Wonderful in So Many Ways: New and Selected Poems: Mary Oliver

oliverI’m going to try not to get gushy in this review, but let me just say that Mary Oliver’s collected poems in New and Selected Poems are amazing. They have single-handedly revived my belief in poetry’s purpose and place in our contemporary moment. I had gone through a bit of a lull with poetry, in part because I had been reading some average poetry and in part because my own attempts at poetry fell so utterly flat. Mary Oliver is an extremely talented poet and the contents of this book are astonishing. I found myself writing poems down on pieces of paper to post up around my two work spaces.

I should warn readers though, that she is, at heart, a nature poet. I do not mean that label as a kind of parochial tag, but in the sense that she finds most of images and meaning in the natural world. This is not to say that she is a poet of the wilderness, but rather that she draws on the world she lives in (New England and Ohio). She often writes about bears, birds, insects, grasses, ponds, trees, and the like. However, I think the couple of lines from her poem “The Lamps” suggest more of what she is after:

“You wish it would never change –

But of course the darkness keeps
Its appointment. Each evening,

An inscrutable presence, it has the final word
Outside the every door.”

She is after human experience and the “human condition.” While I find myself cringing away from such a word, I can not quite describe her approach beyond that. She writes about life, death, desire, joy, sorrow, and dreams. These are not unique things to any one person or people, but could more accurately be called “human” traits (although there is evidence to suggest that animals do have emotions and dreams). She favours short lines and precise diction, doing a surprising amount of work with so few words.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to travel across North America on a bicycle. It was an amazing trip, but one of the things that surprised me most was that I found myself wanting to travel even slower than on the bike. I wanted to walk across the continent because from the bicycle seat it felt like I was moving too fast and missing too much. Reading this collection of poetry evoked a similar feeling. I wanted to spend time with each poem, reading and re-reading them to dig out their meaning and flavour. Unfortunately, 10-10-12 does not allow for that, so I think I am going to find myself struggling with this over the course of the year. Poetry demands slowness and I love it for this (even when I’m trying to quickly scan a few poems an hour before I have to teach them).

I am quite sure that Mary Oliver is going to be a writer that I come back to many times over the years. Her words and lines have a way of nourishing the soul (or mine at least), in a non-cheesy way. I am kind of surprised that I had not encountered her work at any length before, but am glad to have met a new traveler.

I highly recommend this book of poems to any lover of poetry.

I’ve listed some of my favourites below:
“Entering the Kingdom” “Gannets,” “Hawk,” “The Sun,” “Five A.M. in the Pine Woods,” “The Ponds,” “Dogfish,” “Wild Geese,” “Ghosts,” “Vultures,” “The Fish,” “Humpbacks,” “The Family,” “Ice,” “At Blackwater Pond,” “Spring in the Classroom,” “Learning About the Indians,” “The Esquimos Have No Word for ‘War’,” “Magellan,” “Going to Walden,” “No Voyage,” “Beyond the Snow Belt,” “A Dream of Trees,” “The Murderer’s House,” “On Winter’s Margin”

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It Grew On Me: To Kill a Mockingbird

rooftop-to-kill-a-mockingbirdThis is going to be a bit of a scattershot review as I had somewhat mixed feelings about this book that managed to resolve themselves by the time I finished.

Hesitations first: I have been reading Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners for a class that I am a part of, and these two novels began to blend into each other. They both deal with small communities – Maycomb County in Lee’s, Manawaka in Laurence’s, have young female narrators growing up (only for a part of Laurence’s though), have a wide range of characters from various social classes, and feature conflicts that pit the different classes against each other. I’m not sure this was a good conflation, so I stopped reading Laurence’s book to finish this one.

I found it hard to get into the novel for a good 100 pages or so. The folksy/Southern tone of the novel was somewhat off-putting. Maybe it is because I slogged through William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury last summer or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God a year ago, but somehow this felt a little stale and trodden. This is a totally unfair critique though, and I admit that. Once I managed to get into it, it really took off and felt less like Tom Sawyer and more like Huck Finn (to make another American lit analogy).

Hesitations aside, what I liked: the issue of racism at the heart of the novel felt, at first and mistakenly so, out of touch. As a 21st century reader in Canada, I’d like to think that such issues have been long dead in this northern country, or, even better, that they never did happen here. This is utter nonsense. Canada, in its 200 + years of history (dating back to European settlement) , has been just as racist as the Americans have (and, in many ways, still is although we tend to view the indigenous peoples as problems instead of African-Canadians). In another light, our country has a worse history because it has tried to cover this past up with copious amounts of official apologies (many of them far too late in coming) and a general myth that, somehow, we were/are more civilized than our southern neighbours. Again, not true. This book was a good wake-up call to issues of race/ethnicity that still plague Canada today. Just look at some of the comment boards on CBC or the Globe and Mail’s stories on Idle No More.

Yesterday, in lecture for the above-mentioned class, the professor mentioned that novels, because of their length, are more invested in character and time than short fiction. I heartily agree after finishing this book. Scout, the narrator of the novel, really grew on me and Lee’s careful depictions of the changing relationships in the family between Atticus, the single father-lawyer, Jem, his son, Calpurnia, the black cook, Aunt Alexandra, and Scout are delightful to read. These are living breathing characters that felt more like companions that “imaginary” people in a book. I can see why this book was a big hit when it was released and continues to be taught at the elementary and high school levels. Lee has some amazing passages and sequences along with a stellar cast of characters.

Lastly, the novel’s structure is worth commenting on. Pay close attention to the first page or two as Lee comes full circle near the end. She caught me off-guard and I was genuinely pleased to see that kind of narrative cohesiveness. It won a Pulitzer Prize and rightly so. This is a rich novel that has a deceivingly complex narrative structure (not unlike The Diviners). 

I would heartily recommend this book to any reader and encourage them to get through the slower sections that are ultimately necessary for the novel’s conclusion.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner Books, 1960. Print.

Murder and Intrigue in Hamilton!: Beach Strip

beach stripI have a confession to make: some of my work reading has snuck onto this list. Right now I’m running behind in my work, so I have had to re-jig my reading a little to allow me to start some research on my next dissertation chapter. I should have heeded E.’s warning that this would happen, but I did not.

Beach Strip is a crime/mystery novel set along Hamilton’s Beach Strip. This small strip of land juts out into Lake Ontario and is absolutely gorgeous. I have walked and cycled it many times and thoroughly enjoyed it, so it was fun to read a mystery novel set along it. Reynolds does a very good job evoking the rich historical and contemporary community that exists along the strip. This was definitely the highlight of the novel for me. I had known some of the area’s history, but Reynolds filled in a lot of gaps. In reviewing my notes after finishing the novel, it seems like the first 100 pages or so of the novel spends more time setting up the place than actually moving along the plot. I had no problems with this, but fans of the mystery genre might not appreciate this so much.

A quick note here about reading styles: I realized that I read differently when I’m doing research for my work than when I am reading for pleasure. I can read really quickly if it is for pleasure whereas research reading is much slower with an eye for any detail/image/theme that might be useful for my project. It’s like the difference between looking at a painting with the naked eye or with a magnifying glass. This is not to say I like one more than the other, just that they are different. Are there other reading styles beyond this? Does scanning a news story constitute a third kind of reading? What about reading advertisements on the bus or in the mall?

The central premise is the “suicide” of a police officer, Gabe, and the story of Josie, his wife, and her attempt to prove that he was actually murdered. There is plenty of police intrigue, most of which I wasn’t particularly interested in – it’s probably a genre thing. The story is told in first-person through Josie’s voice, and I appreciated the humor and depth Reynolds brought to the character. She seemed like the most complete character while some of the others seemed more like stock mystery characters – again probably a genre thing. The pacing was good and the thematic focus on the beach made it compelling.

I have never been a big reader of crime fiction and Beach Strip has not changed this fact. At moments I was getting into the “game,” if I can call it that, that crime/mystery novels play. I was trying to sleuth out who did it, but I realized that I did not really know the rules of the genre so found it tough going. I’m assuming that mystery novels never pull a deus ex machina move with the killer/culprit being someone that has not been introduced at some early point in the novel. I noticed a couple of important clues in the process of reading, items like a missing notebook, a character’s connection to a ring, and so on, but I never spent the time connecting the dots. I did think at one point I had it figured out, but the character I suspected was simply a false lead left by Reynolds (points to him for that). I feel like I could be convinced to read more crime fiction, but I think it will need a good argument/ a couple of novels to do so.

I would recommend this book to people already interested in crime/mystery fiction or to people who want to know more about Hamilton’s beach strip and are willing to read a murder mystery to do so.

 

Reynolds, John Lawrence. Beach Strip. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.

Los Angeles is the Gate to the Underworld?: The Lightning Thief

lightning-thiefI finished the first volume in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians, and I remembered why I love reading young adult/ children’s literature. These books are fast reads and often quite pleasurable on an instinctual or gut level. This was certainly the case with The Lightning Thief. Having had a night to sleep on the book, I finding myself with mixed feelings about it. This book was published in 2005, 8 years after the publication of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I could not shake the feeling that I was reading a book aimed at the very same audience, albeit a book that plays with Greek mythology rather than a more generic “magic.” There is a young troubled boy as the protagonist, a school in the form of a summer camp for “magical” kids, scary monsters of all shapes, and, even, for a period a love triangle between Percy (the protagonist), Annabeth (his intelligent if socially awkward friend), and Luke (and older camper). It seems like at some point, an editor said you could not have these three going on an adventure, so when Percy actually leaves camp to find Zeus’ master bolt of lightning, Grover, a satyr, joins him and Annabeth.

What the book does well is play with Greek mythology. There are Greek and Latin jokes in here along with a serious knowledge of that period’s mythology (one that to my mind goes beyond simply reading Wikipedia entries). When Percy eventually does meet his father, Poseidon, there is a palpable sense that the gods do not “love” their half-human children, a sense that adds some much-needed emotional depth to the book. This was one of the more interesting points in the book although it came within the last 100 pages.

What the book does not do well is try to be hip. It seems like an editor somewhere along the line told Riordan that he had to speak at a kid’s level, so he tries to jive in all the worst ways. Some examples include: describing moving words on the pages “doing one-eighties as if they were skateboards” (18) or a description of the Minotaur as possessing “bulging biceps and triceps and a bunch of other ‘ceps, all stuffed like baseballs under vein-webbed skin” (50). I used to skateboard and the board just doesn’t happen to casually do one-eighties, so that’s a failed simile in my mind. His description of the Minotaur aims at the comic, but ends up in the ludicrous. There were, thankfully, only a few moments like these, but with a publisher like Hyperion, Disney Corporation’s publishing arm, you have to think there is a room full of editors/execs throwing around ideas about how to get “hip.”

This problem points to a tension in the book between the serious and the comic. At moments, Riordan creates an engaging fantastical with serious quests, heroes, and action, but at other times it is undercut by his desire to add in the laughs with Greek mythology jokes or, worse, deadpan/slapstick humor. Maybe this isn’t a problem with the book so much as my desire to keep fantasy serious. I guess I like a straight fantastical narrative, not one undercut with humor. Harry Potter didn’t try to be funny, and it worked. I’m not sure The Lightning Thief works.

Would I recommend this book? Tough call. I give it a resounding maybe. Yes, if you want a quick read that is occasionally engaging. No, if you want something that is original and does not read like a mish-mash of other popular young adult series.

 

Riordan, Rick. Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. New York: Hyperion, 2005. Print.

Cetology 101: Moby Dick

moby-dick

Rather than try and summarize or review a 600+ page tome in this short review, I’m going to talk about a few things that I found interesting about the novel. It was a wildly entertaining read at times, and a more prosaic and tedious read at others. Like a whale, the narrative is sometimes visible and moving along at a good clip, and at other times it is submerged while Melville pontificates and meditates on various sundry subjects connected to whaling. Some of these meditations are amazing and some are less than stellar. I found it ironic when at a certain point the narrator, Ishmael, writes these words:

“So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume …. I care not to perform this part of my task methodically” (221)

Melville seem to honestly believe that every part is justified by being interesting and curious, and he indulges in many moments of unmethodical wandering. In a way, it seems fitting that Moby Dick, often seen as one of, if not the, great American novel is so rambling, diffuse, and maniacal. The US is anything but streamlined, completely coherent, and carefully structured. At the same time, Moby Dick is about whaling, Ahab’s quest for the white whale, and a growing sense of despair felt by the crew at being caught in the jaws of fate. Similarly, the US is about liberty, freedom, the right to bear arms, and so on. It is easy to read Moby Dick as some kind of meta-narrative or allegory about the US as a nation. However, I think this reading overlooks a key point in the text when Ishmael, in justifying his need to explain all the particulars of whaling, states:

“So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.” (223)

Now, if you want to claim this novel as an allegory, this poses a challenge. Melville explicitly claims the narrative of Moby Dick as a real event. Of course, such words come from a fictional character who may or may not be totally sane having spent two days at sea clinging to a coffin (thanks to JF for pointing this out to me). The complexity of the novel is amazing not only for its publication date (1851) but also how it has been taken up as a key text of English literature in general. As JF also pointed out to me, the actual narrative about Ahab chasing the whale amounts to less than 100 pages of the novel while everything is “filler.” Another friend, LK, told me how she enjoyed reading these sections most and her optimism helped me through some rough patches. In one of these sections, I came across this amazing sentence:

“And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way” (470)

I had to re-read this a few times. In a stunning way, Melville justifies all of the wandering he does because to not do so would be to miss the “certain significance [that] lurks in all things.” He even makes the bold claim that such significance gives the world its true meaning. You can quibble with Melville’s view, but I think that these words give credence to my own belief that narrative, or story-telling, is one of the highest human activities, perhaps the most important one. For if we can tell stories that show the significance in all things, we give meaning and worth to them.

That’s enough cheap philosophizing for me. “Turn up all hands and make sail!” This reader is off to book number 4.

I would not recommend this book to someone looking for a tight narrative or quick read, but I would recommend it for someone who has not read it. It’s worth reading through to the end as important things happen in the last 50 pages, but it takes a lot of work to get to there.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or, The Whale. Toronto: Penguin Books, 2003. Print

PS. For some great contextual material on Moby Dick, check out these blog posts over at Verba Americana 

Them plants are meat eaters!: The Day of the Triffids

triffids

And just like that, book two is complete. I started this one as a small interlude between the first and second half of Moby Dick (which is turning out to be quite a slog).

John Wyndham’s 1951 The Day of the Triffids is a post-apocalyptic novel written before they became all the rage. And I’m happy to say that this one is much better written than a lot of what is on offer today. Wyndham has carefully thought through his apocalypse (which remains vague at best with Bill, the protagonist, having a theory as to why it happens but the narrative in no way explicitly endorses this theory), what happens next (there is some uncomfortable survivalist stuff here), and what humans might be prudent to take note of in the reader’s present. While I’m not convinced that this novel shows me that post-apocalyptic narratives are a failure of the imagination (as an academic friend of mine once said), it does go some ways to imagining a world beyond its current capitalistic/consumerist contours.

The plot is both simple and, from a 21st century perspective, strange at the same time. A strange event happens that blinds most of humanity and what once appeared to be a useful if somewhat obnoxious plant sweeps across England to take advantage of humanity’s blindness. I’m sure readers in the 1950s took the 8 foot tall walking carnivorous plants as strange and the effect remained for me. Although, with the rise of B-science fiction films and the like, they seem less threatening and perhaps more quirky or ridiculous. Anyways, the novel follows Bill as he attempts to survive what is humanity’s ultimate apocalypse. There is no outside to this disaster and no deus ex machina comes along to save them.

The narrative travels along at a fair clip and kept me turning pages. I remembered why I used to read a lot of science fiction and fantasy while I read this book. The imaginative world that Wyndham creates is compelling and I sympathized with Bill (if only because he appears the most humane). The novel has some interesting sections that deal with the problems of overpopulation, the morals involved in an crisis, and the problem of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The novel predates widescale nuclear armament, yet the problems with such a fact are visible in this novel. In many ways, the novel has become more relevant in the current climate of ubiquitous (if somewhat over hyped and definitely strategically biased) terrorism.

The grad student in me had a few problems with the setup, notably the kind of unconscious embrace of the survivalist ethos. It is easy to summarize: in the apocalypse, a man (and it’s always a man) must do whatever he has to do (almost always violence, often but not always gendered) to survive (often in the shape of a nuclear family … I hated the ending of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for this unsatisfying conclusion). Now Wyndham doesn’t totally embrace this, he modifies it a fair bit and the ending points in a different direction. However, what was uncomfortable for me was the kind of easy assumption that in an apocalypse, women must make babies and men must work. From an abstract species perspective this is true, and yet I’m not convinced that this is how we operate now or would operate in such a crisis. Such mindsets too often lead to abuse of power. That’s enough ranting for me.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a quick post-apocalyptic read that has some intellectual substance to it. I’ve heard that there are a couple of movie adaptations, but I’d skip them and stick to the source material. The first chapter alone is worth reading because Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later opens with a very similar scene (Boyle credits Wyndham’s novel for inspiring the scriptwriter).

Wyndham, John. The Dayd of the Triffids. Toronto: Doubleday & Company, 1951. Print.

Childhood in all its pain and glory: We the Animals

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It’s done! The first book of 2013 has now been read and I’ve included a short review below. I’m going to try and keep these under 500 words and I’ll highlight what I thought was interesting, what I didn’t like, what I liked, etc. I also include a recommendation for other readers about the book at the end of the review.

 

I chose Justin Torres’s We the Animals because of the first few lines that my friend J read to me. I quote them here because they are hauntingly beautiful:

“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowl; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men … We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.” (1)

I have four brothers and I won’t hide the fact that these lines called to mind my own childhood. Torres’ 2012 novella is a hauntingly beautiful piece of fiction. It is terse, divided into small chapters usually running no more than a few pages. It is episodic, chronicling the lives of three young mixed-blood youth of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. Their lives are raw and filled with the smoldering pain of poverty as their parents fight, work dead end jobs, and try to escape the hopelessness of chronic poverty and violence. The novella is set in upstate New York, somewhere north of Syracuse is my best guess, and it reminded me of my own childhood in a small town in Ontario. The three brothers roam their neighbourhood, kings or conquerors, all while trying to make sense of their home life. It is, in many ways, a bildungsroman as the three brothers come to maturity within the confine of a mere 125 pages.

What makes this novella particularly interesting from a technical standpoint is the narrative voice. For much of the book, it is narrated not so much in the first person as in a kind of shared first person. As the section above shows, it is narrated by we, the three brothers, with occasional individual comments. This technique begins to unravel near the end of the book as the brothers come into the final climax of the novel. The tie-in between the narrative structure and plotline is fitting and makes the novel a beautiful work from both an aesthetic and a technical standpoint. I would highly recommend Torres’ work for the narrative voice alone. While I worried that it would fail him at some point, it does not and you quickly become accustomed to seeing the brothers not so much as individual characters but instead as a kind of three-headed beast as they are called at one point.

I would highly recommend Torres’ novella to any looking for a good, short read. It is violent and blunt, but it is also achingly sweet in the way that it captures the intensity and wonder of childhood.

 

Torres, Justin. We the Animals. Boston: Mariner Books, 2012. Print.