Saturday, December 19, 2009

12/19/09 What I saw while grading papers

The History Channel, for about five hours.  Two hours of "Black Blizzards," a story I've been fascinated by since listening to Tim Egan's The Worst Hard Time last spring:  The choking clouds of Black Sunday, the barbwire sparking, the people refusing to move.  Then "102 Minutes That Changed America," raw documentary enhanced with quiet anxious drumbeat and ambient drone.  Again the dust clouds.  The fight for survival.  I was a hundred miles away on 9/11, in Massachusetts.  We watched CBS in the school library and lobby.  The superintendent said our lives would never be the same.  I felt disoriented, but I wanted to believe he was wrong.  I was glad to get home later that day and see my kids.  Today, between those two dust-ridden programs, The Beatles on Record.  A breath of fresh air.  Afterwards, Einstein.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Martyr & Pessl

Two books: slightly annoying for different reasons --although both seem to go on a bit too long, but one has a  first person narrator with a genius for citing the publication dates of every book she's ever encountered and the other mixes a strangely unmusical prose style with an unfortunate knack for making extraordinary lives seem tiresome.  Both, however, manage to overcome their defects for long stretches somewhere in their middles:  John Irving's Until I Find You through the creation of a tragically comic character named Emma, and Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics through flirtatious association of  a character named Hannah Schneider with the likes of Charles Manson.  Thus in the one case you get something beside wrestling and tattoos, and in the other something beside chicklit snottiness and nerdy snobbiness.  They also have this in common: working very hard to have their main characters discover secrets about their parents that the reader may or may not have seen coming.  In neither case, however, was the main character as interesting as the parents --and that's not saying much.  At any rate, you spend your time reading something that's not as good as other things you've read, and you're left with something like memories that stay with you, learning from experience --learning from mistakes, your own and others'.   

Monday, April 27, 2009

Look Who's Got a Big Heart

James Tate's The Ghost Soldiers eschews many of poetry's traditional concerns. It indulges in "he said, she said" repetition, refuses to consider compression and line --it even allows ordinary people, places and objects to remain strangely ordinary. The focus here is all on human relationships. These are poems in which people have fallen into one or more of the traps society constructs for us: news reports, rumors, fashion, paranoia, miscommunication and war. These are also poems in which the first person narrator takes on the task of holding it all together, mostly countering insanity with common sense and good humor, sometimes able only to save himself, but nearly always showing compassion, concern and respect. In "Special Operations" the narrator comforts a woman who's lost her son's goldfish. In "The Nether World" he helps a man deal with his broken dreams then agrees to go on a date he doesn't remember making. I have to say I come away from this book feeling like I've learned some sorely needed new strategies on how to be a better friend, neighbor, total stranger, acquaintance, parent, spouse. Since when does poetry have the right to be so practical? As far as that goes, when was the last time a book of poems was a page turner? I have to go all the way back to Tate's last book, Return to the City of White Donkeys.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Spring is the Michief in me

Q&A, the novel Slumdog Millionaire is based on, is quite a bit better than the movie --I listened to the audio book. The central conceit is maybe a little more heavy handed in the book than it is in the movie, but I liked it more anyway. Having a first person narrator in a book --you feel like you met a real person --which didn't happen when I watched the movie.

The current issue of APR vol38/no2 is one of the best in a long while. David Wojahn's essay "On Capaciousness," Michael Ryan's essay on Dickinson, poems by Albert Goldbarth, Carl Dennis, Rob Talbert, Jenny Browne, and C. Dale Young are well beyond the usual fare.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

spring 09

Madame Bovary and A Lesson Before Dying: I can't think of two sadder stories. Regarding the latter, students wanted to know why people didn't fight to free Jefferson, why they settled for creating the illusions of strength and dignity instead. Were the citizens of Bayonne fatalistic or would their attempts to free Jefferson have led to more imprisonment and killing?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

reading ear 3

I saw A Clockwork Orange back in the '70's --I know I got a kick out of it though time and all the knives in my milk left me with very little memory of it. The soundtrack was a Columbia record of the month club selection and I spun it many times --I still remember the Time Steps theme --but it wasn't until the last few weeks that I listened to Tom Hollander read and create the perfect voice of Alex, oh my brothers... As I write this, Biography is telling the story of Meatloaf --how he became the perfect voice for a songwriter named Jim Steinman. Well the same sort of story happens here. Disk 7 of the audiobook I "read" had Burgess reading excerpts, but for these ears, Tom Hollander will always be Alex, making this a book I'll remember for a long long time.

Yet another good audio read: Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. Reviews compare the Colonel to Conrad's Kurtz, but I heard him as closer to the character Maurice on Northern Exposure.