Reading Through the Stacks: 13. Let there be plot!

Let’s read through Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.

Taking a break from the 20th century, we’re going to chat about a poetry collection from a famous author, who’s asking a very interesting question within her poems:

How many words does it take to tell a story?

Margaret Atwood (1939-) is a prolific writer in nearly every genre. She really doesn’t need me to give her an introduction. But if you haven’t read a book by Margaret Atwood, you could do worse than to start with her poetry. She started publishing poetry in the 1960s–and her first two books were award winners. She writes about the nature of dualities, about women and their treatment by society, and about grief. Her writing is pretty lean and very easy to read. She uses questions effectively throughout her poems and encourages readers to engage with difficult ideas. Dearly is her first new collection in over a decade, and uses fairy tales and songs to look at life, aging, and our connection with each other and the planet.

And if you are new to poetry–this is a great collection to start with–especially since it Atwood has enough bestselling weight to make an audiobook of her collection. It’s available on Libby from the San Francisco Public Library, and likely from your local library too. The audiobook is read by Atwood.

Plot abounds throughout these poems. Sometimes this is absolutely explicit such as in the pronouncement at the end of “The Tin Woodsman Gets a Massage”: “Let there be plot.” I think this commitment to plot, which is not always a common poetry element, makes Atwood’s work more approachable to readers who are used to reading fiction. There are narratives and stories woven into the poems.

It’s more common in poetry for narrative to be used as allusion. “The Tin Woodsman Gets a Massage” is a clear example of this–we’re expected to understand the reference so that the poet doesn’t have to explain the narrative but can instead allude to it and draw new comparisons and conclusions. Older poets (and Atwood herself) frequently draw on mythological or biblical stories to do this, more modern poets often reach to fairy tales, popular culture, and other stories. But the point is still the same–to use a comparatively well known reference to illuminate something personal. Atwood often uses these devices to make familiar things less familiar. Her speakers are extremely skeptical of appearances:

“The world that we think we see
is only our best guess.”

from “Walking in the Madman’s Wood”

One of the things I absolutely love about this collection is how much Atwood can communicate in three lines–an entire film as it turns out:

“The aliens arrive.
They are smarter than us, and carnivorous.
You know the rest.”

from “The Aliens Arrive: Nine Late Night Movies”


She also makes great use of repetition, as in the poem “Souvenirs” the repetition of “remember” works really interestingly in this quote. It brings its own rhythm to the poem, but to me it also suggests an accompanying fear–that of forgetting. As if saying the word over and over again becomes a kind of spell or charm:

“But who is to remember what?
It’s a cute cat hat, but you’ve never been there.
I can remember buying it
and you can remember that I once
remembered: I remembered
something for you.”

from “Souvenirs”

Also, can we take a second to appreciate the hard ka sound of “cute” and “cat” and then the sing-song rhyme of “cat” and “hat”?

Atwood’s poetry asks a lot of questions, and its generally really well done, but I think this example might be a rare overuse. What are your thoughts? Do we need all 3 questions here? All four lines? I think I would have stopped at two.

“Do we have goodwill?
To all mankind?
Not any more.
Did we ever?”

from “The Twilight of the Gods”

I love the use of song language throughout the poems as well. But I think I’ve gushed enough. Margaret Atwood definitely doesn’t need me to plug her work, but I’ll do it anyway. Go and read Dearly!

TTT: 10 Series I Can’t Wait to Finish and/or Start

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

Are you the type of person that can finish a series? I am….not generally that person. There are a few series that I love–that I’ve read multiple times, but to be honest those are mostly books that I started as a kid or young adult. And even then, some series I didn’t finish until I was older like A Series of Unfortunate Events. And by the time I did, well the window where I was going to love that book had sort of passed me by. Although I really enjoyed the Netflix show.

I was obsessed with the Harry Potter books and read them all multiple (multiple) times, but there’s not a lot of other series I can say that about. I’m a serial series starter. I have a really hard time when not all the books are published or published in a reasonable timeframe (ahem GoT and The Kingkiller Chronicles) because I hate waiting for a new book to come out. I also don’t have a lot of patience for series of more than 10 books. I do okay with trilogies (especially when I’m reading them for a book club or something), but on the whole I mostly read standalone books.

But like all (arbitrary) rules, there’s always exceptions. Most of the series are ones I’d like to finish, and just two I’d like to start. But of course, I start series all the time so this list is always changing.

Series I’d Like to Finish:

Thursday Next by Jasper Fforde (finished 2/7 books)

Do you like books about books? How about saving the world through a combination of bureaucracy and butt-kicking? If you answered yes to both these questions, you’ll probably enjoy Thursday Next, who lives in an alternate world where books are of great importance–in fact they might even save the day. The first book, The Eyre Affair, follows Thursday, a veteran from the never-ending war, in her job in Special Ops, and her division deals with book crimes. She gets pulled into a plot that involves evil corporations, evil geniuses, and lots of literary references. If you are a fan of Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, I think you’ll probably enjoy these books a lot.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas (finished 4/8 books, first 3 and the prequel)

My friend recommended these books to me and they are so much fun. Who doesn’t love an assassin protagonist with a love of fancy clothes who is secretly… but we won’t go there. And love triangles? That’s so simple. We deal with complexity. Why not love pentagons? love octagons? I would have had 5 of them read, but I had to turn the book in when we moved and I haven’t gotten it out at the library again. I wish the library had the whole series as audiobooks.

Flavia de Luce by Alan Bradley (finished 2/11 and counting)

Okay so I read the first two of the Flavia de Luce series featuring a precocious preteen detective with a love of all things grisly and a knack for chemistry. It’s like someone shook up A Series of Unfortunate Events and We Have Always Lived in the Castle with a whole lot of mystery. The reason I’ve held off is that the series isn’t finished yet. But maybe this will be less of a problem once I get a few more books under my belt.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (finished 1/5 books)

I really, really enjoyed the first one, and I’d like to just get them all out from the library at the same time, including the first one, and binge read them all the way through.

Great Cities by N.K. Jemisin (finished 1/2?)

I loved The World We Make, and honestly I think the first book stood on its own, but it was also so good that I think it’s worth reading the sequel. I don’t know if this series will have more than two books, but the fact that the second one came out so quickly (Jemisin seems like an author who actually finishes her series) makes me feel a little more confident about picking this one up.

Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab (1/3 books)

There’s only 3 books. The first one was really good. Series should really not be this hard to finish–that’s what I keep telling myself.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (1/3 books)

How have I only read one of these? I honestly don’t know.

The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss (1/3? books)

I refuse to read the second one until the final one comes out. This is silly. I have principles. The first one was so good, but it was clearly not meant as a standalone experience and they are dense so I only want to reread the first one.

Series I’d Like to Start:

Discworld by Terry Pratchett (41(ish?) books. Gulp.)

My first introduction to Terry Pratchett was through Good Omens, and I know deep, deep in my bones that I’m going to love these books. But–there are so many! I think I will read them in sub-series order because then I can break up the larger world into smaller, more manageable series. That seems more doable.

The Wilderwood by Hannah Whitten (2 books, so far?)

These look like some good, dark fairy tale adaptions, which are generally my preferred reading material.

Have you read any of these series? Do you have a favorite book series? Let me know in the comments!

Reading Through the Stacks: 12. Modern Rhymes and Meter

Join me on a tour through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.

Today we’re talking about a semi-modern master, Elizabeth Bishop. Since The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 is, well, complete, I didn’t pick up any other collections of her work. And I’ll be doing that throughout this challenge–reading the most complete book where possible.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was a relatively unknown poet during her lifetime, only publishing about 100 poems. She liked to tinker and perfect her works instead of moving onto new ones. Even with a small set of poems (the collection is less than 300 pages), she’s considered to be one of the most important 20th century poets. She’s referenced a lot in books about poetry, and she won a Pulitzer as well as a National Book Award.

Many of her poems use older forms–she has a flair for iambic meter and rhyme, but she often doesn’t feel beholden to making strict use of these forms. She frequently varies meter and uses off rhyme within her poems, so though her work is really structured, it feels much more modern and contemporary than I would have expected. Bishop also painted, and her images are crystal clear, nuanced, and clever.

I am not the biggest fan of rhyme when it comes to poetry (probably because it’s really not my strong suit), so I have to admit that while I loved a lot of lines out of Bishop’s poems, I loved fewer of her full poems. But still lines like this inspired me to add them to my collection:

“sluggish fireflies
the jellyfish of the air”

from “Manuelzinho”

She just has such a gift for image. With just a few words she manages to convey mood, movement, and another place, another world.

I also like the way the speaker in Bishop’s poems doesn’t just declare, she thinks and feel. This gives her poems a lighter touch, as if you are taken on a journey with the speaker to find the right words to convey the experience:

The great light cage has broken up in the air,
freeing, I think, about a million birds
whose wild ascending shadows will not be back,
and all the wires come falling down.

from “Four Poems: II / Rain Towards Morning

Freed birds out a giant birdcage is an unusual metaphor for rain, but the insertion of ‘I think’ really struck me since there’s nothing concrete to be uncertain about. Instead it communicates not that the metaphor is not uncertain for the speaker, but that the scale is uncertain.

Some of the poems in the book are definitely a product of their time. If not quite racist, they certainly bring up uncomfortable aspects of United States culture towards race and white superiority:

the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps–
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter
do when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat,
either because the glue here is very inferior
or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once; 
we are driving to the interior.

from “Arrival at Santos”

I would say on the whole, the poem from which this is taken is critical about the tourist’s expectations and viewpoints, but not quite critical enough to assume that in a different country things were going to be not just different than what the speaker is used to but worse. This is a pretty tame example, but it illustrates subtle attitudes in a handful of her poems. Granted, inferior/interior is a good rhyme but has a lot of colonialist undertones.

Reading this book at the same time as I was reading a book on formal poetics (rhyme and meter and such) was very interesting because Bishop plays with form a lot and was referenced in the book several times. Overall her work is little formal for my taste, but she’s definitely a pretty approachable poet who rewards readers with really lovely sounding lines and excellent alliteration.

Hidden, oh hidden
in the high fog
the house we live in,
beneath the magnetic rock,
rain-, rainbow-ridden,
where blood-black
bromelias, lichens,
owls, and the lint
of the waterfalls cling,
familiar, unbidden.

from “Song for the Rainy Season”

Visit the Poetry Foundation’s site to read some of Bishop’s best known work in full such as “The Moose” and “One Art.”

TTT: My 10 Favorite Fictional Unlikable Characters

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

For me, reading is all about the characters. I want them to be interesting. I want them to have chutzpah and gumption and a *teensy* bit of common sense. They need to develop, have interesting viewpoints, be flawed. So actually, I really like the normally “unlikable” characters. I think villains are interesting. They have goals, ambition, flaws, a story arc. My actual least favorite characters are not bad–they’re one dimensional. I have (and will continue to) stop reading a book if the main character

1) delights in violence and evil “just because”

2) they are wishy washy and let everyone walk over them with nary a peep of protest

3) don’t let anything change them over the course of the story

4) don’t have interesting flaws/motivation/back story

5) are continually whining

6) they have no self-awareness

Strong characters have flaws. And sometimes those flaws are formidable, horrible, and gut wrenching. But if they’re interesting, I’ll enjoy the book not despite, but because of the complexity.

From least to most favorite character (not necessarily book):

the narrator from My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

This is one of those books that people either love or hate. The main character is vain, petty, and totally willing to do what it takes to escape from her life in the form of keeping herself drugged. Like if Sleeping Beauty chose her curse. But although I couldn’t relate to the narrator I found this scenario so insanely outside my realm of understanding, I just had to keep reading. I wanted to understand this character even though I didn’t like her at all. That never happened. But it was still a great book in my opinion. An unapologetically unlikable figure.

pretty much everyone in The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I don’t have a favorite unfavorite character from this book. I love/hated them all equally. Like Moshfegh, Tartt is really skilled with unlikable characters. I would never want to inhabit their world, but I liked the peek through the window.

also pretty much everyone, but especially Behemoth in The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I really love this book, where the Devil comes to Moscow, creates a witch, and then puts on a party. Behemoth is a monstrous (in size but also in behavior) black cat who also has a human form. I think he’s actually more unlikable than the Devil but he’s so much fun and creates so much mischief. Now I want to reread it.

Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oh Dorian, so vain and dumb to think that life wouldn’t eventually catch up with you… but it’s fun while it lasts.

Zenia from The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

She’s manipulative, gorgeous, and even her friends love to hate her. But you can’t really hate all that glamor and poise. At least I can’t. I think she also makes an appearance in several of Atwood’s short stories.

Olympia/Oly from Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Oly is kind of entitled to be unlikable. She’s dealt with a lot of traumatic crap in her life such as her parents purposefully trying to get their children to have “interesting” birth defects for their circus act….

the wizard from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

I think the Witch of the West is pretty one dimensional in the original book–she’s much more complex in the Wicked books, but ultimately not unlikable, which negates her for this list. No, my favorite unlikable character from the first book is definitely the wizard. Oh that lovable humbug. He’s just such an American villainfaking it till he makes it. He becomes more likable in subsequent books in the series–leaning into his role as inventor, showman, and tinkerer honestly.

Hugo from The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen

Hugo is so grumpy. He has so many hot takes. But this novel is complex and philosophical and I just really like him in spite of his grouchy behavior. Don’t attempt the sauce recipe he makes through. Blech. I did–and I’m telling you now–save yourself.

The Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Off with her head! I mean–almost everyone in these two books is unlikable. I don’t really like Alice all the time. Especially the Disney version where she comes off as a little insipid. But the book is so playful, so absurd and delightful, and no one embodies this quite as much as the Queen of Hearts and her bloodthirsty whims.

Lady Bracknell from The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

I’m actually not sure if Lady Bracknell is supposed to be unlikable. But since she tries to thwart the lovers–I’m counting it. I absolutely love this character and how snobby she is. This is a play where the writing is much more lovable than any of the characters to be honest, but it’s one of my absolute favorite…book is not the right word. Pieces of fiction? She’s a very complex character as well–probably the most complex in the play. She actually changes her mind rather than the circumstances changing to suit her. Although pretty much everything she says runs counter to my own beliefs, she just says it so decisively and with so much wit.

“I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like delicate exotic fruit; tough it and the bloom is gone.”

Lady Bracknell, Act One

Who is your favorite unlikable character? Let me know in the comments.

TTT: 10 Slightly Creepy But Not Horrifying Halloween Movies

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

This week’s prompt was a freebie related to Halloween. I love Halloween. The dress up and magic and witches and candy and caramel apples….so fantastic. One of my favorite things to do around this time of year is watch Halloween appropriate movies. But I’m not a fan of horror. I don’t particularly like to be scared. I do like things that are a little dark, unexplained, morbid, and/or creepy–just nothing with a ton of gore and violence and jump scares and menacing music so that I have to sleep with the lights on for a week.

So I went through my list on Kanopy. Kanopy is a streaming service that your library might subscribe to–every month you get a certain number of views of mostly indie, classic, international, and documentary films. I picked some films off of my watchlist that aren’t horror but are certainly appropriate for this time of year that always feels closer to pumpkins, warm drinks, and walks at twilight. Scroll down to find lots of Halloween appropriate documentaries, foreign films, and fairy tales.

If you don’t have Kanopy, you can rent these on your favorite rental streaming site or probably pick them up as DVDs from your library. If they’re streaming on a different site, I’ve noted that. These are in the order that I viewed them.

Stuffed (2019)

How do you feel about taxidermy? It’s a little creepy to me in that it brings up uncanny valley feelings–the best taxidermy is beautiful and still, it is pretty clearly not alive. I thought this documentary was great–they interview a ton of different taxidermy artists. Some have a very scientific approach because they work in museums, others use taxidermy to create stories. It’s a good amount of creepy, but what I appreciated was the care and respect for animals as well as for the artform and fellow practitioners. Also, if you’d asked me before how taxidermy was done I would have had no idea, so in that sense this documentary is fairly educational as well. It’s well shot and compelling.

Burke & Hare (2010)

If Sweeney Todd was not a musical and was laugh out loud funny (when it wasn’t gasp inducing), it would pretty much be this film. It is, in a word, ludicrous in all the best ways. It’s set in 1828, and the famous anatomists in Edinburgh need bodies to dissect so Burke & Hare bravely step up to fulfill this need. Every character is mocking each other, but rarely themselves, and the cast is fantastic. Everyone is talking in a Scottish accent. There’s murder and an all-female production of Macbeth. I mean–what more can you ask for?

also available on Roku, Sling TV, and Amazon prime with premium subscriptions.

Exhumed: A History of Zombies (2021)

So I am not a big fan of zombies. But I am a huge fan of pop culture histories. And this documentary traces the story of zombies in popular culture all the way to its roots. And by doing so reveals the real horror–racism and enslavement. I learned so much about a genre I typically avoid–if you’re even passingly interested in zombies or how horror elements proliferate in culture, I would highly recommend this short documentary.

Available online through PBS.

Therapy for a Vampire (2014)

Okay so this one is actually a monster movie. But it’s more of a comedy than anything. I mean the vampires sound like roaring lions. If anything, this German film is kind of campy. But I love the premise of a vampire seeking psychoanalysis from Sigmund Freud. It’s delightfully ridiculous and plays with vampire tropes in a really amusing way. It also has really interesting things to say about image and understanding of ourselves.

Also streaming on Tubi.

Mary Shelley (2017)

This biopic starring Elle Fanning wasn’t really horrifying (except for how much I disliked the costumes, maybe), but since Shelley is the author of Frankenstein, it seemed appropriate for this list. It kind of reminds me of Shakespeare in Love in that it traces an author’s work through a love story. This is much sadder though. But it ends fairly well, so you won’t necessarily be reaching for the tissue box.

Also streaming on Tubi.

La Belle et la Bete (1946)

Jean Cocteau’s classic take on Beauty and the Beast has been on my list for a while. And since I tend to watch a lot of fairy tale films this time of year, it seemed appropriate to include. Plus watch this film and tell me that the disembodied arms holding the candelabras and the fireplace heads aren’t all kinds of creepy! The film is really well done, and you can see a lot of inspiration between this film and the Disney version in the early 90s such as the talking objects, the character of Gaston, the way the Beast is drawn, and so on. I loved the costumes in this film. They are so over the top in the best possible way. Also–no I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t seen it. But it’s a great ending!

Also streaming on HBO max. It was also remade in 2014, and that version, titled Beauty and the Beast is streaming on Amazon Prime, Pluto, Tubi, Peacock.

Tale of Tales (2015)

This is the closest film to actual horror on this list. There are a few pretty horrifying scenes, but I didn’t find it particularly scary. It’s not really dark–all the horror is in the light–and nothing jumps out at you or anything. But the whole thing is masterful. The film explores three adjacent kingdoms and the magical craziness that happens in each one. Each kingdom has a different path, and the tales are interwoven. They seem to draw from a lot of different fairy tales and tropes, so if you’ve got a lot of knowledge of folklore, you’ll definitely recognize certain elements and tales. But the cinematography, the mise en scene, the talented character actors they chose–it’s just captivating. It’s been a long time since I watched a film that was this magical–in the dark, Angela Carter sense.

The Frankenstein Complex (2015)

This documentary introduces you to the people behind the monsters from horror, science fiction, and action films. The documentary moves chronologically from the use of special effects makeup through puppetry, stop motion, animatronics, and finally to CGI effects. Although the people interviewed were really fascinating, I wasn’t a huge fan of how the film was cut together (a lot of scenes from films are referenced but not shown) and the editing was a little off pace. But I loved seeing how some of these props were made and seeing the people who brought some amazing creatures and characters to life.

Blancanieves (2012)

If you watch one movie from this list, I hope it’s this one. This Spanish adaptation of Snow White, told as a silent film about bullfighting was so gorgeous. It’s in black and white, so there’s this amazing attention to texture and detail. And it’s just really beautiful and heartbreaking. I feel like over the years a lot of the feeling has been stripped from this story, but this film really puts heart back into it.

Also streaming on Tubi.

The Witches of Hollywood (2020)

This documentary looks at how witches have been portrayed in films in the United States. This is a pretty narrow focus, but there’s plenty to look at and talk about. I wasn’t a huge fan of the voiceover, but the people they interviewed were interesting, and they showed a lot of film clips. I found a couple films to add to my watchlist. The documentary didn’t go too deeply into film analysis (although there is some of that), instead it focuses on how the witch evolves alongside the progression of culture in United States and responds to the current preoccupations about womanhood. Pretty fascinating, all told.

Any of these films catch your eye? Do you have a favorite movie to watch around this time of year? Let me know in the comments.

TTT: A Dozen of My Favorite Words

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

This week’s prompt is book-adjacent, but a fun prompt for me as a poet. It’s about favorite words. And actually limiting it to ten was extremely difficult, so I have chosen (with much narrowing down) a dozen to share with you.

Have you ever repeated a word so often that it loses all its meaning? All the significance is gone and you just have the sound. You begin to question the spelling–and if you keep going, you question the sound too. Have you been mispronouncing, misunderstanding this word all your life?

The famous Shakespeare line “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” suggests (rightly according to much of literary and linguistic theory) that the word and the thing bear no real relation except the associations that we as speakers make. These associations are deeply held, but we’ve seen throughout history that words can change meaning, take on new meanings, and be invented altogether. Language is fluid and dynamic–it evolves with us and can’t be taken for granted.

All this rambling is to say, I chose these words for the sounds, for how I feel about the sounds and the way they feel in my mouth rather than their meaning alone (but of course meaning creeps in). I also like the way many of these words suggest other words or suggest moods. It’s hard to stop at 10, so here are 12 I really like, deliberately not in alphabetical order but rather the order in which they came to mind.

1. scandalous

Starting off with a three syllable word. Something about it feels luscious or luxurious to me. The first syllable lingers in the mouth so the rest feels like a secret.

2. lounge

So onomatopoeia is when a word for the sound tries to imitate a sound, and I almost feel like lounge does that. Doesn’t it sound like it just wants to lie around all day?

3. close

Say this word out loud. Then tell me if you thought of close as in close the door or as in hold me close. Interesting right?

4. swing

This word has energy, it moves up in pitch when you say it, and I love how it contains the flight of wing. I have my own personal memories attached to this word too–swings and my childhood seem inextricably linked.

5. skip

I mean this word is obviously short, but it’s short when you say it too, has a skid and stop quality, like it’s full of false starts.

6. elusive

I think this word doesn’t really sound all that elusive or hard to grasp, like scandalous it lingers–I like the word because it’s kind of sensual and the syllables are pleasing. But a word like rural seems way more elusive to me in terms of its pronunciation.

7. shade

I love both interpretations of this word, from the dappled sunlight under a tree to throwing shade. Either way, it covers you.

8. moment

Another word I feel is more elusive than elusive. This word wants to hang on, but instead it slips away. It’s soft too, like a whisper or murmur.

9. vine

I think I like v sounds, and -ine is great too. How possessive mine feels or entwine. But vines themselves? I can take them or leave them. Ivy is pretty. And a pretty word too. Too bad I swore I’d stop at 12.

10. spool

I love these sounds. That double oo is just wonderful to read.

11. nimble

This word’s sounds fit the meaning for me, quick and weaving

12. fall

I actually don’t like they way most of the -all words sound, I think the ‘f’ softens it a bit and gives it a less uniform texture, even for a word that’s so short.

bonus words:

I’m a word addict and I can’t help myself!

praline

I have this memory of my cousin ordering pralines and cream at Baskin Robbins when I was a kid. (pray-lean was her pronunciation) and it just sounded so decadent. She was acting in a local troupe at the time and she’s always had a marvelous voice. But in that moment I thought that was the coolest ice cream order anyone had ever made.

wicked

This one is just too much fun. If you’ve listened to the soundtrack for the show, maybe you have also fallen in love with the way Idina Menzel pronounced this word.

Let me know some of your favorite words in the comments!

Reading Through the Stacks: 11. Summer at the Cinema

The sloth painting on the cover reinforces the purposefully slow, thoughtful pace of the collection.

Join me as I read through the Oakland Public Library poetry collection.

So this week has not quite gone to plan, and this book is going to be a few days overdue. Whoops. But I’m glad that I finished it and didn’t just turn it back in because I so thoroughly enjoyed Troy Jollimore‘s collection, Earthly Delights.

This is another new book from the library’s collection, and it’s Jollimore’s (1971-) fourth book of poetry. Jollimore is also a philosopher and teaches at California State University, Chico. Although I didn’t know that before reading the collection, it doesn’t surprise me. The collection is meditative and playful, especially with themes of leaving and return, such as in the last poem of the collection which is an imagination of Odysseus before he leaves Ithaca. There’s a lot of looking back in the book, but I wouldn’t call it nostalgic. Wistful for the beginnings of things maybe, but not nostalgic in the sense that it believes we can or should return to another time.

The book feels very summery to me. Part of this is the literal mention of summer in several poems, but it’s also a mood, a languid, slow moving rhythm that feels like long summer nights on the porch. It feels ripe, at its peak but also if you pick up some peaches, they may be rotten, such as discussions about our current political state. Here’s a sample of that summery feeling I’m picking up on:

it takes three drinks to make the music
sound the way it’s supposed to sound,
that the taste of the air on summer evenings

is always a little bit bitter,
always a little bit tinged with regret, that this is
your language, your city, and no one but you

can speak it, and no one but you can save it.

Troy Jollimore from “Landscape with Ambiguous Symbols”

Jollimore uses a ton of references–the classic ones are here of course–few collections are complete without mentions of Greek mythology, but beyond those references there is so much discussion of cinema. This takes the form of individual movies, such as a long poem on American Beauty and others on cinema classics that he calls screenshots. I don’t know if there’s a work like ekphrastic (poems about visual artwork) for poems about cinema, but it’s not a true ekphrasis in that it’s not really describing what we see so much as capturing some of the mood or a philosophical question the film delves into. For example, Jollimore delves into questions of identity in his poem about the film Being John Malkovich:

Being John Malkovich, John Malkovich
was pretty much the inevitable choice
to play the character ‘John Malkovich.’
Who else could imitate that wheedling voice,

…..

…But know,
the very question that the film itself

forces us to confront is, who am I
when someone else lives through me?…

Troy Jollimore, from “Screenshots: Being John Malkovich”

So the philosopher definitely comes through here–the film brings up questions, but the poem does not concern itself with answering the questions. Rather the poems (and this can be said about poetry throughout the book) rephrase the questions in really moving, insightful ways. Because of this the book feels intellectually rather than emotionally moving, and it’s clever without resorting to barbs.

I am excited to pick up a copy of this collection and start making notes in it. There’s so much to pick apart in this book, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. This is definitely a book to reread.

TTT: 9 Books I Bought on Vacation

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

I’m the kind of person who always brings a book to the cabin and…never reads more than a few pages of it. I go on trips with several book and come back with most of them unread except for the audiobook on the plane. I’m often lucky if I get a single book read on a trip. There’s usually so many other things to experience and do and reading tends to be a pretty solitary, relaxing activity, which is not usually trip strategy. So with very few exceptions (like our trip to Taiwan years ago when I had long stretches of time to myself), I tend to buy more books on vacation than I read. And because these books become something like souvenirs, they’re often more memorable to me than the books that I read (or tried to read, and reread the same paragraph over and over again). So although the prompt for this week is books I read on vacation, I’m going to talk about books I purchased on vacation instead.

New York, New York at the Strand: Unnatural Creatures ed. by Neil Gaiman

I bought this book for the cover, the gorgeous typography and twisting branches. We were young college kids on this trip, and we didn’t have a lot to spend on souvenirs, but the book was out in paperback and on sale, and I bought it. This is a great collection of short stories by the way–a cool focus that allows the writers to be very creative. If you enjoy fantasy and dark fairy tales, you’ll definitely enjoy it.

Bend, Oregon: The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

I found this at a thrift store with my Mom and Nana–we always beeline for the books. I had read a couple other Atwood books by then so I was excited to see another one. Even now, I know I’ll get through all of her books eventually, but I tend to dole them out to myself so I don’t go through them all at once.

Paris, France: A French version of the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I learned un petit peu of French for the trip to Paris my Nana and I took in 2018. I learned enough to get around as a tourist, but definitely not enough to struggle through Harry Potter, and given the choice I’ll probably go back to Spanish, but I couldn’t resist buying something in the wonderful little bookstore. Next time I’ll stick to notebooks. I still have the little embossed bookmark though, and I love it.

Maui, Hawaii: The Quest for King Arthur by David Day

I really enjoy shopping, but not the mass produced souvenir kind, so while my friend was off looking at things in Lahaina, I went and found this cute little used bookstore and an interesting coffee table book about King Arthur caught my eye.

Taichung, Taiwan: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I went into a lot of bookstores and stationery stores in Taiwan and bought lots of washi tape and little cards and stickers and things, but I didn’t kid myself and think I was ever going to learn enough Mandarin even for a simple picture book. But there was a little used bookstore in Taichung that held a shelf of English books, and I was running low on reading material so…it came home with me.

Actually Taiwan was the rare trip that I read quite a bit since I was alone most of the day. I only took books I was willing to leave behind and I ended up leaving almost a drawerful and the hotel called. In retrospect, I should have just taken them down to the bookstore I’d found but I was worried I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the person at the counter even though the vast majority of people we met spoke at least some English (certainly much more than my 10 words of Mandarin)  i also could have looked it up on my phone… no excuse really. My bag was lighter without them and then I had room for all the washi tape.

Patrick Ness writes really well about the shock and horrors of childhood made manifest as a little boy grieves his mother in the only way he knows how. A beautiful middle grade book. And the movie was decent as well.

London, UK: The Muse by Jessie Burton, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov

There was some sort of deal for 3 of certain paperbacks, so I found a few things. I don’t remember the name of this bookstore that we poked into…but I did notice that books are a bit less expensive in the UK and that they’re made a little differently– stiffer and lighter than the floppy US trade paperback. The covers were gorgeous too!

Mikhail Bulgakov wrote the Master and Margarita, which is one of my all time favorites, and this little novella was good, but not as good. It’s about a doctor who switches a human’s testicles with a dogs and they take on each other’s characteristics to amusing results. It’s a weird little book, but it gives you a good sense of the midcentury USSR, which Bulgakov was very much writing against in a fantastical way.

The Essex Serpent is a little dark and creepy and full of magical realism, like most of Sarah Perry’s work. Her writing can be a little dense, but it’s worth wading through (or listening to the audiobook) for the atmosphere she creates in her stories, which borders on the gothic. They made a miniseries of this for Apple TV+, which I haven’t seen yet.

Everyone talks about Jessie Burton’s more well known book The Miniaturist, but I couldn’t get into that setting nearly as quickly as I was swept into a fast paced midcentury London. I ended up reading this book waiting to be called for jury duty. We were there 6 hours or so before being dismissed. I finished both books I brought and went to the library on break. That’s where I picked up the more famous Jessie Burton book, but it was such a tone and pace shift I couldn’t get through the first chapters and into the richer parts. Also, those closeted Holland spaces always feel dark and claustrophobic to me. They’re not my favorite historical setting by a long shot.

Merida, Mexico:  Purchased: The Poems of Octavio Paz

Recently my friend and I went to Mexico, and while we were in this colorful city, I discovered that an expat was running an English language bookstore. I was looking for poetry by Mexican authors, and I was disappointed not to find much although I’m sure it doesn’t sell that well. But I did pick up a lovely bilingual edition of poems by Octavio Paz.

Do you ever buy books on vacation? Let me know in the comments!

Reading Through the Stacks: 10. A Sentient House

Reading through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.

Findings by Wendell Berry, published in 1969.

Wendell Berry (1934-) is a novelist, essayist, poet, environmental activist, and farmer. His work is grounded in place, and the landscape of Kentucky, where he was born and has spent a large portion of his life, is very important to his work. As such, in his poetry he’s known for writing pastoral and elegiac poems. He’s been publishing poetry consistently since the 1960s, but his essays are more widely read.

Findings is a short book divided into three sections. The first and largest section is “The House,” which is structured almost like a five act play, ending with an epilogue. Although the poem is not really menacing or sinister, the sentient nature of the house and its experience of so much family death through the generations definitely gave me haunted house vibes. It’s really only the first section, “The White and Waking of the House” that fits this perception so neatly, but it was hard for me to shake that first impression even though the rest of the long poem ties more neatly into cyclical ideas of life and death and the stability of place through change.

3.
From the ashes and lives
of the past house, this house
continues to a summiting
now-waking at hot noon
in the deadly sun’s emblazonment;

Wendell Berry, from section 3 in “The White and Waking of the House”

Even though day and night are juxtaposed here (and throughout the poem), I can’t help but feeling death and dark get more time on the page. Consider just the word “ashes” compared to lives–the “sh” of ashes lingers in the mouth, and the two syllable word takes longer to say than “lives.” Also the lives are of the past house, a past structure, a myriad of past lives–to me this reinforces a kind of haunted feeling. And then you can continue that through to the “deadly sun”–even daylight becomes menacing.

I’m not sure if other people would interpret this poem the same way, but I think it was absolutely the perfect poem to read in October–my favorite time of year to read spooky things.

But here’s a passage from the end of the first movement of the poem, which I think may be more in line with the themes on continuity through cycles elsewhere in the book:

the house
performs a substantial movement
of interiors–
each day a room,
lighted,
where waking is made whole
though day proceed to day
by accident,
and succumb by necessity
to night
when the stars
verify their continuance
only.

Wendell Berry, from section 14 in “The White and Waking of the House”

To me this passage speaks of how the places we live give meaning to life, although day to day proceeds without our say or guidance or control, the house makes life whole–purposeful. As if the purpose is the house, is the community therein. And this is just one part of this poem! Each section builds in really interesting ways, and then we move to “The Handing Down,” which is a meditation on aging, and then we end with three elegies at the end of the book. This collection gets top points for structure in my opinion.

No one needs me to say that Wendell Berry is a complex, interesting poet. I can definitely see myself spending a lot of time dissecting his work (and there’s a lot of it out there), so I can’t wait to start searching out Berry’s work and making lots of notes in the margins.

What do houses represent for you? I’d love to know what you think of this symbol in the comments!

Reading Through the Stacks: 9. A Biting Wit

I love the insects on this cover.

Reading through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.

Today we’re discussing a new book: These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit by Hayan Charara.

Hayan Charara (1972–) grew up in Detroit, and some of his poetry deals with the decay of this particular urban landscape, his Lebanese cultural roots come through mostly in meditations on Arab identity in the United States, and the associated erasure and racism Arab people experience. He’s a professor of creative writing, currently at the University of Houston.

What I admired most about this book of poetry was just how clever it was. There are several sections that showcase this really well, two of which are series of haiku. One, centered on a specific place (the porch) show the dramas of everyday, mostly through conversation. Although each haiku stands on its own, they link together in time to tell the story of an evening and a neighborhood.

On the porch–
we speak long distance, I think,
for the last time.

Hayan Charara from “Porch Haiku”

The poems are particularly well constructed throughout the book–there is a lot of attention to structure in the individual poems as well as in the collection as a whole. The language throughout is pretty clear, and the poet presents a personal politics that encompasses rather than being removed from poetry. For example, in “The Prize” he describes the poetry winners of the Pulitzer Prize in relation to World War II. The collection speaks through and across time in really interesting ways. And it has a really thoughtful use of profanity, although the use of this language in poetry is maybe a topic for another day.

But I have to admit, my favorite section of the book is a seven poem section titled “Mean,” which are, as you might guess, a little bit nasty. I think poetry can come across as a little elitist and holier-than-thou, held to these sacred or noble feelings, but in my opinion, poetry should be honest, vulnerable. Sandra Cisneros said in an interview:

“I discovered a poetic truth, that you have to write as if what you had to say is too dangerous to publish in your lifetime. Then your ego gets out of the way, and you allow the light to come through you, the blood jet that Sylvia Plath talked about. You write from a more honest place.”

And the truth is we’re human, and sometimes what we think and feel is mean, nasty, and bitter. We can’t deny that any more than the fear, embarrassment, doubt, or sadness we feel. I think these poems are courageous, and–I know I’m a horrible person for saying this and I think that’s exactly what I’m meant to feel–funny as well. They are witty and terrible and kind of–eek–delightful. I won’t quote them because for copyright reasons I really try and only use quotes from poems in this blog, and you really need the whole of the short poems to feel the sting. Let that be a reason to look up the book of poems at your library.

Instead, I’ll end my discussion of the book with an excerpt from what’s probably my favorite poem in the entire collection:

“The girl is older than the boy,
the boy older than the cat, and the cat
which cannot communicate
what it knows about age, hates
the cactuses on the windowsill–“

Hayan Charara from “Older”

The poem works through a series of comparisons about the age of things, and it ends on such a beautiful melancholy note.