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