Sunday, April 29, 2012

national poetry month: dylan thomas

I mentioned before that Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" (first published in 1951 the journal Botteghe Oscure and then in the collection In Country Sleep, now available in Collected Poems) plays a significant role in YA novel Matched and that Ally Condie's use of poetry in the Matched Trilogy inspired me to reconsider my stance on the poetic form.

Rhythmic and compelling, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" is a poem that gets into one's head and takes up residence.

"Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The Academy of American Poets page on the poem includes the full text as well as an audio clip of someone (I presume Thomas himself) reading the poem.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Agatha H. and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Agatha H. and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja Foglio

Agatha H. and the Airship City is a novelization of the first few installments of Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius comic. I honestly had no intention of reading it (the comic is quite wonderful and I saw Agatha H. and the Airship City as nothing but an unnecessary adaptation), but my resolve faltered when in the face of a library copy sitting in my bedroom (Russell checked it out intending to read it himself).

First things first - I have to say that I hate the cover art for Agatha H. and the Airship City in particular the portrayal of the novel's protagonist (cover-Agatha seems both emaciated and insipid to me). It boggles my mind that the publisher would commission art from an artist (it had to be commissioned because it clearly depicts characters from the novel) when the novel's authors include an artist, who has previously (and extensively) drawn the characters.

As expected I began Agatha H. and the Airship City with a healthy dose of skepticism. But I am happy to report that the more I read of the novel, the more I liked it, but still not as much as I like the comics. The storyline has been filled out and embellished (fuller backstories, for example), but so much of what is portrayed only through the art in the original is lost in the novelization and the tone, especially at the outset, is much bleaker.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

I am the Messenger is a book that's been sitting on my shelf for quite some time. I'm quite sure why I kept passing it over. It's a Printz honor book and I associated it with Joan of Arc (confusing it with The Messenger? or maybe because I'd read a review or synopsis of the book that included the protagonist's comparing himself against what others, including Joan, had achieved by the time they were his age), two things that should have made me want to pick up I am the Messenger straight away. In any case, I finally did get around to reading it a few days ago.

I am the Messenger is told in the first person and opens with a bank robbery in progress. That sounds interesting and compelling, but the first few pages were nothing of the sort (at least for me). The very beginning seemed a bit too familiar so I suspect that I may have started I am the Messenger when I first acquired it and that unremembered false start with the novel would explain my reticence to pick it up again. This time I soldiered through Ed (narrator and protagonist) and his friends baiting the bank robber (who is armed even though they think he's incompetent) and the further I got into the story, the more invested I became in Ed and his quest(s).

Playing cards with cryptic messages are delivered. Ed Kennedy, our hapless nineteen-year-old taxi-driving protagonist, must follow the clues where they lead him and trust his instincts (to effect change within the lives of the individuals to whom he's led) because, in the words of the puppet master, "[his] life depends on it" (113).

The one thing that disappointed me was the reveal. I appreciated the story's resolution (what happens with each of the main characters), but I thought the reveal was a bit much. While I admit that there is something intellectually satisfying about who is responsible for the cards/quests and Ed's transformation, I personally would have preferred for it to have remained a mystery. That being said, I really did enjoy I am the Messenger. I liked the story and I loved its message.

The scene where Ed goes to the public library is one of my favorites. Not just because Ed goes to the library to do research, but because he's coming into his own, standing up for himself, and not letting others make him feel inadequate. Not that I condone talking back to librarians, of course.
"Listen," says the library man. I'm at the counter with all the books. "You can't borrow that many. There's a limit, you know [...]"
He looks up. "You still want all those books, don't you?"
"That's right." I pile them up onto the counter from the floor. "Basically, I really need them, and one way or the other, I'm going to get them. Only in today's sick society can a man be persecuted for reading too many books." I look back into the emptiness of the library. "They're hardly jumping off the shelves, now, are they? I don't think anyone else wants them just now." (211)
I also liked Ed's first interaction with "the library man," but the whole conversation was a bit long and the best bit isn't quite as good taken out of context.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

national poetry month: emily dickinson

For some unknown reason I've had the first lines of this poem--"Because I could not stop for Death –  / He kindly stopped for me – "--stuck in my head for the past few days (maybe because I've been reading Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn).

I've always been curious about Emily Dickinson and her life and I've been meaning to read a good biography of her since my reading of the disappointment that was The Poet and the Murderer (see post). Any suggestions?

Untitled poem 712 by Emily Dickinson (1890)
Because I could not stop for Death – 
He kindly stopped for me – 
The Carriage held but just Ourselves – 
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring – 
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – 
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Saturday, April 21, 2012

national poetry month:
ravi shankar (and czeslaw milosz)

The falls of the Sawkill River as seen from a trail at Montgomery Place

Yesterday I spent the day at Montgomery Place, a historic site with gorgeous and diverse landscapes. My day of soaking up the natural environment (shaped to various degrees by human hands) and contemplating our changing relationship with nature over time seemed to call for a poem on the topic.

My first instinct was to grab Second Space by Czeslaw Milosz, a title that survived my vicious weeding in spite of (or rather: because of) the fact that I'd never spent any time reading it. I'm sure three things contributed to this book's entrance into my book collection:  author is a Nobel Laureate, the cover is gorgeous and evocative, and it was free/cheap. My memory of the cover (which features an illustration by Monika Klimowska) is what made me seek out Second Space. I did not find what I wanted within the volume and I'll admit that in my disappointment I contemplated including Second Space in our next donation to the Field Library Bookstore. I'm going to give Second Space a second chance, hoping that I'll be less impatient with it next time I decide to go through it.

My next course of action was to search the offerings on the Academy of American Poets website. This site is a wonderful resource. In addition to searching by title, author, and keyword, visitors can search the site's featured poems by theme, movement, and form. I came across this poem by Ravi Shankar1 (see him reading the poem), which fit the bill perfectly.

"Crossings" by Ravi Shankar
Between forest and field, a threshold
like stepping from a cathedral into the street—
the quality of air alters, an eclipse lifts,

boundlessness opens, earth itself retextured
into weeds where woods once were.
Even planes of motion shift from vertical

navigation to horizontal quiescence:
there’s a standing invitation to lie back
as sky’s unpredictable theater proceeds.

Suspended in this ephemeral moment
after leaving a forest, before entering
a field, the nature of reality is revealed.
"Crossings" was published in the chapbook Seamless Matter: Thirty Stills (2010).
  1. The American poet, not the famous Indian sitar player (and father of Norah Jones).

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Clockwork Century, Cherie Priest

A few weeks ago Russell collected a few of Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century books from the library for me. I'd been quite anxious to read them after hearing so much about Boneshaker (steampunk with zombies, oh my!).

He brought the three books pictured above--Boneshaker, Dreadnaught, and Ganymede--the first, third, and fourth installments in the series.1 Happily the books in Clockwork Century series stand alone so it wasn't too problematic to skip Clementine, the second book.

I have to admit that I didn't enjoy Boneshaker as much as I expected to. I was enamored of the novel's premise (a Civil War-era Seattle ravished by a toxic gas, which causes zombism among other things, leaking from the earth after an unscrupulous scientist misuses new excavation technology), but less than enthused by its pervasive pessimism, slow pacing, and how much was expected of the reader in the way of suspension of belief (I'm not referring to the zombies or alternate history, but how characters interact with their environment and some of their decisions). If I hadn't already had Dreadnaught and Ganymede on hand I might not have continued on with the series.  I am happy that I did, though, because I liked the other two better than Boneshaker.

Priest's world becomes much more fully realized in Dreadnaught and Ganymede. Neither of these books take place primarily in Seattle, though Seattle's history and its role as the source of the toxic gas play an important part in the two stories.  The settings though more various in Dreadnaught (in the Southern theater of the American Civil War and cross country by rail) and Ganymede (New Orleans and its environs) are much more clearly drawn and realistic. Their characters are also more sympathetic.

I suppose it is just that Priest has found her stride by the time she writes the third book in the series. I'd recommend Dreadnaught and Ganymede unreservedly, but Boneshaker only as context for the other books in the series (though there are some really good things about it).
  1. Clementine is the second.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

national poetry month: baudelaire

One of the few poetry books I own is Invitation to the Voyage: A Poem Illustrated, a gorgeous presentation of Charles Baudelaire's "Invitation to the Voyage" (from Les Fleurs du Mal, originally published in 1857).

I treasure this book.  It is a feast for the eyes and the mind.  The designer and editors set the poem--presented both in the original French and in translation by Richard Wilbur--alongside wonderfully evocative 19th century photographs.  Also included in the volume is a related prose poem of the same title (published posthumously in Le Spleen de Paris, 1869) with a translation by Carol Cosman. 

The image below is one that I took of my copy of the book. The image (Seville, Salon de Marie de Padilla, L'Alcazar, c. 1870-1880, photographer unknown) illustrates the following segment:
Furniture that wears
The lustre of the years
Softly would glow within our glowing chamber
There are other photograph/phrase combinations that I like better, but I had some difficulty getting clear shots and this is one that came out decently.

Even if you can't get your hands on a copy of Invitation to the Voyage: A Poem Illustrated, I'd definitely recommend reading "Invitation to the Voyage." Over the years a number of different translators tackled "Invitation to the Voyage" and each has his/her own take on the poem., a site dedicated to Baudelaire's poetry in general and Les Fleurs du Mal in particular, shares the translations done by William Aggeler, Roy Campbell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Will Schmitz on its Invitation-to-the-voyage page. The Academy of American Poets features Keith Waldrop's translation and Richard Wilbur's translation can be read in this MoMA lesson plan (apparently Matisse's Luxe, calme et volupté was inspired by "Invitation to the Voyage").

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Personal Days by Ed Park

Personal Days by Ed Park

I checked Personal Days out on a whim. I happened across it while browsing the library's available ebooks. It sounded Office Space-like, it had good reviews blurbs, and I liked the cover.

Let me start off my admitting that I did not finish Personal Days. I gave up around page 145 when I realized that all of Part III (pages 141-182) took the form of one email, one one-paragraph email, one one-paragraph drunken email. The idea of having to read those last 40 unformatted stream-of-consciousness pages on my Nook was simply too much for me and I threw in the towel.  I hadn't connected with any of the characters--in a sense they were as much strangers with me as they were to each other--so I felt no compunction about giving up on Personal Days.

That being said, Personal Days is indeed hilarious as advertised (it had its moments). The narrative style changes throughout the course of the novel though  it is quite choppy in general.  I'm sure the choppiness is  intentional and meant to play up the anxiety the characters feel in the workplace.

Anyone who has ever worked in an office environment can likely relate to what the characters in Personal Days think, feel, and experience (more so those who have worked in an unhealthy workplace). I would not recommend Personal Days to anyone working at an organization where layoffs are feared if not imminent as it will likely hit a little too close to home.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Helen Simonson's debut novel Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a charming little1 book.

It's protagonist is widower Ernest Pettigrew, a 68 year-old retired British army major. The unexpected death of Major Pettigrew's younger brother leaves Pettigrew decidedly out of sorts, but that disorientation is precisely what allows him to see the proprietress of the village shop Jasmina Ali in a new light.

As their friendship develops over errand-running, tea, and book discussions, it seems that the 58 year-old Mrs. Ali may be Pettigrew's soul mate. But will their budding romance survive in the face of malicious village gossip and a double dose of familial disapproval?

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand has some wonderful laugh-out-loud moments. Pettigrew's development over the course of the novel is both endearing and believable. Mrs. Ali's tendency toward culturally-dictated self-sacrifice is tempered by both her intellect and unexpected passion. The novel's host of secondary characters run the gambit (sympathetic to villainous) and their actions, comments, and perspectives show the full range of those individuals like Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali and would encounter as residents of a formerly sleepy village in the English countryside.

As is likely clear by the above, I really enjoyed Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, which I borrowed from my mom who selected it for reading on her upcoming vacation. I loved both Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali (as well as Amina, another long-suffering secondary character) and was horrified by the insensitivity exhibited by characters like Pettigrew's son and the society ladies and the actions of some of Mrs. Ali's relatives. The thing I liked best about the the novel is that Simsonson doesn't tie everything up too neatly at the end.
  1. At 350+ pages, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is not a particularly short novel. "Charming little book" just seemed like the right descriptor.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

national poetry month:
William Carlos Williams

Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" is one of the only poems I can recite by rote. If I remember correctly, I memorized it when I was in the 6th grade. Compelling and deceptively simple, it could very well be my favorite poem.

"The Red Wheelbarrow" -
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Archivists in Ally Condie's Matched Trilogy

As I mentioned before (see post), Ally Condie's Matched Trilogy--Matched, Crossed, and Reached (forthcoming November 2012)--features a group of individuals called the Archivists.

In the series, the Archivists do collect and preserve cultural heritage (in this case what are essentially copies of burned books, etc), it is so that they are able to sell what they have on the black market. They exist on the fringes of society (the only reliable way to find one is to go to the museum, go to the patriotic exhibit, and ask to hear about "the glorious history of [the providence]") and they trade in information and connections as well.

The first mention of the Archivists in the series:
"There are people who call themselves Archivists," Ky says. "Back when the Hundred Committees made their selections, the Archivists knew the works that didn't get selected would be a commodity. So they saved some of them. [...]
"Cassia, the Archivists aren't altruistic. They saw a commodity and they did what they could to preserve it. Anyone can have it who's willing to pay, but their prices are high." (Matched, chapter 25, listened to audio version so I don't have a page number and the quote above may not be exact)

Friday, April 06, 2012

April is National Poetry Month

As one can tell from my tag cloud,1 I don't write about much about poetry.  While I do enjoy and appreciate the occasional poem, I generally find poetry less accessible (to me personally) than prose. But, April is National Poetry Month (gorgeous poster,2 no?) and I've been thinking about poetry quite a bit lately (thanks to Ally Condie's Matched trilogy),3 so the time is ripe.

I'll share a poem tomorrow and at least one other every week for the rest of the month. And, maybe this focus will encourage me to read more poetry going forward.  We shall see.
  1. Before this post, only 7 were tagged "poetry." Of course there may be more poetry references than I've actually tagged, but it's still quite a small percentage.
  2. Designed by Chin-Yee Lai for the Academy of American Poets' National Poetry Month and featuring lines from "Our Valley" by Philip Levine.
  3. The Society, the group that governs the repressive future society depicted in the series, decided to "eliminate distractions such as excess poetry and music while retaining an optimal amount to enhance culture and satiate the desire for experiencing art" (Crossed, 107). Committees were formed, one for each area of the arts, and directed to choose the one hundred examples of each art that would be saved. The series takes place decades after this selection (the teenage protagonist's grandmother was a member of the Hundred Poems committee) and two of the discarded (banned) poems are integral to the plots of Matched and Crossed, Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" and Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" respectively.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

my favorite library?

Reading through the most recent issue (March/April 2012) of The University of Chicago Magazine, I was struck by the photograph (far right in the screenshot above) taken by Jared Ryder of the stacks of the Reg (ie. the Joseph Regenstein Library) that accompanied Amy Braverman Puma's "Visceral Chicago" article.1
Cue a wave of nostalgia for my undergraduate years. Oh how I loved the Reg. The open areas with their its color-coded carpet floors ("my" locker and carrel were on a discipline-inappropriate floor, the 4th I think it was, since I preferred the ambiance). The stacks with all their treasures. The intensity of its inhabitants. Its quirky architecture and backstory (supposedly shaped like the continental US with windows reminiscent of its namesake's claim to fame: the windowed envelope).  How quintessentially U of C it was (not architecturally, but intellectually).

The library has changed in the years since I left Chicago (granted not as much as my childhood public library, which was razed and replaced by a larger, greener building in 2007), I know it has. 700+ undergraduates took up residence practically right next door just months after I graduated.   How could that not change the demographic?  There's a new alien library building (Mansueto Library) adjacent and connected to the Reg, and collections have been and continue to be relocated. And surely countless other factors I know nothing about.
I supposed that I can't say that the Reg is still my favorite library.  It may have changed beyond recognition. It is, however, the library of my dreams.
  1. Inexplicably in the print edition, it is the photo of the comfy chair (far left in the screenshot above) from yet another U of C library (Harper Memorial Library) that is the centerfold and opener to "Visceral Chicago" by Amy Braverman Puma. Regardless of my personal library preferences, I think this was a poor choice. Any of the others, especially the two that didn't make it into the print edition (another shot of Harper comfy chair, Reynolds Club with superstitions seal), would have been better. The crease, though right at the division between upper and lower cushions, makes the item featured even more difficult to identify especially when readers first encounter the images rotated 90 degrees to the left.