BOOK REVIEW: Classic Poems to Read Aloud Sel. by James Berry

Classic Poems to Read AloudClassic Poems to Read Aloud by James Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This anthology consists of about 160 poems arranged in eleven thematic chapters. As the title suggests, the theme of the collection is poems that have a beauty of sound about them. As one might expect, this means there are a lot of metered and rhymed poems. However, one would be wrong to think that no free verse works were included. One might also assume that “classic poems” means that none of them were written by poets living from the latter half of the 20th century onwards. But, in addition to the pieces by the anthologist, Berry, there are a number of such authors, including: Shel Silverstein, Kit Wright, and Sylvia Plath. Most of the poems are short form poems that range from less than a page to two pages. Of the the longer poems, those that are more than a few pages are excerpted.

This is a great collection to introduce children to poetry, though it was clearly meant for all ages. It has a number of poems that have the requisite silliness to appeal to youngsters written by poets such as Ogden Nash, Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, Hilaire Belloc, and others. And, of course, the selected poems are pleasing to the ear for reading aloud. Furthermore, it has line drawn illustrations, though not linked to every poem.

Some of my favorites that are included in this collection are: Blake’s “The Tiger,” Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty,” Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Kipling’s “If,” Carroll’s “The Mad Gardener’s Song” and “Jabberwocky,” Shakespeare’s “St. Crispin’s Day Speech” [from “Henry V,”] and Whitman’s “Oh Captain! My Captain!” However, it was also pleasing to find many poems that I hadn’t read a hundred times (or even once) before in the anthology as well.

I highly recommend this book for poetry readers, especially those who are interested in the sound quality of poems or those who are looking to introduce a child to poetry.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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One might think that a book narrated by Death and set in Nazi Germany during the Second World War would be bleak from cover to cover. But one would be wrong. “The Book Thief” heaps hope and humor upon the reader, saving tragedy for the final course – besides a few sprinkles throughout. It’s not that the story lacks a tension born of many close calls and morally compromised situations, but it’s a very human story – with the appropriate mix of blemishes and beauty.

The protagonist is a girl named Liesel who is sent to live with foster parents during the first year of World War II. Traveling to meet her new family, her brother dies, leaving her alone with new parents in a new city on the doorstep of the most lethal war in human history. In the cemetery, after her brother’s impromptu funeral, Liesel finds a fallen book and keeps it. It’s the first of several books she will “steal,” acts that will define her but which are comic sins in the shadow of the mass murder in progress. Fortunately, Liesel’s foster parents are salt of the earth folk. They aren’t wealthy or erudite, but they offer Liesel a loving home. It’s a little harder to see this affection in her foster-mother, who has a stern and gruff exterior — in contrast to her papa who is endearingly sympathetic.

The story is about this family, and others in the neighborhood, trying to get through life under a regime they recognize as tragically absurd, but which is terrifying none-the-less. Besides surviving, characters like Liesel’s papa try to do the right thing whenever they can, in whatever way won’t get them killed. Life gets harder as the war wears on. Liesel’s papa is a house painter, an occupation that is not a year-round occupation in Germany. Liesel’s mother does laundry, a luxury that most can’t afford as the war rages. On the other hand, this doesn’t make them worse off than most of the others on Himmel Street, which is – figuratively speaking – on the wrong side of the tracks.

While this is an engaging story, Death as narrator is the feature that really makes this book exceptional to me. Much of the lightness and humor comes from the fact that the narrator is not grim, but rather has humor and a stilted form of humanity about him. From a narrative perspective, Death offers a unique point of view, but it’s the circumvention of expectations that comes from the fact that Death can recognize the tragedy of what is unfolding before him. He’s not emotional about it in the way a human would be, but neither does he ignore the brutality and absurdity of it. The other factor that catapults this book beyond the realm of run-of-mill war story, is how the desire for literature and learning — which would usually be lost in a war story’s struggle for survival – is given a prominent role.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s an intensely human story, neither saturated in sorrow nor ignoring the horrors of war and genocide. I highly recommend it for fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: It’s Not Magic by Jon Sands

It's Not MagicIt’s Not Magic by Jon Sands
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of (mostly) prose and free verse poetry. The content is largely autobiographical in nature. Sands was one of five winners of the 2018 National Poetry Series award, winning with this title.

My own impression of “It’s Not Magic,” is that it started stronger than it finished. I can’t say whether that was because it’s truly more brilliant up front, or whether I just tired of its approach and tone. If you’re accustomed to poetry which shows you the universe larger and louder than life, and in which one has to strain to glimpse the poet, that’s not what you’ll find here. This is a kid jotting about things that happened in his life and insights he’s had. I credit the work that it’s not so angsty that it takes one out on the ledge. It’s cleverly cynical in places, and in places it’s reminiscent of Beat poetry.

I don’t know how useful recommendations are for this type of work. I think some will love it, and for others it will be just, “meh!” Hopefully, I’ve given some insight into which category you are likely to fall, but – if not – I understand.

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5 Posthumous Gods of Literature; and, How to Become One

There have been many poets and authors who — for various reasons — never attracted a fandom while alive, but who came to be considered among the greats of literature in death. Here are a few examples whose stories I find particularly intriguing.



by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

5.) William Blake: Blake sold fewer than 30 copies of his poetic masterpiece Songs of Innocence and Experience while alive. He was known to rub people the wrong way and didn’t fit in to society well. He was widely considered insane, but at a minimum he was not much for falling in with societal norms. (He probably was insane, but cutting against the grain of societal expectations has historically often been mistaken for insanity.)  While he was a religious man (mystically inclined,) he’s also said to have been an early proponent of the free love movement. His views, which today might be called progressive, probably didn’t help him gain a following.



4.) Mikhail Bulgakov: Not only was Bulgakov’s brilliant novel, The Master & Margarita, banned during his lifetime, he had a number of his plays banned as well. What I found most intriguing about his story is that the ballsy author personally wrote Stalin and asked the dictator to allow him emigrate since the Soviet Union couldn’t find use for him as a writer. And he lived to tell about it (though he didn’t leave but did get a small job writing for a little theater.) Clearly, Stalin was a fan — even though the ruler wouldn’t let Bulgakov’s best work see the light of day.



3.) John Kennedy Toole: After accumulating rejections for his hilarious (and posthumously Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole committed suicide. After his death, Toole’s mother shopped the draft around and brow-beat Walker Percy into reading it, which ultimately resulted in it being published.



2.) Emily Dickinson: Fewer than 12 of Dickinson’s 1800+ poems were published during her lifetime. Dickinson is the quintessential hermitic artist. Not only wasn’t she out publicizing her work, she didn’t particularly care to see those who came to visit her.



1.) Franz Kafka: Kafka left his unpublished novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, as well as other works in a trunk, and told his good friend Max Brod to burn it all. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your definition of a good friend), Brod ignored the instruction and the works were posthumously published.



In brief summary, here are the five ways to become a posthumous god of literature:

5.) Be seen as a lunatic / weirdo.

4.) Live under an authoritarian regime.

3.) Handle rejection poorly, lack patience, and / or fail to get help.

2.) Don’t go outside.

1.) Wink at the end of the sentence when you tell your best friend to burn all your work.

BOOK REVIEW: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

FlightsFlights by Olga Tokarczuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s unifying theme is broader than the title would suggest. I would argue that it’s even broader than “travel,” which is a common topic throughout. Given what might seem like a disparate, secondary (but recurring) theme of anatomy, I’d say “movement” is the book’s true theme. (The body, arguably, existing to make us mobile.)

Theme is important in this book, because otherwise it would appear to be a wild pile of written scraps with a few coherent (but only thematically-linked) short stories thrown in. The pieces included range from short paragraphs to long-ish short stories, and include what I would call stories, snippets, essays, observations, and even what could easily enough be called prose poems. Some of the work feels clearly fictional, but other parts feel like memoir bits or essays.

At this point, one might incorrectly believe that I’m trashing the book, given use of words like “disparate” and “scraps.” On the contrary, I enjoyed reading it immensely. The writing is skillful and thought-provoking, and the stories such as the eponymous short story “Flights” and the serially-presented “Kunicki” are evocative and well-crafted. Those stories deal with cases in which there is an urge to abandon the family and live like a vagabond, and that specific dimension of movement (or response to the urge to move) is seen throughout.

That said, those who see the word “novel” in the blurb and believe this is a novel in the usual sense of that literary term may be in for a surprise. I can accept that story is regarded in some circles of literary fiction in the same way that meter and rhyme are thought among some of the poetry elite (i.e. a cheap gimmick used by those ungifted in expressing themselves?) However, I have difficulty thinking of a novel as a written work that discards not only an overarching story, but also dismisses character development. Don’t get me wrong, the stories mentioned (and others) feature both narrative arcs and character development, but not in a cohesive way that undergirds the entire work. I suppose one counterargument is that the unstated narrator (presumed to be the author) is the character that is developed, and into whose mind the reader gains insight. Fair enough. Seems like a stretch, but fair enough.

Long story short: It’s a very readable, artful, and insightful. But I might refer to it in a dozen different ways, and none of them would be “novel — ” except, perhaps, as an adjective. That said, I’m not so concerned about labels as quality, and it’s a quality work.

I would highly recommend the book, particularly for travelers (versus tourists) – you know who you are.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of VeniceThe Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story hinges on the (now proverbial) pound of flesh. Bassanio is a poor gentleman in love with a rich lady, Portia. While Bassanio is upfront with Portia about his poverty — and she could care less — he can’t bring himself to propose to her without a few coins to his name. So, he goes to Antonio, the titular merchant of Venice and a close friend, and asks for a loan. Antonio is free and easy about making loans without requiring interest payments. Antonio says he’d gladly hand over the money to Bassanio, but all his money is tied up in his ships at sea. He, furthermore, tells Bassanio that if anyone will make him loan, the merchant can easily cover it. Antonio has tons of merchandise arriving in the next couple months from all around the world. The loan amount is small compared to what Antonio intends to earn from selling his goods.

The problem is that the only other game in town for loans is a Scrooge-esque lender named Shylock. Shylock is hard enough to deal with as it is, but he has it in for Antonio, in particular. Besides the fact that Antonio frequently offers interest-free loans — cutting into Shylock’s business — Antonio has also kept Shylock from collecting collateral by paying off other people’s loans before said loans went into default. (Maybe that’s why there were no other lenders in all of Venice?) To be fair, Shylock claims that his gripe with Antonio is that the latter is always leveling antisemitic slurs and other insults at the lender. At any rate, Shylock says he’ll make the loan of 3,000 Ducats, but, instead of ship or merchandise, he requires a pound of flesh as bond. Antonio, for reasons of friendship and the fact that he believes he will have a windfall by then, agrees to Shylock’s terms. If he doesn’t repay the 3,000 ducats in three months, Antonio will have a pound of flesh cut from his chest.

[Spoilers follow.] Bassanio takes the cash and goes traveling to make his proposal. First, he is required to play a “Let’s Make a Deal” game in order to earn the opportunity to wed Portia. The game involves three boxes (i.e. caskets): one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Inside one of them is a portrait of Portia, but the others are losers. All a prospective suitor has to go by is a brief inscription. By the time Bassanio arrives the reader has seen two Princes’s failed attempts at this courtship game. The inscriptions with the gold and silver boxes flatter Portia and the suitor, respectively. The inscription on the leaden box acknowledges that the marriage will not be all sunshine and roses, and that is the box Bassanio has the wisdom to choose. Unfortunately, shortly after he does so, he learns that a couple of Antonio’s ships wrecked at sea and the others haven’t been heard from, and – by now – the loan is in default.

Bassanio heads out to Venice with triple the Shylock’s money from his generous and wealthy new wife, planning to dispose of the situation. However, Shylock won’t budge on the terms of the bond. A drama plays out in the courtroom. Portia, anticipating the Shylock might not take the lucrative offer, has her butler take a letter to a legal expert and has said servant return with the lawyer’s reply posthaste. Portia and her handmaid disguise themselves as men – a lawyer and legal clerk, respectively – and catch up with the legal proceedings in Venice. After no one (i.e. the Duke, Bassanio, nor Portia-in-disguise as lawyer) is able to reason with the Shylock, Portia-as-lawyer tells him that he may proceed with cutting away the pound of flesh. However, the bond document says nothing about blood. So, if Shylock spills any of Antonio’s blood, he will be guilty of assault (at the least) and murder in the likely event that Antonio dies. Not to mention, going an ounce over a pound would be a breach of contract to be severely countered. This turns the tables, and Antonio and friends end up exploiting the situation to force the Shylock to convert religion as well as dictating the disposition of the lender’s estate (not to mention he’s still out his 3,000 ducats.)

[Spoiler end.] This play has a tense story line, particularly for a comedy, and is a gripping read. However, it’s also one of the most controversial Shakespearean works for its antisemitic and racist comments. On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that Shakespeare might have been engaging in satire. First, I mentioned that Shylock doesn’t cite loss of business as his quarrel with Antonio, but rather that the merchant has repeatedly insulted and slandered him. While we don’t see direct evidence of this behavior, the fact that Antonio rapes Shylock with his religion (by that I mean forcing a conversion using the threat of State force,) makes it ring true. Second, but continuing on this theme, there are a number of points during which the Shylock is sympathetic, most notably the famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?…” monologue. Third, we learn that Shylock has a delightful daughter named Jessica, leading the reader to the conclusion that perhaps Shylock isn’t a jerk because he’s a Jew, but is a jerk who happens to be a Jew. Finally, the degree to which Antonio and his friends rake Shylock over the coals at the end of the court scene tarnishes Antonio’s virtue and makes Shylock sympathetic once again. The “turn the other cheek” approach of Christianity gives way to Old Testament vengefulness.

Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (notably “The Taming of the Shrew”,) accusations of sexism are also common, but if there were an award for BOSS of this play it would go to Portia, hands down. True, she has to pretend to be a man to get it all done, but those were those the times. The need for disguise also facilitates a prank that she and her handmaid play on their new husbands, regarding their wedding rings. While they are forced to comply with the dictates of the age, the women in this play certainly hold their own as strong characters. Still, I can’t say the degree to which Shakespeare was a satirist versus an anti-Semite / racist / sexist, but it’s a testament to the richness of his stories and the depth of his characters that his works can be interpreted so diversely.

It’s a masterpiece. Read it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dream Machine by Su-Yee Lin

Dream Machine (A Short Story) (Kindle Single)Dream Machine (A Short Story) by Su-Yee Lin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This surreal short story is a reprint from “Day One” magazine that is available as a Kindle Single. The story is about a factory in an industrial part of Shanghai that seems to make metal objects / shapes, the purpose of which no one seems to understand. The protagonist is – at the start of the the story – the newest of the half-dozen employees who work at the plant. The story has a sparse feeling that ranges from the fact that the characters are designated only with a single letter to the fact that we really don’t get much indication of the broad and bustling city of Shanghai in which the story is supposedly set.

It isn’t easy to convey a world that isn’t quite right – seemingly like the world we are familiar with, but just a little off. I thought the author did a good job of this.

I enjoyed this story immensely. I thought the author used strategic ambiguity nicely. There are a few ways I believe one could reasonably interpret this story. If you are the kind that needs to have iron-clad clarity, that might be a bit aggravating. [If you’ve seen the Christopher Nolan movie “Inception,” and you liked that it left an open ending, this story is for you. If you insist that there is no ambiguity to the ending and that the top definitely toppled or didn’t, you might not enjoy it as much.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Faust [Part I] by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

FaustFaust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This review will cover the first part of the play in verse by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I start with that statement because there is some potential for confusion, because: 1.) there are many tellings of the Germanic legend loosely-based on Johann Georg Faust; 2.) there are two parts to Goethe’s play and some editions include both and others just one; 3.) Goethe’s play was apparently not written with the intention that it would be in two parts and so the proper title of this isn’t “Faust, Part I” but rather that became a common title, retroactively and after the author’s death. I’ve done my best to link to the same edition as I read (which seems to be sometimes erroneously listed as containing both parts one and two – when it is really just the first.) Part I is said to be more closely based on the myth than is the second.

The gist of the story is so well-known that it will be recognized even by those who’ve not read this play (or works like Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” [written well before Goethe’s play(s).]) The successful but bored Doctor Faust makes a deal with the devil in which Mephistopheles gets Faust’s soul if Faust can ever be made to feel truly satisfied. Goethe’s “Faust” opens with a wager between God and the Devil. The Devil believes he can corrupt God’s favorite (i.e. Dr. Faust) and turn him from a righteous path. Faust’s deal leads to a series of adventures that culminate in an ill-fated love relationship with a woman named Gretchen (a.k.a. Margarete.)

The story and its theme are straightforward. The idea is that there is a ceaseless yearning – be it for pleasure or understanding or whatnot – that is insatiable, and that giving into a desire to quench that yearning can lead even the best of humanity into tragedy.

The play is delivered in rhymed verse, and the translation by Bayard Taylor makes for pleasant reading.

I’d recommend this book for readers of classic literature. It’s an old tale, and is well conveyed in this translation of the play.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer

Shakespeare: A Very Short IntroductionShakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This series (Very Short Introductions [VSI]) put out Oxford University Press [OUP] features several books about William Shakespeare and his works. Most of these “Introductions” deal with a subset of Shakespeare’s work, (e.g. the tragedies, the comedies, or his sonnets and other poems.) However, the book most likely to be confused with the one under review is “William Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction” by Stanley Wells. Greer’s theme involves how Shakespeare’s philosophy and worldview are reflected in his plays (and to a small extent, his poetry.) While I haven’t yet read Wells’ book, it seems to take a history-centric approach, examining who Shakespeare was and the interaction between the the man and the times in which he lived on the work he produced.

The reason that I open with this distinction is that this is the kind of book that leaves some readers feeling duped. The title and inclusion in the VSI series might suggest to a reader that they are getting a basic overview of the the works of Shakespeare, leaving them surprised to find they are diving into arcane philosophical discussions. If the reader has a background and interest in both philosophy and the literature of Shakespeare, this may be just the book for which one is looking. However, if one is truly looking to be introduced to Shakespeare and his work, it is unlikely to be the book one is seeking. The biggest criticism is therefore about the title and placement of the book in this series, and not about it’s content, which is interesting and insightful.

The six chapters of Greer’s book begin with a brief biographical sketch of the man’s life and times. (This is where Greer’s work presumable overlaps most significantly with that of Wells.) The five remaining chapters each consider an aspect of the Shakespeare’s thinking and philosophy: poetics, ethics, politics, teleology, and sociology, respectively. There are extensive discussions of a few of the Shakespearean works as they pertain to the discipline under discussion, and snippets of text are used throughout to make points, but – again – the presumption is that that the reader has a basic familiarity with Shakespeare’s work.

There are graphics throughout the book, mostly portraits, playbills, and block prints from the era. There is a Further Reading section that is more than the usual bibliographical list, including descriptions of what is covered by the various books. Some will find this approach beneficial, and others may find it needlessly dense.

If one is looking for a book that considers how Shakespeare’s personal philosophy influenced his works, this is a good overview. However, if one hasn’t read Shakespeare’s works, or one has little understanding of philosophy, it’s probably not the book for which one is looking.

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