Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Poetry Wednesday: Spiders and E.B. White

This isn't really a scary poem, but spiders have a rep to uphold. Therefore, I will glorify spiders and E.B. White today on this, the sixtieth year since Charlotte's Web was published (listen to the NPR radio story about it). Happy Halloween.

The Spider’s Web (A Natural History)

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all that journey down through space,

In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.

Thus I, gone forth as spiders do

In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.
by E.B. White
with thanks to Gregory Maguire, for reminding me about this gem

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Get Ready: All Hallow's Read is Right Around the Corner!

Neil Gaiman had a great idea: give a scary book for Halloween. Here, let me let him tell you himself:

I fully support All Hallow's Read, but I'm a little different: I give poems with the candy.  This year, Halloween falls on Poetry Wednesday, so you can get your poetry fix right here.

Feel free to print out the poem I post October 31 and give it to the trick-or-treaters who come to your door. (If you need the title early so you can better prepare, let me know.)

Other poems I've shared in years past include "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe and "The Little Ghost" by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

So, what are you reading this All Hallow's Read?

If you're looking for a novel, I suggest John Dies at the End by David Wong. I just finished it and if I could explain it, I would get a medal. It was wild, freaky and very, very good.

I also will be reading Shadow of Night (and re-reading A Discovery of Witches, which is totally worthy of a re-read). Or maybe working on the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning (thanks for the recommendation, Karen!).

What would you recommend? Do you have different recommendations for different people? Let us know!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Poetry Wednesday: When October Goes

Late in his life, Johnny Mercer grew close to Barry Manilow — and asked his widow to give Manilow his unfinished lyrics. Manilow set at least one to music. The result is one of my favorite songs, When October Goes. A number of people have recorded the song, but Manilow's version seems the most haunted.

When October Goes

And when October goes 
The snow begins to fly  
Above the smokey roofs  
I watch the planes go by
The children running home  

Beneath a twilight sky  
Oh, for the fun of them 
When I was one of them

And when October goes  
The same old dream appears  
And you are in my arms  
To share the happy years
I turn my head away  

To hide the helpless tears 
Oh, how I hate  
To see October go

And when October goes  
The same old dream appears  
And you are in my arms  
To share the happy years
I turn my head away  

To hide the helpless tears  
Oh, how I hate  
To see October go
I should be over it now 

I know 
It doesn't matter much  
How old I grow
I hate to see October go...

Lyrics by Johnny Mercer
Music by Barry Manilow

Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: Hunger Games Trilogy

Note: this is a review of a trilogy — and, as a result, contains spoilers. If you haven't read all three books, proceed with caution.

Dystopian literature can be tough to read, and Suzanne Collins doesn't sugar-coat the life of a hungry, angry teen in her very successful Hunger Games trilogy. I wasn't able to get past the first chapter the first time I tried to read it, but I was able to get through the entire trilogy after seeing the first movie. I emerged at the end, exhausted, wrung out — but glad I read it.

Life is tough enough for teens without showing them a terrible, depressing world. And Panem is about as bad as it can get for people of any age: after an uprising that nearly destroyed the central government, rulers did the best they could to divide and conquer. After obliterating those in the area of the country that led the uprising, the rest of the country was divided into districts.

To keep the districts at odds, the government created a competition, "The Hunger Games,"  in which two children from each district would fight to the death until only one remains. The district of the winner receives extra food for a year.

Katniss Everdeen is an unlikely hero: she second-guesses herself to death. She doesn't appreciate her skills, she doesn't politic and she isn't ruthless. And yet, when her little sister is chosen to be the "tribute" for District 12, Katniss doesn't think twice before she volunteers to take her place. The second tribute is Peeta Mellark, a boy from her town whose family owns the bakery.

Those who surround the tributes are nearly as interesting as the "main" characters. Tributes have mentors, who are winners from previous years. District 12's tribute is Haymitch, a drunk who doesn't bother to sober up when he meets his charges. (Would you, if you knew they were destined to die, as has every tribute for the district since his unexpected victory?) Cinna is Katniss' stylist whose friendship changes an unlikeable girl into "The Girl on Fire" who charms a nation. Katniss' best friend — or is he a love interest? — Gail complicates her feelings as she and Peeta are thrown together as "star-crossed lovers" sent to kill each other in the arena. President Snow is ruthless yet fair, manipulative yet honest, villainous yet sympathetic. (For the record, the actors who play these roles are perfect, as if the parts were written for them.)

The arena is another character. The venue changes each year: desert one year, jungle another, forest in part of the arena while the rest is a prairie. The Capitol creates the environment and its hazards. A gamekeeper manipulates the players with amazing elements created as the game plays out.

Each book has its own arena. Katniss' district after her performance in the Games is an arena as well because, like in the games, no one is safe. Katniss' ability to manipulate the public with her incendiary ideas that the Capitol doesn't really control her turns her into an enemy. Peeta, Gail — even Prim — are in danger because of their proximity to The Girl on Fire. The best way to neutralize the problem is to create a situation in which the state can safely assassinate her: the Quarter Quell that involves all surviving tributes. The rules of this Quarter Quell are a broken promise from the Capitol: tributes live protected by the state (except for their obligations to mentor tributes from their districts for the rest of their lives) and never find themselves back into the arena. But then again, the Capitol already broke its promise of a single victor...

Frankly, I find Katniss a bit of a pain. She doesn't learn from her experiences and doesn't trust the people she's supposed to, those who have proven to be trustworthy. She's not terribly sympathetic for much of the series, often destroying any slack the reader has extended her because of her bonehead decisions. I suppose this is one way to compel the story forward, but still, it's exhausting to keep making the leap of faith that Katniss is worth liking through yet another mistake because she didn't trust Haymitch or tries to protect someone on her own.

I agree with the consensus: the third book is the weakest (and that's the one that gets two movies, heaven help us). The Hunger Games as a first book is compelling and sets up the games very well. Readers get the rhythm of Panem (whose name is a reference to Rome's "bread and circus").

Normally, I find the second book of a trilogy a bridge. However, Mockingjay is an exception — and the book I liked the best. It's riveting, bringing us up close and personal to the districts and the insidious President (and all he has wrought). Katniss and Peeta take their victory lap and step back into the mouth of danger while Katniss is trying to sort through her complicated feelings for Peeta while maintaining her "love" for Gail. All of this while she has to try to stay alive in an ever-changing arena outside the gamekeeper-controlled game arena.

I knew there was something going on with the Gamekeeper, but Katniss was too self-involved to clue in. (Peeta would have gotten in, and he's much more likeable, to boot.) I can't wait to see him come to life in the second movie.

There are many more important characters, so consider a cheat-sheet to keep them straight. Don't make Katniss' mistake of under-estimating these characters; instead, enjoy them for who they are and let Katniss flounder by herself in her own obtuseness. And yes, feel free cry your eyes out, even sob aloud, when the inevitable (and unspeakable) occurs to those you love most.

Catching Fire finishes the job. Halfway through, I was almost too exhausted to go on. The revolution is being orchestrated by the gamekeeper and the general, and Katniss is trying to not get caught in the machine. She finally has the good sense to start listening to Haymitch. And Gale? He is himself, which explains why her feelings are so complicated. I needed Peeta as much as Katniss did, and I missed him as much as she did. Thank heavens for Buttercup, is all I can say, so Katniss and I both were allowed to cry (very, very hard).

The finale? Confusing. I had to re-read the culmination a few times, and I still think I missed something. Plus, I was exhausted: so much happened in the last book, I wondered exactly what happened to her editor (fired or sent on holiday so Collins could become as drawn-out and disastrously unfettered as Stephen King at his worst). I could have absorbed District 13's problems in half the time. However, I adored the final encounters between Katniss and President Snow, the latter of whom proved to be even more complicated and attractive than I expected.

Having said that, the series was compelling. The story was original and interesting, the characters were amazing and memorable and the setting was unique. Take the plunge and read the trilogy: it's worth the time and effort.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Poetry Wednesday: Shifting the Sun

Shifting the Sun

When your father dies, say the Irish,
you lose your umbrella against bad weather.
May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh,
you sink a foot deeper into the earth.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Canadians,
you run out of excuses. May you inherit
his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the French,
you become your own father.
May you stand up in his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Indians,
he comes back as the thunder.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Russians,
he takes your childhood with him.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the English,
you join his club you vowed you wouldn't.
May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Armenians,
your sun shifts forever.

by Diana Der-Hovanessian
from Selected Poems. © Sheep Meadow Press, 1994.
Courtesy of The Writer's Almanac

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Library Loot: Cookbooks, Travel and Fiction — Oh, My!

A trip to the library is a giddy pleasure: free books for the taking! Sure, you have to return them, but that's okay because you just get more.

Here is my latest stack of books:

I've had the cookbooks for a while. My husband David is the family chef, so I gathered these for his reading enjoyment — but still found about a dozen recipes to share with him. Mostly dessert. Shocker.

It's October, which means I have to find some creepy books to read. John Dies at the End counts, as does the conspiracy theory novel The Shell Game (a recommendation from Reader Karen). I may not get to Gone Girl by the end of its lending period, but I will try.

David and I are going to the Caribbean next year, and we have to start plotting now, hence the travel books.

There are two movies on top. One is based on a book and — well, both of them are. Never mind.

So, what have you borrowed from your library lately?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Poetry Wednesday: The Indoors is Endless

We hope a poet will be named as the Nobel Laureate in literature later this week. However, until then, let's enjoy a poem by last year's Nobel Laureate, the poet Tomas Tranströmer.

The Indoors is Endless

It’s spring in 1827, Beethoven
hoists his death-mask and sails off.

The grindstones are turning in Europe’s windmills.
The wild geese are flying northwards.

Here is the north, here is Stockholm
swimming palaces and hovels.

The logs in the royal fireplace
collapse from Attention to At Ease.

Peace prevails, vaccine and potatoes,
but the city wells breathe heavily.

Privy barrels in sedan chairs like paschas
are carried by night over the North Bridge.

The cobblestones make them stagger
mamselles loafers gentlemen.

Implacably still, the sign-board
with the smoking blackamoor.

So many islands, so much rowing
with invisible oars against the current!

The channels open up, April May
and sweet honey dribbling June.

The heat reaches islands far out.
The village doors are open, except one.

The snake-clock’s pointer licks the silence.
The rock slopes glow with geology’s patience.

It happened like this, or almost.
It is an obscure family tale

about Erik, done down by a curse
disabled by a bullet through the soul.

He went to town, met an enemy
and sailed home sick and grey.

Keeps to his bed all that summer.
The tools on the wall are in mourning.

He lies awake, hears the woolly flutter
of night moths, his moonlight comrades.

His strength ebbs out, he pushes in vain
against the iron-bound tomorrow.

And the God of the depths cries out of the depths
‘Deliver me! Deliver yourself!’

All the surface action turns inwards.
He’s taken apart, put together.

The wind rises and the wild rose bushes
catch on the fleeing light.

The future opens, he looks into
the self-rotating kaleidoscope

sees indistinct fluttering faces
family faces not yet born.

By mistake his gaze strikes me
as I walk around here in Washington

among grandiose houses where only   
every second column bears weight.

White buildings in crematorium style
where the dream of the poor turns to ash.

The gentle downward slope gets steeper
and imperceptibly becomes an abyss.

by Tomas Tranströmer

Translated by Robin Fulton
Published in 1997 by Bloodaxe Books
Courtesy of The Poetry Foundation

Monday, October 8, 2012

Summer Reading: Everyone's a Winner — But How Did You Do?

How was your summer? Did you get a lot of reading done?

I did. Kind of. I didn't quite reach my goal of 20 books, nor did I read some of the books I had intended, but I came close.

Two other readers played along from home: Karen and Stacy. Both had impressive lists, and both completed a tremendous number of excellent books.

Here were the rules, such as they were, for the  Adult Summer Reading Club: read as many books as humanly possible between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. Keep count (and, preferably, a list of titles). At the end of the summer, whip out your list, brag boisterously — and be in the running to receive a free book.

Karen read the following books:
  1. The Nature of Monsters
  2. The Shell Game
  3. Water for Elephants
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird
  5. The Hobbit
  6. Royal Pains
  7. A Rogue's Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds
  8. The Mammoth Book of Scottish Romance
  9. Mother Earth, Father Sky
  10. The Great Stink
  11. Meg: Primal Waters
  12. Myths and Mysteries of New Mexico
  13. Famous Gunfighters of the Western Frontier
  14. The 100 Best Poems of All Time
  15. The Treasure
  16. The Woman in Black
  17. The Plantation Mistress
Karen (and Logan) donated a giant stack of books to their local library for its book sales. Additionally, they donated food to their community's food pantry as our charity of choice — and will continue to donate food on a monthly basis. This is in addition to the pledge to "continue reading and reading and reading!"

Stacy read the following books:
  1. A Discovery of Witches
  2. The Iron Duke 
  3. Heart of Steel
  4. Into the Dreaming
  5. Lover Reborn
  6. The Elenium: The Diamond Throne
  7. The Elenium: The Ruby Knight
  8. The Elenium: The Sapphire Rose
  9. The Tamuli: Domes of Fire
  10. The Tamuli: The Shining Ones 
  11.  The Tamuli: Hidden City
  12. The Belgariad: Pawn of Prophecy
  13. The Belgariad: Queen of Sorcery
  14. The Belgariad: Castle of Wizardry
  15. The Belgariad: Magician Gambit 
  16. The Belgariad: Enchanter’s Endgame
  17. The Mallorean: Gaurdians of the West
  18. The Mallorean: King of the Murgos
  19. The Mallorean: Demon Lord of Karanda
  20. The Mallorean: Sorceress of Darshiva 
  21. The Mallorean: The Seeress of Kell
  22. Blood Lite III: Aftertaste
  23. Angel's Blood
  24. Angel's Kiss
  25. Angel's Consort
  26. Archangel's Blade 
  27. Archangel’s Storm
  28. Paul Cezanne
  29. Night Games 
  30. Dark Fire 
  31. Furies of Calderon
  32. For the Love of Physics
  33. Sargent Abroad Figures and Landscapes 
  34. Treachery in Death 
  35. New York to Dallas 
  36. Hidden World of the Aztec 
  37. War Cry
  38. Born in Silence 
  39. Time Untime 
  40. Beast Master
  41. Lord of Thunder 
  42. Witch World
  43. Magic Bites
  44. Magic Strikes
  45. Magic Burns
  46. Magic Bleeds
  47. Magic Slays  
  48. Gunmetal Magic
  49. Under a Vampire Moon
  50. The Mammoth book of Vampire Romance
  51. A Thousand Years of Stained Glass
(Whew! I know, right? And I think I found a few books to add to my growing reading list...) Stacy  donated to the Brevard County Friends of the Library two used books for each summer read book for the group's fall book sale.

Both readers will receive a book they select for themselves (because, obviously, they didn't get enough...)

Here's my own "consumed" list from the summer (with my book reviews marked with an asterisk):
  1. The Submission
  2. The Age of Miracles
  3. Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute
  4. The Great Stink
  5. How To Be a Woman*
  6. Mockingjay*
  7. Catching Fire*
  8. Beyond Hades: The Promethius Wars
  9. The Night Circus*
  10. Fifty Shades Freed *
  11. Fifty Shades Darker*
  12. A Princess of Mars
  13. Fifty Shades of Grey*
  14. We Have Always Lived in the Castle
  15. Explosive Eighteen
  16. The Hunger Games*
  17. Faefever
(Full disclosure: two books in my list were at least three-quarters finished by September 22, so they were included in the total.) I am sorry I did not include a photo of the books — alas, a third of them were loaned out immediately.

Both Main Street Child Development Center (MSCDC) and The Fairfax County Public Library will benefit from my reading. MSCDC receives $5 per book consumed for a whopping total of $85. The FCPL Foundation Bookdrive will receive three books from its Amazon wish list:
Thanks to all who played along this summer, and I look forward to next summer.

So, what did you read this summer?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Poetry Wednesday: The Poet Goes to Indiana

The Poet Goes to Indiana

I'll tell you a half-dozen things
that happened to me
in Indiana
when I went that far west to teach.
You tell me if it was worth it.

I lived in the country
with my dog—
part of the bargain of coming.
And there was a pond
with fish from, I think, China.
I felt them sometimes against my feet.
Also, they crept out of the pond, along its edges,
to eat the grass.
I'm not lying.
And I saw coyotes,
two of them, at dawn, running over the seemingly
unenclosed fields.
And once a deer, but a buck, thick-necked, leaped
into the road just-oh, I mean just, in front of my car—
and we both made it home safe.
And once the blacksmith came to care for the four horses,
or the three horses that belonged to the owner of the house,
and I bargained with him, if I could catch the fourth,
he, too, would have hooves trimmed
for the Indiana winter,
and apples did it,
and a rope over the neck did it,
so I won something wonderful;
and there was, one morning,
an owl
flying, oh pale angel, into
the hay loft of a barn,
I see it still;
and there was once, oh wonderful,
a new horse in the pasture,
a tall, slim being-a neighbor was keeping her there—
and she put her face against my face,
put her muzzle, her nostrils, soft as violets,
against my mouth and my nose, and breathed me,
to see who I was,
a long quiet minute-minutes—
then she stamped feet and whisked tail
and danced deliciously into the grass away, and came back.
She was saying, so plainly, that I was good, or good enough.
Such a fine time I had teaching in Indiana.

by Mary Oliver
from The Truro Bear and Other Adventures
Courtesy of The Writer's Almanac

Monday, October 1, 2012

Dissention: Does It Get Posted?

Within hours of my first Banned Books Week blog going live, a pending comment awaited me. The writer wanted me to post a particular link to "balance" my coverage of the event.

And I had to decide: post the comment or not?

A few years ago, I received a comment on a similar blog entry, which I thought only fair to post.

This year I received a comment from the same person, only this time he was more terse and provided the same URL. This time, this blogger informed me that someone more prestigious than I had a different opinion I needed to share.

In turn, I was less conciliatory, less accommodating. I also was a little less patient. This wasn't a conversation, an exchange of ideas, a respectful disagreement, like we had before. This was me being corrected.

I could be open-minded, generous, supportive. I could take my time and energy to engage in this conversation. But did I want to? Would it benefit me?

Good questions. This was the same person, same argument, same blog. We agreed to disagree once. I don't need to do it every year. I was not going to change my mind. I already rejected his argument, and I wasn't going to spend my time and space helping him make his point.

I deleted the comment.

Would I do that with another comment? Doubtful; in the years I've been blogging, it's my first deletion. Like I said, I like a good conversation — and this was anything but.

Also, I'm not encouraging a debate, either: having an uncensored debate with someone who favors censorship is too ironic, even for me. I'll read their writing, they'll read mine, we'll agree to disagree and maybe one of us will learn something important (and it most likely will be me). I'm just not looking to be rudely corrected.