Stories & Movement

Home » Literature

Category Archives: Literature

BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Complete Poetical WorksComplete Poetical Works by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Gutenberg page

 

The title is self-explanatory with respect the book’s content. However, if one is just expecting all of Poe’s poems bound together, one may be pleasantly surprised by some relevant bonus material in the form of scenes from plays and a few essays on poetry.

The works included are divided into seven sections. The first is entitled “Poems of Later Life” and includes many of the author’s most famous works such as: “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.” The book then follows an inverse chronological order with the section entitled “Poems of Manhood” coming next. Next there are scenes from a drama entitled “Politian” that emulates classic Greco-Roman plays. Then there are the poems written in Poe’s youth. There are two more sections of poetry with only a few pieces each. The first is the “doubtful poems’’ – i.e. poems that may or may not have been penned by Poe. The last chapter of poetry consists of Poe’s prose poems. Finally, there is a section consisting of three essays about poetry. This is a nice inclusion as it offers the reader insight into Poe’s thoughts on poetry. For example, Poe believed in a poetry Goldilocks zone. That is poems that were too long would not be able to maintain the emotional experience, but one’s that were too short would not be able to convey meaning.

I enjoyed this book. Not all the poems are of the caliber of “The Raven” by any means, but the book is insightful nonetheless, and there’s a mix of Poe’s trademark darkness with pieces that might strike the reader as decidedly uncharacteristic. As I said, it’s fun to have Poe’s essays on poetry next to his poems so that one can consider his verse in that light. The inverse chronological order provides an interesting way to view the evolution of a poet – Benjamin Button style. (Plus it offers one some strong momentum by starting the reader off with some of Poe’s most exceptional work.)

There’s a brief biography in the front of the book, and there are a surprising number of detailed notations for a collection of poetry. That’s all the ancillary matter. There are editions with illustrations, but the edition that I read didn’t have them (i.e. the version on offer from Gutenberg Project .) Amazon seems to have editions both with and without illustrations. (I don’t think they would offer much value-added.)

I’d recommend this for poetry readers and poets interested in Poe’s approach to the art.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Gagamba by F. Sionil José

Gagamba The Spider ManGagamba The Spider Man by F. Sionil José
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This short novel revolves around a real world event, the devastating earthquake that struck Luzon, wreaking havoc on Manila, in July of 1990. The novel is written in an unusual format. The chapters could be described as character sketches offering insight into various people who were in (or next to) the Camarin building when it collapses in the earthquake. Rather than the usual narrative approach, F. Sionil José offers captivating slices of the lives of these individuals that include insight into what brought each of them into the doomed building.

In the book, the Camarin Building houses a popular Spanish food restaurant called “the Ermita” that attracts wealthy movers and shakers both for its cuisine and for the ladies-of-the-evening who ply their trade there. The book presents an interesting contrast between the powerful military officers, businessmen, politicians, and expats who came there to dine and the common folk who work or live in the shadow of the building. The latter includes the character for which the book is named. Gagamba means spider in Tagalog, and it’s the nickname of a beloved man who sells lottery tickets outside the Ermita (because his deformity gives him an appearance reminiscent of a spider.) We see how all become equal in the cross-hairs of Death.

What makes these stories about the victims all the more intriguing is that we know from the book blurb that two of the characters (in addition to Gagamba) will survive the building collapse. The author does a good job of creating characters who are intriguing and who we want to know more about. There is the military officer who is aide to a high-ranking General but who is made a lucrative proposal from a superior officer to mule drugs (this being pre-911 days in which VIPs and their assistants might plausibly be exposed to little to no screening.) There’s a Filipino-American who is taking a priest and family friend out for a fancy dinner. The priest’s ominous discomfort with the setting of the meal – a feeling that we can’t tell is (as he says) because he’s uncomfortable with the cost or because he has an unspoken discomfort with the vice know to occur there – makes one wonder. There’s a homeless couple who lived in the alley beside the Camarin with their infant child.

I enjoyed this book. I think it offers some insight into Filipino culture and the chaotic nature of disaster. I’d highly recommend the book for readers of literary fiction, particularly if one also has an interest in foreign literature.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas CarolA Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

There’s a famous quote that has been attributed to various individuals, including both Mark Twain and Blaise Pascal. The wording varies, but the gist is: “Sorry for writing you a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” While it’s a witty comment, the humorous subversion of expectations doesn’t mean there’s not an underlying truth. It takes work and / or brilliance to convey an idea persuasively with few words. “A Christmas Carol” is an outstanding example of a tight story that powerfully conveys its theme.

Ebenezer Scrooge is a cranky banker who wants nothing to do Christmas. He won’t give his employee, Bob Cratchit, time off so that Cratchit can spend the holiday with his family—including his ailing son Tiny Tim. He chases off charities. He won’t even accept an invitation to attend the Christmas party thrown by his nephew, Fred. Then one night, he’s visited by the ghost of his recently deceased business partner—Jacob Marley. Marley, who was as cheap and crotchety as Scrooge, is burdened with horrifying chains, and the ghost warns Scrooge that if the old man doesn’t change his ways, he—too—will end up wandering through eternity in a similar set of chains. Before disappearing, Marley tells Scrooge to expect visits from three more ghosts.

The three subsequent visits with the famous ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future don’t require much discussion. First of all, the names of the ghosts (e.g. Ghost of Christmas Past) are self-explanatory. Secondly, this story is iconic in pop culture and it’s been remade in every medium in every way imaginable from modern adaptations (e.g. “Scrooged”) to “Simpsons” episodes. At any rate, the first ghost shows Scrooge that there was a time when he wasn’t such a curmudgeon while reminding him that he once had an employer, the beloved Mr. Fezziwig, who was a much better to Scrooge than Scrooge is to Bob Cratchit. The second ghost takes him to see the Cratchits and their meager but blissful Christmas festivities and then to his Nephew’s party as well. The final apparition, The Ghost of Christmas Future, takes Scrooge to the end of his own line. In the wake of the four ghost visits, Scrooge makes some changes to avoid the fate he’s been shown.

The Puffin Classics version that I read has an introduction by Anthony Horowitz and some artwork. That said, I don’t think it matters much what version one reads. It’s about the story.

I’d highly recommend this book for all readers.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles

The Oedipus TrilogyThe Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

One needn’t be educated in the Greek classics to know that somewhere in this trilogy there is a man who gets intimate with his mom. However, the common conception of Oedipus —as in the Oedipal Complex—probably has more to do with Freud and Freudian psychoanalysis than it does with this story.

The three plays of this trilogy are “Oedipus the King” [a.k.a. “Oedipus Rex” or “Oedipus Tyrannus”], “Oedipus at Colonus,” and “Antigone” [pronounced “an-tig-o-nee” rather than “anti-gone.”] Of the three plays, the first is the most well-known.

In “Oedipus the King,” the titular character is facing a crisis in his kingdom. When the oracles are consulted about how the calamity might be brought to an end, Oedipus is told that he must banish the killer of his predecessor, i.e. the previous king of Thebes. Oedipus consults his own oracle to find out who the ne’er-do-well is who murdered the last king, and the fortune-teller tells Oedipus that he’ll never say who committed the killing —but acknowledges that he does know who it was. Oedipus mocks and threatens the oracle until the fortune-teller gets fed up and tells the king that it was he, Oedipus, who killed his predecessor. Oedipus doesn’t believe it at first, thinking it’s an attempt to facilitate a coup. Far ickier than the accusation of murder is the fact that —if true— it means that Oedipus has been getting busy with his own mother and has even sired children with her. Oedipus calls for an investigation. When a peasant who saw everything is called to testify, his story strikes Oedipus as disturbingly familiar. It turns out that Oedipus’s blood father (the previous king) had been told by his own oracle that his son would kill him and steal his wife, and so he had baby Oedipus sent away to die. Oedipus (who had been rescued from being staked up on a mountain) was coming through Thebes, not knowing it was his homeland, when he had a skirmish on the road with the man that he didn’t realize was both the king and his father. Later, Oedipus marries the queen (apparently there were no busts or portrait paintings of the last king anywhere) and becomes the king without knowing that the man he’d killed in self-defense was the last king / his father. When the truth revealed, everything goes south. The queen kills herself, and Oedipus’s response is almost as severe. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and goes into exile. Antigone, one of Oedipus’s daughters, says she will be the ex-king’s guide, and because the old man is blind and not familiar with where he’s going, he doesn’t have much choice but to accept.

In “Oedipus at Colonus,” Oedipus and Antigone arrive at neighborhood on the fringes of Athens, i.e. Colonus, and are planning to take up residency. The locals are welcoming until they find out the blind man is Oedipus. The story of the ex-king who killed his father and got it on with his mother has spread far and wide. The townspeople agree to call in their king, Theseus, and let him decide. Theseus decides to shelter the Thebean ex-king, being moved by his story of how Oedipus was unwittingly ruined and how the former king accepted his punishment when his offenses were brought to light. Theseus’s support becomes more complicated when Creon, a royal from Thebes, shows up and says they need Oedipus back because an oracle now says that the location of his burial will determine the outcome of a future conflict. Oedipus says no way, and Creon has Antigone and her sister (who joined them at Colonus to warn Oedipus) kidnapped. Theseus faces a serious challenge because now his actions might bring the city-state to war, let alone offending the gods. However, he sticks to his guns and rescues the daughters and agrees to personally oversee Oedipus’s burial (so that no one can grave-rob and move Oedipus’s body to a position that would create a more pleasing forecast from the oracles.)

“Antigone” takes place after the death of Oedipus. The dutiful Antigone is now back in Thebes. When her brother Polyneices is killed and Creon orders that the prince not be buried, Antigone refuses to accept the decree. She steals the body and gives it a proper burial. Antigone was engaged to marry Creon’s son, Haemon, but Creon decrees that the woman will be imprisoned in a cave for disobedience of the king’s order. Haemon asks his father to be reasonable, but Creon will have none of it. Eventually, the words of an oracle convince Creon to change his mind, but he finds himself too late. Like Oedipus, various ruin then befalls Creon.

While the details of the story may strain credulity in places, these works are powerful morality tales. The recurring theme is that one can’t make an end-run around fate by way of vice and neither can one otherwise manhandle events to achieve a desirable outcome. Oedipus’s father sends his son to be killed, but the outcome remains the same. Creon can’t plant Oedipus’s corpse where he pleases and neither can he deny a man proper burial. It’s almost a karmic tale. Perhaps, the path to pleasing the gods is through virtue, and not through finagling one’s way to compliance with forecasts.

I find it fascinating how crucial a role is played by oracles throughout the three plays—and what that says about human nature. The fortune tellers are always right and are always heeded. In a sense, this story tells one about humanity’s fear of uncertainty, what people are willing to do to allay that fear, and how the world is ultimately too complex for those attempts to work out. The law of unintended consequences remains ever-present.

I enjoyed these plays. They are brief, stirring, readable, and thought-provoking. I would recommend them for any reader—particularly those interested in the classics.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

Milk and HoneyMilk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This collection of poems is quite similar in format and subject to Kaur’s more recent work “The Sun and Her Flowers” (which I reviewed recently.) This book also gathers short free-verse poetry (with the occasional prose poem) together with line-drawn artworks by the author. The subject matter includes: sexual abuse, parental relationships, love relationships, and self-image problems. My likes and dislikes for this collection are much the same as they were for the more recent work, as the two books feel like volumes in the same work.

The book is divided into four parts: “the hurting,” “the loving,” “the breaking,” and “the healing.” One will notice the roller-coaster effect implicit in that organization—like alternately drowning and bobbing up for air.

Kaur is bold in her poetry. It’s daring in its confessional nature and courageous in her willingness to be so intensely feeling in a society that gets cynical of emotionality fairly quickly. (It almost feels like a JP Sears caricature of itself sometimes–particularly it the lulls of melancholy.)  It also has the condensed effect that comes from a sparing approach. Both the art and verse take a minimalist approach, avoiding getting lost in complexity of form and presentation, and they are all the better for it. This simplicity doesn’t mean that Kaur doesn’t offer some clever turns of phrase. On the contrary, it gives it all the more punch. The words and drawings frequently form a synergy.

Both the poet’s courage and her sparse and simple cleverness overwhelm the collection’s downsides. Said weaknesses include frequent bumper-sticker truisms that feel a bit preachy and / or banal. As I hinted, sometimes the book feels a little bit like the “No, I just have a lot of feelings” girl from the movie “Mean Girls.”

I enjoyed this collection for its poetry, its art, and—perhaps most interestingly—the interplay between the two. I’d highly recommend it.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Great Short Poems ed. by Paul Negri

Great Short PoemsGreat Short Poems by Paul Negri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

I like short poems, and not just because I’m attention-span challenged. Short poems have punch. They are condensed emotion, and it’s rare to be able to keep beautiful sound resonating throughout long verse. So, it’s not a surprise that I would enjoy this anthology of brief poems from over 80 poets ranging from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries.

There are between one and four poems from most of the poets included. I’ll list some of the poems that are particularly popular, personal favorites, or some combination thereof.

– William Shakespeare: Sonnet 18 [Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day]
– Robert Herrick: “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”
– Anne Bradstreet: “To My Dear and Loving Husband”
– William Blake: “The Tiger” [often written “The Tyger”]
– Robert Burns: “A Red, Red Rose”
– Lord Byron: “So We’ll Go No More a-Roving” and “She Walks in Beauty”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Ozymandias”
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways”
– Henry David Thoreau: “I Was Born Upon Thy Bank, River”
– Walt Whitman: “I Hear America Singing”
– Emily Dickinson: “I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died”
– Emma Lazarus: “The New Colossus”
– Francis William Bourdillon: “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes”
– Ella Wheeler Wilcox: “Solitude” [Laugh and the World Laughs with You…]
– A.E. Housman: “When I Was One-and-Twenty”
– Gelett Burgess: “The Purple Cow”
– Stephen Crane: “In the Desert”
– Robert Frost: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken”
– Carl Sandburg: “Fog”
– Wallace Stevens: “The Emperor of Ice Cream”
– William Carlos Williams: “The Red Wheelbarrow”
– Joyce Kilmer: “Trees” [I think that I may never see…]
– Edna St. Vincent Millay: “First Fig”
– Langston Hughes: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
– Dylan Thomas: “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

If you like short verse, you’ll enjoy this Dover Thrift Edition. It’s all works in the public domain, so don’t expect to find present day poets in the anthology. Also, probably all of these poems are available on the web for free, but the price is minimal to get them collected together.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Selected Early Poems by Robert Frost

Selected Early PoemsSelected Early Poems by Robert Frost
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a collection of collections. It gathers the first three of Robert Frost’s books into one volume. “A Boy’s Will,” “North of Boston,” and “Mountain Interval” are all part of Frost’s early work and they came out in a relatively short span: 1913, 1914, and 1916, respectively. However, one can see definite shifts in the nature of the poems across these collections. The poems of the first collection feature many shorter poems that are rhymed and metered. The middle poems are longer, are largely unrhymed and of varied meter / unmetered, and are often written as extended dialogs that convey a story or a bit of tension from one. The last collection features Frost’s most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and contains many poems that are similar to that one in that they have more of the lyric quality of “A Boy’s Will” but take the form of a short meditation.

The theme that cuts across these poems is rural New England life. Apple-picking, wall mending, visiting someone in a snowy scene– these are the kind of events that transpire in this work. Nature features in Frost’s poems, but is largely secondary to the human element—a setting not a subject.

I enjoyed this collection, and would highly recommend it for poetry readers.

View all my reviews

5 Gripping Works of Fiction I Read in 2017

NOTE: I previously did posts on books written in 2017 and nonfiction books I read this year.  These are fiction books I read this year that were written in previous years, and which are all awesome in some way. The hyperlinks in the titles are to my reviews on GoodReads.

 

5.) A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: A pretentious and lazy man-child is forced to get a job to help out the mother who treats him as though he’s twelve.  Hilarious.

 

4.) Challenger Deep by Neal Schusterman: A young man is institutionalized with mental illness and the reader is granted glimpses into both his real life and his delusions.  Evocative.

 

3.) The Guide by R.K. Narayan: An ex-convict is mistaken for a spiritual guru. Thought-provoking.

 

2.) Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy: Men of violence being violent the borderlands of Texas. Visceral.

 

1.) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: The fates of a blind French girl and a bright German boy intertwined during the Second World War. Gripping.

5 Books of 2017 that Influenced Me Greatly

It’s that year-in-review time of year. To clarify: these are the books published in 2017 that most profoundly influenced my thinking. I clarify because I’ll probably do a list of books that I read in 2017 but that were published in previous years.

5.) Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman: Gaiman’s take on classic tales of Norse Mythology shows that one can bring great value with a fresh look at old art. However, beyond the “steal like an artist” sentiment of not getting locked into building something brand new, these stories show the Norse to be exceptional storytellers. All ancient cultures had a mythology, but not all of them were equal in producing stories that are timeless and work across cultures.

 

4.) The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston: This book taught me two things: First, that there is still much to be discovered right on terra firma. We talk as though the only new vistas of knowledge are to be found in space or places like the Mariana Trench, but the days of terrestrial discovery are not past. Second, there is a lesson of common fates of humanity across time. A lot of this book is about a parasitic disease that infected several of the expeditionary team, as well as speculation about how the same disease might have influenced the civilization that abandoned the titularly referenced city.

 

3.) The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur: Kaur’s books combine poetry and art. Both are crude but heartfelt and evocative. Both of Kaur’s books have struck a chord with readers, and that resonance seems to be about the candid and bold nature of her art.

 

2.) Behave by Robert Sapolsky: Sapolsky tells readers that one can’t look at something as complex and bewildering as human behavior through the lens of any one academic discipline and get a complete and satisfying picture. Sapolsky considers the best and worst human behaviors through the lenses of biology, neuroscience, endocrinology, human evolution, and more.

 

1.) Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal: The authors of this book examine the various ways people achieve what they call ecstasis. Ecstasis is a state of mind in which one loses one’s sense of self, and all the muddling factors that go with the self, such as self-criticism, fear of failure, and the feeling of working against everyone and everything else.

BOOK REVIEW: Love’s Labour’s Lost William Shakespeare

Love's Labor's LostLove’s Labor’s Lost by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

King Ferdinand and three of his attending lords (Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine) make a pact to devote three years to intense study and self-betterment. During this time they are to study arduously while depriving themselves of certain earthly pleasures. Specifically, they will fast one day a week; they will sleep but three hours a night; and— most controversially— they will give up women altogether. Just as military strategists speak of plans not surviving first contact with the enemy, this pact falls apart with the arrival of the Princess of France and her three attending ladies (Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine.) The men each develop a fancy for one of the women, and the pact unravels when the men, spying on each other, realize the others are intending to woo and pursue.

As it’s a comedy, there are a number of opportunities for confusion and comedic relief. Such comedic elements include mix ups in the delivery of love letters, and disguise schemes that go awry. For a comedy, the play ends on an interesting note. As is expected, there’s a reconciliation of who loves whom. However, there are no weddings to suture up the conclusion, but instead another agreement is entered into in which the men and women will see each other again in one year’s time. This leaves readers to consider the question of whether they think the men can be more diligent students when love backs this pursuit (but provides a distraction) than when it works against it.

This is one of Shakespeare’s earlier works, and it’s more original than some. Still, it deals in some common comedic themes about the disruptive force of love and the effects of failed duplicity.

This play is highly recommended.

View all my reviews

%d bloggers like this: