Monday, June 18, 2012

2012 Book #17: Lunch Poems

Yeah, it’s a book of poetry. And it counts.
I picked up a copy of Frank O’Hara‘s Lunch Poems in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts after walking through an Alex Katz exhibition. Alex Katz, by the way, is very cool.

Anyway, I forget what the relation is, but there is one.
So I picked up Lunch Poems because I’d already spent at least five hours in the museum, and it seemed like a nice idea, exhausted as I was, to sit outside and read some poetry. I’d heard of Frank O’Hara, of course, but I don’t think I’d read any of his poetry. I read through the slim book once, then did some research (airplane wifi is the best thing ever) and read it again. I liked it better the second time.
Frank O’Hara wrote mainly in the 1950s and ’60s (he died in his forties in an accident involving a dune buggy). He was in what was called the New York School with poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Koch. Ferlinghetti’s publishing house is responsible for Lunch Poems.
O’Hara’s poetry isn’t very personal – it’s a more objective view of what he saw in New York, chronicling the people he knew and the places he went. I don’t get most of the references, but if you’re interested, you can find a list on the internet. Most of the poems are short, some written in a lunch hour. I’ll share a couple of my favorites:
From “Steps”:
oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much
“Memoir of Sergei O”
My feet have never been comfortable
since I pulled them out of the Black Sea
and came to your foul country
what fatal day did I dry them off for
travel loathsome travel to a world
even older than the one I grew up in
what fatal day meanwhile back in France
they were stumbling towards the Bastille
and the Princess de Lamballe was
shuddering as shudderingly as I
with a lot less to lose I still hated
to move sedentary as a roach of Tiflis
never again to go swimming in the nude
publicly little did I know how
awfulness could reach such perfection abroad
I even thought I would see a Red Indian
all I saw was lipstick everything
covered with grass or shrouds pretty
shrouds shot with silver and plasma
even the chairs are upholstered to a
smothering perfection of inanity
and there are no chandeliers and there
are no gates to the parks so you don’t
know wheter you’re going in them or
coming out of them that’s not relaxing
and so you can’t really walk all you can
do is sit and drink coffee and brood
over the lost leaves and refreshing scum
of Georgia Georgia of my heritage
and dismay meanwhile back in my old
country they are renaming everything so
I can’t even tell any more which ballet
company I am remembering with so much
pain and the same thing has started
here American Avenue Park Avenue South
Avenue of Chester Conklin Binnie Barnes
Boulevard Avenue of Toby Wing Barbara
Nichols Street where am I what is it
I can’t even find a pond small enough
to drown in without being ostentatious
you are ruining your awful country and me
it is not new to do this it is terribly
democratic and ordinary and tired
The more I read Frank O’Hara, the more I like him. Not as much as Ferlinghetti, whose A Coney Island of the Mind just might be my favorite collection of poetry ever. But it’s really accessible, and if you’re intimidated by poetry, O’Hara’s a good one to read.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

2012 Book #16: The Castle of Crossed Destinies

I spotted The Castle of Crossed Destinies at Barnes and Noble on the same trip in which I found So Big. I was randomly browsing the shelves when I came across this one, large for a Calvino book. The margins of almost every page are lined with tarot card engravings. I was intrigued. Not so intrigued, however, that I couldn’t wait for a used copy to come from Amazon. It got here yesterday, just in time: I’d just finished So Big.
I’m a huge fan of Calvino, but I really didn’t like this one. It’s a game of sorts: Calvino challenged himself to arrange a deck of tarot cards, lining them up so he could make stories out of them. It’s sort of like the Decameron or The Canterbury Tales. A weary traveler wanders upon an old castle, goes inside, and discovers that it’s full of other weary travelers. Except no one inside can speak, and nor can he. Each table is supplied with a deck of tarot cards, and each character lays out cards to tell his or her story. The narrator fills in the blanks. After that deck is exhausted, the narrator moves on to a tavern, where another game begins with a similar deck.
Calvino’s idea is a good one. His work seems more like art to me than literature – read Invisible Cities, and you’ll understand what I mean. The cards are the center of this short novel (if you can call it a novel).
It got old really quickly. If this book wasn’t so short, it would have ended up in the Fail Pile. When I don’t like a book but insist on finishing it, I get through it as quickly as possible. I started reading it last night in bed, and I only got about fifteen pages in. After work today, as usual, I went to Starbucks, finished the second chapter of my thesis(!), and stayed for a couple more hours to finish The Castle of Crossed Destinies. That was pretty fast.
I’m not in any way saying that this isn’t a good book. It’s an interesting experiment, and it’s worth reading. If you’re interested in Calvino, though, I’d recommend you start with Invisible Cities or If on a winter’s night a traveler. I liked both of those much more. Also, keep in mind what I said about more art than literature: Calvino isn’t easy, but he’s totally worth it. If you’re into reading something short and dense, give him a try.

Monday, June 11, 2012

2012 Book #15: So Big

I discovered So Big the other day when I was wandering around Barnes & Noble. I had just finished East of Eden, and I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to read next. I was alsoreally tired of reading on a Kindle. These days, I very rarely buy books at full price. For one, I work in a library! If I want a book, I can usually pick it up while I’m there. If it’s not at the main branch, I can wait a couple of days and have a copy sent from the other branches; if none of the branches have it, we have a great interlibrary loan system. But that takes longer than a few days, and I like my books delivered Netflix streaming style. So I wanted instant gratification, and I was willing to put down a bit of cash for it.
I started with the summer reading tables, and I didn’t find anything that interested me, so I started browsing the As. The fiction section at Barnes & Noble is continually shrinking (they obviously don’t care about selling books anymore), so I made it to the Fs pretty quickly. The design of the book’s spine caught my eye (sometimes I do judge books by their covers), and I picked it up and read the back. It sounded interesting, and I saw that it had won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize. A point in its favor. Then I looked it up on Goodreads and saw rave reviews, with comments like “I feel like I’ve been let in on some literary secret!” I’m always into discovering new writers, so I couldn’t help myself. I was intrigued. Book in hand, I confidently walked up to the checkout and paid the full $14 (remember when trade paperbacks were, like, $7?).
And it was so worth it.
I really liked So Big. It made me smile more than most books do. The characters felt alive. I’m pretty sure this is one of those books that I’ll confuse with a movie at some point. I guess a plot rundown is in order.
So Big is the story of Selena DeJong and her son. It begins with Selena’s background: her father was a professional gambler, and they traveled around the country, living well when he did well, and living poorly when he did poorly. Eventually, they settled in Chicago, and no matter what his financial situation, he kept her in a good school. Most of the other students had more money than they did. When Selena was 19, her father died, and she was left with about $500, which was a good deal of money in early twentieth-century Chicago. Her best friend, Julie Hempel, had her family get Selena a job as a schoolteacher in High Prairie, a Dutch farming community not far from Chicago. (I’m going on a bit long with this summary…) She moves in with a Dutch family. The oldest child, Roelf, is brilliant and attaches himself to Selena almost instantly. He wants to learn, but his parents make him work on the farm instead. Soon, Selena meets Purvus DeJong, and they marry and have a child, Dirk. Roelf, only thirteen, runs away to meet his destiny. Selena leads a hard life on the farm and wants something better for Dirk. Life keeps happening. This plot summary is long enough already. Just read the book.
So Big is a beautiful portrait of wealth and poverty in Chicago in the early twentieth century, and it’s totally worth a read. I’ve been trying to figure out why Edna Ferber, despite writing many critically acclaimed books, wasn’t canonized. The best explanation I’ve seen is that the academics don’t like commercial successes.
I’m not sure how I’d never heard of Edna Ferber. She’s best known for writing Show Boat, of movie fame. I’ll definitely be checking out more of her stuff. The library has a pretty good collection.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

2012 Book #14: East of Eden

I’m totally not hitting 50 books this year. So it goes.
East of Eden took me about a month to read, but that’s not because it’s bad. It can be a wee bit slow, though. And it’s really long. It’s basically a Cain and Abel story set in California. I’m sure you can imagine what happens.
The novel follows two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons. Samuel Hamilton moves to the Salinas Valley to farm, but he buys less than ideal land and has little money. He has lots of children, and various things happen to them. Adam Trask had lived with his brother, Charles. Charles had always been jealous, especially about their relationship with their father, and he’d even tried to kill Adam once. Many years later, after Adam joined the army and was gone for several years, their father died, leaving them about a hundred thousand dollars, which waslots of money around the turn of the twentieth century, making them both very rich. They continue to live on the farm, but Adam has dreams of moving out to California. Suddenly, a woman named Cathy turns up, beaten half to death. By this time, we know that she’s entirely heartless and just about pure evil. She killed her parents in a house fire, became a prostitute, and casually broke the heart of a man who loved her. That’s the man who beat her up. Anyway, she stays with Adam and Charles while she recuperates, and then she marries Adam – shortly after she has an affair with Charles because he’s “like her.” Adam moves Cathy across the country to California, and she doesn’t want to go. She eventually bares twins, one light and one dark. She has no interest in him. She decides to leave, and when Adam tries not to let her go, she shoots him in the shoulder, crushing his bones and his heart, then joins a whorehouse in town. And that’s where I stop: the novel follows the Hamiltons and the Trasks through their lives.
I really liked East of Eden, though it’s not my favorite Steinbeck novel. (The Grapes of Wrath is my favorite.) It reminds me of possibly my very favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it doesn’t seem as expansive. I think it wants to be. It’s certainly worth reading. I think I might have liked it more if I hadn’t drawn it out so long. Usually, though, when I take so long to read books, they end up in the Fail Pile, so that’s a point in East of Eden‘s favor. Steinbeck is one of my very favorite authors, and this is one of his best novels. Read it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

In the process of reading: East of Eden

I have never been a title man. I don’t give a damn what it is called. I would call it [East of Eden] Valley to the Sea, which is a quotation from absolutely nothing but has two great words and a direction. What do you think of that? And I’m not going to think about it anymore.
I’ll finish it someday.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Don DeLillo and a sick cat, or What I've Been Up To

Okay, I know I said I’d post every week, and now it’s been at least two. But I’ve been super-busy!
I’m currently reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and it’s pretty good so far, but I’m only a quarter into it. In my defense, it’s another really long novel, probably the longest I’ve read so far this year. I’ll finish it. Eventually.
In the meantime, I figured I’d give you an update on what I’ve been up to, along with a couple reading recommendations.
I’m about to finish my master’s degree in liberal arts. I say about to finish: I still have two-thirds of my thesis to write. Here’s a lovely rendition of what I call my Thesis Monster, drawn by my husband:
Thesis Monster
As you can tell, I’m not exactly into this thesis business. Anyway, my thesis might as well be called “Don DeLillo Writes the Same Novel Over and Over” because that’s basically it. I didn’t realize that until I was far enough into it that changing my topic would be ridiculous. So I’m stuck writing a thesis I’m not really interested in. So it goes.
But what do you mean, he writes the same novel over and over? you ask. I think I’ve talked about it before on this blog, but I’ll repeat. DeLillo basically follows a formula: his protagonist finds his world saturated with postmodern commoditization of some sort (in my thesis, it’s three kinds of media: film/video, music, books), and he tries to escape it. He withdraws from the world, but usually comes back, and his quest for an identity beyond what the media has created him is almost entirely unsuccessful. (Every time I say it, it makes a little more sense to me.)
If you’re interested in Postmodernism and what media is doing, and you’re looking for a challenge, check out BaudrillardJameson, and McLuhan.
Anyway, the probablility of LSUS merging with Tech has scared me into working on the Thesis Monster again, and I’ve funneled most of my pleasure-reading time into that. And I have a sick cat who I have to feed five times a day through a tube:
Shakespeare is home!
As I’m sure you can imagine, I don’t have a lot of time on my hands.
But! I’d like to direct you to some DeLillo! I talked about Great Jones Street early this year and Americana and Cosmopolis last year, but I haven’t reviewed what  I think is DeLillo’s best novel, White Noise (absolutely no relation to the movie that came out a few years ago with the same name). It’s about a family in the midwest and what happens when a train wrecks and causes a huge black cloud to spread all over town, forcing an evacuation. It deals with death, family, religion, and general awesomeness. It’s a good (and not boring) introduction to DeLillo. Too bad I’m not using it in my thesis!
So. I’ll eventually finish reading East of Eden, and then I’ll post a good ol’ proper review of it. In the meantime, I’ll try to post snippets about other things. If you’re really hankering for new book reviews, ask your favorite librarian to contribute to the blog!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

2012 Book #12: The Drawing of the Three

It’s really hard to write a review about the second (or third or fourth) book in a series without exposing too much about the first one. So if you haven’t read The Gunslinger, I’ll point you to that post. Want a summary? Read it. That’s my summary. I wouldn’t suggest starting The Dark Tower series with The Drawing of the Three, so if this is the first you’ve heard of it, and you think you might read it, go elsewhere to avoid a huge spoiler.
Okay, since we know, at the very least, that The Dark Tower is about the gunslinger’s quest to, well, the Dark Tower, we can pretty safely assume that he’ll survive the first book. At the end of The Gunslinger, we leave Roland (the gunslinger) as he heads to the coast. The Drawing of the Three picks up there. He wakes up on a beach at night as some lobsterish creatures are swept up next to him with the tide. One attacks him, clawing off three of his fingers and one of his toes. He calls them lobstrosities, and I’ve already talked about them and their awesomeness.

Seriously. If you’re looking for a reason to read this book, they’re it. I digress. So the gunslinger hasn’t only lost some digits: his wounds get infected. In his world, he’s SOL. But! At the end of The Gunslinger, the Man in Black mentions something about drawing, but there’s no explanation until Roland is just about dying on the beach, and he sees a door appear out of nowhere. He opens it and finds himself looking through the eyes of a junkie named Eddie, who is about to try to smuggle cocaine through customs. Roland can control Eddie to varying degrees depending on how far into the door he goes. He can just look through Eddie’s eyes, or he can take complete control. Things Happen. I won’t spoil that part. Just keep in mind that this is a huge chunk of the novel. Like the title says, the gunslinger draws three. One of them is a schizophrenic woman in a wheelchair who is alternately a very nice person and a homicidal maniac. Do with that what you will. And that’s all the plot you’re getting on this one.
I didn’t like The Drawing of the Three nearly as much as I liked The Gunslinger, though it’s not bad. It’s just really different. Most of it takes place through the doors in the twentieth century, and that kind of disappointed me. And some parts were annoying. The gunslinger, probably coming from some post-apocalyptic time when technology is all but gone, doesn’t understand a lot of what’s going on in the twentieth century, and he uses words he knows to describe what he sees. Which is fine to a point, but it goes on all through the book. Here’s an example:
The potions that really worked were kept safely out of sight. One could only obtain these if you had a sorcerer’s fiat. In this world, such sorcerers were called DOCKTORS, and they wrote their magic formulae on sheets of paper which the Mortcypedia called REXES. The gunslinger didn’t know the word. He supposed he could have consulted further on the matter, but didn’t bother.
(In case you’re wondering, the Mortcypedia is the brain of one of the characters.) I like the shifting POV throughout the novel, but the gunslinger’s parts get a bit old.
I think I’ll take a break from this series for a while because, after this book, I’m not too enthused anymore. And a friend told me that the third one gets pretty bad, and he stopped reading it about halfway through. I’m in the mood for some good writing, anyway, so I think I’ll go for Cormac McCarthy‘s Suttree. McCarthy is a dependably good writer, and Suttree has been on my to-read list for quite a while. If you’re reading along, break out your dictionary! You’ll see why.
Bonus: There’s a Tumblr for everything these days, and I happened on one about The Dark Tower. Enjoy.