Thursday, September 30, 2010

Slim Volumes

One advantages to the rich offerings of poetry in my area is the opportunity to build my collection of full-length books and chapbooks from poets at all stages of their writing careers. Once a month at Poetry Hickory, a second Tuesday night event at Taste Full Beans, a local coffee shop, I am treated to short readings from the semi-open mic session followed by a couple of featured poets. If I arrange my schedule to arrive in time, I get a chance to share in the discussion with other poets too or to participate in a writing workshop before the readings.

While it's all too easy to let novels sit unread on the shelf, waiting until I have time to read them, books of poetry provide the perfect reading climate. Aside from Dante's Inferno or Milton's Paradise Lost, books of poems, especially chapbooks, can be read in one sitting or they can be read a few at a time--while I wait for a traffic light or an appointment.

When I read fiction, I often mean to go back and find a passage I particularly enjoyed, but if I fail to leave behind a post-it note, those readings are often lost forever. Poems, however, have those convenient titles. Returning again and again is an option I choose over and over.

Last week, at the second event in Lenoir-Rhyne University's Visiting Writes Series, I picked up a couple of books of poetry by Cathy Smith Bowers, recently named the new poet laureate of North Carolina. I had read her work before, but only a poem here and there. I took home my copies of The Candle I Hold Up to See You and The Books of Minutes and read them almost immediately. In the first, I was pleased to find two or three of the particularly poignant or humorous poems she had read for us that night. One of my particular favorites "Syntax" had appeared in The English Journal, the NCTE publication I have read for years. This poem serves as a warning for any teacher, particularly anyone who professes to teach creative writing. Another poem in the same volume "The Napkin" packed that lovely punch in the end. (One of the best things about attending a poetry reading is being able to observe the physical response of an audience to a poem.)

The other collection of poems by Bowers was set up in the format of The Book of Hours. Throughout the book, she uses a clever fixed form called, of course, the minute. These poems contain sixty syllables in three stanzas: 8-4-4-4, 8-4-4-4, 8-4-4-4. Within the limitations of the form, though, she achieved such a variety of effects. I'll admit that this was the first book of poems I had stayed up to finish while reading in bed.

I'm not sure how people gauge their responses to other people's poetry, but one litmus test of mine is that the poems inspire me to write poems of my own in response. As Keats said, "Poetry ...should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts and appear almost as a remembrance." I find that my notes from poetry readings often contain all the margin notes, bits and pieces of memories just waiting to be set down on paper in just the right shape.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Getting It: Mockingbird

If you read this blog with anything approaching regularity, you probably think I have an obsession with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird--and you're right. But this time I'm on a different track--at least partially. Kathryn Erskine's novel Mockingbird is the story of Caitlin Smith, a fifth grader with Asperger's Syndrome whose middle school brother was killed by a school shooter. His unfinished Eagle Scout project remains in the living room, covered by a sheet, a constant reminder to Caitlin and her grieving father that Devon will not be finishing it.

Caitlin tells her own story--the perfect textbook example of a naive narrator--as she tries to come to terms with what is lacking in her skills set. She can belch the alphabet, a skill that serves her well on the playground during the younger children's recess, but doesn't help much with making friends her own age. She is also an avid reader with a particular interest in the dictionary. One word she tries to understand--and attain--is Closure.

Erskine's title is an allusion to Lee's novel. Caitlin knew the book well and the movie better. Her brother had nicknamed her Scout, and she believes that with funny glasses and different clothes, her dad would be just like Atticus.

Erskine gives voice to the girl in a gentler way than Haddon did in The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime. The uses capital letters and exclamation points freely, sometimes realizing someone is screaming "and it might be me." The book lacks the strong language that keep some teachers and parents from using Curious Incident with younger readers. For young adult readers, though, the strongest lesson, one learned not only by Caitlin but by many of the other characters as well is that of Empathy.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Poetry in the Foothills

In the area of western North Carolina where I live, I declare that anyone who claims to be bored just isn't trying. I've never known of a place that offered so many cultural opportunities from folksy to highbrow. This weekend, I have a strong urge to drive to Bristol, TN/VA for the Rhythm and Roots Reunion, three days of all kinds of great music--but I also have Alabama-Duke football tickets.

Last weekend, I enjoyed a house concert up at Ticknock, listening to David Peterson and Charlie Cushman on the guitar and banjo with a roomful of other music lovers.

This week, though, my poetry-loving soul has been fed. I heard Antony Abbot and Jason Mott at Poetry Hickory at Taste Full Beans on Tuesday, and then last night I attended Lenoir-Rhyne's Visiting Writers Series, "An Evening of Poetry and Irish Music" with NC poet laureate Cathy Smith Bowers, Irish poet, Joan McBreen, and LRU's spring semester poet-in-resident Rhett Iseman Trull while listening to the Elf Tones' music.

From my own lit students, I recognize that so many people--even avid readers--are intimidated by poetry or simply dismiss it as "not for them." My own experience, though, indicates that like live music, live poetry, straight from the mouth of the poet, evokes a special response--whispered surprise, belly laughs, snickers, heads nodding in silent agreement. After hearing Cathy Smith Bowers' poem about her dog named for poet Seamus Heaney and her revelation that her dog had gotten custody of the pet, one of the women in the audience offered to help her get her dog back. (I don't suppose she simply planned to play a country song backwards.)

For now, I have some new volumes of poetry--a couple of full-sized books, a couple of chapbooks, kept nearby in the car. Instead of perusing the newspaper headlines at traffic lights or checking my text messages in waiting rooms, I think I'll have a poem or two.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mathematics--Straight from God's Notebook

Occasionally, I'll find myself recommending a book before I've even finished it. Sometimes the story line will make me think of a fellow reader for whom it is perfectly suited; at other times, I just love the characters so much that I want someone else to meet them, to read the book so I can talk about it.

This week I read The Housekeeper and the Professor, a simple novel by Yoko Ogawa, translated from Japanese. The premise of the book captured me: the narrator takes a job as housekeeper for a mathematics professor who was at the top of his field until a car accident resulting in brain damage that interrupted his memory every eighty minutes. He could remember his mathematical curiosity and genuis--predating the accident--but every morning, she had to introduce herself to him again (always answering his first two questions: What is your shoe size? What is your telephone number?)

Reminiscent of the main character of the film Memento, the professor pins notes to his clothes to remind him of things he doesn't want to risk forgetting--his eighty-minute memory, the housekeeper, and her son, whom he calls Root (because his haircut reminds him of the square root sign.) In fact, Root is present at the home at the professor's insistence that the child not be left at home alone while his mother worked.

Woven throughout the novel is the professor's fascination with numbers, prompting him to share his curiosity and knowledge first with his caretaker and then with her son. Not surprisingly, he also loves baseball (and all those statistics), although he doesn't realize his favorite pitcher has been long retired, information they keep from him.

I'll confess--I am not a math person, but neither was the housekeeper, a single mother and a high school drop out, but I loved the way the author wove numbers through the story, information the professor claimed not to have unlocked but to have transcribed from the notebook of God.

I had shared Blue Baillet's middle school novels, The Wright Three and Chasing Vermeer, with math teacher friends, along with The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime, all building stories around math in some way. This simple story, while nothing like these other three beyond the fascination with numbers, will be on my short list of recommendations for lots of my fellow readers, whether they are math people or not.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Books That Make Me Turn Back and Re-Read

Every once in a while, when I finish a book, I know I am not finished with the book. Sometimes I will finish a novel right before I go to sleep, and in the morning, I feel compelled to re-read the ending, to be sure what I think happened really happened. I did it with Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and with Charles Frasier's Cold Mountain. Sometimes the ending makes me turn back and read the beginning. At the end of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, I suddenly remembered the beginning, set in a different place and time and realized just why it was there. I did the same with one of the most intriguing YA novels, Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese, a book that blew me away with its ending, forcing me to go back to find the clues, the foreshadowing I had missed.

I finished Adam Ross's novel Mr. Peanut this week, and after letting the story percolate in my brain awhile, I know I have to go back and read the last few chapters. The main thread of the story, the death of David Pepin's wife Alice, from what seems an allergic reaction to a peanut, is interwoven with the family stories of the two detectives investigating him--Hastrol, whose wife Hannah has taken to her bed and refuses to leave it, and Sam Shepard (yes, that Sam Shepard), working for the police department after being released from prison on charges of killing his wife.

Ross moves from the main story--the Pepins--to Hastrol and Shepard--in ways that make a reader forget the other stories exist--until he throws in a small detail that echoes what's happening in the other two story lines. To reinforce the circular nature of the story, he adds an antagonist who goes only my the name of Mr. Mobius, and he has the Pepins meeting in a college elective that studies Hitchcock films and marriage. The professor's explanation of the MacGuffin seems to be more than a minor detail, but perhaps a clue to the way his narrative plays out.

The added detail that Pepin is writing a novel (whose main characters are David Pepin and his wife Laura) add to the web that will probably require a second reading just to discover the undergirding of the story that was there all along as I moved through the plot.

Ross has pulled off quite a feat in his structure of the novel, pulling the reader into whichever story he tells at the time, shifting perspectives within the stories, then leaving the reader wondering what just happened. Wondering enough to want to go back and find out--and that is just what I intend to do.