's as different from Tolstoy as you can get.

In the literary dual of Turgenev and Tolstoy, there is no clear winner.  Obviously, I am a Tolstoy fanatic.  But the things I hate about Tolstoy - his constant philosophizing, his obsession with specific family ideals - are the very things that Turgenev so artfully avoids.  If Tolstoy is the God who controls how his books are read, then he also acts as the ultimate judge of his worlds.  Turgenev never seems to judge his characters.  They just exist as they do on the page, which I appreciate.  Tolstoy is a better writer because of just how immersing his books are, but Turgenev gets points for allowing the reader to do his or her own thing with what the author chooses to give.

And in the end, it all comes down to what I love most about Russian novels.  In my praise for Tolstoy's Resurrection last winter, I mentioned that what made that book for me was its depiction of quiet, domestic moments.  Those small, seemingly unimportant scenes are what allow for the feelings of devastation Tolstoy's books always create in me.  Turgenev works in the exact same way.  He's an author who's at his best when he's concentrating on the little things people say, the small acts they commit for good or bad.  This is the genius of Russian literature, whether we're talking the hulking beasts of Tolstoy's oeuvre or the short one-offs of Turgenev: that they handle the big and small with equal attention, thereby creating reading experiences that never fail to absorb me. 

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed:  Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions, by Maurice Manning; Green Squall, by Jay Hopler; Wind in a Box, by Terrance Hayes

I read so many poetry books these days that I find it difficult to post a comment about each one to this blog.  So every once in a while, I'll do one of these poetry round-ups to let you know what I've been reading and to give a few brief thoughts on what I thought of each book. 

Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions:  You all know by now that I'm a big Maurice Manning fan.  I recently reread this, his first book, in order to do a presentation for my poetry workshop.  I first read this book as an awkward college freshman who didn't know a lick about poetry.  At that time, I found Manning's work to be strange but seductive.  The book follows a group of characters in the rural South, centering on the figure of Lawrence Booth at a variety of stages in his life.  Some of the poems are free-verse, some are sonnets, some are written as court documents or math proofs.  For poetry novices, this may not be the place to start.  But for those of you willing to add some spice to your reading life, Lawrence Booth is a great choice.  I loved this book so much the second time around that I'm finally willing to put it on my "favorites" shelf right next to one of Manning's other collections, the gorgeous Bucolics. 

Green Squall:  Like Lawrence Booth, this book was part of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, one of the most prestigous poetry awards in the country.  I picked up Green Squall after attending a reading that Jay Hopler did at my alma mater.  I loved the way Hopler read, and I was fascinated by this book when I first read it four years ago.  I can't say I felt quite the same way this second time around.  I still think some of the poems ("And the Sunflower Weeps for the Sun, Its Flower" and "Feast of the Ascension, 2004. Planting Hibiscus," for example) to be powerful pieces.  But the book itself is more repetitive than I'd remembered, and it didn't have quite the same impact as it did before.  That being said, I still think Hopler is quite talented, and I will definitely be buying his next collection when it's released. 

Wind in a Box:  This particular book was assigned by my poetry professor, and it would be putting it lightly to say that it did not go over well with the class.  Terrance Hayes is as about as famous as a contemporary poet can be these days, and he's won lots of awards.  Unfortunately, his work doesn't really do anything for me.  Wind in a Box contains some wonderful moments and lines, but the length and themes of this book get tiring after a while.  In our class discussion, many of my classmates were annoyed by the way Hayes returned to discussions of race over and over again.  This didn't bother me at all.  I think every poet is allowed to write as much as he or she wants about the subjects over which they obsess.  What kept me from enjoying the book was the overt masculinity it displays.  I don't mean this as a slight against Hayes, but the book is set in a certain kind of male voice that I could not get into.  Like race, I think gender should be explored in whatever ways a poet wants to explore it.  But after reading poem after poem featuring women as either objects of lust or as mothers, I got bored.  Wind in a Box might be a good book, and I can see why other people like it.  It's just not my cup of tea. 

Poem of the Week: "Bookmobile," by Joyce Sutphen

This poem isn't exactly eye-catching.  The language doesn't do anything for me, and there's nothing particularly interesting about the poem itself.  But I think the last stanza says something that rings true to any kid from a small town who counted on books to help them escape.  To this day, my local public library is still my escape from real life, as well as a place that has helped define me as a person, for better or worse.  Enjoy!

Bookmobile, by Joyce Sutphen

Monday, October 10, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Spring and Fall," by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The first time I read this famous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, it annoyed the shit out of me, with its accents and sing-songy opening lines.  But over time, it has really grown on me, and I often find myself reciting it on autumn days.  There's so much packed into this little poem that I can't help but admire it (just look at that beautiful enjambment!).  Also, good luck getting those first two lines out of your head for the rest of the week.  You're welcome.

Spring and Fall, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

This Week in Trashy Reads 2011 #7

Trashy Read 2011 #7: The Windflower, by Laura London

As a serious writer with a major soft spot for historical romance, I often end up feeling a little lonely.  But that has all changed, my friends!  One of the second-year students in my writing program is herself a romance fan.  Not only that, her favorite romance writer is Loretta Chase!  I cannot tell you how great it is to know another romance reader, and a pretty awesome one at that.  One day, Betsy and I started chatting about our love for the website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and Betsy revealed that she had a copy of Laura London's The Windfower, aka one of the most infamous books in the history of trashy romance.  She lent it to me, and although it took me a while to get through it because of my school commitments, I finally finished it.  And man, it is as enjoyable as promised.

This book is firmly a part of what the Smart Bitches have deemed "old-skool" romance.  It's got pirates!  It's got an overly-innocent heroine!  There are icky near-rapes!  Yes, The Windflower is made of slight crazypants, but I was surprised by how much I liked it anyway.  When sickly-sweet Merry Wilding gets kidnapped by the crew of the infamous pirate Rand Morgan's ship, she ends up falling into a love/hate relationship with Devon.  Devon basically tortures Merry until they are both driven crazy with lust for each other, which has all kinds of yucky overtones.  And to be honest, I didn't care much for the hero, the heroine, or their love story.  It was awfully infuriating at times.

But you know what makes this book worth reading?  A young pirate named Cat.  Despite being the mastermind of Merry's kidnapping, Cat turns out to also be her savior.  He's a friend when she's most in need.  But Cat isn't just sensitive and kind.  He's also extremely complicated.  His rough childhood of prostitution and want was brought to relief when Rand Morgan hand-picked him to be on his ship.  His sexual proclivities remain something of a mystery, but it's obvious his past scars play a continual role in his life.  When there's a big reveal about Cat by the end of the book, you aren't sure whether to be happy or sad for him.

I loved Cat so much that all I wanted when I finished this book was to read a sequel all about him and his future.  Unfortunately, Laura London (which is actually the pen name of a husband and wife writing team, Tom and Sharon Curtis) never wrote one.  And to this I say, "Boo."  Because while I found the very purple prose of The Windflower to be distracting from the story itself, I would read Cat's story even if it featured the worst writing in the world.  Like seriously, I would read Cat fanfiction, that's how much I wanted more of him. 

Up Next in Trashy Reads:  I don't have much time for fun reading these days, but when I do, I want something fun.  I suspect this means we will see some more trashy reads before the year's end.  Especially now that I've found a fellow trash lover.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Feast of the Ascension, 2004. Planting Hibiscus," by Jay Hopler

Part of being an MFA means sitting through lots of classes in which poetics and theory are discussed.  Sometimes, these discussions are fascinating.  But more often than not, I just feel depressed when people start talking about what is or isn't good contemporary poetry.  Just as I was feeling this way over the weekend, I reread Jay Hopler's book, Green Squall.  The book ends with this wonderful poem that is very much about the current state of poetry and how nature might play a role in getting back at the immediacy of poetic language.  Also, it's just a cool poem.  Enjoy!

Feast of the Ascension, 2004. Planting Hibiscus, by Jay Hopler

Monday, September 26, 2011

Poem of the Week: "The Glass and the Bowl," by Louise Erdrich

I love poems with a lot going on in them - dense language and complex themes.  But I love small, simple poems just as much.  And sometimes when I'm lucky, I find a poem that is capable of putting a lot into very little space.  So is the case with my poem choice this week, Louise Erdrich's "The Glass and the Bowl."  Enjoy!

The Glass and the Bowl, by Louise Erdrich

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, F. Scott Fitzgerald!

Well, everyone, today is it: Fitzgerald Day, the annual holiday in which I celebrate my favorite author and what reading at large means to me.  Go out and celebrate, my wonderful readers!

Happy Birthday, Fitzgerald!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Poem of the Week: "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke

I've been thinking of Theodore Roethke lately, probably because he always seems to be hovering over my left shoulder as I work on my own poetry.  Anyway, I decided today's poem needed to be a Roethke.  So here is one of his most famous poems, "The Waking," which is written in the very difficult and repetitive villanelle form. 

The Waking, by Theodore Roethke

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mixing the Narrative with the Lyrical

Book Reviewed:  Made Flesh, by Craig Arnold

One of the reasons I wanted to get my MFA in poetry was that it would give me access to more contemporary poetry.  It's easy to stay updated on all the newer literary novelists and genre writers, but it's harder to find information about the best contemporary poets out there.  Because writing programs are made up of people for whom reading poetry is a lifestyle, being in a program means I have far more access to good, new poetry. 

In my workshop, we were assigned the book Made Flesh, by Craig Arnold.  In this, his second and final collection, Arnold explores love and the body and traveling through the prism of mythology.  The book is divided into seven titled sections that are in themselves made up of connecting, untitled poems.  We had a lively debate in class about whether or not the book's sections are all about the same couple (in this case, Hades and Persephone) or if each section seemed complete onto itself.  I personally think the book is a combination of both, with the poems looking out across an array of characters as well as the couple of Hades/Persephone, all of whom also seem to be reflections of Arnold-as-poet. 

This book had its admirers and detractors both in my class, and I count myself as an admirer.  I found it extremely easy to get sucked into the narrative voice of these poems.  Once I picked the book up, I had trouble putting it down again.  Arnold has a wonderful way of mixing a narrative drive with some beautiful lyricism, all of which suits the book's main concerns.  I enjoyed Made Flesh a great deal.

I would also easily recommend this book to others, particularly people who are just starting to dip their feet into contemporary poetry.  It's artful without being pretentious, and Arnold doesn't use overly complex phrasing or difficult words.  Overall, I think the book's a huge success, and it's unfortunate that Arnold passed away before he could write more. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Incubus," by Craig Arnold

I apologize in advance for the lengthiness of this poem, but it couldn't be helped.  In my poetry workshop, we are reading Craig Arnold's second (and final, as he died a year after it was published) book, Made Flesh.  I really enjoy Arnold's poetry because of the way it mixes narrative drive with lyric intensity in such a masterful way.  I think this is a cool collection, and this poem starts the book off with a bang.  Enjoy!

Incubus, by Craig Arnold

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Midwestern Ghosts

Book Reviewed: The Marvelous Bones of Time: Excavations and Explanations, by Brenda Coultas

The best thing so far about being in an MFA program is getting to talk books with serious readers again.  When I worked at the library, I got to talk to people about a lot of books I loved, but I never met other poetry readers or people interested in anything more experimental.  The MFA program is full of people who read almost nothing else.  This means my to-read list has officially grown to preposterous levels.  One of the first new friends I met in the program is also an Indiana-ite.  When he found out that most of my writing is about the state and its people, he recommended a poet originally from Indiana named Brenda Coultas.  Luckily, Notre Dame's library had a copy of her book, The Marvelous Bones of Time

Bones is a strange little book.  The first half consists of poetry about Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, and Ohio.  Here, Coultas explores the idea of place and dives deep into the history of the area as part of the Underground Railroad.  The second half of the book is made up of ghost stories.  Some are stories that Coultas experienced first-hand; others are just stories she's heard over the years.  The entire book has an unsettling, haunted feeling that really works well.  It's a cool little collection.

Coultas's poems are written very plainly, but they somehow manage to resist having either a narrative drive or a lyric drive.  They just exist as they do on the page, which after several weeks of learning way more about poetic theory than I care to dig up, was super-refreshing.  Her ghost stories have a poetic vibe to them as well, despite being written as prose.  They are very short and to the point; if you blink, you might miss the actual ghost.  Since I have a certain fondness for well-told ghost stories, I enjoyed this part of the book as much as I enjoyed the poetry.  If you are looking for something strange and haunting, or if you're a Midwestern place poet who wants to see how it's done, this is the book for you.

Note:  While reading this book, I was reminded of my only encounter with a ghost, an incident which took place a couple summers ago at a nature park.  A friend and I experienced the strange encounter together, and to this day, we can't explain it.  Although God knows my hyper-reasonable friend has tried.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Heaven," Patrick Phillips

I fell in love with this poem when I saw it a couple days ago.  It's poetry at its most simple and soothing.  I hope you enjoy and find comfort in this lovely little poem.

Heaven, by Patrick Phillips

Friday, September 2, 2011


You probably all know this by now, but I started graduate school last week.  I am going to be pretty busy doing all the necessary reading and writing for school, so I just want you all to know that my blog might suffer a bit for it.  I'll keep posting a Poem of the Week, and I will always post reviews of the books I read outside of class (or, if it's interesting and long enough, a book from class).  I'll also try to do some fun stuff occasionally.  I will no longer recap my reading with a month-end review, as they will become too messy and full of academic excursions.  Also, I promise not to talk too much about my graduate program in this blog, as I want to keep it to the business of reading for pleasure.

Thanks everyone, and keep reading!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Poem of the Week: "One Art," by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop is one of those poets that you always get stuck studying in school.  I've had to read a Bishop poem in almost every poetry class I've ever had.  And you know what?  I'm not a fan.  I've tried to like Bishop, to see in her what others have found.  But I can't.  She bores the shit out of me.  Apologies to the literary canon, but it's true.

There is, however, one Bishop poem that I actually like.  In my poetry workshop last week, we discussed her famous villanelle, "One Art."  I love the way the repetitiveness of the villanelle form allows the speaker to get progressively get closer to the personal.  I'm a big fan of poems that start out with big ideas and then zoom into the heart by the end.  This is a prime example, and a fairly humorous one at that.  Enjoy!

One Art, by Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, August 28, 2011

More Egan

Book Reviewed:  The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

After reading and admiring Jennifer Egan's award-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, I decided it might be nice to read some of her other work.  Her previous book, The Keep, won a lot of critical acclaim when it hit shelves in 2006, and I thought the premise sounded especially promising.  Unfortunately, I think the book relies a little too heavily on the premise and lacks the depth of feeling involved in Good Squad as a whole. 

The Keep begins with thirty-something Danny arriving at a medieval-era castle somewhere in Eastern Europe.  Rootless and on the run, he's decided to go to the castle to help his cousin, Howie, turn it into an exclusive hotel.  As a teenager, Danny committed a cruel prank that separated him forever from Howie.  Now, as adults, they keep bumping into the past despite their attempts to avoid it at all cost.  These scenes at the castle are entrenched in gothic imagery and the supernatural.  There's a creepy and mystical old baroness who's trying to thwart the renovation.  There's a love triangle between Howie, his wife, and his assistant, Mick.  There's ghost stories and scary black pools and overly-idyllic villages. 

But this isn't the only story going on in this strange, meta novel.  We are told fairly quickly that the story of Danny and Howie is being told to us in first person by a prisoner taking a writing class.  This prisoner, Ray, has a crush on his teacher, Holly.  After the story of the castle and the story of the prison play out simultaneously in some unexpected ways, we get to see Holly's tragic backstory and get a glimpse at a world that might be more real than we imagined. 

This is a deeply weird book.  There's the layers of storytelling, layers that open the entire book up to themes of artifice and how we tell stories in order to comfort or absolve ourselves, with varying degrees of success.  As in the artful Good Squad, Egan does a nice job keeping all these plots up in the air.  Unfortunately, I had a hard time with this book.  I loved the first half, which seemed really inventive and had some amazing character and place details.  But I thought the second half dragged a bit, and I didn't care for the third section involving Holly at all.  The novel had been so careful in its earlier revelations that the last part just felt a little false to me in its confessional mode. 

When writers decide to tell different stories in a single book, there's always a risk that the reader will become so attached to one story that the others suffer in comparison. This is exactly what happened to me while reading The Keep.  I absolutely loved the castle stuff.  I dug the gothic influence and the creepiness factor of the castle itself.  And I thought the guilty, technology-obsessed Danny was the kind of bizarre and singular creation that only Egan could create.  But the parts involving Ray and Holly felt dull alongside this more interesting stuff.  I wanted the book to stay inside the world of Danny and Howie, and it didn't.  I felt like Egan set me up to be disappointed.  Needless to say, this is not a feeling I enjoy.

I thought The Keep was a cool book, and when I was into it, I was REALLY into it.  Unfortunately, it just couldn't hold my interest by the end.  Egan did such a great job stringing the disparate parts of the book together that she seemed to forget to ground the book in its best character bits.  It's fascinating to read this book and see the beginnings of the jumpy narrative style that would define A Visit from the Goon Squad.  It's even more interesting to see how much better Egan got in the four years between the two books. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Happy Birthday, Apollinaire!

Today is the 131st birthday of one of my favorite poets, Guillaume Apollinaire.  Apollinaire is famous for writing very surreal and symbolic poems, and he experimented a lot with how poetry looked on the page, sometimes shaping his poems into images reflecting the poem's title.  I am a huge fan of his book Calligrammes, which deals heavily with World War.  Today's Writer's Almanac features a short, interesting summary of his life.  Happy birthday, Apollinaire!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Books Reviewed:  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling AND Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling

I came late to the Harry Potter world.  When I worked at a bookstore in high school, I experienced two midnight releases and still didn't understand why everyone was so obsessed with the series.  I couldn't fathom a reason why anyone, particularly people over the age of eleven, would care about a boy wizard and his strange, cutesy world. 

Of course, I would come to eat my own words.  During my freshman year of college, I lived in dorm full of Harry Potter nerds.  They loved the books and the series.  They loved the strange world in which Potter fans lived.  Finally, trying to see what all the hoopla was about, I watched the first four movies.  I ended up liking them so much that I decided to read the fifth book, then the sixth.  I went back and read the fourth, then got my copy of the seventh and final book on the day it was released, finishing it in a weekend.  I went back and read the third book as a college senior.  But somehow I never got around to going all the way back and reading the first two books.

Then the final movie came out last month.  I went to see it, and I couldn't believe that I had let my Potter-love lie dormant for so long.  How had I stopped thinking about this series all the time?  It's so much fun!  I decided it was time to read the first two books.  Before I knew it, I'd gobbled them up in less than a week.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone made me remember why I was a Potter fan in the first place: because of its world-building.  There are so many characters that it's a near-guarantee that any reader is going to find at least one they love or with whom they identify.  I'm not sure how well I can judge this book by itself, though, because I read it years after reading the later books.  Rowling is a certainly a capable writer, even if her prose is awfully flat at times.  But honestly, I'm willing to overlook this due to her excellent skills as the creator of an imaginary world.  The Harry Potter universe is so deep and wide that it's hard to believe it came from the mind of a single individual.  I loved this first book because it gave me a chance to see the beginnings of what would become a ridiculously complex place.  I enjoyed seeing Harry meet the Weasleys (oh Lordy, do I love the Weasleys), become friends with Hermione, and figure out that Severus Snape was the baddie.  Also, I'd forgotten how funny the books could be, especially in comparison to the later, abbreviated, more-angst-centered movies.

I didn't enjoy Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets quite as much as I enjoyed the first book, but that wasn't a huge surprise.  I don't think Chamber of Secrets ever really ranks as anyone's favorite Harry Potter book.  It just seems to lack something the other books have; I'm not quite sure what.  That being said, it was still a fun reading experience.  There's a lot more to the book than the admittedly bad movie version.  I am particularly sad that the ghost deathday party was cut from the film.

I love Harry Potter.  I don't care if that makes me uncool or whatever.  It's such a fun place to live inside for the hours you spend reading the books!  I cannot recommend enough that everyone avoid my mistake.  Stop making fun of Harry Potter and pick them up for yourselves.  It's totally worth it.

Notes:  Since I have Harry Potter on the brain, you can probably expect some other Harry Potter-themed blog posts in the coming months.  If you have any ideas for a Harry Potter topic, let me know!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Dew," by Robert Morgan

Sometimes a poem comes around at the perfect time.  Last week, I walked into my yard in the morning and stepped into wet grass.  All around me were these little patches that looked like fine spider webs.  But when I brushed my fingers through them, I found they were actually just webs of morning dew.  It made me so happy that I actually giggled.  And then, just a couple days later, this poem showed up on the Writer's Almanac.  What luck!

Dew, by Robert Morgan

Thursday, August 18, 2011

You Know Who's Kind of Awesome? F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Book Reviewed:  A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Edited by James L.W. West III

Back in February, when I first heard that Fitzgerald scholar James L.W. West III was putting together a chronological collection of Fitzgerald’s personal essays, I went crazy. When I found out I had to wait six more months before it finally came out, I went even crazier. How was I going to pass so much time without constantly thinking about this damn book? Well, somehow I made it. And trust me, it was worth it.

I have to admit that despite being one of America’s biggest Fitzgerald fans (I have to be up there, right?), I’m not all that familiar with his essays. His personality can be a little off-putting, and the handful of Fitzgerald essays I’ve read didn’t seem to display the same strength of prose as his fiction. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like A Short Autobiography (so titled because the chronological order of the essays shows the development of Fitzgerald as a thinker, writer, and person). And I didn’t like it. I LOVED it.

Fitzgerald’s early essays are full of the youthful arrogance he was famous for in his personal life. As can be expected, his later pieces are reflective and solemn. He starts off as a young snob going around giving (often annoying) advice. I wasn’t as big a fan of these early essays, but I was pleasantly surprised by how funny they were. I never think of Fitzgerald as a writer who makes me laugh, but I actually chuckled out loud several times while reading A Short Autobiography. I don’t agree with him every often, but as a young writer from the Midwest, I often find myself understanding the place he comes from.

I’m a much bigger fan of Fitzgerald’s later essays, even though they're quite sad. His confidence as a young man morphed into the voice of disillusionment. He’s a man who didn’t get what he wanted from life, and his few moments of hope seem all the more tragic to us modern readers who know how things turned out for him (alcoholic with a crazy wife, dead at 44). His unfinished essay, “The Death of My Father,” displays a Fitzgerald more honest than even I knew existed. Oh, how I wish he had finished it! It undoubtedly would have made me cry. Arguably, Fitzgerald’s most famous essays are “One Hundred False Starts” and the deeply melancholic “Afternoon of an Author,” and it’s easy to see why. They are written in the beautiful prose I so admire in Fitzgerald’s work, delicately heartbreaking. It’s hard to see the man who wrote the best American novel of all time deal with such unfortunate depression.

The essay that surprised and upset me the most, though, was “Author’s House.” This strange piece is written as a kind of fake interview in which a famous writer (obviously Fitzgerald) shows an imagined reporter around his house. It’s an unspeakably sad treatise on what it means to struggle between being a good writer and being a decent person. The essay’s ending works as a kind of summary on who Fitzgerald had become in middle age:

[The author] shivered slightly and closed the windows. As they went downstairs the visitor said, half apologetically: “It’s really just like all houses, isn’t it?”

The author nodded.

“I didn’t think it was when I built it, but in the end I suppose it’s just like other houses after all.”

That is ridiculously sad, isn’t it? I’m not sure what it says about me that this sentence upsets me so much, and yet makes me love Fitzgerald just all that much more.  This book only helps cement my belief that Fitzgerald is one of the most interesting writers to come out of American literature.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Hey everyone!  Sorry that this blog has been so quiet in the last few weeks.  I am currently sans internet, and I haven't had much time to find places with wireless where I can easily post blog entires.  But, I am happy to report that things should start to return to normal by the end of the week.  Up first, a review of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Short Autobiography.  So look forward to that geekfest!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

July 2011 in Review

Total Pages Read in May: 2,104

What a successful reading month!  I read more pages in July than any other month yet this year, and I enjoyed all but one of them.  Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

There was one misstep this month in the form of a book club read, Three Cups of Tea, that I really didn't like.  But the rest of the month was filled with books that really required me to think and work for my love, and they were all worth it.  Wuthering Heights, some Neil Gaiman and Alice Hoffman, a new Loretta Chase, and the amazing A Visit from the Goon Squad - what more could a girl ask for? 

I'm not sure what August has in store, as I will be going back to school at the end of the month.  I do know that in the next week or two, you will hear me go on and on about a new F. Scott Fitzgerald book entitled A Short Autobiography, in which Fitz's best essays are put in chronogical order to show a linear personal account of his life.  I've been anxiously awaiting this book since February, so I am pumped to finally read it.  I'm sure I will be fitting at least one more Alice Hoffman book as well.  And maybe another romance or two.  See you then!

There's a Reason This Book Won a Pulitzer

Book Reviewed: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

I believe that life is too short to read books you don't like.  If I start a book and it's falling flat for me, I stop reading it.  It's a great belief to have, and it's certainly saved me time for better, more interesting books.  But sometimes our deepest beliefs can fail us.  I finally picked up Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction) after months of putting it off.  This book came loaded with ridiculously good reviews, awards, and a strong word of mouth.  So when I found myself put off my the first 20 pages, I worried that it wasn't the book for me.  I sent a plea out on Facebook asking friends if it was worth continuing.  One of my writer/reader friends said she loved it and urged me to continue.  Thank God she did.  If she hadn't talked me into it, I might never have read this incredible novel.

A Visit from the Goon Squad lives and dies by its construction.  There are two main characters that ground the book - music producer Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha - but each chapter takes place in a different time and place, giving it all the feel of a short story collection.  When we meet Bennie, he's turned into a bit of a hack producer, ruining all the promise he seemed to have when he was younger.  He's failing with women, family, and his job.  He's not entirely unlikable, but he's not someone you necessarily want to be friends with, either.  Meanwhile, his assistant Sasha is also a mess.  She's a compulsive kleptomaniac who doesn't seem at all comfortable in her own skin.  In the first two chapters, I judged these characters as a little too quirky and strange for my taste.  Then the third chapter kicks into gear and this book really gets moving.

Goon Squad is separated into chapters that jump back and forth through time, settling on different people with connections that reach into the past (or in the case of one chapter told entirely through PowerPoint slides, the future).  We get to meet Bennie as a young man playing in a band in California, his friends already lost in their youth.  We hear their voices, and from their stories we get the life of Bennie's hero, a morally-corrupt producer, and that man's children.  Then we see Sasha through the eyes of her suicidal best friend in college, then as a teenager in Italy struggling with her past while being reunited with her uncle.  We even get to see Sasha's future children.  This book is bursting with different people at different time periods, but it never becomes too confusing or off-track.  Instead, it enriches the experience of meeting these characters.

The "goon" in the title refers to time, the enemy of Bennie and possibly the savior of Sasha.  A Visit from the Goon Squad is as postmodern as that phrase implies, but it's also a very beautiful book featuring very real people.  At first, the East Coastness of the book annoyed me, but as the stories spread out, this becomes a book about what it means to live in the modern, digitalized America of our time.

I've read a lot of books I've liked in the last year, often for a variety of reasons.  But I'm not sure any of them quite left me with my mouth hanging open in awe like this one did.  I can't even imagine having the talent to put something like this together the way Egan did.  It's not a book I'd necessarily recommend to just anyone because it can be a little off-putting at times and the characters are awfully frustrating people.  But if you're a reader looking for something completely new and rewarding in its tiniest connecting details, then this is the book for you. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Memory, Loss, and the Classics

Book Reviewed:  Nox, by Anne Carson

Nox (which means "night" in Latin) is a strange book.  For starters, it comes in a box.  The book itself folds out in accordion-style, but is printed on only one side so you can turn "pages" like you would in a regular book.  It's a collage of photographs, excerpts from a Latin-to-English dictionary, and memoir-style writing by Carson.  The book itself is actually a printed version of a scrapbook Carson made in order to remember her dead older brother.  She calls it an "epitaph in the form of a book."  It's not easy to read, but it sure is interesting.

Carson's older brother Michael was a very troubled soul, one who fled his home and family as a young man in order to escape a short prison sentence.  He spent his last few decades wandering Europe, gaining love and suffering losses, and mostly ignoring his parents and sister back home.  In 2000, Carson found out her brother had died of a heart attack a couple weeks earlier, and she went overseas to see his widow.  This book is Carson's reaction to that experience. 

Nox is by turns baffling and heartbreaking.  Nearly every-other page carries an excerpt from a Latin-to-English dictionary, featuring repetitive entries that Carson clearly added her own writing to in spots.  It's easy to want to skip these parts, but they often contain nuggets of ideas that are important to the piece as a whole.  Carson is a classicist, so there's a lot of references to history and myth.  The book is full of tiny, one-off sentences that are tells to Carson's inability to figure out her brother in life for death.  Most importantly, the book features excerpts from letters Michael wrote to his mother, as well as snippets of phone conversations he had with his sister.  These add an extra dimension to the entire thing.

This book is so strange that it can be a little off-putting at times.  Occasionally, it feels like we're peeking into something too private for public consumption, which is initially what this scrapbook was.  I'm glad Carson published it because it's really interesting and says a lot about the strangeness that is siblings, beings with the same genetic make-up who are nevertheless completely different creatures.  I can't say I loved this book, but it was definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Good and Moody

Book Reviewed:  The River King, by Alice Hoffman

After falling in love with Alice Hoffman's latest book, The Red Garden, I decided to go back and read her older work.  It's been a hit or miss experience, but in general, I think I can consider myself a Hoffman fan now.  Last month, I got online and read summaries for all of Hoffman's books, then put all the ones I was interested in on hold through the library.  It's been a fun process so far.

At the top of that list was The River King, a novel published in 2000.  The book sounded moody, filled with a wide range of character types - the kind of Hoffman I like best.  I was dead-on in this guess.  This is a book that thrives on the dark, passionate moods Hoffman builds through language and setting.  The book is filled with so many descriptions of water and damp and thickness that you can't help but feel like you're trying to walk through mud while reading it.  It's an appropriate effect; after all, this is a book about a suspicious drowning.

The River King takes place at a prestigious Massachusetts boarding school located in Haddan, a town that's always clashed with the school's residents.  We meet townspeople and school people alike, and both are filled with the good and the bad.  At the school, we have Carlin, a swimmer who's trying to hide how poor she really is in the middle of a bunch of rich kids, and August Pierce, a struggling loner.  Once tragedy strikes these two, they begin to affect others around them, particularly new photography teacher Betsy and Haddan cop Abel.  A student is found drowned in the river, and while others expect suicide, Abel follows his hunches and believes something more dangerous is at play.  The story unfolds through the affects of Abel's investigation and Carlin's grief, both equally important at keeping the drowned student's ghost afloat - literally.

Like most of Hoffman's work, this book is touched by both everday magic and the supernatural.  Although her writing is a little too on-the-nose at times, Hoffman certainly knows how to create mood through lush descriptions of place.  Her characters aren't always super-deep, but their feelings and actions really punch me in the gut sometimes.  I really enjoyed this book, with its depth of feeling and evocative dankness.  I wasn't totally sold on the ending, which felt a little rushed, but I was happy to see where each character ended up.  Overall, a lot of fun.  Expect to see at least one or two more Hoffman books show up here in the next month.  I think I'm addicted to them!