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