Friday, May 14, 2010

The Books of March and April (and three mini-reviews)

I'm afraid I've fallen off the wagon a bit, in terms of keeping you all updated about my book progress. Sorry about that! Luckily, I have only good things to report, as I have managed, thus far, to stick to my book-a-week goal, and I have even read an extra book in there so that when I take a trip to Virginia this summer, I will not be insanely focused on finishing a book and can actually relax and enjoy the sights!

The following is a list of what I have read in March and April. Note--all dates listed are the "finish by" dates, and I have made Friday my finishing day:

March 12--Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
March 19--Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath
March 26--The Giver by Lois Lowry
April 2--In No One's Land by Paige Ackerson-Kiely
April 9--Ornithologies by Joshua Poteat
April 16--The Starter Wife by Gigi Levangie-Grazer AND
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
April 23--The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb
April 30--A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

My favorite books from these past two months are Ornithologies, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Alias Grace. It's a cozy little group of three too, because the first is a book of poetry, the second is a book of short stories and essays and the third is a novel! I'll say a little bit about these three here, although my hope is to do full reviews on all three in the near future.

Ornithologies by Joshua Poteat-- One of the books I read last year was an incredible and highly creative gathering of poems entitled Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World: From J.G. Heck's 1851 Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science. The title was intriguing and the reviews I found were excellent, so I purchased it. It was one of the best poetry books I had read in years and one where the poet is certainly one that should go down in history as one of the best poets of our current time. I expect to see him in Norton Anthologies someday. What does this have to do with Ornithologies, you say? Well, I'll tell you.

The author of Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World is also the author of Ornithologies! This was supremely exciting to me as, unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled on Poteat's second book of poems. Then I found out there was a first! I immediately (okay, so I had to wait till I had some moolah--a month or two) ran over to the computer and ordered Ornithologies off of Amazon. And let me tell you--buying this book is one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Ornithologies is a book of poetry that actually has the ability to pull physical reactions from the reader. This kind of magic is rare. Every poem is so nuanced, so brilliantly laid out before us, so beautifully painful and painfully beautiful--I hardly can describe it, and I guarantee you my words are falling short. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to say that one of the poems, "Hitchhiking in the Dying South," actually brought me to tears. I am not embarrassed. This is what poetry is supposed to do. This is what it is supposed to BE. Ornithologies is a book I will return to again and again.

Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath-- I will be the first to let you know that I am a Plathophile. I have read all of her poems, listened to radio recordings of her, read her novel The Bell Jar, her journals, her husband's book of poems about her, and numerous biographies. I do not revere the destructive side of Sylvia Plath, as so many critics, teachers, and authors will say that girls do. I consider this opinion to be bothersome and offensive--just because you like someone who happened to commit suicide does not mean that you like them because they committed suicide. That's a dirty accusation. I revere her tenacity. Her incredible work-ethic. Her sublime sense of humor. Her honesty. I revere her humanity most of all, perhaps. I consider her a best friend that lets me read what she has written.

In all of my study of her and in all of my readings, I had not heard--for whatever reason--of this book, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. I first started noticing that I was missing something when I read the biography Her Husband: Hughes and Plath--a Marriage. In this biography, a great deal of references to essays and short stories, that I had never read nor seen anywhere, were made. I became curious, did some research, and found that there is a book called Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams which has all of her short stories compiled in it, as well as a significant amount of essays and some excerpts from her journals. And then, lo and behold, I found it at--of all places--Barnes and Noble. I always look through their Plath books and this book had never been there. Perhaps there was a resurgence of interest in it. Of course, I bought it and sat down and read it cover to cover, many favorite stories emerging from the pages: most notably "Day of Success," "Mothers," "Johnny Panic" and "Among the Bumble-bees."

The layout of the book is one of the most interesting and effectual layouts I've encountered. It begins with an introduction by Ted Hughes and then it proceeds to lay out these stories, essays and journal entries in reverse order of when they were written--thus they begin in 1962/1963 and work backwards to 1950. The effect is wonderful--as you read, you begin by recognizing the Plathian voice you already know, and then you see it through all of its phases backwards through late adolescence.

Of course, I am not saying any of this as well as Margaret Atwood did in her essay about this book. First, Atwood discusses who the reader of this book is: "Whom does such a publication benefit? Not the author, and not the author's reputation, which is doing very well without it. Not the general reader hitherto innocent of the Sylvia Plath opus and myth who may stumble upon it and wonder what all the shouting is about. I suppose the answer is "the student," if by "student" is meant any reader sympathetic enough to Plath's work to have read most of it already and to be interested in foreshadowings, crossreferences, influences and insights: and this is the kind of audience Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams assumes." ("Poet's Prose," Atwood, 1979)

One of my favorite short stories was actually the last one in the book (and hence, one of the earliest written), entitled "Among the Bumble-bees," a touching and emotional account paralleling the death of Sylvia's father, who was an expert in the study of bees. Again, Margaret Atwood's essay puts it best: "The stories are arranged chronologically but in reverse order. This creates an archeological effect: the reader is made to dig backward in time, downward into remarkable mind, so that the last, earliest story, "Among the Bumble-bees" (a wistful story about a little girl's worship of her father who dies mysteriously), emerges like the final gold-crowned skeleton at the bottom of the tomb--the king all those others were killed to protect. Which it is."

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood-- I was eighteen when I became a fan of Margaret Atwood. I was assigned her book, The Handmaid's Tale, for a Women's Studies class I was taking my freshman year in college. That book haunted me and placed me face-to-face with not only the problems that do exist for women, but also the problems that--scarily enough--one could imagine existing for women. Years later, my sister gave me Atwood's book Cat's Eye, again, a book that dealt with women and the world around them, a world sometimes beautiful, but most often harsh. After reading both of these books, I became a die-hard Atwood fan, and have remained so to this day.

Alias Grace was given to me by my sister as well. She had accidentally bought two copies. In my book-a-week quest, I have to decide week by week what book I want to read, and this one was top of my list--I had owned it for years and never read it. The second I sat down with it, I was enthralled. The cover has a quote from the Washington Post that reads: "Alias Grace has all the pacing of a commercial novel and all the resonance of a classic." The reason this quote is the quote on the cover? It is entirely and unerringly true, and it could not be said better. Alias Grace is written with such force that you can't put it down. And at the same time, the reader can liken it to a Bronte or Dickens book in its environment, its effect on the reader, and its ability to stand with those authors without shrinking in their shadows.

One of the most interesting dimensions of Alias Grace is the fact that it is based on an actual historical event that occurred in Canada in 1843. Grace Marks was a 16 year old girl accused of murdering two people. Atwood effortlessly combines fiction with historical accuracy and the result is an astounding success. I could hardly set the book down, and at night I had dreams of a girl hanging by a white scarf. You know a book is good when it enters your dreams. I don't want to spoil anything for you, so I am refraining from offering up key plot points, but suffice it to say, this book, despite taking place in what a reader might assume is a stodgy era, is fast-paced, eerie, and highly mysterious.

My sister and I read Alias Grace at the same time--though she is in Denver and I am in L.A. We had an over-the-phone bookclub about it, pointing out Atwood's exquisitely poetic prose, deep and philosophical ideas, and the story's strange and unearthly occurances. We plan on reading another Atwood book, The Blind Assassin, by next weekend and having another long-distance bookclub. Margaret Atwood is an author who never lets you down and always gives you a masterpiece.

Stay tuned! I will soon be posting another blog about my May books!


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Beginning of a Challenge

We all know how it goes: life gets busy. We don't always have time for all the things we would like to do, much less time to accomplish a task we set for ourselves. Friends are getting married, or having children, or inviting you to parties. The house needs work, there is laundry to do, and a job to look for, and bills to pay. It seems that our lives have gotten so full that we can't keep up with our own interests.

I am interested in books.

A lover of literature from a young age, I have never ceased to be amazed at the amount of really good writing out there. My love extended from youth into young adulthood, where I graduated with a degree in English Literature. And then, something happened. Something that happens to all of us, I think: I stopped reading. Maybe not entirely--I'd read a book here and there. But I mean stopped in the sense that it was no longer a priority. My life took over, and because no academic grade was resting on whether or not I finished that biography of Picasso, I just never finished it. My life was riddled with books left unfinished.

A few years ago, in 2008, finally facing down the fact that I was not nearly as well-read as I would like to be, I vowed to read at least a book a month. I succeeded in reading fifteen books, some of which became a few of my all-time favorites (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath). The next year, I vowed to do the same, but this time to at least read more books than I had the year before. Once again, I succeeded. I read 21 books last year, nearly a book every two weeks. But not quite. And that leads us to the present: it is 2010, and I have a brand new, if daunting, goal: to read a book a week for the entire year.

Now, some of you might say I'm crazy. Certainly, going from twenty-one books to fifty-two is no small feat, and quite a leap, really. Yes. It's true. But thus far, I figure I'm two for two. So why can't I succeed now? All it calls for is a little reorganization of my life. Okay...a lot of reorganization.

Reading a book a week means I have to make time for myself. I have to allot hours of time throughout the week for the singular act of reading. I have to say no to the movie and yes to the book some nights. I have to take it with me wherever I go on the off-chance that there will be down-time while waiting for my smog-check or that doctor's appointment or while at work. I have to plan ahead. And I have to focus, on a daily basis, on this goal. It will not be easy.

My hope is that I learn something--not only through the books I will read, but through the process. Perhaps I will learn innumberable things about myself! I might learn that I hate deadlines...or that I love them. I might learn that making time for myself is the best thing I could do for my love life and my self life. I might learn new viewpoints, learn about new places, learn about new authors and open up new worlds. All is possible. Just the idea of this quest thrills me. I am taking the literacy of America personally. I am reading because I love to read, and I am whole-heartedly standing up and saying "I can do something to change myself, my ideas and, in turn, the world around me."

Perhaps I cannot make that get-together afterall. My excuse? I'm reading.