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!