Monday, April 9, 2012

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: Whim Man Mammon, by Abraham Smith; The Drug of Art, by Ivan Blatny; Bandit Letters, by Sarah Messer

I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book (plus, I know very few of you Not Your Mama readers out there are poetry people anyway). So every once in a while, I do these round-ups to let you know what I've been reading lately.  Here are three books I've read and enjoyed lately:

Whim Man Mammon:  In my last round-up, I mentioned that my workshop professor had given me a stack of books she thought might relate to my own work.  One of these was Abraham Smith's Whim Man Mammon.  I read this book over my spring break, and I really liked it.  Smith writes in a peculiar and particular rural voice, and his poems often mention backwoods staples like guns and crops and ramshackle houses.  When you read Mammon, you feel like you're in a very specific world, which is something I really admire, particularly in contemporary poetry (which can often feel so urbanized).  Smith's strange and musical voice have given me a lot to think about in terms of how I employ voice and sound in my own work.  If you, like me, are a Maurice Manning or Richard Hugo fan, you might enjoy this cool little book as well. 

The Drug of Art:  This collection of Blatny's selected work over his lifespan was assigned for my workhsop, so I probably read it more quickly and passively than I might normally.  That being said, I still found it fascinating.  Blatny is a Czech poet who was exiled from his homeland during the Soviet upheaval.  He found refuge in a mental institution.  My class is still debating whether or not Blatny's work reflects actual insanity or if his work is overtly political.  I personally think there's a kind of unease that comes into his later poems that reflect the way the external world of politics and the internal world of the unmanaged mind both wreak havoc on a poet's work.  These are some fascinating poems, and occasionally, they are very beautiful as well.  I'm a particularly big fan of Blatny's earlier work, which displays a strong sense of place and nostalgia.

Bandit Letters:  Messer's book was another one in the stack my poetry prof handed to me.  As a writer, one of the simultaneous best/worst feelings in the world is finding writing that amazingly does exactly what you're struggling to do.  Bandit Letters is this type of book.  Messer inhabits the voices of criminals, victims, and the lovers of both in order to get at the mythos of the great American West and how that mythos still plays into our modern lives.  The poems here have a lot to say about narrative-making, gender, and attachment.  They are really something - easy to read and digest but just disturbing and gorgeous enough to keep you thinking.  I have to give this book back to my prof soon, but I think I'm going to have to go out and buy a copy for myself.  I really loved this one, and because its so deceptively "simple," I recommend it to both experienced and new poetry readers alike. 

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #2

Trashy Read 2012 #2:  The Gladiator's Honor, by Michelle Styles

This semester I'm in a class called "Martial Masculinities in Cinema," and it's exactly what it sounds like.  We watch a lot of action films and then talk about the importance of warrior-like masculinity to different cultures.  Early in the semester, we watched Spartacus and read articles about Roman gladiators.  I became fascinated by the gladiator culture, particular the kind of fan-girling that took place around gladiator schools and competitions.  Women were crazy for gladiators, writing love stories about them and scrawling graffiti on the walls of gladiator schools.  As someone who has been known to be both a fangirl and a hopeless romantic, this had me thinking: Are there any historical romance novels out there about gladiators?  It seems like such a rich area, that I couldn't imagine there wasn't at least one out there somewhere.  For help, I went to my romance goddess, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, aka the best romance genre website on the internet.  Because she is amazing and knows her stuff, Wendell emailed me back within 48 hours to give me the names of some gladiator romances on the market.  One of them, Michelle Styles's The Gladiator's Honor, looked good, so I downloaded it to my Kindle at once.

Admittedly, this book took me a while to get through.  I am swamped with work and school right now, but the book's glacial pacing certainly didn't help matters.  The book centers on Julia Antonia, a young woman who recently go divorced from her brutal asshole husband.  Julia is still haunted by the crappy things her ex-husband did to her, including physical and emotional abuse.  She's moved back in with her father and stepmother to recover, but it looks like her future only holds another marriage with a prestigious Roman who won't make her happy either.  Then she meets Valens, a famous gladiator with his own messy past.  Valens is the son of a senator, and he was always expected to take his father's place in the elite Roman political world.  Unfortunately, some shenanigans happen and he ends up kidnapped by pirates, made a slave, and eventually forced to become a gladiator in order to win his freedom.  His father believes he's dead, but Valens thinks the old man just simply abandoned him.  One of the reasons he fights for his freedom is so that he can then return to his father and prove himself again.  Then he meets Julia, and he has a whole new reason to wish for freedom.

This is not a great book by any means.  It's extremely well-researched, with Styles having obviously done some homework.  But the writing is simply serviceable, and the plot turns can be seen from a mile away.  Also, I had some problems with the hero and heroine.  Julia has a couple of brave moments, but overall she's too good to be true, and her weakness got on my nerves after a while (weak, Mary Sue-like heroines are the living worst).  Valens is a classic good guy hero who is also incredibly strong and masculine, but his stubbornness got a little eye-rollingly predictable by the end.  Emotionally, I just couldn't get too invested in this relationship.

There is one saving grace in this book: the last gladiator fight between Valens and his mortal enemy.  Oh man, did I get into that - the physicality of the fight itself, but also Julia's emotional reactions up in the stands.  I unabashedly loved everything relating to gladiators in this book, but I couldn't get into any other aspect of it.  While reading the book, I kept joking with friends that I would love to write my own kick-ass gladiator romance.  Considering how flimsy this particular book was overall, I might just still do that.  My secret dream in life is to now bring along a trend of gladiator romances.