Thursday, April 22, 2010

In Praise of Subtlety

While I will admit that I am sometimes a book snob, I also realize that our purposes for reading vary as much as our tastes. I'll turn my nose up at some authors (those, for example, who study what makes women cry when they read and then write just that), but I also indulge myself in works that other readers just as picky would deem unworthy.

As I was reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I felt a connection with the concierge Renee, a secret intellectual and autodact, who could cringe at a misplaced comma or a "bring" used in place of "take," but who also enjoyed cultural entertainment of a more pedestrian taste. Her favorite movie, for example, was The Hunt for Red October, more for sentimental reasons that cinematography or script. She also confessed a penchant for reading Michael Connelly, even though he certainly shares little with Tolstoy, another favorite.

I took the suggestion and chose a Connelly audiobook The Scarecrow for my daily commute, and I don't feel ashamed for not listening to War and Peace or Anna Karenina instead. I will admit, though, that the experience was a little like Chinese food. It served its purpose but probably won't fill me for long. I could probably analyze the differences ad nauseum, but the main distinction, I believe, is the subtlety--or the lack thereof. I know that dramatic irony is the draw of crime thrillers. I'm no FBI agent or L.A. Times reporter, but I still caught myself shouting at the protagonist and his love interest: Don't do that! Pay attention, you morons! How amazing that someone so skilled at profiling can be sitting right new to a perverted computer genius serial killer and not pick up a clue--not even LOOK for a clue.

No, I much prefer the tiny details--the errant comma that makes me wince just a nanosecond before I realize that the protagonist winced too. I recall another favorite book, also quite understated, The Remains of the Day. In fact, I was pleased, almost shockingly so, when the movie managed to convey the tiniest, most subtle details. In the book, the protagonist travels to the home of the woman he has cared for, ready to declare his love, only to discover she has married. He reveals (and I paraphrase, not having the text at my fingertips): At that moment I knew my heart was breaking. When the movie was released, I wondered how that mere thought could be conveyed, and it was, wordlessly. In a play, there might even have been an aside or soliloquy, but moment was captured--perfectly. No one had to scream at the movie screen.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Friends and Family

My youngest sister and her family are visiting from Alabama this week. Although they've had to fend for themselves while I was working, we've enjoyed lots of time talking. Last night, I read her youngest daughter to sleep--the book of poems and song lyrics that Julie Andrews and her daughter published and promoted at last November's NCTE conference. I was eager to have a little one as audience, but I was wary too. I read a few of the poems, then I said, "I have other books too if you'd rather have stories than poems." She assured me that she liked the poems.

Since there's a thirteen-year gap between the my sister Emily and me (and three sisters in between as well), we didn't spend a lot of time growing up in the same house. In fact, this weekend we've talked about that old saying that no two children are raised by the same family. We may be proof of nature over nurture then, since we find so many similarities in our quirks, our likes and dislikes.

We certainly share our love of books. We've spent a lot of time in front of my bookshelves, heads turned sideways, reading the titles. Today as we rode together to High Point to visit the furniture market, her children had their noses buried in books.

My trip to market always gives me the chance to talk to the reps from across the country and the temporary receptionist I only see twice a year. We all get out our notebooks or blackberries and compare reading lists.

Today we also visited another friend's company showroom. I knew from an earlier market visit it had the head of a deer that talked mounted in one of the room settings. Using a remote microphone, one of the employees was able to talk, and the deer--named Buck--moved his mouth, nodded his head, and wiggled his ears. He knew my nephew and nieces' names. He sang "Sweet Home Alabama."

After we left, Lynnsey Beth, the six-year-old, said. That was my favorite things so far. Second was Nancy reading to me last night." I feel anything but sad to come in second to a talking deer. I'm just happy to know that Rodgers and Hammerstein, Joyce Kilmer, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Langston Hughes can hold their own with any generation.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Julia Alvarez at Hickory's Big Read

Speaking at Lenoir Rhyne University's Monroe Auditorium, Julia Alvarez demonstrated the power of repetition as she shared her own story, that of an American writer with roots in the Dominican Republic. More than once, she reminded her audience of the pivotal events in her life that led her to this place in her career: 1960--New York City--a sixth grade teacher--a librarian. Born in the United States, Alvarez spent her first ten years in her family's home in the Dominican Republic before fleeing the Trujilla dictatorship. When she was taunted by her classmates, "Why don't you go back where you came from?" she wanted to say, "We can't go back." She compared her situation to the cartoon characters who find them selves running off a cliff, realizing, "Yikes!" there is no ground below their feet and no way to turn back.

Alvarez's first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents was chosen for this year's Hickory Big Read, and she has been in Hickory since Wednesday, signing books at the library, speaking to 2500 fourth graders on Thursday, and speaking again to students on Saturday. Not living in Vermont, Alvarez described her own time in Fayetteville, North Carolina in the late 70s, teaching poetry to the elderly. (She learned later that some had come to the class thinking she was teaching them about poultry.)

In a carefully prepared but conversationally delivered presentation, Alvarez came across as generous and self-effacing. Before her introduction the audience was told she would speak 20-30 minutes, followed by a period of questions and answers. Although the time flew by, she seemed in no hurry to end her speaking engagement or to cut off any questions that remained.

Ms.Alvarez considers herself an American writer. In response to one audience question, she admitted that she came to literature through North American writers, canonical writers. In fact, she pointed out her wonderment that she now finds herself located on library shelves right next to Louisa Mae Alcott, near Emily Dickinson, on the opposite end of the alphabet from Walt Whitman.

In the literature class I teach this semester, I assigned a chapter in our text devoted to Julia Alvarez's poetry. Even before I heard her speak, I was struck by her easy allusions to Frost, to William Carlos Williams, to a host of canonical writers. Although she didn't come into literature through Latino/Latina writers, she does attribute the influence of the storytelling tradition to those roots.

She quoted former slave Terence, who said, "I am a human being. Nothing human is alien to me." Indeed, the thrust of her presentation focused on the power of storytelling. In fact, when she mentioned some of her favorites from literature, she alluded to Nancy Drew, but specifically mentioned Scheherazade, the hero of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights. She reminded us that stories are all around us and that, she said, is how we learn to be human.

I know all too well how unpredictable author readings can be. Some seem to have an inner clock ticking; some seem to wish they had stayed home. Julia Alvarez seemed genuinely pleased to be right where she was--in a room full of readers, an audience that chose to be there with her on a beautiful Friday night in Spring.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

It's a Wrap

As I keep several books going at once these days, sometimes they all wrap up about the same time. This week has been exceptional. Listening to Norman Mailer's Castle in the Forest, a 15-CD audio book, I found the going tough sometimes. The book is a story of Hitler's childhood and his parents' lives, and the narrator is the devil responsible for looking after young Adolph (Addie), so I had a hard time finding a sympathetic character. Mailer had done extensive research to put together this background tale of one of history's most infamous characters--a real monster. As I neared the end, though, I discovered that CD #15 was missing. I turned my car upside down, looking everywhere I could imagine, then realized that I had a book on my shelves, so I finished the old fashioned way.

At the same time, I've been re-reading Serena on the same reading schedule I've assigned to my students in preparation for Ron Rash's appearance at our Writers Symposium on April 23-24. I finished it within twenty-four hours of finishing Castle in the Forest.

Then before bedtime last night, I happened to pick up Stitches, the graphic novel/memoir by David Small. Until now, the only graphic novel I've read is Maus. This story came through recommendations at the November NCTE convention (where I get so many of my good titles). The story is dark--Small's dysfunctional family let him go through surgery as a preteen without ever telling him he had cancer. Even the book cover reflects the dark nature of the book, a picture of Small's parents and grandparents. A close look shows that around the author's name is a dialogue balloon in which his (insane) grandmother says " my durn grandson David Small Durnit !!" Not exactly ideal bedtime reading, but original and thought-provoking enough that I may have to look for Persepolis, the graphic novel I hope to read next.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Fiddling with Form

As I'm reading the poetry collections in my own library this month, the ones acquired in the last year especially, I am also teaching poetry in my Literature-Based Research class. Today as we discussed fixed form in contrast to free verse, I talked about the challenge not only of using the framework established by a fixed form such as a sonnet or sestina, but of creating something clever, original, or even beautiful in the process. After all, isn't that what drew Renaissance poets to the sonnet?

Two poets have achieved just such a feat with quite original constraints in the past year. First, Fred Chappel succeeded in his book Shadow Box to create a poem within each poem. At readings, his wife sometimes reads the inner poem as he reads the outer lines, reminding me of the power of poetry out loud.

In a quite different turn, Mike Smith's book Multiverse uses anagram in a most original way. The first section, entitled "A Bestiary," uses the same exact letters--no more, no fewer--to create each poem. His titles range from "Ape" to "Zebra" and all in between. The section section "Anagram of America" rearranges the letters of poems by famous poets to create something new, often in response to the original. He creates anagrams of Auden's "The Unknown Citizen," Bishop's "Filling Station," and Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain."

I cannot comprehend the tediousness of Smith's accomplishment, but I can certainly admire it--and I can enjoy the results, since he has succeeded in creating something new, endowed with meaning and message. He and Chappel make villanelles and sestinas look like a piece of cake.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

An Encouraging Word about Chapbooks, Take 2

Friday before I left the office for the long weekend break, I tried to publish a post about poetry. Never having had bad luck on this blog, I didn't think to save what I was posting, but when I clicked Publish, it all went away. Although I can't possibly remember everything I wrote, I'm going to try again.

Whenever I start spouting off about National Poetry Month--or poetry in general, I am either dismayed or disappointed at the number of reading friends who never consider poetry. In a way, I think Billy Collins may have been correct when he said that "high school is where poetry goes to die." I've tried not to be one of those teachers, but I do remember crossing paths with the ones who inflicted poetry on students rather than tantalizing us with it.

I've always loved poetry, but in the last few years, as I have been writing more, I have also been reading more. My suggestion to anyone who is reluctant or intimidated about reading poetry is that you start with a chapbook. These slender volumes usually have only 25-30 poems, usually focused on a central theme. The investment in time and money is minimal, but the payoff is often quite wonderful. This month, I've committed to read some of the chapbooks I've accumulated this year. I've dipped into a few, but I want to read the whole book at once to get the full effect.

I've started with Breathing Out by Bruce Niedt, a friend I've not actually met. Bruce participates in Poetic Asides, the online poetry community where I've been writing for two years now. In Bruce's work, I recognize a kindred spirit, and I enjoy his approach to a writing prompt. I'm not sure if his blog title Orange Peel inspired the first poem in his collection, a sensuous poem called"How to Peel an Orange," or vice versa. In "The Little Shoplifters, the speaker of the poem observes birds feasting on a spilt bag of seed at the home improvement stores. Another favorite of mine from this chapbook is "All the Clocks in My House are Set to Different Times."

Chapbooks are available in many places. If you check the poetry section of a book store, especially the indies, you may find volumes by local or regional poets. If you keep an eye out for readings in your area, you can usually pick up books published by the poets reading. Several presses that feature poetry have an online presence, even on Facebook.

Before ruling out poetry altogether, I suggest you try it again, this time with no essay to write, no multiple choice test to take. Read for the pleasure. That's why poets write, you know. As William Carlos Williams said, "If it ain't pleasure, it ain't a poem."

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Just as I've learned whom to trust in matters of book recommendations, I'm also cautious when recommending a book. While I am often eager to convince members of my book club to read novels I've already read and loved, we more often choose a title none of us have read. For April, at my suggestion, based completely on the word of one of my favorite readers, we settled on Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog. As I started reading this unusual story, translated from French, of a nondescript concierge and a young girl contemplating suicide, I worried about how my group would respond. Truly, much of the book delves deep into philosophy. I loved both characters, Renee and her young neighbor Paloma, and enjoyed the alternating accounts. I kept wondering, though, when they would discover one another, kindred spirits from such different backgrounds.

They meet through Kakuro Uzo, the newest tenant in the building, and what results is a beautiful, heartbreaking story of love and hope and friendship. I'm not one to weep, but just now, as I've turned the last page of the book, I feel heartbroken. Already, I'm thinking of who all I know that need to read this book too.