Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Sinful Folk by Ned Hayes: What She Read Review

You can check out Goodreads reviews (it's doing quite well there), or purchase
Sinful Folk via these links:  Amazon, Indiebound, Audible.
When I was a senior in high school, Mr. Rapuano taught us Chaucer in Brit. Lit. class.  He fancied himself an amalgam of J. Alfred Prufrock and King Lear, with a dash of Marlow on the side.  Whenever a set of our essays displeased him, he would strike a pose in front of the class, wrist raised to forehead, chin tilted to the heavens, and moan, "Oh, people. The horror!  The horror!"  

He was an unforgettable character.  And one of the lasting blessings of a year spent in his class - aside from the witty commentary my friends and I wrought in the notes we passed under our desks - was his requirement that we all memorize the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales, pronounced as they were originally penned (or at least as he best could duplicate the speech of the day for us to copy).

Much whining accompanied this assignment, but I can recite those lines to this day, widening the wondering eyes of my students each year with my feats of memorization.  (The fact that I can sing the "Preamble to the Constitution of the United States" thanks to Schoolhouse Rock also delights them, but perhaps doesn't impress them so much.)

With Sinful Folk, I once again find myself thanking Mr. Rap, if only in my imagination.

What's Sinful Folk about?
  This historical mystery offers any and all Brit. Lit. students many a nod to well-known medieval works, and schools us in some particularly dark and dire customs and events of fourteenth century England as well.  It's also a novel of pilgrimage, and Nick Hayes borrows directly from Chaucer (and other period writers), especially toward the close of the book.  
  Our narrator and protagonist is Mear - once Miriam - a mute "man" living with his" ten year old son in the English village of Duns.  When Christian and four other boys are killed in a house fire during a particularly bleak mid-winter, Mear and the other fathers set off with the boys' bodies for Canterbury and London to seek court assistance in determining who has killed them.  On the journey, we learn something of the men's histories and experience the violent, often superstitious forces that appear to dominate popular culture in this time.  And we - with Mear - unearth clues as to who indeed killed the unfortunate young men.  
  Sinful Folk is based on a real mystery and Miriam's personal history loosely parallels that of some consorts to Prince Edward the Black as well.

My Response?
  Fans of historical fiction should absolutely pick this one up, as it is reach in period detail, but the story is never overwhelmed by it, as does happen with some regularity in this genre.  Miriam is a unique character as well, in my experience, and her story - albeit a mash-up of possibilities rather than a direct historical reference - fascinates.  Mr. Hayes does a solid job of conjuring up the settings as well, and of keeping the plot ticking until the last page is turned.
  I do wish that Mr. Hayes's editors and proofreaders had spent a bit more time on this novel, as a few continuity issues and more than a few oddly parsed sentences early in Sinful Folk made the opening quarter of the novel a pretty slow slog for me and almost turned me away from its pages.  Because I had made a commitment to review it here, I persisted, and in the end I was glad that I did, because by the last quarter of the novel I was thoroughly engrossed in both the plot and the prose.  
  It's good to see, once again, how abundantly my home state of Washington is blessed with fine writers.

Many thanks as always to the fine folks at TLC Book Tours for offering me opportunities to sample books I might otherwise not encounter.  You can find out how other book bloggers responded to Sinful Folk via links on its page at TLC too.


FYI:     Mr. Hayes is on Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest, and he also has a website. There's also a separate website and Facebook page for SINFUL FOLK.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Wage Peace : Poem In Your Post

Wage peace with your breath.   
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings
and flocks of redwing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children
and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen
and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening:
hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools:
flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Make soup.
Play music, learn the word for thank you in three languages.
Learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
imagine grief as the outbreath of beauty
or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious.
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Don't wait another minute.
                                  - Judyth Hill (often misattributed to Mary Oliver

Although perhaps a bit didactically presented, the ideas are worth spreading, the images encouraging.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Replacement Life : Mom & Me Review

Get it at Amazon or Indiebound using these links.
This week "Mom & Me" review a novel that hit the front page of the NYTimes Review of Books on Sunday.  It's entitled A Replacement Life and its author, Boris Fishman, is there compared to Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud in a review that features laud after laud after laud for this debut work.

And for once, "Mom & Me" disagree.

Here's her take:
Slava Gelman is employed by a respected magazine in New York City. He tries very hard to get his work published. He has a girl friend who works in the adjacent cubicle. He is the grandson of Russian Jews from Minsk who immigrate to the US—this is the background for the story as it becomes entangled with ties from the Old World and the New, with family, and with Slava’s need to succeed.
We understand Slava’s dilemma as his decidedly rascally and opportunistic grandfather suggests he, the writer, forge Holocaust restitution claims for Russian Jews (who were not Holocaust survivors but had indeed lived through terrible privations during World War II and served in the war but who hadn’t been imprisoned).  Slava needs to decide how to deal with his grandfather, with the issues, and ultimately, the consequences if he accepts the task. “Slava wasn’t a judge: He was a middleman, a loan shark, an alchemist—he turned lies into facts, words into money, silence into knowledge at last.” (160)
A Replacement Life is full of beautiful writing. Here’s one of my favorite passages, especially appealing if you love New York:  “She took his hand and they tiptoed into the cold black water. Slava had been staring at the river from the edge of his neighborhood for years, but this was his first step inside the water that bordered New York on all sides. When you thought about it, it was as waterbound as a Venice, or an Amsterdam, but here, this natural boundary had been reduced to a sideshow. You did not think of New York as a water city. What if the water rose, as the scientists kept saying now and then. What would go first? What would be carried away, and what would rise in its place? The thought of a different city, a city he could have a hand in, made him excited and gave him the boldness to wade deeper into the impenetrable ocean.”  (238-239)
Reading A Replacement Life, in a way, reminded me of M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.  We watch as both writers take (somewhat) ordinary individuals and observe how the moral dilemmas of their lives unfold. We relate to them as like us in many ways. We try to do good, to be kind, to be ethical, but sometimes we falter. And with good reason, or so we think…
I suspect that mine will be a minority opinion among readers of A Replacement Life, but here's my truth:  I feel as though the NYTimes reviewer and my mom read an entirely different novel than I did.  Where Patricia T. O'Connor (and Mom) saw its protagonist, Slava, as "an honorable man who finds that one broken rule, one risky move, changes his life irrevocably", I saw a hapless, ineffectual, morally-vacillating loser who was quickly persuaded to commit not just one act of fraudulence, but many, simply to gratify his ego.  I wasn't as enamored of Mr. Fishman's prose style as the other two were either, so we will have to disagree on those two major elements.  Needless to say, these contrasting perceptions colored our respective views of this novel.

On the up side, some of Mr. Fishman's descriptive passages brought me back to the Manhattan and Brooklyn of my youth, Slava's careful and apt parsing of New Yorker-esque writing style elicited hearty chuckles, and (SPOILER ALERT) two later chapters in which Slava develops a mutually enriching relationship with one of his elderly clients redeemed the entire novel for me.

I must add that, when all is said and done, I would certainly sample Mr. Fishman's next novel to see how his work is evolving, because I found his prose and perspective quite engaging in  non-fiction articles and FB posts I found as I researched for this review A case in point: this guest post about autobiographical fiction on Book Club Girl via his website.  Funny, insightful, and in all ways worth reading.  (So do!)

If you'd like to try A Replacement Life for yourself to see who's right, Mom and Ms. O'Connor or me, just purchase a copy of this novel via the links under the cover image above.  But why not visit Boris Fishman's FB page first:  he's quite witty and winning in his short missives there, and on his website too.

You might also want to visit a few more blogs on this tour to experience some alternate views. Here's the link: TLC A Replacement Life Book Tour.

As always, I'm grateful to sample a variety of novels and non-fiction books via TLC Book Tours.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 : Mom and Me Review

Find it via these links at Indiebound or Amazon,
(sample Prose's prose there too) or at your local bookseller.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is an historical fiction, based loosely around a single surprising bit of information that Prose stumbled upon at a museum exhibit:  the tuxedoed woman in the famous Brassai photo, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932”, is the French athlete Violette Morris who was an Olympic hopeful and auto racer in the ‘30’s yet later wound up working for the Nazis.  (More details would spoil some of the plot, but you will be surprised at the historical events she had a despicable hand in.)

My Take:
Told in a polyphony of voices, the novel explores how its characters attempt to shape others’ perceptions of them through written language and how biographers imperfectly impose their own agendas on their subjects, all in the context of artists and bohemians carousing in pre- and WWII Paris.  But Prose’s main thematic concerns appear to be how “evil” people are formed (and /or how a particular pairing of people exacerbates innate or learned personality traits to the point that they’re exhibited in choices most would consider to be “evil”) and how people justify their own action or inaction in the face of evil.  This is not new territory for her, but if it is for you then this book would be a good fit for your TBR list. 

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 would be a worthy read for:
·          Those who admire confident storytelling and clean, sometimes elegant or slyly humorous prose
·          Those tolerant of characters who have many flaws but are also unique and multifaceted
·           Those who relish WWII historical fiction
·           Those who wonder about good and evil, power and sexuality
·           Those who enjoy the interplay of fictional forms such as letters, newspaper articles, journal entries, chapters from fiction-within-a-fiction books, etc.

I happen to meet all the criteria above, so I did find this weighty new novel thought-provoking.  Personally, I adored Prose's earlier novel A Changed Man, which explored some similar issues in a different way and was, to my taste, more focused and compelling plot-wise.  Try either novel, and absolutely buy a copy of her excellent non-fiction Reading Like A Writer – it’s a resource you will use over and over again and delight in every time.  (Best reading list ever!)

Mom's Summary:
Lou Villars is an athlete, a cross-dresser, a spy: an individual who seems always to be moving through life without any plan. When her circumstances change, she moves on to whatever is in her path, her inevitable option. Each of these options leads to a more involved and dangerous life and ultimately to her death. The story develops slowly as it is told in many voices: those of a Hungarian photographer, of an American ex-patriot, of a biographer, of a baroness/patron of the photographer, of the photographer’s model/wife. Each sees Paris, their intertwined lives and the occupation by Hitler’s army in different ways.

Mom's Responses:
One voice I wished had been used was that of Lou Villars herself; sometimes it felt disconcerting not to see from her viewpoint rather than that of all her ‘observers’. But maybe that is one of Prose’s objectives—alerting the reader to how differently or for what reasons we humans view events in our lives as we do.

I was struck by an observation Lionel, the American ex-pat writer, makes as he ponders his relationship with Suzanne: “How much simpler life would be if we were wise enough to stop at the first blush of romance, the start of a business transaction or of a casual friendship. If we knew enough to pause and think: this is as good as it gets. Everything will go downhill from this moment on. So once again our instincts are the opposite of what they should be, propelling us forward exactly when they should be holding us back.” (36-37 in the ARC) Thought –provoking….

Not my favorite book at the start and still not my favorite when I finished it. However, there is much to appreciate about the achievement, sometimes with humor, of Francine Prose in developing a complex story that propels the reader onward toward finding the destiny of characters, like them or not.

Thanks as always to TLC Book Tours for offering us this opportunity to review such a thought-provoking book.  Check out their link to discover what other bloggers thought of it, and do offer your thoughts in the comments below.


Francine Prose's author page at Harper Collins is here.
She's a prolific essayist and reviewer in addition to having penned scores of non-fiction, adult fiction, and YA fiction books.  Google her!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Risk : Poem In Your Post

The Risk

All the lovers, denying, pretending
they didn't know what was
coming. I knew ahead I might lose you.
Your coat sleeve, presences, topography, pricked my
recognition, through soul, a
lost stability.

Path to light, that angles darkness,
our lying in the grass on a
mountain, hoisted biographies in the fragmented clouds
we watched, it was clear as the winds
that changed them. Face of
fate, that didn't

either have to be.  Our incalculable
harmonies, bodies' lithe fabrication, seascape,
weather, mountains, the luck
whatever of place. Fulfillment swathed like
ammunition in the breeze,

your familiar warm shoulder, prescience -
so good there was nothing to say,
just the right pages turning,
beyond the storm, threat to our love,
their harbor risk.

                     - Jane Mayhall

At times, poems that I don't entirely fathom still move me, perhaps in part because their innate, near-animate power needn't be fully explicated or interpreted to be appreciated.  This one strikes me that way: accessible as a whole, but not so easy to parse as one might expect, given its universal theme and quotidian imagery.  

Perhaps you grasped all its nuances right away?  Or does one particular line or stanza reveal itself to you whole?  Please share your insights in the comments.

For more on Jane Mayhall (1918-2009) visit Knopf's page about her last collection, Sleeping Late on Judgment Day.  Be sure to click on the "author q and a" link: Mayhall's musings on her life history are fascinating, particularly if you - like me - admired Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light, as Mayhall's biography parallels Mattie's in some regards.  Mayhall gained recognition late in life and wrote some of her best poems - like this one - in her eighties. Heartening indeed.

And once again, let me recommend you sign up for next year's poetry month offerings from Knopf.  The emails are free, and I guarantee you will (re)discover fine poems and poets if you do.


Hamlet with Yorick's skull, photographed by Sue Shaw of the Cloud Appreciation Society in England.  Catch the connection?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

An Illuminated Rumi : Poem In Your Post

Let us choose one another as Companions.
Let us sit at one another's feet.

Come a little closer now,
so that we may see each other's faces.
Inside we share so many secrets —

Do not believe we are simply what these eyes can see.
Now we are music together
sharing one cup and an armful of roses.

                      - Mawlana Jalal Ad-din Mohammed Rumi

For a gloriously crafted collection of Rumi poems, translated by Coleman Barks and illuminated by Michael Green, start here.

You will want your own copy to peruse in contemplation, so why not take a mindful stroll to your local bookseller to enjoy the many wonders there too?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Incendiary Girls : A What She Read Review

Do get yourself a copy and then pass it around:
you won't be disappointed!
Find it at your local bookseller,
via this Amazon link (sample the stories there too)
or via this Indiebound link.
Let me begin by telling you that I've already recommended Incendiary Girls to friends who appreciate the particular gratification of reading a beautifully wrought short story, and that I have two in the queue to borrow my copy, if and when I choose to part with it.

And for those of you who favor a healthy dose of magic with your realism - as I do - Kodi Scheer's first collection is a must-read.

It's been a swell month for the contemporary American short story at my house, as my Dave and I listened to George Saunders read his collection Tenth of December late in March, then I picked up Karen Russell's Vampires in the Lemon Grove from our amazing "little library" branch's "Happy Go Lucky" shelf (all current best-selling or critically acclaimed paperbacks, two week loans, no holds, no renewals - just happy book luck), and then Incendiary Girls rose to the top of my TBR-for-book-tours pile.

Truth:  Kodi Scheer's stories stand up easily to the works of her two oft-lauded, more experienced, and certainly better-known contemporaries.  In fact, I thought that Incendiary Girls compared favorably to Russell's latest.  Why?  Scheer offers readers equally intriguing and imaginative premises but with consistent depth of character and humor to balance sometimes bleak scenarios. Russell, not so much, on both counts.

Specifics, you say?  Scheer writes in the tradition of contemporary magical realists:  we enter the entirely ordinary worlds of everyday people and occasionally "magical" occurrences simply slip in.  Protagonists generally accept such unusual events - a divorced doctor-mom suspects that her own mother has been  reincarnated into her daughter's horse ("Fundamental Laws of Nature") or a National Guardsman's obsessive-compulsive wife discovers his ear in their laundry hamper while he is still serving in the Gulf ("No Monsters Here") - and react to them as they would any more "realistic" unusual event. We readers stay closely aligned with these protagonists, and - exhibiting an artistic restraint that does this young author great credit - neither we nor they spend much time pondering why such events happen or even what they might mean symbolically.  Instead, we readers receive the gift of pondering for ourselves how the "magical" elements and characters' responses  resonate thematically and symbolically.  I love this sort of stuff, and detest writers who insist on over-explaining, so Scheer's work engaged me completely.

Eleven stories total offer diverse themes and levels of intensity; Ms. Scheer's fictional territory most- times includes anatomical and/or medical details that might be daunting for some readers, and she certainly doesn't shy away from the darker side of human nature, but - as I noted earlier - she nearly always balances intensity with lightness.  I'd especially recommend these stories to fans of Margaret Atwood's and Francine Prose's earlier magical-realistic collections, and to those who remember fondly Richard Selzer's work and the fictions or personal essays of other doctor-writers.

Two thumbs up from me for this new collection, with gratitude to the folks at TLC Book Tours for alerting me to the promise of Incendiary Girls.  Use the TLC link to sample other book lovers' responses to Incendiary Girls.

You can bet I'll be on the lookout for Kodi Scheer's future work as well.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Shine : Poem In Your Post


Riches, a little dollop of your shine
is everything I need to make my day:
cheek of polished apple, wink of wine,
forehead semaphore along my way;
or torque of body gilded in the spray,
toothy, tonguey, stretched-saliva grin,
melon water sliding off a chin,
eyelash droplet where a sunbeam plays.
Slick of foam that glistens on the rim,
coffee cream curl, baby oil spill, oh, 
and gabardine lap-luster, zipper shimmer,
moiré patent-leather afterglow:
I hoard it, all the gold that makes you mine
(like finger ink spot, gaudy brilliantine).

                             - Jonathan Galassi

Gratitude again to Knopf for this lovely sonnet.  What sensory experiences do you need to make your day?  

Me?  Birds.  Wings.  Flight.  And the helicopter tail-wag of a singular chihuahua.   So it's all about exuberant air for me.  Still, I can appreciate the glimmer-glamour of "Shine".


p.s. Use the links to find out more about the poet Jonathan Galassi.  And do - if you have the power - support Knopf for supporting poets.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sight : Poem In Your Post


a single cell 
found that it was full of light 
and for the first time there was seeing 

I was a bird 
I could see where the stars had turned 
and I set out on my journey 

in the head of a mountain goat 
I could see across a valley 
under the shining trees something moving 

in the green sea 
I saw two sides of the water 
and swam between them 

look at you 
in the first light of the morning 
for as long as I can

                      - W.S. Merwin

Learn more about prolific and oft-lauded poet-translator W.S. Merwin here.  Get a poem a day from Knopf throughout the month of April by checking the appropriate newsletter in the bar on the left side of their Poem-a-Day Page (with gratitude to a large publishing house that still celebrates poetry).  

MFB, briefly,

Saturday, April 5, 2014

This Day : Poem In Your Post

This is not a day for asking questions,
not a day on any calendar.
This day is conscious of itself.
This day is a lover, bread and gentleness.

                              - Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

More poems by Mawlana Jalal Ad-din Mohammed Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks and Shahram Shiva.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ask Me : Poem In Your Post

Some time when the river is ice ask me                                     
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say. 
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

                                             - William Stafford

We are just a smackerel's-scooch away from National Poetry Month and I am so ready.   Please, Nature: up with the flowers, up with the sunshine and the baby birdies and the warm afternoons on the front porch perusing poems. 

This year, I'm following fate:  the confluence of reading a novel about Rumi & Shams and the dawn of my favorite annual word-fest will inspire this month's Poem In Your Post selections.  So expect a month-long series focused on moments when the numinous meets the undeniably solid, poems focusing our gaze on the ecstatic in the everyday.   In other terms:  pull up your "I welcome the cryptic" pants and get ready to ponder the mysteries.

I suspect that - had he met Rumi and Shams - William Stafford would have given the ancients a run for their money in many ways, and all would have enjoyed the exchange.  Ah, the limits of perceived time...

So enjoy today's offering, live each moment in joy, and get ready to gyre and gimble in the wabe.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Poet's Progress : Poem In Your Post

Poet's Progress

           for Sandra Cisneros

I haven't been
much of anywhere,
books my only voyage,
crossed no bodies
of water, seen anything
other than trees change,
birds take shape - like the rare
Bee Hummingbird that once hovered
over the promise of salsa
in my garden: a fur feathered
vision from Cuba in Boulder,
a wetback, stowaway, refugee,
farther from home than me.
Now, snow spatters its foreign
starch across the lawn gone
crisp with freeze.  I know
nothing tropical survives 
long in this season.  I pull
the last leeks from the frozen
earth, smell their slender
tubercular lives, stand
in the sleet whiteout 
of December:  roots
drawn in, threads of relatives
expand while solitude, the core,
that slick-headed fist of self, is 
cool as my dog's nose and pungent
with resistance.  Now when
the red-bellied woodpecker
calls his response to a California
owl, now, when the wound
transformer in the womb
slackens, and I wait
for potential: all
the lives I have
yet to name,
all my life
I have willed into being
alive and brittle with the icy
past.  And it's enough now,
listening, counting the unknown
arachnids and hormigas
who share my love of less
sweeping.  For this is what
I wanted, come to, left
alone with anything
but the girlhood horrors,
the touching, the hungry
leaden meltdown of the hours.
Or the future - a round negation,
black suction of the heart's 
conception.  Save me
from a stupid life!  I prayed.
Leave me anything but
a stupid life.
And that's poetry.  

                       - Lorna Dee Cervantes

Sometimes, rather than leading me into a reflection of my life, a poet lifts me out of my own time, place, and experience and sets me down intimately into another.  

I haven't lived what Cervantes is alluding to here, but I am transported into her (or her speaker's) consciousness long enough to experience these moments from within her awareness.  

For a short space of time, it's December in Boulder, and I haven't traveled, and I've seen a Bee Hummingbird, shared spaces with spiders, and prayed for a future that is, at least, not stupid. 

And now I'm returned to the present moment, sitting on my sofa in grey mid-March, looking out at my one black hen under her lichen-riddled plum tree as it reaches through the back fence, just about to burst into bloom.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Rosie Project : What She Read Review


What a joy this little novel is, from start to finish.  Funny and smart and a welcome reprieve from my string of worthy but mighty bleak books of late.

It started as an award-winning screenplay by Graeme Simsion, who turned it into a book which earned him million-dollar bids from U.S. and British publishers after hitting the bestseller lists in Australia.  The Rosie Project is now an international bestseller and a movie-in-the-making. Incredible.

It's a light romantic romp led by narrator-protagonist Don Tillman, whose brilliance as a genetics professor doesn't quite sync up with his (lack of) interpersonal skills.  Readers will quickly infer that Don's internal monologue and external actions point toward some level of Asperger's, yet Don seems entirely unaware that he is "suffering from a syndrome".  And it's the tension between Don's infrequent moments of incisive self-awareness and his frequent misunderstanding of social situations that fuel plenty of the plot here.   Pepper Don's days with a cast of diverse - and often also eccentric - supporting characters then focus Don's considerable determination and gift for logical planning upon "The Wife Project" and you've got yourself a story that provokes grin after grin.

To enjoy this novel fully, you must accept the rom-com structure, knowing that - however unlikely - all will work out well in the end and you must feel comfortable with the idea that each human being is a specific person, not simply a "syndrome".  Simsion made a wise choice in voicing this novel from Don's perspective, as it helps us readers to laugh with rather than at the protagonist.  If you can do that, you will find much to enjoy about The Rosie Project.

Don's voice, his perspective, and his journey kept me swiftly turning the pages through the first third of this novel and then rationing chapters when the beautifully voiced audiobook from the library arrived:  I simply wanted to savor the lightness of this novel during these darker days.  And I hereby encourage you to do the same.

MFB with a smile on my face,

p.s.  I should confess that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon are two of my all-time favorite tandem (print alternating with audiobook) "reads" of all time, so perhaps I have a particular fascination with listening in on the lives of brilliant, decent, yet socially atypical protagonists.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Snowman : Poem In Your Post

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

                                  - Wallace Stevens, 1921

This afternoon I greet another snowfall with joy, as always, yet I sense that many in other regions of our land will greet their coming storms with resignation or frustration or even fear. Different circumstances, different reactions.  

Perhaps if your circumstances won't allow you to fully embrace the beauty of snowfall because of its potentially damaging or uncomfortable results, then you might summon the "mind of winter" that Stevens suggests here and find yourself in stark harmony with the natural world.



Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Train : Poem In Your Post

I've been trying, my darling, to explain
to myself how it is that some freight train
loaded with ballast so a track may rest
easier in its bed should be what's roused

us both from ours, tonight as every night,
despite its being miles off and despite
our custom of putting to the very
back of the mind all that's customary

and then, since it takes forever to pass
with its car after car of coal and gas
and salt and wheat and rails and railway ties,

how it seems determined to give the lie
to the notion, my darling,
that we, not it, might be the constant thing.

                            - Paul Muldoon

Last night, as most nights, I stepped onto the front stoop as my dog tore out into the yard for her bedtime unburdening, and I heard the familiar yet strangely amplified thundering of a coal train's horn as it barreled down a track five or more miles away.  Our house, on the far side of the bowl-like system of hills that lifts such sounds to our doorstep, receives these haunting hoots five or ten times a day and thrice or more at night.  So I wondered if there might be a poem to capture that rumbling - now barely noticed, it's so routine - and its attendant sense of heft and speed and inexorability.  Apparently there was.

Thanks to Irish poet Paul Muldoon, and to Bill Moyers' book-length transcript of interviews with poets called Fooling with Words, who brought it to me.


Friday, February 21, 2014

House of Miracles : What She Read Review

Find it at your neighborhood bookstore
via indiebound, Ms. Hume's website,
 or Amazon.
House of Miracles, Ulrica Hume's new collection of inter-related short stories, shepherds readers on the life journeys of two women - generations apart - whose paths intersect when they choose to inhabit two flats in the same San Francisco house. Each woman is, in her own way, perplexed by the everyday emptiness of her life and by her own inability to create meaning and satisfaction within her circumstances.  Each experiences moments of fleeting happiness, as when the elder, German-born Mrs.Van Meurs meets Albert Einstein at a hotel in Palm Springs or when the young executive Janet MacDonald shares a subtle gesture of conspiratorial condescension with her boyfriend Jack. And each dreams dreams of true love.

While most of the short stories are told from Janet's perspective or Mrs. Van Meurs', Janet's boyfriend Jack commands a few, as does her sexually abusive and reliably reckless father Jerry.  Through these characters, we readers explore the quotidian cruelties and failures of love that occur behind the closed doors of  neighbors and friends.

These stories are written in a realistic vein, but Hume punctuates her tales with surprising images that conjure a bittersweet, dreamily lyrical beauty.

Recommended for those wishing to explore the fleeting bliss and regular disappointment born of profoundly flawed "love"; to face the realities of old age, dementia, and death from within another person's perspective; or to muse upon how proximity and habit impact the formation of our friendships, familial relationships, and even our romantic partnerships.

MFB, with gratitude to Ms. Hume for sharing her stories with me,

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Three Lovely Ones For You, Friends : Poem In Your Post

For You, Friend

this Valentine's Day, I intend to stand
for as long as I can on a kitchen stool
and hold back the hands of the clock,
so that wherever you are, you may walk
even more lightly in your loveliness;
so that the weak, mid-February sun
(whose chill I will feel from the face
of the clock) cannot in any way
lessen the lights in your hair, and the wind
(whose subtle insistence I will feel
in the minute hand) cannot tighten
the corners of your smile. People
drearily walking the winter streets
will long remember this day:
how they glanced up to see you
there in a storefront window, glorious,
strolling along on the outside of time.

                               - Ted Kooser
The Illiterate

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think that this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.
His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
that keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?
                                    - William Meredith

Wild Geese 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
       love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

                                  - Mary Oliver

The first: a true love poem.
The second: a sonnet to send shivers down your spine.
The third: a popular reminder that romantic love is by no means the most important sort.

MFB on the road,

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Almost Spring, Driving Home, Reciting Hopkins : Poem In Your Post

                                                                                                                                                                  First, a glorious poem that both the late, great Maxine Kumin and I learned by heart:

Pied Beauty 

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

                                            - Gerard Manley Hopkins

Now, her lovely, modern experience and expression of it, "Almost Spring, Driving Home, Reciting Hopkins":

“A devout but highly imaginative Jesuit,”
Untermeyer says in my yellowed
college omnibus of modern poets,
perhaps intending an oxymoron, but is it?
Shook foil, sharp rivers start to flow.
Landscape plotted and pieced, gray-blue, snow-pocked
begins to show its margins. Speeding back
down the interstate into my own hills
I see them fickle, freckled, mounded fully
and softened by millennia into pillows.
The priest’s sprung metronome tick-tocks,
repeating how old winter is. It asks
each mile, snow fog battening the valleys,
what is all this juice and all this joy?

We lost a fine, fine poet yesterday, one whose craft appeared effortless and whose keen-eyed response to daily life helps us honor and even transcend it.

May all be well for you always, wherever you are, Ms. Maxine,

p.s.  To learn more about her and her work try: her website, her thorough and respectful NY Times obituary, and her page on the Poetry Foundation's website.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

My Mother's Funeral : A Mom and Me Review

Get it at Amazon (only $6 for Kindle, but
also available in the lovely print edition)
or order it from your local bookseller.
This month, "Mom and Me" enjoyed the chance to read Adriana Páramo's memoir, My Mother's Funeral, published with a fine eye for aesthetic elements by not-for-profit CavanKerry Press.

My Take:
Adriana Páramo's memoir tracing the history of her mother's life and their relationship is not for the faint of heart.  If you are a person who frequently quips "TMI!" and means it, this is not your cup of tea.  However, if you favor gritty realism and no-subject-too-private confessional memoirs written as poetic and lyrical creative non-fiction, then you won't soon forget My Mother's Funeral.  

Set in Colombia with occasional scenes in the U.S., the memoir chronicles Páramo's relationship with her feisty, doggedly diligent, and often irascible mother Carmen, regularly dipping back into Carmen's personal history, from her 1940's childhood in the tiny village of Mariquita to her whirlwind romance and marriage to "Mr. B" through her adult life as a tough-as-nails single mom to five girls and a boy in urban Medellín and Bogotá.  Páramo's father, a remorseless philanderer who deserts their family after one too many girls is born, commands Carmen's enduring love despite the hardships she and her children must endure.  Along the way, we see how Colombia's geography, culture, socioeconomic structures, and politics influence Carmen's life and shape her children's psyches.

So, if you are feeling brave and seeking a fiercely frank memoir, My Mother's Funeral would make a strong choice for you.

Mom's Thoughts:
This was a book that took me to a family and experience very unlike my own, either as a daughter or as a mother, since both of these were two-parent situations. It gave me a clear view of how a one-parent family might survive, in this case with a single mother who is also poor.  For me, the funeral issue was author Páramo's way to relate the rest of the story of Adriana and her mother, Carmen. In a way, the funeral itself, though deftly integrated, could have been unnecessary to what was the real essence of the book, which I see as the relationship of this youngest daughter with her mother. 

Páramo does a good job of helping us get into the mind of a family living in Colombia in our time. She also is able to convey the real, underlying love of her mother, despite the many ways she contradicts and defies her. Another issue well put here is distance, both physically (in Alaska) and emotionally, and how this plays on emotions when events at home (Colombia) occur. Regret is evident. Resolution does happen. 

I felt a strong relationship to the following paragraph, near the end of the book. It did take me back, in a way, to the experience of my own mother’s funeral. “Now no one knows me around here. It’s been almost twenty years since I left this place, and nearly everyone I knew is gone. The few who stayed remember the girl I once was; they don’t recognize the woman I have become. This is a place where I now get lost, where I have been forgotten. This is a place that will never be home again.”

FYI:  Both Mom & Me were reminded of Isabel Allende's work in terms of intensely emotional and conflicted female familial relationships and some aspects of culture, economics, and politics that Chile shares with Colombia.

Looking for a third opinion?  Try hopping by the other blog stops on the TLC Virtual Book Tour.

MFB, with gratitude to Ms. Páramo and her publishers as well as to the fine folks at TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to sample this one-of-a-kind memoir,

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