Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Reader's Reader

Day 295 of the "What are you reading, and why?' and today I met Ben, a reader's reader, and he has a big stack of books he'll now be reading, and he reads because he was born to read, raised to read, because he's a reader's reader, the way James Bond is a man's man.

Yes, Bond.  James Bond.

"Ben.  Born Ben."

Ben did not actually say that.  What he actually said, in response to my question, "Are you doing some kind of reading project?" was, "My life."  And I completely understood!

Ben was at that point, after quietly moving through the aisles of Babbitt's Books, making a fine stack of books on a convenient computer stand.  He had hung his coat on the back a chair, and every now and then he asked a question. One was about Graham Greene.  Our Man in Havana, I said.  He said, The End of the Affair. But we didn't have either of these. Or, evidently, The Quiet American.  So Ben's stack includes others, instead.

Here is Ben's stack of books:

Graham Greene:*  The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, A Burnt-Out Case 
Arthur Rimbaud: A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat (in one volume, paperback)
Richard Adams: Watership Down (which Ben read as a child, but needed now to own again)
Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Sinclair Lewis: Main Street
Neal Cassady: The First Third 

Ben said it was time to read a book by Neal Cassady, as Neal had been the hero of about 4 books he'd read. Ben's favorite writer is Jack Kerouac, and he made a Kerouac pilgrimage to San Francisco and found Kerouac's house on North Beach, a A-frame that "didn't fit," so it must have been his.

He read Catcher in the Rye at about age 12, and also The World According to Garp, by John Irving, at the urging of his mother.  My parents recommended Garp to me, too! And I recommended Franny and Zooey to Ben! And also White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which he bought, because we had a nice hardback for $4!

I didn't mean to put Ben on the spot by asking if he'd read any women. I was responding to his comment that he liked mainly the older stuff and the only contemporary writer he really liked was David Foster Wallace.* I recommended Zadie Smith as a contemporary writer who puts people together of different cultures and generations, the way Flannery O'Connor would stick people of different beliefs and attitudes into a paper bag and shake them up to see what would happen. Ben liked that, and also Salman Rushdie's blurb on the back.

*Wikipedia tells me Graham Greene had bipolar disorder. Ah. Erm, David Foster Wallace.

Ben is writing a novel himself!  And that's all I'm going to say about it.

Ben remembered that the first book he ever bought at Babbitt's, at the old location, was Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, when he was 15. It hooked him, on Vonnegut, and on Babbitt's, and on used bookstores in general, because new bookstores, he says, have plenty of cookbooks and mysteries, but not this great stuff.

"Why Rimbaud?" I asked. Because Kerouac mentioned him. Lots of Ben's reading is of the one-book-leads-to-another sort, and, if you read my blog, you know the same thing happens to me. Why Main Street? Because we didn't have Babbitt, mentioned in the Nobel Prize citation, or Arrowsmith, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Ben asked us if Babbitt's Books is named for Babbitt. Yes, it was once a favorite book of the owner.  And there is a giant flat-Brian picture of the owner in the window holding Babbitt, one of those wonderful library Read posters. Sometimes it scares the baristas at the Coffeehouse across the street, because it looks like he is watching them. Telling them to read this book....

And I asked Ben if he knew the Pulitzer bloggers. He did not, but I told him they are in my blogroll, and they are here and here, too, Ben, if you are reading. Or if your mom is reading!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Drew Clue

Still Day 294, but, despite the note-to-self I wrote this morning, I forgot this bit of vintage young adult serial fiction and related cool poetry chapbook!  And that's why I call myself clueless.

I did read some Nancy Drew books, with pictorial boards, growing up, and my brother read the Hardy Boys books.  Here's one of the websites that will show you the various versions (inside and out) of the Nancy Drew books, by various writers but all called Carolyn Keene, and here's one that lists the books and also gathers the various websites dedicated to Nancy Drew.

But I also wanted to direct you to this Fiddler Crab review of a poetry chapbook that starts off with Nancy Drew but goes where it needs to go in exploring some unsolvable mysteries of life.  The book is Investigations: The Mystery of the Girl Sleuth, by Kathleen Aguero, who must be a poet sleuth.  Wonderful review by Mary Ellen Geer.

Vintage Children's Fiction

Day 294 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and today is Louisa May Alcott's birthday, so I am riffing on vintage children's fiction. Of course, though I read Little Women as a child, it would be shelved as young adult fiction in a library or bookstore these days, due to its thickness and big words and lack of pictures.

My son loved the movie of Little Women, the 1994 version, with Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, and Kirsten Dunst.  As he would have been four then, he saw it a year or so later when it appeared on cable television at his grandparents' house, probably at Christmastime. Maybe a year or so after that, confident of his reading ability, I gave him the book for Christmas...but the moment had passed. Actually, he was still in the Batman, Xena: Warrior Princess mode when he fell in love with Little Women, and that moment had passed, too.

I read several of the Oz books as a child, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, but my daughter didn't. She had her own tastes--children's historical fiction for a while--and grew up in a film and computer culture. Today in the store, a young woman was talking about reading the Wicked books, by Gregory Maguire (OMG, I am linking you to his "Shopping-Enabled Wikipedia Page on Amazon.com," a thing I just discovered in this moment, showing that 1) I am clueless, and 2) we live in a shopping culture, but 3) I don't) and I realized, while referring to the original Oz books, by L. Frank Baum, that she had no idea what I was talking about.

Which leads me to the Mad Hatters' Review, the "demented" brain child of Carol Novack (a goddess in yesterday's blog entry, a mad hatter in today's), an online multi-media magazine subtitled Edgy and Enlightened Literature, Art and Music in the Age of Dementia, and "staffed solely by mad hatters" (so the plural possessive is indeed correct)! And if that's not enough, here is her blog, where you can find out how to get hold of Giraffes in Hiding, which yesterday's Marcus Speh will be reviewing. Here is his blog, Nothing to Flawnt.

According to Novack, mad hatters were "mad" because their working conditions exposed them to mercury poisoning.

Me? I'm just a little crazy. And a lot grown up. But a child at heart.

Today a young man walked out of the store with vintage grown-up short stories, by John Cheever, William Maxwell, etc., in a New Yorker anthology. He was Christmas shopping but hadn't spotted the perfect book yet, so he was getting this for himself.

But he was sure tickled when I told him about Sarah's 30 Days of Christmas project with the new Babbitt's Books blog, so I am telling you, too! Pictures and descriptions of fabulous gifts!  (And it's working, as I see cross-outs, meaning some of those books already sold!)  (Wait, maybe I am part of the shopping culture.)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Dog Named Wolf

Day 293 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and my mom is a new subscriber to One Story, so she has been reading issues 141 and 142, and I got to borrow them from her, so I have also read these two fabulous short stories: "Nephilim," by L. Annette Binder, and "Housewifely Arts," by Megan Mayhew Bergman.

I love the idea of this tiny print journal--one story per issue, saddle stapled, chapbook style.  At the One Story website, you can discuss the stories, subscribe, get lots of additional information, and learn how to submit.  But it's a sweet little print magazine that comes in the mail, like Inch (for short poems and short short fiction) and blink, before it.

Marcus, a new Facebook friend and fellow writer, who lives in Germany, has an interesting stack of books on his desk right now:

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, by Carson McCullers
Samuel Beckett, The Short Prose
Our Lady of the Flowers, by Jean Genet
Giraffes in Hiding, by Carol Novack
and three by John Hawkes: The Lime Twig, Second Skin, and Travesty

I would love to know from Marcus, why these particular books at this particular time?  Which will he read first? Will he read one straight through and then the next, or read around in several at a time?!

Looks like John Hawkes has great admirers and writes lyrically in mystery or thriller mode and also in complex prose resembling a European more than an American sensibility.  Is this correct, Hawkes readers?

Giraffes in Hiding looks like a wild ride!  And its subtitle is The Mythical Memoirs of Carol Novack, so she must be a goddess!  I love this bit of the author's bio at Amazon:  "Carol Novack is a writer of sociopolitical neuroerotic rants and raves, poems, prose poems, and image drenched, lyrical whatnots, and a play."  Ah, Genet and Beckett wrote plays, too.

Marcus, do you read a lot of plays?

I am progressing in Other Voices, Other Rooms, by Truman Capote, and found the phrase that is the title on page 100, in the indirect dialogue of the character Little Sunshine, who lives in an old hotel because if he ever "went away, as he had once upon a time, other voices, other rooms, voices lost and clouded, strummed his dreams."  And that is a taste of the lovely, lyrical, vaguely mysterious prose style of this particular novel.

I took up this novel to encounter the Idabel Thompkins, who is based on Harper Lee, as I learned in Mockingbird, by Charles J. Shields.  I mentioned this in an earlier blog entry, spelling it Tompkins, as I'd found it on page 59 of that book.  Imagine my surprise to find it spelled Thompkins in the actual novel.  This is one of those moments of mild woe for me, when I ponder the state of print publishing, proofreading, copy editing, entry level jobs, graduates with degrees in English or communications.  Sigh....

Fortunately, I write a BLOG, and can make all the errors I want.  Or, in most cases, don't want.

And, finally, I am dog-sitting a dog named Wolf.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Blue Notes & Mayapples

Day 292 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I have been reading The Clock of the Long Now because Marion Boyer is a poet I've admired over the years.  We took her poems at RHINO, when I was an editor there, and I reviewed her chapbook Green (Finishing Line Press, 2003) for RHINO Reads (then a review section of the journal, now a live reading series), and several of those poems appear again in The Clock of the Long Now (Mayapple Press, 2009), notably the "Jake" poems, in the voice of an interesting man.

And that's just the beginning of the coincidii:

I do hope to review Clock for an online journal (not happy with the lag time of print journals when it comes to reviews, still waiting for a review of This Must Be the Place, by Alice George, also from Mayapple, to appear in ACM, and, like Alice's book, Marion's is from 2009, so I'd like to get it out there!)  Meanwhile, Susan Slaviero has agreed to answer interview questions about Cyborgia, her book from Mayapple, out this year.  So you can look forward to what she has to say--here in this blog!--about her fascinating book of wild science fiction poetry!

I met Marion Boyer once (or twice?) at Woman Made Gallery in Chicago, where poets get to read their work surrounded by art by...yes, women!  And, yes, these blue-note birds are more in the series by Pamela Callahan, a Woman Made artist, for which I keep giving thanks!

A blue-sounding* poem of mine, "A House in Carlock," appears as Broadside #20 currently in Blue Fifth Review, which will be moving to Wordpress in 2011, and transforming into Blue Five Notebook, where I have a poem forthcoming!  I am honored to appear in the last Blue Fifth and the first Blue Five issues of editor Sam Rasnake.  Many thanks for this!

*And you can hear it, as there's a link to Poetry Radio, WGLT!

I met Susan Slaviero once, too, when we both read for the RHINO Reads series in Evanston, IL.  It's always delightful to get to hear a poet read her own work, and I am tickled that she will tell us all more about her cyborg women.

And if you want to see some beautiful blue water, painted by Deborah Van Auten, and hear "the sea's blue music," sung by Freya Manfred, click here to be taken to Escape Into Life.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Lonesome Doves

Day 291 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and my mom is reading Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, because she'd read about it and then passed by a nice paperback copy of it in a bookstore.  She loves the little story in the author's preface about starting this novel, floundering, writing two other novels instead, and then seeing an abandoned bus with "Lonesome Dove Baptist Church" painted on the side, and then going home to write the novel.

Yes, this is a another painting by Pamela Callahan of Otter Creek Arts and Woman Made Gallery.

Tim has just finished reading Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con that is Breaking America, by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone.  This is one to read along with All the Devils are Here to learn more about the crapsters behind the financial crisis.  Taibbi also ties in Ayn Rand.

If you feel any rage about the big con of the financial crisis, you might enjoy "Rage" (about all kinds of rage) by Freya Manfred, in the current poetry feature at Escape Into Life.  Or, if you want some relief from rage, you can swim with a turtle there, or consider your heart, and whether you live in it.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanking You All!

Day 290 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and today I am thanking you all for stopping by my blog since I started this book project, and offering you my goofy State of the Blog Address!  And confessing that, yes, I have already started reading Other Voices, Other Rooms, by Truman Capote (a second printing of the first edition, with a little preface by him, and a copy discarded from a school library).

I also offer today one of the beautiful images by Pamela Callahan, a painter I met at Woman Made Gallery in Chicago, who has given permission to share these paintings with you, for which I am so grateful!  You can see more at WMG or her website with her husband, Otter Creek Arts.

OK, the State of the Blog Address, a list of the blog entries that have received the most hits!  I have watched in amazement and laughter as any blog entry with sex or sports in the title advanced high in the stats!  And even more amazement as origami overtook them all.  (I think the Christmas shopping season may also be origami season.)

This would be a top ten list, but the monthly stats tell a slightly different story than the all time stats, so I include a few extras:

My Brain is Origami (my brain is origami)

Intercity Volleyball (spiked--heh heh--when we were all looking for scores and standings at state tournament time, but so not about volleyball I fear for the sanity of those who clicked it by mistake)

Of Boobies and Baseball (grand slam in summer, overtaken in fall by volleyball)

Book Burning & Book Banning

Loving Pillsbury (probably involves recipe searches more than architecture)

A Walk in the Cemetery

More Party Girls  (uh huh, you know why this is a top hit)

Redneck Yoga (part 2 of an interview with Tim Hunt)

Evening Primrose (just out on DVD, Stephen Sondheim!)

Fault Lines & Risk Taking (stats might be about earthquakes, but it was also added to ISU media site, as part 1 of interview with Tim Hunt)

Lucky Ducks (nobody eats rubber ducks for Thanksgiving)

Sexy Book of Sexy Sex (uh huh, and she knew when she titled her book that it might be popular)

What Would Epictetus Do? (ancient Stoic philosopher comes into his own)

Train Window (partly written "on the road")

Thank you for reading my blog, and feel free to reinforce or upset the statistics by clicking away at anything you like, or like better!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Little Did I Know

Day 289 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and little did I know when I mentioned the "magical animal known as the pig" recently that one of Harper Lee's apartments in New York is above Nancy Lee's Pig Heaven Restaurant.  A fact uncovered by columnist Jay C. Grelen, and quoted in Mockingbird, by Charles J. Shields.

Little did I know, when I linked Harper Lee and Emily Dickinson in recipe mode here in my blog, and then later, this morning, discussing The Belle of Amherst, by William Luce, with a woman who is also writing a one-woman play, that I would come to think of them both, Dickinson and Harper Lee, as shy women with an abiding confidence in their work who would retreat from public life and publication for reasons of their own.

Shields quotes Nelle Harper Lee as writing in a letter, "People who have made peace with themselves are the people I most admire in the world."  She might not yet have made peace with herself when she wrote that, but I think she has now.  So does Shields, who says, "From all indications, she seems to have done that."

Likewise, some people watching The Belle of Amherst might think Emily Dickinson was not at peace, and some that she was, but I think she was.  I think she meant it when she came to say, "Publication is the auction of the mind of man," and that she knew her work would live in the hearts and minds of those who would find it, and that it would be found, published or not.

Little did I know, when I listed my stack of books to be read, that I would have to read Other Voices, Other Rooms, by Truman Capote (my ex-library first edition) next, though on a bookshelf, not a stack, at the time, because character Idabel Tompkins is based on Nelle Harper Lee.  Well, Kim, the inventor of serendipity-do, knew, because I told her.   And possibly Cindy Lou Who, knew, too, because children and fictional characters are so conveniently intuitive, and she is both, and so seasonal.

Happy Thanksgiving, whether you are having turkey or the magical animal known as the ham.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Serendipity-Do

..or, as Ben Stiller might say, "There's something about Mary's hair."

It's Day 288 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project and, serendipitously, yet again, I will soon be reading A Story Like the Wind, by Laurens van der Post, because I found it instead of A Mantis Carol at Babbitt's, a recommendation from Seana, which sprang from yesterday's Praying Mantis, and it turns out to be one of Seana's favorite books, anyway!

It's about Africa, a boy who makes friends with a Bushman, and how "the living spirit needs a 'story' in order to survive" (book blurb on rear cover).  I remember reading about this before, and yearning for it.

But when, when, when can I read it?!  Things to read (stacked on desk & floor):

Mockingbird (2/3 of the way through). Back on page 190 I encountered Harper Lee's recipe for cracklin' bread, which reminded me of Emily Dickinson's recipe for black cake.  Both are outlandish--Lee's because she is being funny and throwing out the pig to get the renderings used in cracklin' bread, which I learned about from a museum exhibit on kitchens last year.  Oh, and The Simpsons.  "Sure, Lisa, there's a magical animal called the pig...." Dickinson's, because her recipe is more than doubled, and intended to serve the whole town, apparently.

Loving Frank (must re-read before book group in early December; must finish Mockingbird first).

Omnivore's Dilemma (must read, having reminded myself of the magical animal known as the pig).

Cyborgia (reading a few poems at a time; fantastic language and subject matter!)

American Eve (part way through, set aside, must read before I give it away).

The Death of Adam (still going slowly, requires great concentration, temporarily set aside).

A fabulous box of poetry books that arrived in the mail yesterday from RHINO, which doesn't do reviews anymore, so I will!  (Here, or elsewhere.)

And, by serendipity, The Utility of Heartbreak, a poetry chapbook by Charles Reynard, local judge, that arrived in my driveway today!  That is, Charley and I arrived at my driveway at the exact same time.  I was coming from the grocery store (bringing dinner and flour for tomorrow's baking of pumpkin bread!), and he was coming to deliver, and sign, at my kitchen table, the chapbook!!  Fortunately, chapbooks are short, and I have already read all these poems, so this will be a sweet dessert moment.

Fear not.  Though I hugged him, I did not tousle his hair.  Nor put any serendipity-do on it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Praying Mantis

Day 287 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and Lori is either reading or giving (holiday grab bag gift to her book club*--oops, so I hope they don't read this blog!) a book by Andre Brink, a South African novelist who writes in English and Afrikaans.  I didn't see which title (so that keeps it a surprise from her book group even if they do read this blog!), but I choose to think it is Praying Mantis, due to the following random coincidence:

While I was walking down the sidewalk today with my friend Kim in the 69-degree calm before the cold thunderstorm, we saw a praying mantis!  We warned two innocent passersby (one who had just bought two Zen books at Babbitt's!) not to step on it, and then there was a sudden convergence of we two caffeine-tipsy women, a local television news reporter who had once interviewed Kim**, a local radio news reporter who had recently interviewed me***, and the Poetry Radio producer**** who has aired a bunch of my poems, standing around a praying mantis on the sidewalk.

1) I love the freakiness of my life, but 2) it is a little freaky.

*Excellent idea!  Ladies of my own book group: let's do this.  Bring some books you're done with, and let's exchange them!

**I'm not telling you the topic of Kim's interview, but let's just say it's biological without involving insects.

***About the annual cemetery walk.

****One of the male Poetry Radio producers, not the female you see when you click the link above.  But the female you see was, by coincidence, sitting in the window of the fresh-food deli, typing madly on her laptop, and Kim and I had just stopped to stare at her through the picture window and freak her out until she smiled at us.  Right after the praying mantis congregation, we did it again.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I Am Curious George Yellow

…and, as the beautiful yellow fall creeps inexorably toward white winter, I offer these poetic yellow daffodils as the reminder that spring will come again.

On Day 286 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, Kim has reported that first graders at Oakdale School will be reading all the Curious George books, as she helped stock the school library.  She also refers us to poetry by Marjorie Agosin, and she has recommended King Jesus, by Robert Graves, to my dad.

Tom is recommending Divide’s Guide to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Joe Gioia, A Presentation for Modern Readers.  You can learn more about it at Cliffhanger Press.

Meanwhile, Sarah of Babbitt’s Books posted a link to the New York Times article about Mark Twain’s autobiography “flying off the shelves” of new bookstores (which means we might not get one at Babbitt’s, a used bookstore, for some time) and connects this to the prolonged life of books in print!

I just learned yesterday morning, at the tag end of the Sweet 16 slumber party, that my daughter was only reading a portion of Huckleberry Finn for school, but that they can earn extra credit by completing the book and taking a test to prove it.  So I encouraged her to do so, and that’s what she may be reading at the Normal Public Library while babysitting/supervising Kim’s kids upstairs on the library computers during the downstairs poetry reading this afternoon at 2:00 p.m.

Tim Hunt will be reading from his new Finishing Line Press chapbook, Redneck Yoga, and poems from his other books, too, Fault Lines and the forthcoming White Levis.  You can read the two part interview with Tim here and here in this blog.

Kathryn Kerr will be reading from Turtles All the Way Down, still on the new releases page, and I will read from Broken Sonnets and Living on the Earth, on the bookstore page at Finishing Line, and at Amazon.

It’s always a bit awkward to promote one’s own work, but seems like it needs to be done.  Kelli Russell Agodon is having an interesting discussion of “branding” oneself at her blog, and not everybody is as literary-life shy as Harper Lee, nor as commerce-shy as I am. On the one hand, I can always come right out and say, “Please buy my book!” at a poetry event, and it comes out earnest and funny, which it is, and, on the other hand, I cannot.  One hand has the book in it, held up as a visual aid, and the other hand is empty!

And, by the way, if you have actually read my book, please feel free to review it at Amazon or Goodreads, as it always appears that no one has ever read my poetry chapbooks, but I know from the kind comments of readers in person or in letters, that people have! (And I am curious and a bit yellow about this!) 

And many thanks to Fiddler Crab and Comstock Review for their reviews!

And, finally (almost), I think Babbitt’s has indeed had the occasional copy of I Am Curious (Yellow), and I have actually catalogued copies of I Am Curious (Blue), books based on the two Swedish films.  We shelve these far, far away from children.  Way high up, over a doorway.

And, to circle back around, this time to Springfield Elementary School, you might recall “I Am Furious Yellow,” an episode of The Simpsons.

OK, off to the kitchen, to bake chocolate chip cookies for the poetry reading, as the pale yellow butter should be softened by now!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

More Pulitzer Coincidii

Day 285 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and today there will be more Pulitzer-Prize-linked coincidii, and Babbitt's Book encounter reportage.

The same day that the two young men doing the Pulitzer Prize project came in, Drew and Joshua, which was the same day an older man walked out the door with Eudora Welty, another older man walked out the door with Ivan Doig and Willa Cather.  I asked him about Doig, and he wanted this one because he had read three other Doig books and really liked them.  He happened to have a paperback of this one already, but we had a hardcover first edition, so he was happy to snap it up.

Willa Cather is another writer this older man likes, along with Wallace Stegner.  "Western writers," he said, appeal to him a lot.

So, in random coincidii mode, after speaking of these "older men," I refer you to Drew's blog entry, in which I appear as an "older woman" in his book search process, and to Joshua's blog entry on Willa Cather.

Meanwhile, I could not pass up Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, which has come in and gone out of Babbitt's before, and she won the Pulitzer for To Kill a Mockingbird.  This book, with its careful introduction informing us that Shields wrote it without Harper Lee's cooperation, because, while she is a very community-minded person in her own community, she has been private about her writer life after a period of literary sociability, promises to tell me about her friendship with Truman Capote, the difficulties of that friendship (and I already know he lost a lot of friends), and why she never published a second novel.

And Kathryn Erskine just won a National Book Award for her children's novel Mockingbird, about a girl with Asperger's syndrome, which has To Kill a Mockingbird in the background.  Erskine was one of four women honored with this award, as reported in this short article in Her Circle Ezine!

Yesterday I was infected with Jon Stewart's anger, though everybody kept smiling, aroused by All the Devils are Here.  Today I am just glad to remember "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."  Even if they are sometimes annoying, in real life and in The Bat-Poet, by Randall Jarrell!

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Curtain of Green

Day 284 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and Jon Stewart is reading All the Devils are Here, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, and we all know why.  As the subtitle announces, it details The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis and exposes the bad guys, who, according to Nocera in the Daily Show interview, still don't think they did anything wrong and blame it all on people who couldn't pay their mortgages.

You can find that episode and the extended interview, which made the authors late for their own book party, at Comedy Central, and you can find reviews out the wazoo.  What I'll riff on today is the epigraph that gives the book its title, "Hell is empty, and all the devils are here," which is not only an album by a heavy metal band, as I just learned from Wikipedia, but a line from Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, which I heard again this summer in the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production.

Ariel says it to Prospero, reporting on the storm and shipwreck that has just deposited on the island the very men who wronged Prospero in the past and on whom he might wish for revenge...but interestingly Ariel is quoting Ferdinand, the King's son, an innocent, horrified by it all.  And, since it won't spoil things to say so, revenge is not what happens.  There is forgiveness, love, and marriage; there is resumed responsibility to the human community.  There is a decision to leave off the magic that can rouse such a storm.  In Shakespeare's plays, everybody gets to learn something.

One hopes we learn something from the financial crisis, but we've been here before.  McLean and Nocera say the business world is already at it again, creating new "financial products," and starting up the money-and-power-greed machine.  Anyone who's read The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope, or seen the fabulous mini-series, knows that's still the way we live now.

Still riffing.  But wait!  What about Eudora Welty and A Curtain of Green?  I'm getting there.  And I'm just now getting to the end of Saving Jesus from the Church, by Robin Meyers.  **pause to finish Epilogue**  Whew.  In this book, Meyers warns about the Gospel of Prosperity, that religion of transaction that's apparently still rampant in the land.  We've been there, too--televangelists and popular preachers taking your money, themselves "prospering" and/or telling you that God wants you to have yours.  That if you believe the right things, success will come your way.

"Success," said Martin Buber (quoted in Meyers) "is not one of the names of God."

Shouldn't we know that by now?  From life, and from books?! Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis, exposes a con man who's selling religion as a commodity.  Another customer in the store yesterday--and this is one of those times when it's a wonderful irony to work in a shop called Babbitt's Books--said, "Elmer Gantry is such a good book!"

But what he was walking out with, and what he's reading now, is the Selected Stories of Eudora Welty, containing A Curtain of Green and The Wide Net.  I happen to have the Modern Library edition of this, green hardcover, and it's got the real green world in it, not the facade of green that businesses like BP use to get you to buy their...gas.  No, not that gassy curtain of green, that cascade-of-money green.

Of A Curtain of Green, the New York Times reviewer Marianne Hauser said, back in November 1941, "Many of the stories are dark, weird and often unspeakably sad in mood, yet there is no trace of personal frustration in them, neither harshness nor sentimental resignation; but an alert, constant awareness of life as a whole, and that profound, intuitive understanding of life which enables the artist to accept it."  Welty shows you the world.  She doesn't judge it, but she loves it.  "On each page one senses the author's fanatic love of people."

This reviewer, who "feel[s] certain that her stories will live for a long time," also notes that they are cut out of time, and could happen anywhere.  "There are no wars going on behind the scenes, no revolutions or headline-disasters. The tragedies which Miss Welty invokes occur in the backyards of life."  They are occurring there now, too.  There are wars going on; there are headline-disasters; but people who couldn't pay their mortgages are having a hard time, people who lost their jobs are having a hard time, and people are still making it through in their quiet or desperate suffering, even if they lost their back yards.

Robin Meyers would say, "Help them."

Eudora Welty would say, "Love them."

According to McLean and Nocera, Wall Street would say, "F*!$ them."  And did.

***

And to carry on from yesterday, because "What is Reading, But Silent Conversation?", I will send you off to Drew Moody's Pulitzer blog, which invites you to a reading conversation!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Man Without a Blogspot

Day 283 of the "What are you reading, and why?' project, and today some guys are reading particular books because of random coincidii of the **Twilight Zone music** kind.

Coincidence #1:  A young man comes into Babbitt's in search of a particular story, "The Man Without a Country."  He tells me the author is George Hale and that it's Civil War fiction.  "George Hale" on the search page produces nothing, and keywords "Civil War fiction" bring up some novels but not the kind of fiction anthology I am hoping for.

Meanwhile, Sarah is climbing the tall ladder up to Fiction Anthologies in search of Soldier's Christmas Reader, as she's preparing our holiday book display.  "Does that have this guy's story in it?" I ask.

"Don't know," she says, handing me a short stack of Christmas books.

It's edited by George (George!!) Macy.  I open to the table of contents, and there's "The Man Without a Country," by Edward Everett Hale!  Him!  I know him.  Unitarian minister man!

"The Man Without a Country?" I say, approaching our young man.  **doo-doo-doo-doo**

Coincidence #2:  Two young men come into the shop in search of some of the hard-to-find Pulitzer Prize winning  novels for a blog project they are doing together.  They are collecting and reading all 84 (I thought they said 85...?) books, blogging about it, and plan to collaborate on a book together.  It's not, I think, The Pulitzer Project, but if they don't know about that, I hope they'll click the link and visit: handy, with list, reviews, participants, challenges, and links to other book-prize sites.

These guys look on their own for a while, in the fiction aisle, and then Sarah checks the database for some they can't find, including In This Our Time, by Ellen Glasgow, which isn't there.  "In This Our Time?" I say.  "I have it right here!"  And I pull it from the stack of books that just came in, that I listed today, so new they haven't been uploaded onto our search page yet.   **doo-doo-doo-doo**

**Twilight Zone music

So!  One of the Pulitzer guys has his blog here (I see a Twitter box when I go there, but I just cancel it), and I couldn't find the other one. So if either or both want to comment here, I will be able to click on your blogspot icon, I think, and find you!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Novel and Not Novel

Day 282 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and one hopes that plenty of ISU journalism students are reading The Death and Life of American Journalism, by Robert McChesney and John Nichols, because McChesney just spoke there, as I read this morning in the Daily Vidette.

One thing that troubles me is that the student staff writer called his book a "novel."  It isn't a novel.  It's non-fiction.  It's about journalism.  Its death...and life.

This kind of thing also troubled me quite a bit when I was a college teacher, students coming to college, after high school, after 12 full years of schooling, not knowing what the words "fiction" and "non-fiction" mean.  Happens quite a bit in the bookstore, too.

Fiction is made up.  Non-fiction isn't; it's factual.

A novel is fiction.

I do get the blur and the irony here, and out there in the world. Even in the world of "news."  Sigh....

Not to dwell on this so long that it bogs me down, I am just going to delight myself with all the books that have "the death and life of" something in the title:

The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch. Ouch. Actually, just a couple months ago, I chatted with a woman reading this at a little table on the sidewalk in front of the coffeehouse....

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs.

The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, by Ben Sherwood. Baseball, brotherly love, now a major motion picture.

The Death and Life of Malcolm X by Peter Goldman.

OK, that's enough.  I've gone beyond delight.  But, wait!  What about The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch, by James L. Rosenberg, a play?!  That's delightful.  In the long ago past, I played a saloon girl in a yellow dress in that play, recalling Gunsmoke on tv in my childhood.....

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Birth of Love

Day 281 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and today's entry may flail about at things half heard and half seen.

Half seen at Facebook: someone reading and recommending The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna.  It has Ignaz Semmelweis in it, the hand-washing doctor, not the Pontius Pilate kind of hand washing but actual washing of the hands so not to spread germs to women in childbirth, since they used to die so frequently of "childbed fever."  Well, in this novel, maybe it does have a bit of the Pontius Pilate kind, with Semmelweis feeling guilty for not being able to convince his fellow doctors to wash their hands!

The novel weaves history together with the present and the future--the year 2153--which sounds like a formula for popular/commercial success, but perhaps not?  Has anyone read this?  I see she also wrote Inglorious (contemporary fiction) and The Ice Museum (which people call a travelogue but which seems also to be some kind of weaving of history, myth, and sci fi?).  She sounds like a writer with wit, smarts, style, and something wonderfully quirky.

Half heard in the bookstore today: Michy?  Meechie?  Anyway, the boss and I heard it as Nietszche, which made the customer laugh and leads me now to The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, and Friedrich's own witty, smart, quirky, verge-of-insane style.

Half seen a couple days ago: Deirdre, a character in Irish myth, as she appears in a portion of The Hound of Ulster, retold by Rosemary Sutcliff.  This book came in at Babbitt's, and I was flipping through it to check for interior soil or flaws and there she was, Deirdre--aka Deirdre of the Sorrows, her story retold by others as well, such as W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge, including Eileen Favorite in The Heroines, where Deirdre stops for a while in a bed and breakfast (more time weaving), and we don't see her awful ending, but in The Hound of Ulster, we do.

And we hear of the twisting branches of two tall yew trees, grown from their separate graves, where jealous Conchobhar had them buried, to join in love and in defiance of what had kept them apart.

And, of course, I need to send you to Wikipedia for The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli, and Venus on the Half Shell, by Kilgore Trout.  Or is it Philip Jose Farmer?!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Abundant Self Help

Day 280 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and one guy is now reading either Charles Dickens or Stephen King because he found good copies of both on the half-price cart out on the sidewalk after the drizzle stopped and the sun came out.

He has also been reading William Slusher, if I heard him right, "because I couldn't put the book down," but I don't know which book it was, as he didn't mention the title.  I'll choose For Whom to Die: A Beautiful Story of a Terrible Time, a Vietnam story, because of its title, and it was the first one I found at Amazon, and because of the recent Veterans Day holiday.

Another fellow came in looking for 10 Steps to Abundant Health by somebody named Jackson.  I sent him to Health and to Self Help, but we didn't have it.  Later he revealed that he'd been overseas, troubled, and looked up to see this book in the rafters, and it turned his life around.  Now he wanted to find it for a friend in need.  He said somebody at Amazon had it for over $100.

Ah, yes.  It's called The Ten Secrets of Abundant Health: A Modern Parable that Will Turn Your Life Around, by Adam J. Jackson.  Indeed, it starts at $110 in the Amazon Marketplace, and I fear it is a self-help book in a series of self-help books, which sometimes, you know, are there to help you help yourself, and sometimes are there to help the author help hirself.


Sure enough, Adam J. Jackson has also written Ten Secrets of Abundant Wealth, subtitled Ancient Chinese Wisdom to Enhance Your Life.  Ancient wisdom that has probably enhanced Adam Jackson's life, and wealth.

But I sound cynical and judgmental and don't want to be.  The man seeking the book did find his life turned around, and does want to help a friend.  And, hey, I just read a sort of self-help version of Epictetus!  (But I blame J. D. Salinger for that.)

What I'm getting at, I hope, is that we read some books at just the right time.  There is a powerful story in Poetry East #47-48, They Say This by the poet Bruce Weigl.  He was 18, in Vietnam, sick in bed at base camp from bad water, and a man threw a book at him and said, "Read this."  It was Dostoevsky.  Crime and Punishment.  And it turned his life around.

Any book could do it.  A great one, like Crime and Punishment.  Ancient Chinese wisdom, updated.  Stoic philosophy, revisited.  A self-help book.  Such as The Ten Secrets of Abundant Happiness.  A mass market paperback for $64.99.


Or this version, used, starting at $58.31:


But if it will make you happy, read it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Lucky Ducks

Day 279  of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and my daughter is reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, because it is assigned reading in her American Literature class and has not (thus far) been banned!!

It's one of the books, along with To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee,* and Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, that routinely gets put on somebody's "banned" list because of what happens in it and because of the language of the times, which in these cases, involves racism. Alas! Since the message in all three of these books, if anyone bothered to read them, is against racism.  The trouble with literature is so often that nobody is really reading, nobody is paying attention, nobody is looking closely or past the surface.

Perhaps I overstate.  I respect the real issues here, but I think a good book stands as literature and a record of the social injustices of a given time.  I have had no trouble with troublesome language in my own classrooms.  I choose not to say the "n-word" aloud, given its negative historical charge during my own lifetime, but I leave it to my students to choose to say it aloud or not in our classroom, if we are reading aloud, and always feel they can read it silently and handle it and put it in its context, and they always can.  Quite maturely and responsibly.  Of course we discuss in advance what is appropriate classroom speech, when we are just talking, and we do not use language that would insult each other.  Again, students are quite respectful of one another when given the chance.

*Harper Lee was the name of one of my cats.

So far, no controversy has arisen in the local high schools this year, but even since my return to this area in 2000, there was a flurry of trouble about books assigned at the high school level, which led to my research paper assignment for my college students: find a book that has been banned, or put on somebody's "banned book" list at some time in some community, or caused a controversy, and say why.

I left it to them to argue whether a particular book should or shouldn't have been "banned" or put on some list, and they made all sorts of wonderful arguments. Mostly, they didn't want the book to have been banned, they saw its value, and they loved it when they had read it in school, but sometimes they agreed that the book might be too much for a certain age group, and ought to be taught, for example, not freshman year but maybe junior or senior year of high school.

I love my students!

Loved, as my college students are in the past..., but, of course, I still love them! I loved my high school students, too, whom I taught (as a replacement teacher when I first moved back to town) for three dreadful months, in which I went to work, came home, fed my family, and went to bed, pulling the blanket over my head in despair sometimes as early as 6:30 p.m.

We read To Kill a Mockingbird together. Some refused to read, but came alive when we acted out the trial scene in class. And then cried when they saw Boo Radley for the first time, watching the film.

And I love my current students, of all ages, in the rare book room at Babbitt's, including my mom! Yes, yes, I love and "teach" my mom!

Speaking of my mom, my daughter was also recently reading the 1988 NCHS Yearbook, the Reverie, in which my mom, her grandmother, appears as the Old Loon in a play called Lucky Ducks, written by a man who still currently teaches at my daughter's high school! Perhaps the playwright will stumble upon my blog, care to comment, and identify himself.

Perhaps the Old Loon will do likewise.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Loving Pillsbury

Day 278 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and today I attended a panel discussion on the new exhibit "A Passion for Detail," on the architect Arthur Pillsbury, just opened at the McLean County Museum of History, and I know what someone wants to be reading, although it doesn't appear to be written yet!--a book on Arthur Pillsbury!

So, no, this blog entry has nothing to do with the Pillsbury Dough Boy, whose comic obituary you can read here.  From there you can click on the Pillsbury site and get plenty of holiday recipes, etc.

Regular readers will know that I have read and will be re-reading Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, with my book group, a novel based on the facts of Wright's relationship with Mamah Borthwick Cheney.  That book comes up second in line on the current list of books about Frank Lloyd Wright at Amazon.  But where are the books on Pillsbury?

A fellow in the audience asked that very question, saying he had a book of collected writings of Frank Lloyd Wright, published by the University of Illinois Press, and there are many more books by university and commercial presses on Wright's works, life, individual houses and so on, including yet another sensational novel, The Women, by T. C. Boyle.

Arthur Pillsbury was Wright's contemporary, had similar training, a pretty wife from a prominent family, a prolific career in a life cut short,* and, evidently, "a passion for detail."

Indeed, one of the panelists clarified by compare and contrast that while everyone can recognize the Frank Lloyd Wright "style," Pillsbury worked in a number of styles, according to the wishes of the homeowner, but his designs were unified by the care taken with the detail.  Another panelist went one further, saying "Wright always did it the 'Wright' way" but that Pillsbury listened and created the desired home.  And then a woman who had arrived late turned out to be an interior designer who had lived in four different Pillsbury homes, each a bit larger, and each "eminently livable."  She called Pillsbury "prophetic" in the sense of being able to design a home in the early 1900s that would be comfortable and adaptable to life here in the 2000s.

Pillsbury had a busy time of it in Bloomington, Illinois after the great fire of 1900.  He was engaged in the rebuilding of the McLean County Courthouse (now the home of the museum and this exhibit) and much of the downtown, he built churches, and numerous residences, many still standing and, indeed, "eminently livable."   The audience was packed with people living in his homes, which this month have blue banners in front of them in honor of the exhibit.

So, while there are countless books on Frank Lloyd Wright, who will write the great book on Arthur L. Pillsbury?  Will it be Greg Koos, director of the museum, who encourages a discussion of a print-on-demand publication possibility, to make it affordable, given the art reproductions.  Will it be a set of at least four museum interns, as curator Susan Hartzold suggests, from architecture programs, who might set it up as a website?  Or might it be museum archivist Bill Kemp, author of this fabulous article on Pillsbury.  Or some combination of the above?


Cute in a different way than the Pillsbury Dough Boy, eh?

*Kemp's article mentions the untimely death of Pillsbury, at 56, in a car accident, coming home from a University of Illinois football game.  I remember it well, having written about it in the annual cemetery walk one year.  And now the local poets in my rare book room workshop will visit the architecture exhibit and write poems in response.  They'll see renderings, photographs, and objects, including the scary wolf head that used to look out from the 6th floor of a building downtown.  A passionate detail.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Way of Babette

Day 277 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and today will be one of my hodge podge potluck blog entries, but I will in fact tell you what some people are reading and why.

While the warm fall weather continues, we have a lot of people wandering into Babbitt's just to browse, or to visit for old time's sake because they used to live in town (often for college or first job) and used to be a regular customer.  And also because they've been on Facebook and seen the kitten pictures, and they are coming to see Babette.

So, on Thursday, an old customer came in and is now reading The New Life, by Orhan Pamuk, because he's read three other books by Pamuk that he liked, because Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, and because he likes Turkey--he's visited--and the intrigues set in Turkish history and locales in Pamuk's novels.

Babette certainly loves her new life in the bookstore, where she is well-loved, well-fed, and lives quite happily the life of a chair thief.

A young man came in from the half-price cart parked outside for the whole November day with a like-new copy of The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way (in the edition translated by R. M. French and introduced by Huston Smith.)  I think I got a little overly excited, as the young man promised to bring it back when he was done.  My excitement was not religious, even though the theme of this book is "to pray without ceasing," but literary, as this is the book Franny is carrying around in Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger, and I've been wanting to read it ever since I re-read that book for book group, and also ever since Salinger died.  It's the story of a Russian peasant on a spiritual journey, and, if the young man brings it back, I will indeed read it.  That particular copy, because of the sweetness of the conversation, and the act of returning.  Life is a constant wonder.

Other old customers came in to see Babette and brought her 3 mouse toys--one white, one gray, one black--and a little bag of "catweed."  Babette had a very exciting afternoon, hopping about the store with her mice, and then a very sudden and much-needed nap in a paper grocery bag.

And, speaking of mice, Sarah is reading Maus, by Art Spiegelman, the two volumes in one edition, which passed through my hands, got catalogued, and now she can't give it up," so she will buy it, the main hazard of working in a bookstore.

And that is the daily report.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Postcorporeal

Day 276 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I am reading Cyborgia, by Susan Slaviero, because I met her when we read together at Brothers K for RHINO Reads last November, and I just got her new book from Mayapple Press. You can find it there in new releases right now, and also on the Science Fiction page and the Women's page, as it's a kind of "cyborg feminism," as Brandi Homan says in a blurb on the back cover.

Wow! It's going to be one of those I read slowly, taking in all the rich exciting images, and learning about cyborgs and everything else. Right now I am taking in the very first poem "Postcorporeal" and all the ways it zings in my life (and recent blog posts) right now.  "Look, changeling," it begins.  "No one would suspect / the monsterskin rustling / beneath your latex fleshtones."

The super feminine fleshtones you see above are by Susan Jamison, and I send you to her feature at Escape Into Life, where I've also recently mounted (hmm) the next poetry feature, by Carolyn Sheehan Gandouin, an Australian poet I met in cyberspace.

But back to Susan Slaviero for the moment, and "Postcorporeal," which offered me today the coincidence of the phrase "Your surface etching." And the glorious line, "Naked, you are all hello, holograph."

I love it when my life is a lovely lazy river of random coincidii.

And the river runs alongside the trains in recent blog posts, providing this morning on Poetry Radio, WGLT, my own poem, "Blue Basket," which has a train in it, a station, a rolling suitcase, and a distant wailing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hungers of the Heart

Day 275 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and my mother is reading Hungers of the Heart, by Richard G. Watts.

Despite the provocative title, it is not a romance novel, as its subtitle clarifies: Spirituality and Religion for the 21st Century.  It is the "unusual collaboration" of Watts and Unitarian minister Carl Esenwein, who died four years ago, and, at Watts's request, bequeathed his papers to Watts.  The book that results is a weaving together of their thoughts and words.

My dad read it first and calls it "eloquent."  He says it doesn't "advocate" anything at the end, leaving things open.  This prevents him from arguing back, which annoys him, and saves us all from argument, but evidently it is an excellent introduction to "liberal religion."  My folks are reading it as a softcover book, but it is available at Book Locker, which provides numerous reading formats, including your iPhone.

My mom and I met up for lunch today, by way of the dentist's office.  At our last cleaning and checkup, we were delighted to discover each other in the waiting room, so we made our next appointments on the same day.  And on February 2, Groundhog's Day, we will meet at the dentist's office again.  For any of you who know and love the film Groundhog Day, this may indeed be an existential or spiritual coincidence.  (But, according to Sartre, not both.)

Have I mentioned how much I love Bill Murray?!  I just saw Get Low, and I love him all the more.  And pretty soon, I will be in the mood again for Tootsie.  Plus, he loves poetry! And Poets House!

I read a book of poetry today, This Awkward Art, by Conrad Hilberry and Jane Hilberry.  Another "unusual collaboration," this time a father and daughter.  They had written the poems separately, but have shared experiences, so the poems group and weave beautifully.  This can be had at Mayapple Press.

And this mother/daughter dental team had pumpkin pancakes* for lunch, at Wildberries.

*For a vegan recipe for the ones you see above, click here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Room Not of One's Own

Day 274 of the "What are you reading?" project and Garnett has been reading Room, by Emma Donoghue. She says it's "a real page-turner, a chilling story and amazingly fresh 5-year-old narrator who manages to sound poetic without sounding too cute or contrived."

It really is about a room, a life trapped in a room, and you can enter the Room of the book here, if you dare. I think I am as scared of all the clicking and dragging--at the book's website--as I am of the plot. A bad man has stolen a young woman, kept her there, raped her, impregnated her, and now she has to keep her son safe.

But if you enter the website, you can see the layout of the room. And at the home page, you can read what Audrey Niffenegger, author of Time Traveler's Wife, has to say about Room:  "Room is a book to read in one sitting. When it's over you look up: the world looks the same but you are somehow different and that feeling lingers for days."

Garnett had a similar reaction. She said, "There were parts of Donaghue's book where I forgot I was reading."

I'd be a little afraid to enter that room, via technology or imagination, but it sounds like quite a powerful reading experience. You can read about it more conventionally via the New York Times book review here.

To follow up on a previous post, Barry Silesky has “entered” the conversation about his spiritual reading and questing and said, “No, you're not wrong. Only for sake of any clarification, I mean atheism literally--absence of anything ordinarily involved in the concept, 'God.' There may be a supra-human force; but I doubt any entity; whatever it is I suspect is our imagination. Which (imagination) might be, and I suspect is, the only divinity there is.”

I think he may still comment to speak for himself, but for now I’m quoting from his email. His follow-up email said, “If only I knew what to pray to. The trouble with this atheism is, I'm stuck with myself.” 

Quite a dilemma.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Holy Coincidii, Bat Poets!

Day 273 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and first let me send you to The Bat-Poet, by Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, a favorite book of mine and a lovely holiday gift, if you are getting in that kind of mood, used or new from HarperCollins. I have two used copies, one hardcover, one paperback, both slightly damp-stained, but clean on the inside, poems and illustrations intact. It's pretty much a perfect book for poet adults to read to their kids, as it's a how-to-be-a-poet book with talking animals that helps you like and understand poets better. And not like critics and academics quite so much, though the mockingbird is still much admired by our innocent bat.

But, lest you think I am reliving my childhood, or living in the past, let me reassure you. I am!

Way too many poignant coincidii lately. For instance, we often listen to the Jimmy Durante station on Pandora at work. He sang this today, "September Song," a gorgeous song with schmaltzy background singers and orchestra, rescued from utter sentimentality by his honesty, his big nose, and his gritty cigarette.

Anyhoo, yesterday I mentioned the John Knoepfle interview in Fifth Wednesday, and early this morning I read it, along with his poems. At the end of the interview, Knoepfle talks about how being 87 is affecting his writing and publishing of poetry. He realizes that if a new book is accepted, called Stay With Us, it will still be 2 years till it is published. He's not worried about this, just aware. At the end of the interview, he says:

You know the lines from scripture: "Stay with us because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." How can I tell you this?  Not an occasion for fear or being heartsick.  I know whom the two men on the road were inviting to supper.  In a graceful interlude, I might be able to be there at Emmaus.

Well, the scripturally aware will have caught the central allusion in my poem from yesterday's blog entry, "On the Road."  In my pencilled draft, it was actually called "On the Road to Emmaus" and "to Emmaus" also appeared in a line in the poem. But I realized that it wasn't needed, and might lead people astray. When I inhabit that speaker, I make him simply a traveler on the road. Not Jesus. Any man, any woman (yes, "just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on a bus"--hear it in Jim Carrey's voice from Bruce Almighty for ideal effect) to be welcomed and invited to the table.  And not a ghost, not a vision, nothing supernatural, and not a "resurrected corpse" as Robin Meyers would say.

But Emmaus was of course the inspiration, so to find it in the interview made me say, "Holy Truffle, Mr. Knoepfle!"

And at the Fifth Wednesday event, I asked Barry Silesky how he was doing with his health and his grief. He said he was doing a lot of reading as he heads toward the end, and that, of course, a lot of it is about religion, and it was pretty much leading him toward atheism. Meaning, I think, no particular personal literal god, as there is lots of correspondence between the myths and narratives and basic values of multiple religions, and no linear, geographical afterlife.  (He can correct me if I'm wrong! Barry, I mean, not YHWH.) I was just about to ask if any of the reading included Karen Armstrong when he said, "I'm reading a lot of Karen Armstrong.  The History of God is good."  Barry lost a son, a wife (not to death), and has MS, getting out infrequently but pretty darn well in a motorized wheelchair, and, like John Knoepfle, seems to be looking at things pretty clearly and calmly.  It was so good to see him!

And now you know for sure that I'm a bit batty!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Train Window

Day 272 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and, after last night's release reading, I know a number of people are reading the new issue of Fifth Wednesday, published in Lisle, Illinois. The reading at the Book Cellar in Chicago was well attended, and the store has a charming cafe, with coffee, wine, and  pumpkin soup.

Susan Hahn read an excerpt from her novel, published as the story "If I Set Up the Chairs," Barry Silesky and I read poems (with the coincidence of whales in them), and editor Vern Miller read, to relate to yesterday, a "redneck" short story by Jonis Agee, who was not present.  This issue has a feature on Illinois poet John Knoepfle, a nice interview and several poems.  Knoepfle's bio at the back says, "Right now he is writing a series of poems about the world he sees from his window."

Here's what I saw out the train window on today's pleasant ride home in the fall sunshine: several hawks soaring over the harvested fields, those long golden stretches of field with sharp broken stalks of corn, and beautiful white wind turbines, turning.

And I was reading.  I had taken some poetry books, and I had Fifth Wednesday, but I was reading Saving Jesus from the Church, by Robin Meyers, discussed here in the past, as so many local people were reading it.  Now I can, having borrowed my mom's copy, with her underlining and brackets, serious question marks, rare exclamation points, and excellent questions in the margin.

I like this book.  It's down to earth.

And I wrote this, in pencil, on ruled paper.

On the Road

I don't know if I resembled
the one they loved
or if the tremor in my voice
from hunger and fatigue
reminded them of the one they missed
but two travelers on the road
fed me, and were kind.

And now, wherever I go,
I remember this kindness
and how the simple breaking
of the bread made a sweet plenty
for us all.

And, speaking of whales, that's Mr. Splashy Pants, from Greenpeace.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Redneck Yoga

Day 271...and here is the rest of the Tim Hunt interview.  He is the author of several books, including scholarly works on Jack Kerouac and Robinson Jeffers, but the three discussed here are his own books/chapbooks of poetry Fault Lines, Redneck Yoga (just now coming out from Finishing Line Press), White Levis, and 'Til Twangdom Come.  This will be of special interest to poets figuring out how to put a book together.

You can hear "Redneck Yoga" here at the WGLT Poetry Radio page!  Read on and you'll find another poem at the end of the interview.

Is Fault Lines a book you set out to write? Or did you find yourself writing poems that linked up with each other and wove themes? Or something else? How did it come together as a book?

I stopped writing for many years, partly because the logic of what poems were supposed to be (at least as I’d learned that from my schooling) left me little sense of there being anyone on the other side of the page. To make poems seemed wasteful and empty. After a time I came to see that this was in part because I’d let myself be talked into believing that poems are things that we make—writing on the surface of a page. I realized that poetry could also be, instead, acts of speaking stored in writing—that poetry could be (in spite of the page and writing) an attempt to speak to and with other people. That’s one factor that’s shaped Fault Lines. Another was a sense that the past dies if we don’t express it, and if we lose the past (or rather some sense of connecting to a past) the present becomes terribly thin. The past is one aspect of how we orient ourselves to be fully in the present and to find our ways forward. The poem “When the Back Steps Seemed Very High” touches on this. The things we remember and find through the process of remembering are the proverbial mixed blessing, but a mixed blessing beats no blessing any day.

Can you compare and contrast it a bit with the book just now coming out, Redneck Yoga, in terms of process and content? And White Levis?

The chapbook White Levis mixes a handful of pieces that refused to braid into Fault Lines with newer poems that extend the direction of the fourth section. The chapbook Redneck Yoga is more of a veer—poems where I let my lippy inner redneck off the leash and he went off chasing squirrels and rabbits. The new book-length ms., ’Til Twangdom Come, sort of splits the difference between Fault Lines and Redneck Yoga. It’s out knocking on doors looking for a home. A main difference between Fault Lines and these newer projects is that I’m writing more quickly. I guess that’s partly a matter of trusting the process more. It’s probably, also, partly a matter of being able to focus more on the poetry, having shut the door on some other things in my life. It also seems as if I’m more apt now to see things as possible multi-poem sets. The sequence “The Further Adventures of Poem” in Twangdom, is an instance of this. When we’re first writing, especially if we draw in part on personal material, it can seem like material is precious and that it can run out—only so much ore in the mine, that sort of thing. It takes a while to learn, and to trust, that each poem can call up the next one. Poems aren’t like fossil fuel; they’re a renewable energy like solar and wind.
I love “Train Window.” Can I quote it in full in my blog?!

Absolutely.

Train Window

From the train, the clothes
lines and empty fields
are a motion, far away—
as if in black and white.

Then, through the rain spattered glass
someone is riding alongside, a bicycle—
a second motion falling slowly back,
and we are here, now.

The rain gives these gifts,
unwrapping the red
and yellow branches
to open the passing ravine,

where a pickup
noseless like a rusted skull
gleams in the skin of water.

And now I'm off on the train to Chicago, to do the release reading at The Book Cellar for Fifth Wednesday.  Wonder what I'll see out the window!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Fault Lines & Risk Taking

Day 270 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I told you a while back that I was reading Fault Lines, by Tim Hunt (Backwaters Press).  Yesterday I mentioned him again in the context of the literary journal Fourth River, and I have also enjoyed his poems over the years in such journals as RHINO and Spoon River Poetry Review.   Today and tomorrow I'll share with you an interview about Fault Lines, with some discussion (tomorrow) of his books Redneck Yoga and White Levis.

To hear an interview with Ron Block of the Writers' Roundtable at WGLS, click here.  To read the first part of my email interview with Tim, look below:


Tim, I love the title of your book, Fault Lines, and identify with its earthquake connotations, as we live here in central Illinois on the New Madrid fault, and my brother lives in Santa Cruz, California, very near a fault line there (and previously in a house on the fault line, designed to resist a major earthquake, as it did).  Your poems go back and forth between central Illinois and California.  Can you explain the title Fault Lines, in terms of the geography, geology, and central metaphor of this book?

I grew up in several small towns north of San Francisco, and the lore of the 1906 earthquake was part of my heritage, as was an occasional quake.  So the figure is partly literal, a matter of geography and geology, but it’s also partly figural.  We shape our reality by setting things aside.  We can’t inhabit everything at once.  We filter things out; we operate in terms of structures that are necessarily partial.  From time to time that wholeness we’ve so carefully constructed and has come to be reality fractures.  In a geological sense, the ground is never fully stable or permanent; neither is the psychological (or the social, if that’s more what it is) “ground.”  Sometimes we remember or bump against what we haven’t included.  It’s like a child who falls and breaks an arm.  Sometimes the arm heals stronger, sometimes not, but we each time the ground shifts, the terrain is not quite the same.

I love the light in this book, its variations.  I love how you set up that there are kinds of light in “The Language of Light,” a poem for your son, who sees these differences.  How does he like this poem?  And can you tell us more about the importance of light in your poetry?

John is both a visual artist and a writer, and his comment quoted in the poem evokes both his eye and ear.  That of course is really the poem.  I think he likes the piece well enough.  At least he’s been very good natured about my co-opting his line.  We lived on a ranch in the White Mountain Desert of eastern California for several years.  In the high desert country, light is a part of the landscape, not simply a backdrop.  It’s part of the landscape’s language.  That’s true everywhere, but that became clearer to me at Deep Springs, and John’s comment helped me realize that.  It’s a matter of listening.  We live much of our life indoors and in constructed environments.  Those environments are rich and meaningful, but it’s also important to step outside, to step aside.  Light, it seems, can help us do that.

“The Language of Light” for me connects to Prescript (Poetry) at the very beginning of the book, where it sits like an epigraph for the whole contents.  So, two questions:

1)       Is there an actual name for that kind of pre-poem?
Not that I’m aware of.  The poems in Fault Lines (as with many first collections) were written at different times from varied perspectives.  That was a poem I wanted to use, but it wasn’t fitting elsewhere in the book.  Then I hit on placing it as a kind of preliminary or introductory piece, which is when I added “Prescript” to the title.

2)      Is this prescript poem your ars poetica, or statement about the nature of poetry?
I mistrust the notion that poems say something, and I especially mistrust the notion that they are complicated codes for saying something simple.  My sense is that poems are often ways we attend to things that matter but that don’t fully resolve or allow themselves to be reduced to statements that we can file away under various tabs.  If poems were statements, Spark Notes paraphrases would not only suffice, they’d be better than the poems.  To the extent that that piece reflects this sense of things it could, I guess, be seen as a kind of ars poetica, but a partial one.  My hope, though, is that the piece might function more as an ars readica.

To be clear about the connection I see here, Prescript (Poetry) includes a memory, precise and clear, of light on a puddle of water, and is about the sensibility of someone who would indeed notice and remember such a thing.  In “The Language of Light,” the small boy speaks of light in a precise way, and one senses he must grow up to be a poet or artist because that’s the way he sees.

Right.  The world is fuller, richer than our understandings of it, which necessarily are entangled with the ways our awareness is filtered through our cognitive adaptations.  When we see something intensely, clearly, we sense both our connections to this fuller reality and our inability to completely comprehend it.  Our consciousness is both heightened and we are taken beyond consciousness.  Poems can do and be many things.  One thing they can do is enact a kind of witness to things that outstrip our ability to express and contain.

You and I have a similar aesthetic sense, I think, in that we believe simplicity of language can express complexity of thought, ambivalence in feeling, and mystery or paradox in meaning.  Is that correct?

Yes.  Complexity of perception, not complexity of expression.

There are several family stories in Fault Lines, and some elegies.  Two questions here: are you ever hesitant to expose too much about a family member, and how do you handle privacy issues like this?  My second question is a version of one that editor Michael Latza asked me, in Willow Review.  How do you avoid sentimentality in family poems? 

Family is another word for history and region.  The poems in Fault Lines that draw on family material are, by and large, less about psychological foibles or eccentricities than they are attempts to explore how we relate to region and time through the lens of family.  Urban life opens certain kinds of awareness, but rural and small town life open others.  As the urban and digital domains become more and more the only worlds we know, I think there’s some value in attending, also, to this other terrain.  The sense of space, of time, of connection, isolation are different in the hills than they are at the El stop or the megamall.  Seeing the fire burn the mountain is different than sound bites and video clips on the evening news.  Knowing how people can struggle with their interconnected histories is different than the exhilaration and emptiness of feeling as if one has no history.  Family is one way to access that, engage that.  As to “sentimentality”: that’s a matter of perspective.  Some people seem to think that feeling and responsiveness are “sentimentality.”  If the emotional dimension of a poem is an escape rather than an engagement, that’s a problem.  But poems aren’t simply thought acrostics.  I stopped worrying a long time ago about being sentimental.  If my relationship to the world is sentimental, the poems will be, as well, and they’ll suffer for it.  But that’s a risk one has to run. 
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