Thursday, July 26, 2012

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: Duties of an English Foreign Secretary, b Macgregor Card; The Difficult Farm, by Heather Christle; The Cloud Corporation, by Timothy Donnelly; Nick Demske, by Nick Demske

I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book. 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 in the last couple weeks:

Duties of an English Foreign Secretary:  I picked this up at AWP based solely on the awesome title.  I liked the book, although I didn't necessarily love it.  Reading the poems aloud actually helped me enjoy them more, as Card has a wonderful sense of sound/music.  The poems manage to be contemporary and old-timey at the same time, as if they were written on a sepia-toned word processor.  I tended to like the poems when they were at their most varied, as I don't have the patience for some of the repetition Card uses here.  Overall, though, a pretty enjoyable read.  Poems I particularly liked here: "I Am the Teacher of Athletes," "To Friend-Tree of Counted Days," "The Libertine's Punishment," "Together We Shall Win the Title of Bluebeard," and "Shipfilm."

The Difficult Farm:  I had never heard of Christle until I picked up The Difficult Farm last week from the pile of books my friend Drew assigned to me over the summer.  I'm glad I read it.  I really liked this book.  The poems are weird and funny and occasionally beautiful.  There's a real warmth in Christle's work that I find lacking in a lot of contemporary poetry.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Variations on an Animal Kingdom," "What an Undertaker Does to His Family at Night," "Cocorico," "Because the Limit Seeks Its Own," and "Wilderness with Two Men."

The Cloud Corporation:  This is a long poetry book, coming in at almost 150 pages.  It's easy to see why it's so long once you encounter Donnelly's verbosity.  Donnelly is clearly a poet who loves words and ideas and teasing out the impossible logic of a thought.  He's a "thinking" poet, whatever I mean by that.  Sometimes, this makes for some delightfully smart reading.  At other times, it made me a little sleepy.  There was a time when I probably would have been more of a Donnelly fan, but my taste in poetry (particularly my recent obsession with brevity and my newfound love of style/tone/mood) has changed a lot the last year.  I would still recommend The Cloud Corporation, especially to die-hard poetry or language lovers, even if I wasn't always impressed by the sheer size and scope of it.  Poems I particularly liked here: "The New Hymns," "Fun for the Shut-In," "His Apologia," "Globus Hystericus," and "Chapter for Not Dying Again."

 Nick Demske:  Okay, of these four books, this one is my least favorite.  I really appreciate this book for existing.  The way Demske uses sonnets (particularly his end-rhymes, which are genius) is kind of amazing.  But I found I forgot a lot of the poems as soon as I finished them.  Outside of a couple poems, it wasn't a book that will probably stick with me, unfortunately.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Common Sense," "Put Your Face in My Tongue," "As a Dog Returneth to Vomit" (one of the better poems I've encountered about poetry-writing lately), "They All Lived," and "Fully Dressed in an Empty Bathtub." 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What It Means to Survive

Book Reviewed: I'll Be There, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

I love young adult novels.  I enjoy the emotional openness of them, the way they can take me away from my world and put me in a place of empathy towards their characters.  Literary fiction is full of potholes on the road of enjoyment, with an author's desire to be clever often getting in the way.  YA books, on the other hand, are all about feeling, about hitting all the raw nerves that teenagers walk around carrying.  I like that, as I got into reading fiction for the emotional edification, not so I could see how smart a writer was.  I like literary fiction and contemporary poetry.  I like cleverness and intelligence and emotional avoidance sometimes.  But every once in awhile, I just want to read something that was designed to make me feel

Fortunately, one of my good friends is a youth librarian and keeps up on all the best new YA lit.  I take her recommendations very seriously, so when she recommended I check out Holly Goldberg Sloan's I'll Be There, I paid attention.  "It's about brothers," Amy said.  She knows my weakness.  I picked up the new paperback version of the book while out shopping last week, and I started it on a rainy afternoon a few days ago.  As of yesterday, I was halfway through the book, with about 200 pages to go.  I finished those 200 pages in a single sitting, not even getting up to use the bathroom or grab food.  I was addicted. 

Man, did I love I'll Be There.  It hooked me from the first chapter and it just barrelled its way through the intense plot right up until the end.  Sloan writes for television and film (she wrote Angels in the Outfield, which I adored as a kid), so it's not surprising that her first novel would feel so cinematic.  I kept picturing the book as a movie while I was reading it, thinking about how I would go about casting it.  It manages to be epic and personal at the same time.

At the beginning of the book, the Border brothers are struggling to survive, but it's a struggle they're used to.  Their schizophrenic, terrifying father has shuttled them around the continent for the last decade, committing crimes and taking advantage of people.  Older brother Sam is a talented musician who hasn't been to school in ten years and doesn't know much about the external world beyond what he directly experiences.  Younger brother Riddle struggles with asthma and a socialization problem (a mild form of autism, maybe?) and relies on his big brother to keep him out of the hateful eye of his father.  Then Sam and Riddle meet Emily Bell, a very normal girl with a very normal, loving family.  Emily falls for Sam, and then the Bells fall for both the boys, taking them in as honorary family members.  Unfortunately, the boys' father whisks his sons away without warning halfway through the book.  Soon after, an accident occurs that leaves the Border brothers fighting for their lives in the wilds of Utah. 

For the book's middle half, particularly the moments leading up to and directly following the plot-turning accident, I felt like my guts were being wrenched out a little bit more with each page.  Despite knowing deep-down that things would turn out okay, I found so much of the story to be devastating.  You have all these characters trying to do the right thing while hurting so much, missing the people they love.  It's a book about survival - not just for the boys in the woods but also for the Bells, who are unable to do anything for two people they love.  It's a book about feeling hopeless and hopeful all at the same time, and how painful that inbetween place can be.  It's also a book about love and the way we can be saved by the people who care about us.  The situations are extreme, but the emotional stakes are actually pretty familiar.

Sloan is a very simple writer, giving us the facts as we need them and letting every character - even minor ones - have a chance to explain themselves.  The results of this relentlessly omniscient point-of-view are a little mixed.  I actually could have done without seeing so much of Bobby Ellis, Emily's classmate and a minor character who gets a bigger role as the story goes on.  I thought he was a little overused toward the end of the book, at a time when I only cared about what was going on with the Bells and Borders.  And I'm not sure the book's final chapter is entirely earned, in which we get to see happy endings for a variety of characters who were given just a few scant paragraphs throughout the book.  I was so touched by the relationships between Mrs. Bell and Riddle, Emily and Sam, and Sam and Riddle that I didn't want all the distractions of seeing other people's stories.  I think this strange choice for the ending actually kept me from crying at the end of the book, which I spent the previous 100 pages assuming would be a given.  That being said, I did get a little teary-eyed throughout the book, particularly when classically-good mom Mrs. Bell was thinking about her lost boys. 

I highly recommend I'll Be There.  It's a winner of book: fast-paced, deeply felt, entertaining and emotionally engaging all at once.  I could not have been more involved with its characters and their struggles, which is the best thing I can say about any novel.

Note:  This book works as a surprisingly nuanced look at class distinctions among teenagers, too.  Class seems like such a hurdle when you're a teenager (or it did for me anyway; I was an incredibly class-conscious high schooler), but its actual marks are so subtle.  Emily doesn't always understand the way Sam takes part in the world because she doesn't have access to the abject poverty that marks his life.  Meanwhile, Sam seems to understand that there is something embarrassing about his situation in life, despite the fact that he doesn't actually have to face differences in a school setting.  The book takes an extreme situation - the boys fighting for their lives vs. the ordered (though now-upsetting) life Emily faces day-to-day while they are missing - and makes it seem plausible because it's not that far apart from the actual realities of teenagers living in poverty coming into the lives of the comfortably middle-class and vice versa.  I really appreciated the way class plays a part in the story but is completely unremarked upon. 

Book Club Revisited: July 2012

Book Club Revisited Pick #3: Prepare to Die! by Paul Tobin
I got to choose our book club pick this time around, and I chose Paul Tobin's new, pulpy superhero novel, Prepare to Die!   Luckily for me, the book turned out to be incredibly popular among my fellow Book Club Revisitors.  Prepare to Die! is the story of a superhero, Reaver (who is so strong that when he punches someone, it actually ages them a year), who receives an ultimatum from the supervillain Octagon.  When Octagon gives Reaver the requisite "prepare to die" sentence, Reaver asks for an extension.  Octagon agrees to give Reaver two weeks to tie up loose ends, then Reaver must come meet his actual death.  Reaver, still heartsick over the loss of his closest superhero friends as well as still dealing with the teenhood accident that gave him his powers, decides to make amends back in his hometown of Greenway, Oregon.  There, he plans to reclaim an old relationship with Adele, the love of his life, who last saw him when they were teenagers.

Prepare to Die! hits a lot of the things I love in both literary fiction and superhero stories: the doomed protagonist, the allure of lost opportunities, grief over major losses.  Best of all, it's a story about a superbeing who becomes a person again.  After a decade spent fighting crime, he finds there are other parts of himself that are equally important to who he is, or as Tobin puts it when describing Reaver's past as a boyhood camper, "to keep a sense of the self even though the woods are very large and very lurking and he is very small and very unable to see himself or anything at all."  It's a book about keeping one's sense of self, a concept that has led to tragedy for some of Reaver's friends but which might just hold the key to his redemption.

Tobin's book is not perfect.  Adele's an underdeveloped character, and the writing isn't particularly pretty.  But the story is funny, propulsive, and really entertaining.  Occasionally, the book becomes incredibly moving.  There's a revelation involving Reaver's brother that comes toward the end of the book that really startled and gutted all four of us BCR members.  Our conversation about the book was very fruitful.  At one point, we even got existential, trying to decide if people needed godlike figures (particularly represented by Reaver's best friend, the good and tragic Paladin) because facing one's own capacity for kindness or humanity or heroism is too frightening.  Overall, it was another successful chapter in the story of our book club.

Up next for Book Club Revisited:  Amy chose Howl's Moving Castle, a children's classic, for August's discussion.  Should be fun! 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Adventures in Re-Reading: The Last Tycoon

Book Re-reviewed: The Love of the Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It's been at least five years since I've picked up Fitzgerald's unfinished final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, despite the fact that I consider it my second-favorite Fitzgerald work.  Considering that I've been having some kind of Fitzgerald love affair re-up this summer (how is it that I have let him lay fallow in my mind for so long), it seemed like as good a time as any to pick it up.  Also, I recently watched The Artist, and its depiction of Old Hollywood made me yearn to read The Last Tycoon again.

The Last Tycoon was never finished, although Fitzgerald made a surprising amount of headway on it in just the last few months before his death in 1940 at the age of 44.  I used to argue that, had it been finished, it would have rivaled The Great Gatsby as Fitzgerald's best book.  It is very similar to Gatsby, of course, in its themes of the self-made man, tragic youthful death, and lost love.  But it also shows the stamp of Fitzgerald's extra 15 years of experience.  It's a mature book, less about the way youth become disillusioned and more about the way one can move past that disillusionment and still end up losing.  It's beautifully written, beautifully told.  And painful because of its lack of resolution.

It's not always easy to be a Fitzgerald fan.  In biographies and anecdotes, he comes off as needy and irresolute.  He drank too much; he wasn't a particularly good husband or father.  His writing can sometimes be overly flowery and heavy in abstraction.  His characters are often unlikeable.  But when he's on, he's on.  Fitzgerald's talent is in his re-writing, in the way he worked a sentence or a scene over and over again.  It's what makes his best work feel so effortless.  He writes some of the clearest, most poignant sentences in American literature, and those sentences are always designed to make you feel something.  And man, do they make you feel.  Books like The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon make me feel everything, deeply.  Not everyone has this reaction to Fitzgerald's work, but for some reason, he just manages to hit me right where it hurts.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe it's some kind of Midwestern kinmanship (only a transplanted Midwesterner is capable of writing books about homesickness that runs so deep that it just becomes a vague, amorphous sort of loneliness, unrecognizable as homesickness at all).  Maybe it's just that I like to be told sad stories with a minimal amount of narrative to-do, so that I may feel whatever emotions I want to feel, author intentioned be damned. 

I have a theory that Fitzgerald's best books are the ones in which he sees himself most clearly.  Fitzgerald had a lot of problems, and he never seemed quite able to figure out his own mind or heart.  But in his best work, there's an openness to the weaknesses of men that seems to come from someplace familiar.  In The Great Gatsby, you have the tragedy of the uprooted man, the man who doesn't want to go home again but probably should.  In Tender Is the Night, you've got a man with a ruined marriage leaving his career behind (writing purely for money was Fitzgerald's mainstay at this time, and the time stretch between his novels gets longer and longer).  And here, you have the saddest story of all, made tragic by the fact that Fitzgerald was about to die himself.  In The Last Tycoon, a 35-year-old Hollywood producer finds love for the first time since his wife died, rediscovers his interest in creating a great film, and then dies young (the death is part of every plot outline, but Fitzgerald himself died before he got to that part of the book).  It's a book about a somewhat emotionally-voided man coming close to catharsis, to a personal and professional revolution.  But he doesn't get it.  Fitzgerald came so close to writing a distorted mirror of his own life, and then he actually acted out the end his character could not. 

The Last Tycoon is not a perfect book.  There's the problem of its point-of-view, in which first-person narrator Cecelia Brady describes scenes she did not witness.  This doesn't particularly bother me, as it's easy to see the book as some kind of post-modernish look at who gets to tell the stories of our lives (with Cecelia and the omniscient narrator fighting for the power to tell the story of a man unallowed to tell his own tale).  The love interest, Kathleen Moore, is a bit underwritten.  But overall, it's a fantastic book.  The writing is sumptuous, capable of both humor and tragedy.  The setting feels vibrant and alive.  The book is surprisingly frank about sex and the sexual histories of its characters.  If you compare this to much of Fitzgerald's earlier work, it feels incredibly contemporary.  I love this book, although it's hard for me to separate Stahr from Fitzgerald when I read it.  It's a novel that makes me feel many things within a single paragraph, a feat few books - even the ones I love - can achieve. 

Note:  It's possible that there is an essay in here somewhere about the ways in which I am the Cecelia Brady to Fitzgerald's Stahr: the innocent sideliner forever doomed to look at a man she loves and admires through a haze of self-interest.  She's a girl stuck with the narrative she creates because that's really all she gets of Stahr in the end.  Is that not the only power a fangirl gets and abuses when she doesn't get the object of her affection?  Is that what I'm doing here in this review, in hoping to construct a kind of sad-sack narrative for Fitzgerald through which to view this novel?

Note 2:  There are multiple editions of this book, featuring different outlines and notes about the unfinished parts of the book.  This is the most well-regarded edition, with notes selected and edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, long considered the premiere Fitzgerald scholar.  Bruccoli also wrote the fine introduction at the beginning of this edition.  I envy the man his talent at framing Fitzgerald's work with such care and accessibility.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #6

Trashy Read 2012 #6: Scandal Wears Satin, by Loretta Chase

By now you all know that Loretta Chase is my favorite romance writer.  So of course I read her new book, Scandal Wears Satin.  It's the second book in a planned trilogy about the Noirot sisters, who own a dress shop in London.  The first book, Silk Is for Seduction, was wonderful.  It's always a problem when the first book of a trilogy is really, really good.  Because the odds are you won't enjoy the next two nearly as much, what with the high expectations that have been set. 

That's what happened here.  Scandal Wears Satin is certainly enjoyable, as funny and well-plotted as any Chase novel.  But it felt weaker than Silk Is for Seduction, more insubstantial.  The ending was rushed, and the emotional stakes weren't as high as those in the previous book.  The path towards the characters' happy ending felt too easy, which works in contemporaries but not in historicals, where resistance should come from a lot of societal levels.  I can't complain too much, though, as I did get through the book rather quickly and found it to be a perfectly pleasant way to pass the time.  I like the hero a lot.  Lord Longmore (Harry) is entitled, sure, but he's a normal bloke.  Not terribly bright, led around by his desire for fun, but still a decent guy.  You don't see a lot of average guys in historical romance - they are always exceedingly smart or crazy masculine or sometimes overly nice.  It's nice to just see a dude being a dude.  It makes his attraction to Sophy, the scheming brains of the Noirot fashion operation, seem organic.

Speaking of organic, one of my favorite things about Chase is her sense of humor.  Specifically, that she lets that humor come out through her characters rather than through situation (most of the time, anyway).  When her characters say something witty or do something funny, it never feels like a function of the story.  Rather, it comes through the fact that readers get to know the characters and understand that the humor comes from who they are and how they interact with people.  That's a rare gift, particularly in genre writing, and I really appreciate it.  Humor should be organic, not forced (I'm looking at you, 50 Shades of Grey).

So if you're a Chase fan, I recommend Scandal Wears Satin, even if it's not as good as the book that comes before it in the trilogy.  (Note: The next and last book in the series will feature Leonie, the mathematically-inclined youngest sister.  So far, she's been a pretty bland presence, so I hope she fully comes out in the next book.  Strangely enough, there's no signs so far of who she's going to be paired up with, which is rare in this kind of trilogy.)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: Light-Headed, by Matt Hart; Oubliette, by Peter Richards; Maximum Gaga, by Lara Glenum
I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book. 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 (if not necessarily enjoyed) this last week:

Light-Headed:  Hart's poetry is a lot of fun, taking liberties with language and form.  While this book wasn't necessarily emotionally satisfying for me, I did enjoy reading it.  I envy Hart's wordplay, the way he can throw two old words together that shouldn't belong but which suddenly look new and exciting next to one another.  He's like a word matchmaker, throwing literal common sense out the window.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Waking Fit," "This Is the Vast in the Middle," "All the Hours We're Asleep," and "Minerva System."

Oubliette:  After reading and loving Richards's Helsinki a couple weeks ago, I decided to check out his earlier work.  Mistake.  There is nothing worse than loving a book and finding out you don't like anything else the author has written (I'm looking at you, Joe Hill).  Oubliette isn't bad; it's just boring.  I couldn't get into it at all.  The poems are too interested in philosophy and religion for my taste, and the language and lines aren't interesting enough to distract me from its problem of subject matter.  Being a big thinker is not a problem for me in poetry (afterall, I love Rilke), but when it doesn't sing right, it just ends up being a snoozer. 

Maximum Gaga:  I get it, but that doesn't mean I necessarily liked it.  I was bored with its "shocking" tone and found the subject matter to be same-old-hat.  Sorry, contemporary poetry world.