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BOOK REVIEW: The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur

The Sun and Her FlowersThe Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the second collection of free verse (with some prose) poetry and line drawn art by Rupi Kaur, an ethnically Indian Canadian poet. Like the first collection, “Milk and Honey,” this collection has been well received critically. The strengths of the collection include some beautiful, evocative, and unique use of language; the author’s willingness to lay it all on the line in a bold and brave fashion; and the often clever–if simple, verging on crude—artwork. Its greatest weakness is frequent restatement of clichéd notions and truisms that don’t stand up well juxtaposed to the more personal and illuminating lines.

The collection is divided into five parts, each of them reflecting a theme—while being tied together by the titular floral theme. “Wilting” is about breakups. This flows smoothly in tone into the second part, “Falling,” which is about sexual violence, depression, and the linkage between them. “Rooting” is about family and origins, and—in particular—the poet’s relationship with her mother. As an immigrant child who moved to Canada from Punjab while young, Kaur was more attuned to her new home than her parents—who were less at ease with their adopted homeland and more rooted to their ancestral home. The penultimate part, “Rising” is about love and relationships, and it takes the collection into brighter territory. “Blooming” is about feeling comfortable within one’s own skin, and—in particular—the female experience of it.

As hinted, the overall organization of the collection seems purposeful and intriguing. The two melancholy parts at the beginning are blended into the last two (more optimistic) parts by way of a chapter on roots and family. This bridging seems to be done on purpose to make a statement.

I enjoyed this collection, and would highly recommend it for poetry readers—particularly for those who enjoy free verse.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of DuncesA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you’ve heard of this book, but not read it, you’re probably aware of the troubled circumstance of its publication. Several years after having failed to be published, Toole committed suicide. The story of the book would have ended there, except Toole’s mother found the typescript and carted it around to people in the literary community. After much persistence and not taking no for an answer, she managed to get Walker Percy to read the manuscript, and the rest is posthumous Pulitzer Prize winning history.

It would be easy to dismiss the editors involved in rejecting this manuscript as grade-A lunkheads, or as the lead character (Ignatius J. Reilly) likes to verbally skewer his victims “Mongoloids.” However, one can see how said lunkheads would find this much-beloved novel risky. It’s a character-driven novel in which the lead character is obnoxious and unlovable in the extreme. Reilly is a pretentious and pedantic professorial type–verbally speaking– wrapped into the obese body of a man-child who is emotionally an ill-mannered five-year old with a bombastic vocabulary. Reilly has no impulse control, takes no responsibility, and is prone to tantrums, sympathy-seeking dramatic displays, and wanton lies. He’s the worst because he thinks he’s better than everyone despite the fact that in all ways except his acerbic tongue, he’s worse than everyone.

That said, the book—like its unsympathetic lead character—is hilarious through and through. What it lacks in a taught story arc and a theme / moral argument (the latter being why the editor at Simon and Schuster rejected the book after showing initial interest in it) it more than makes up in hilarity.

I should point out that when I say that this isn’t a plot-driven book, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have an interesting wrap-up at the end—which I will not discuss to avoid spoiling it. The plot revolves around events in the life of a lazy man-child forced to go to work. It’s not a journey of change, discovery, or adventure. While, in most cases, a character-driven story with an unmalleable lead would be a recipe for a book that flops, here it keeps one reading to the last page because it’s Ignatius’s failure to become a better man that ensures the book is funny to the end. Reilly is constantly making decisions that are both overly contemplated and yet ill-considered.

The book follows Ignatius Reilly through an event that results in a tremendous loss of money for Ignatius’s mother. This forces her to finally put her foot down and insist the man—who she still thinks of as her little boy—get a job. It should be noted that Ignatius’s mother’s eventual coming around to the monster her son has become is a major driving force in the story—though we can see a distinct lack of taking of responsibility that echoes that of Ignatius, himself. Ignatius gets a fine—if lowly, clerical–job at the slowly-dying Levy Pants Company, but gets fired after he encourages a worker protest that goes awry. He then gets a job as a hot-dog cart vendor—a job considered the lowest of the low by both his mother and New Orleans’ society-at-large. The latter is the job he has at the end when a final chain of events unfolds (not without tension and drama, I might add.)

On the theme issue, the Simon & Schuster editor was correct that the book isn’t really about anything except how to muddle through life as a lazy, cranky, emotionally-stunted, and overly-verbose doofus. (But he was oh-so wrong about that being a lethal deficit—according to the Pulitzer Prize committee as well as innumerable readers.)

I’d recommend this for any reader with a sense of humor. You won’t like Ignatius J. Reilly, but you’ll find his antics hilarious, and you’ll want to know what happens to him in the end even if he is irredeemable.

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5 Insightful Sentences from Literature


It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane. 

Philip K. Dick in VALIS

 

And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.

John Steinbeck in East of Eden

 

Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.

Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms

 

There is a sense in which we are all each other’s consequences.

Wallace Stegner in All the Little Live Things

 

There are some things that are so unforgivable they make other things easily forgivable. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Half a Yellow Sun

BOOK REVIEW: How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch

How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry (Harvest Book)How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If one were to judge solely by the mundane title, one might expect this to be a different book—i.e. more along the lines of “Poetry for Dummies.” That’s not what Hirsch is offering with his book. There’s plenty of opportunity to learn to differentiate pentameter from tetrameter or a lyric from an epic poem, but the book isn’t arranged according to such fundamentals. It might even take one a few pages (or chapters) to realize there is an organizing structure. But you’ll get there because of the author’s contagious passion for poetry and his presentation, and an analysis, of many beautiful poems by masters such as Keats, Yeats, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Neruda, and many others–more ancient or modern and equally or less well-known. In the end, you’ll think of poetry in a new light.

The book is arranged into 12 chapters, each of which looks at poetry from a different dimension. Chapter 1 considers the poem in two ways. First, it emphasizes the importance of the reader, i.e. the poem is presented as an interaction rather than an act of transmission. Second, the author considers how various poets have defined poetry, and what we can learn from said definitions—besides that poetry is defiant in the face of definition. (Like a wet bar of soap, the tighter one tries to grasp it, the less one succeeds.) Chapter 2 continues to investigate the nature of a poem using the framework of the word’s etymology, coming from the ancient Greek word meaning “to make”–thus the chapter title: “A Made Thing.”

Chapter three delves into the making of connections (or lack thereof) as a theme in poetry. As with most of the book’s chapters, it’s built around a small number of poems that elucidate the author’s point. In this case, poems by Keats, James Wright, and Baudelaire are used to describe cases in which a human connection is sought, in which it momentarily exists, and in which it is shunned. As is true of other chapters, this doesn’t mean that these three poems are all that are mentioned. It’s just that they are given in-depth analysis, while other poems and fragments are referenced to help illustrate points.

Chapter four is entitled “Three Initiations” and it introduces three types of poetry through quintessential examples. The three types of poems are: 1.) poetry of trance; 2.) poetry of praise; and 3.) poetry of grief. The latter two may be more easily grasped than the first, which are poems that convey an altered state of consciousness.

Chapter five examines the subject of authenticity and vividness in poetry and how poets convey such genuineness—even by way of surrealism. The classic example is Shakespeare’s sonnets that mock Petrarchan sonnets in suggesting a less hyperbolic form of love letter (i.e. Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”)

Chapter six is entitled, “5 Acts,” and, as such, it covers five different subjects through the motif of a play. This first act is about opening poems or introductory soliloquy. The second act is about drama and its role in verse, and is heavily influence by a quote from Robert Frost (i.e. “Everything written is as good as it is dramatic.”) Act three is about what might be called “character” in the scheme of a play, but is really about the personhood of a poem. Act four delves into the topic of dialogue as a poetic tool. The last act is about concluding poems / death poems—as exemplified by Bashō’s deathbed poem and the postcard poems written by Miklós Radnóti on a Holocaust death march.

Chapter seven considers desolation as a theme in poetry. The next chapter places poetry in the context of history, using Polish poetry of war and Holocaust to convey the emotion and numbness of tragic events. Chapter nine proposes a nexus between art and justice, and looks at how this is displayed through jeremiads and political poems. The two core examples of this chapter are a work song by Sterling Brown and an ode by Pablo Neruda.

Along with chapter four’s “poetry of trance,” I found chapter ten’s discussion of poems that transport the reader to a moment of epiphany–or ecstatic / transcendental experience–to be particularly fascinating. There are a couple modern pieces that Hirsch presents herein, but some work by Dickinson introduces the topic and truly shows how it’s done. Chapter eleven presents the soul as a poetic theme. The poem gives substance to that which is inherently insubstantial, but which is somehow essential and beyond refute. Walt Whitman’s references to the soul offer particularly vivid insight on this question.

The last chapter is a brief echo of the first, reiterating the role of the reader and the need for poetic definitions for poetry because any definition that tries to capture the medium in precise prose loses it as it’s reinvented countless times over. If one prefers a simple and direct definition of poetry—e.g. writing that displays meter and rhyme–this is may not be your go-to book. (You might prefer a book such as Fry’s “The Ode Less Traveled” that is more dogmatic about prosody as the sine qua non of poetry.)

As for ancillary material, there is a huge glossary. It’s huge not by virtue of containing a vast number of words, but rather because it goes into considerable detail on most of the entries. There is also an extensive and thoroughly organized “recommended reading” section. The book also offers discussion questions for those who want to review or used the book for a book club or whatnot. There’s not much by way of graphics, except for one or two displays of visually oriented forms of poetry, but there’s no need of more than that.

I found this book to be insightful and I welcomed the unique way in which the author divvied up and evaluated the topic of poetry. If you enjoy poetry, or if you write it, there is much to be garnered from reading this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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When a sane man, Randle McMurphy, enters an insane asylum to get out of prison, he turns life in the ward upside-down. The book’s fictional narrator is the patient who sleeps next to McMurphy. He’s an American Indian of giant stature, named Chief Bromden, who’s become convinced that he’s shrunk. Besides childhood problems stemming from his father’s emasculation—i.e. having to take his white mother’s name (hence, Bromden) instead of the more usual family name of the father—Chief is haunted by war. Our narrator has the hospital staff convinced that he’s a deaf-mute (and probably mentally deficient, as well) and thus has a unique view of the ward, the staff speaking freely before him.

McMurphy is everything the other patients are not. He’s gregarious, confident, and risk-loving. He’s also a con-man extraordinaire—hence, his ability to trick the authorities into shifting him out of hard labor and into the mental hospital. But he’s not completely lacking in morality, and displays a kind of hard-nosed compassion. While the patients are occasionally distressed by McMurphy’s behavior, they find his willingness to stand up for them (at least when it’s in his best interest, though later a sense of justice or camaraderie guides him) worth the price of his wheeling and dealing.

McMurphy’s real opposition is Nurse Ratched, a former Army nurse who runs a tight ward. Nurse Ratched is used to controlling the patients through a combination of soft power (maternally convincing them that she acts in their best interest), bullying, and fear of the treatments she can get the doctors to rubber stamp (namely electro-shock and—in extreme cases—lobotomy.) However, she’s met her match with McMurphy. He can play patients and doctors as well as she. He, too, is capable of being cool and cunning at the same time. He’s able to provide a counterbalance to the authoritarian democracy in which she asks the patients for votes after telling them what to think. The reader doesn’t know how, but knows this conflict between McMurphy and Ratched must come to a head to be resolved once and for all, and it is (but I’ll leave the how to the reader.) At times McMurphy seems to be ahead, and at other times Ratched has the lead.

The book was influenced by Kesey’s discussions with patients at Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, where he worked as a night aide. Interestingly, Kesey volunteered for a study of hallucinogens during the same period (funded by the CIA as part of MKUltra), and, thus, for some of the conversations he was baked on LSD. At any rate, the experience had profound impact on him, and he became convinced that not all the patients were insane. Many, he believed, just didn’t fit well in society or families, and were pushed into institutions. The themes of the book are that differentiating sanity from insanity isn’t always easy and that mental healthcare professionals had too much power–and often wielded it unwisely.

The story is well crafted with an intense ending. The characters are developed, and this isn’t easy for the mentally insane—though Kesey’s experience with LSD may have helped on that end. Though we only really experience the insanity of Chief, because the perspective is his and he’s one of the few patients that legitimately seems to have trouble differentiating reality from illusion (at least through much of the book.) But we don’t really know how much of Chief’s problem is from his medication, and how much is the illness. There’s a beautiful descriptive scene in which Chief comes off his meds and is looking out the window watching a dog and the world go by. It’s vivid.

I’d highly recommend this book. It’s an evocative story with insights into mental health, some of which—sadly—are as valid today as they were then.

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BOOK REVIEW: Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou: The Complete PoetryMaya Angelou: The Complete Poetry by Maya Angelou
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This posthumous collection gathers together 180 poems of Maya Angelou. A collection of collections, it amasses six of Angelou’s collections as well as four stand-alone poems, and is said to represent the entirety of Angelou’s published and publicly released poetry. (Actually, it’s said be all of her poetry, but I suspect even a poetic genius like Angelou had notebooks of fragments and pieces with which she never made peace.) Her famed collections: “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie,” “Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well,” “And Still I Rise,” “Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing,” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” are presented as released.

Angelou’s poetry tends toward the playful and melodious even when its topics are angry or distressing. She favors short pieces that have rhyme and rhythm that please the ear—at least in those early collections for which she is most recognized. Reading the poetry chronologically, I noticed a shift toward a little bit longer free verse poetry—though always with attention to the issue of sound (if not to creating song-like sound.) As this was my first reading of this collection, some of this perception of shifting length and style may be an illusion created by the fact that the freestanding pieces are toward the end, and they tend to have been released for special occasions that called for longer run times. But maybe she felt that poems of dissent and social commentary ultimately called for a more discordant quality. Delivering a jeremiad with pop tune catchiness can feel as though it undermines the message—though it also makes a commentary about the nature of being underdog.

I don’t want to suggest that Angelou’s work doesn’t capture the happy and hopeful as well as the daunting, because it is. But poets deal in emotion, and that means confronting dark topics such as slavery, racism, domestic violence, etc. Her use of dialect language breathes authenticity into her poems and builds the emotional weight of them, which often supports the song-like quality. And there is plenty of precedent in music for delivering hard material in a melodious package.

I’d recommend this collection to poetry readers. It’s powerful and poignant, and makes a beautiful sound.

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BOOK REVIEW: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Challenger DeepChallenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Challenger Deep” is the story of a smart and artistically talented young man, Caden Bosch, who is afflicted with Schizophrenia. There are essentially two story lines being told in parallel. One is the real world, and in the chapters in this line we see Caden’s descent as it takes place. From references to past events, we gain insight into how Caden was before the disease. In the early part of the book, these chapters are set at school and at home, and then later at the mental hospital at which he’s admitted as a patient.

In the other story, Caden is on a sailing ship headed to the Challenger Deep—the deepest portion of the Marianas Trench at almost 7 miles down, and—symbolically—Caden’s rock-bottom . Shipboard life is Caden’s hallucinated experience of the mental hospital. Over time the reader begins to match up characters from the real world with those from the delusion—both patients and staff members. This is a mutinous vessel, and the tension reflects the pull between Caden’s desire to be well and the appeal of the world of delusion.

Over time the author shows key events in both lines and the reader can connect them up to interpret how delusional Caden experiences the world. The story isn’t strictly told in a chronological order, though the broad sweep of it is. The bits of disjoint create no confusion while helping to convey the nature of a fractured mind. This works, in part, because the book is told over 161 short chapters, and, because the chapters are so short, a diversion doesn’t take one far and it’s easy to show the match up of events. The book artfully conveys the bizarreness of a dreamlike world of delusion while remaining clear and readable. Any confusion in the early chapters becomes rectified as the author reveals how the delusional world and the real world zip together.

This book was imaginative, enjoyable to read, as well as allowing the reader insight into the nature of mental illness. Atypical of a work of fiction, there is a resources section that provides contact information for organizations that support mental health.

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers.

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POEM: Literarily Insane

Hemingway off’d himself–
curled up under his
own looming shadow.

What loomed beyond
that shadow was the
great unfathomable.

Peering into it might
have been a comfort,
or might have killed
him in pre-greatness days.

***

Kesey’s Chief wondered
how the Irishman could live
in his own grandiosity of being.

McMurphy’s sanity was surely
built upon a foundation of delusion–
sanity and delusion forged iron-clad.

Meanwhile, those free of such
delusions huddled in the fog,
unable to step out into life.

***

Heller’s Yossarian summed
up the whole damned mess:
claims of insanity are a
recognition of one’s sanity.

Who else seeks to turn down
the volume on reality?

Other than one who can
hear it well enough to know
when it peals thunderous?

BOOK REVIEW: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While it’s a title that probably has had many readers scratching their heads, “A Clockwork Orange” is the perfect title for Burgess’s book. Our brains—while highly capable—are a stringy, wet mess of complexity, and to treat them like a clockwork machine is to invite trouble as well as to muddle what it means to be human.

This book is set in a dystopian future and features Alex, the head of a small band of teenage ne’er-do-wells who roam the streets engaging in random acts of violence. After Alex has a falling out with his band, they abandon him to be captured by the police. Institutionalized, he finds that he’s no longer a lion among sheep, but is a teenager among hardened criminal men. He’s eager to get out and after a violent precipitating event; he’s enrolled in a program that will use drugs and operant conditioning (i.e. the so-called Ludovico technique) to “cure” him of violent tendencies. Once he’s cured, they release him as he’s no longer a threat to society.

The technique works perfectly, but with the side-effect that the classical music that he used to love now makes him violently ill—because said music was used for dramatic effect in his conditioning. The days after his release are no picnic as he has run-ins with past enemies and has no ability to stand up for himself–any violence makes him ill to a physically debilitating level. He finds himself being used by anti-government dissenters who make him a poster-child for the level of authoritarianism the government has stooped to. The government ultimately caves to public opposition, and reverses the procedure. At first Alex immediately goes back to his ultra-violent ways with a newly formed crew, but he finds himself changing.

There are a couple of warnings of note. First, Alex and his friends speak in a dialect called Nadsat that is a kind of pidgin of Russian and English. It’s not hard to follow. Context usually makes the meaning clear, and only a handful of twists on Russian words are used and they are used repeatedly to the point their meaning becomes second nature. However, it should be noted that a considerable amount of the book is not in straightforward English. For example, “horrorshow” actually means “good” and it comes from the Russian хорошо (phonetically: “horosho”) which means “good.”

Second, if you’re buying a secondhand copy, make sure it has 21 chapters. In the US, an edition was released with the last chapter stripped out. (Note: some people do like it better without the last chapter, but you should probably experience it as the author intended and make up your own mind about which is best.) Needless to say, the tone of the ending is completely changed depending upon whether the last chapter is included or not.

The organization is straightforward, and consists of three parts with seven chapters each. The beginning is before Alex goes to prison, the middle is while he’s incarcerated and his experience of the Ludovico Technique, and the last part is from Alex’s release onward.

This book is a classic for good reason. It’s both an intense story and a thought-provoking morality tale. I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Murry family feels mopey. There are a number of run-of-the-mill factors in the family malaise. Meg, the story lead, doesn’t fit in in school, and is frequently in disciplinary trouble. Her younger brother, Charles Wallace, is thought to be mentally deficient because he doesn’t talk to strangers, but he is—in fact—a genius. However, the big cloud hanging over this family’s head is that their father hasn’t been heard from for a year. He isn’t the type of father who goes out to the store for cigarettes and never comes back. Instead, Alexander Murry—Meg’s dad—is a loving father and husband who happens to be a renowned scientist who sometimes does work for the government. Even when he’s off doing top-secret work, however, he checks in with his wife and kids on a regular basis, but now there’s been no communication for months. The townspeople both pity the Murrys and think them to be living in denial because they maintain that Alexander Murry will soon come back.

While the book begins with a real world premise and feel, it soon becomes apparent that things aren’t what they seem–at least not around the Murry household. (Things not being as they appear recurs as a theme throughout this book.) Our first inkling of this unusualness comes when we realize that Charles Wallace isn’t only a genius and preternaturally mature, he also appears to be psychic. Events really turn strange when Meg’s mother, Katherine, goes out to investigate a noise and comes back into the house with an old lady who—surprise of surprises–Charles Wallace knows, a Mrs. Whatsit. And, as he seems to do with everyone, Charles Wallace begins talking to the old lady as if he were a sage old man.

The story follows the adventures of Meg, Charles Wallace, a boy named Calvin O’Keefe as they go with three mysterious visitors (one of whom is the aforementioned Mrs. Whatsit) in search of Alexander Murry. While O’Keefe is a popular kid and a jock, he doesn’t really feel he fits in. In that way, he’s a counterpoint to Meg. Meg doesn’t fit in and it gets her in trouble. O’Keefe pretends to fit in, but has angst about it. Furthermore, O’Keefe seems to have some sort of supernatural ability—perhaps not of the level of Charles Wallace, but enough to exacerbate his feeling of being an outcast among his own family and community. It’s Calvin’s feeling that he’s at home with the Murrys that accelerates his inclusion in the story.

The sci-fi elements of this book, as with many other great works of children’s science fiction, facilitate the teaching of simple moral /ethical lessons. Don’t rush to judgement about people—Aunt Beast is one of the most endearing characters of the book. Fitting in is not all it’s cracked up to be, and if everyone were the same, what a dreary existence life would be. And, ultimately, love conquers all.

I’d highly recommend this book for children and adults alike. The story is highly readable owing to narrative tension and mystery.

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