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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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: 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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BOOK REVIEW: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic VersesThe Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Anyone who’s ever written for public consumption knows that having one’s writing despised is not the worst of fates. While it might be preferable to have a work loved than loathed, it’s far better for it to be loathed than to be greeted with a “meh.” Like many, I read “The Satanic Verses” because any work of fiction that generates an emotional response of murderous intensity must have something going for it. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the release of this novel in 1988 triggered a fatwa (an Islamic decree) ordering the author’s murder. While the Iranian government retracted support for the killing in the late 1990’s, Rushdie lived in hiding for decades.

So, that is my full-disclosure confession, I probably would never have gotten around to reading this novel if not for the response it incurred. It’s not the first work I’ve read by Rushdie, and I’d hazard to say it’s not considered his best (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was his best-selling book, though it may not be because it’s banned in India – a huge book market.) If I were more well-acquainted with Islamic mythology, the book probably would have been much more readable, but as things stand it was a bit of a slog. There is a huge cast of characters (a couple names, e.g. Ayesha, are used for multiple characters over different time periods – on purpose, but still….) And the story – far from a clear and readable narrative arc — is a thicket of plot, subplots, and happenings that may have some symbolic purpose but don’t seem germane to the story. Also, some scenes are meant to reflect a dreamlike or surreal quality, and the switching between states requires a high degree of attentiveness in reading. Some of the story is work-a-day realism and some is dreams and transformations. Most of it is present day, but some of it is during the dawn of Islam.

The main plot revolves around two characters who survive falling out of a plane blown up by terrorists over the English Channel. The two characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, play the role of archangel and demon, though there isn’t a clear imprimatur of good and evil to distinguish the two. Of course, rejection of the notion that good and evil are clearly distinguishable opposites is the theme of this novel. (After all, the title refers to a controversial belief that a few of the revelations presented to the prophet Mohammad [renamed “Mahound” in the novel] were the whisperings of the devil.) While one might think angels and demons above the mundane concerns like relationships, we spend a great deal of time learning about Gibreel’s relationship with his mountain-climbing girlfriend and Saladin’s troubles with his adulterous wife.

While I’ve presented the book like it’s a complete morass, I should point out that it has moments of lucidity, and — in those moments — it makes for both evocative and though-provoking reading. I would say the best example of this is the subplot that plays out through the penultimate chapter. This arc involves a woman in India with cancer who is marching to the sea because she strongly believes that when she gets to the coast the waters of the Arabian Sea will part, and she’ll be able to march on to Mecca. Along with this woman are 140 pilgrims led by one of the book’s three Ayeshas. This woman’s husband is a merchant and a secular Muslim. He is more than willing to take his wife to Mecca, but would like to do so by plane. He thinks that she’s a bit off her rocker, owing to the disease, but his love leads him to follow her to the sea (riding along in an automobile.) I got caught up in this story line as it has this tension between believers and non-believers (more accurately secular religious types who belong to religion but don’t buy into the supernatural), and an intrigue about whether the seas will – in deed — part.

If you’re up for a challenging read, I’d recommend this book. It deals with some fascinating questions. It has a mix of humor and drama, and presents interesting characters and conundrums. That said, it isn’t the type of story one get’s lost in. It’s the kind of reading that requires a high degree of attention, and which can be a bit mentally exhausting. As for whether it’s worth reading because some people don’t want you to, my guess would be that the people who wanted to murder Rushdie (and some who still do) never got past the title, probably don’t understand the theological debate that the title references, and definitely didn’t get to the subplot of the book in Chapter 3 that deals in historic events. In other words, the violent response didn’t result from reading the book, but rather from hearing about the title. [In general, I suspect the Venn intersect of “reads books” and “wants to murder people about ideas” is – if not an empty set – pretty slim pickings.]

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BOOK REVIEW: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial KillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This clever novel revolves around two sisters who seemingly couldn’t be more different, but who are never-the-less bound by blood and fate. The protagonist, Korede, is a diligent nurse who is respected for her rock steady and no-nonsense nature. She’s precise, meticulous, hardworking, but plain looking. The relevance of that latter bit is that her sister, Ayoola, is stupid beautiful (i.e. the kind of pretty that turns people into blithering idiots in her presence), is a little flighty, and is a serial killer.

While Korede is too smart to fall for Ayoola’s self-defense explanations for deceased boyfriends completely, Korede never-the-less assists Ayoola with disposing of bodies while trying to let Ayoola’s explanations soothe her conscience. But while Korede is morally-conflicted and guilt-ridden, the blood bond is such that her stance is never in question. That is until a handsome young doctor that Korede has a crush on and a friendship with becomes infatuated with Ayoola. This development sets up the ultimate test of the sisters’ bond.

Braithwaite does a great job of peeling away the layers of the characters. The beautiful sister / serial killer is only the most obvious example of the risk of taking people at skin depth. We learn that other characters aren’t as they appear when we can see them more fully. And as the morality tale is playing out, we are offered a lesson in how beauty (as with any other envied trait) can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

I found this book to be gripping and highly readable. The story is strong and the character development is well done. If you’re looking for an entertaining read in a strong story, I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Deciduous Qween by Matty Layne Glasgow

Deciduous QweenDeciduous Qween by Matty Layne Glasgow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of [mostly] free verse and prose poems touches on nature, sexuality, and the loss of a mother. The poems are evocative and sometimes haunting, and they offer insight into experiences as specific as the author’s life as a gay man in Houston’s bayous and as universal as the loss of a loved one.

The collection is arranged into five parts. Each part continues the eponymous poem, “Deciduous Qween,” such that that poem acts as a connective tissue for the collection. The various parts each have their own unique feel.

As mentioned, sexuality is a major feature of this collection, and so readers sensitive to the subject should be forewarned. The fourth part is where the poems become explicit. In terms of graphicness, I’d put them in line with the more risqué works of Allen Ginsberg.

I found these poems to be poignant, heartfelt, and readable. I’d recommend the collection for poetry readers, particularly those who aren’t sensitive to matters of sex and sexuality.

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BOOK REVIEW: Intimate Ties by Robert Musil

Intimate Ties: Two NovellasIntimate Ties: Two Novellas by Robert Musil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume collects two recently-translated novellas written by the Austrian author, Robert Musil. Originally published in Musil’s native tongue in 1911, the novellas in question are: “The Culmination of Love” and “The Temptation of Silent Veronica.” Both novellas revolve around a woman tormented by love relationships and indiscretion. In the first, the woman is haunted by marital infidelity, and in the second, the titular character is entangled in an unconsummated love triangle gone awry.

While I can’t speak to how true the translations are to the original, I will say that the language is beautiful and is the highlight of book. However, these works shun story, and so readers of popular fiction will find them unengaging, and may come away thinking that the book’s greatest feature is its brevity. I will say, that “The Temptation of Silent Veronica” was more pleasurable to read as it built up some tension. Readers of prose poetry may enjoy the play of words and emotional content of these novellas.

For readers of literary fiction and prose poetry, I would recommend “Intimate Ties.” However, I suspect readers of popular fiction will find the book tedious. Particularly, likely to think so are those who pick up the book thinking it is romance or – even more so — erotica. While the themes revolve around love and relationships, the “action” is more in the character’s mind than in the bedroom.

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