Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Egg and I Road and a Giant Metal Fish, or Spring Comes to the Olympic Peninsula

So it's April and I haven't even posted my Fifty Books List from 2012 yet.... It seems like I can only manage one of two things: I can have a life or I can have a blog about my life.

But one of the books I read last year was The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald, which was alternatively interesting, funny, depressing, and startlingly racist.

I knew Betty MacDonald for her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series, which I loved as a child. But she was probably even better known for her memoir about struggling to run a chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in the late 1920s. The Egg and I became wildly popular, spawned several copycat titles, and many films (most of them about Ma and Pa Kettle, sort of precursors to the Beverly Hillbillies).

I have trouble deciding how much I actually like the book, but the setting of the book is close to where I live now. There's an egocentric delight in reading good descriptions of local scenery.

After church on Easter, we took a drive.

And here's a view from Egg and I Road. (We weren't sure where exactly the farm had been located, but here's a farm that makes me think of Betty MacDonald's house huddled at the feet of the mountains.)

Then we turned onto Egg and I Ridge Road.

And then we were done being vaguely literary and we went here:

Do you know what's inside the giant metal fish? If you guessed "most of creation," you'd be correct.

That's what I call making efficient use of your giant salmon.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Dickens Google Doodle

I spent far too much time yesterday trying to figure out what each scene in the Google doodle represented. Other bloggers’ interpretations left me spluttering (“That’s not Miss Havisham!”). So these are my guesses:

The first G is probably A Tale of Two Cities with Sydney Carton in Paris (and Lucie in the lower right hand corner?). The first O is the title character from Little Dorrit. The second O is A Christmas Carol with Scrooge appearing below the O searching the gloom of his rooms and Tiny Tim resting on top of the O with his crutch. I submit that the scene above the two Os is also from A Christmas Carol, probably including Scrooge (though it could be Jacob Marley pulled out of chronology) chatting with the Ghost of Christmas Present (note the leaves in his hair and the red/green scheme). The second G gives me pause… Pip and Estella from Great Expectations? Or David and Agnes (or Dora) from David Copperfield? The L is sturdier ground: the Artful Dodger and Oliver from Oliver Twist. I’m not certain, but I suspect the E shows the grandfather and Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop.

What do you think?                           

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

MLA Conference in Seattle and Some News

Okay, first things second. I will have two poems in an upcoming edition of The Sow's Ear Poetry Review (when I find out which issue, I'll let you know). I'm so excited, you'd think I was up for a Nobel.

Earlier this month, the Modern Language Association held its annual conference in Seattle. Several sessions were open to the public. So I went up on Thursday night and spent Friday at the conference. (Many thanks to the Seattle Brengans for room, board, and good times.)

Here are some photos from the Kingston ferry dock.

After being happily landlocked for so many years, I'm amazed that I live near all this water.

I didn't get much sleep the night before the conference, and I discovered that when I'm tired I can't understand directions. I lived at the help desk. Here's a photo of part of the lobby area with one of the conference workers helping an attendee who isn't me, for once.

Being in such an academic environment was both invigorating and bemusing. Before one session, I heard a woman behind me mutter something about "the politics of periodism." I couldn't decide if I was more tickled by the fact that there are people who can say things like "the politics of periodism" and Foucauldian without blinkingor by the fact that I knew what she was talking about.

Some of the sessions were academics presenting papers on minutiae that I suspect you can only appreciate if you're already studying those particular subspecies of English literature. I felt relief that I wasn't a doctoral student (and gratitude that other people are willing to be doctoral students and let me pick their brains).

I stumbled into my favorite session of the day by accident. (I had intended to go to a session on Harold Pinter, only to realize that session was on Saturday. Did I mention that I can't read directions when I'm tired?) Author Richard Van Camp's session was so good, I worked up enough courage to ask to have my photo taken with him.

Speaking of awesome writers... here's the Chinese poet Xi Chuan answering an audience question.

The man next to him is his official (written) translator, Lucas Klein. A poem would be read in Chinese, and over half the audience would laugh or nod. Then those of us who spoke only English would eagerly wait for the translation so we could find out what everyone else was reacting to.

I left the conference feeling revitalized and with an even bigger to-read list. (Special thanks to Scott who talked to me during lunch and gave me some great suggestions.)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2012 Reading Challenge (part 2)

Okay, now I can post my 2011 Fifty Books Challenge list!

Collections (short stories, essays, etc.)  

1.       The Woman Who Walked into Doors—Roddy Doyle
2.       The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Attwood
3.       Sense and Sensibility—Jane Austen
4.       Lolita—Vladimir Nabokov
5.       Reading Lolita in Tehran—Azar Nafisi
6.       Human Chain: Poems—Seamus Heaney
7.       Frankenstein—Mary Shelley
8.       Essex County (Vol. 1-3)—Jeff Lamire
9.       Alice in Wonderland—Lewis Carroll
10.   Through the Looking Glass—Lewis Carroll
11.   The Haunted Bookshop—Christopher Morley
12.   The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—L. Frank Baum
13.   V for Vendetta (graphic novel)—Alan Moore
14.   Mushishi (Vol. 2)—Yuki Urushibara
15.   A Circle of Quiet—Madeleine L’engle
16.   Saving CeeCee Honeycutt (audiobook)—Beth Hoffman
17.   Alexander Calder and His Magical MobilesJean Lipman, with Margaret Aspinwall
18.   The Road—Cormac McCarthy
19.   Ender’s Game—Orson Scott Card
20.   The Bird Woman—Kerry Hardie
21.   Superman: The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Man of Steel—Les Daniels
22.   The Science of Superheroes—Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg
23.   The Táin—trans. by Ciaran Carson
24.   A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (graphic novel)—Will Eisner
25.   Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty—Stan Lee
26.   Road to Perdition (graphic novel)—Max Allen Collins
27.   The Tiger Rising—Kate DiCamillo
28.   An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England—Brock Clarke
29.   Surfacing—Judy Gill Milford
30.   The Graveyard Book—Neil Gaiman
31.   Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table—Edited by Amanda Hesser
32.   Sidekicks—Jack D. Ferraiolo
33.   Life of Pi—Yann Martel
34.   The Influencing Machine (graphic novel)—Brooke Gladstone
35.   Stories for the Christian Year—The Chrysostom Society
36.   West with the Night—Beryl Markham
37.   How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One—Stanley Fish
38.   The Help—Kathryn Stockett
39.   Sonnets from the Portuguese—Elizabeth Barrett Browning
40.   Field Work: Poems—Seamus Heaney
41.   The Awakening—Kate Chopin
42.   The Waste Land—T.S. Eliot
43.   Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel—Jeannette Walls
44.   Alice Adams—Booth Tarkington
45.   Lady Windermere’s Fan—Oscar Wilde
46.   The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself)—Carol Fisher Saller
47.   Enchanted Irish Tales—Patricia Lynch
48.   A Woman of No Importance—Oscar Wilde
49.   To the North—Elizabeth Bowen
50.   Peter and Wendy—J. M. Barrie

So the total:
23 Fiction (give or take Half Broke Horses)
8  YA/Children's Lit.
7 Nonfiction (though it feels funny to include books about superheroes in this category)
4 Poetry 
3 Collections
2 Plays
2 Memoir/Autobiography

Again, six of these were graphic novels (or collections of graphic novelettes). Seven were on that literature list I like.

Other, shorter things I read included:
Cathleen Ni Houlihan—W.B. Yeats
Deirdre—W.B. Yeats
John Law: Detective—Will Eisner (and several Spirit comics)

This post is already awfully long, so if you're curious about what I thought about a particular book, ask me in the comments. (Hopefully, I'll do a better job discussing the books as I read them this year.)

After reviewing my 20102009, and 2008 lists, I've made some reading resolutions for 2012. I'd like to try to read:
  • At least two Pulitzer fiction winners each year
  • At least one Nobel prize winning author I haven't read yet each year
  • And six poetry volumes (this year, and then I'll reevaluate)

My fiction to nonfiction ratio tends to bounce around depending on what I'm researching, so I'll just let that change naturally over the course of the year. Two plays a year seems to be my average whatever resolutions I make. But now that I live closer to Seattle, maybe I'll see more plays. 

Some bloggers I follow read 100+ books a year, which both awes and horrifies me. I think I'm happy sticking to fifty. I also have non-reading resolutions to keep.

What are your resolutions/goals this year? (Reading or otherwise.)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2012 Reading Challenges (part 1)

Happy 2012, everyone!

I hope you all had a good Christmas. Most of our decorations are in boxes, which are hidden behind other boxes somewhere in our storage unit. So we had a sweet, simple Christmas this year.

That's a bay tree for a Christmas tree. And note the wood stacked under the fireplace. Most of that ended up in the last upstairs room that needed flooring. (And don't worry, that's a fake log in the fireplace.)

Normally, I would now post my Fifty Books Challenge list for 2011, but I realized that I had neglected to post a list for 2010. In part because I was more worried about moving and selling the house than blogging, and in part because I wasn't sure I had actually read fifty books. But by including some of the longer, more "word heavy" graphic novels I read, I just made fifty. 2011 will have to wait until the next post. Here's 2010.

Collections (short stories, essays, etc.)  
  1. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress—Dai Sijie (tran. by Ina Rilke)
  2. Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village—written by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Bird
  3. The Literary Enneagram: Characters from the Inside Out—Judith Searle
  4. The Glass Castle: A Memoir—Jeannette Walls
  5. 1984—George Orwell
  6. Shriek: An Afterword—Jeff Vandermeer
  7. The Patron Saint of Liars—Ann Patchett
  8. Castle Rackrent—Maria Edgeworth
  9. The Bible Cure for Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue—Don Colbert
  10. Wide Sargasso Sea—Jean Rhys
  11. Early Irish Myths and Sagas—trans. by Jeffrey Gantz
  12. In Country—Bobby Ann Mason
  13. The Names Upon the Harp: Irish Myth and Legend—written by Marie Heaney, illustrated by P.J. Lynch
  14. The Color Purple—Alice Walker
  15. Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned about Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat—Gwen Cooper
  16. Murder in the Cathedral—T.S. Eliot
  17. The Stranger—Albert Camus
  18. The Messiah of Stockholm—Cynthia Ozick
  19. Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels—From Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe—Anthony Arthur
  20. One Hundred Years of Solitude—Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  21. The Quiet American—Graham Greene
  22. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone—J.K. Rowling (audio book)
  23. A Clockwork Orange—Anthony Burgess
  24. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader—Anne Fadiman
  25. 99 Poems in Translation—selected by Harold Pinter, Anthony Astbury, and Geoffrey Godbert
  26. Moll Flanders—Daniel Defoe
  27. How Reading Changed My Life—Anna Quindlen
  28. The Reader—Bernhard Schlink (trans. by Carol Brown Janeway)
  29. The Complete Persepolis (graphic novel)— Marjane Satrapi
  30. Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood—bell hooks
  31. Longing: Stories of Racial Healing—Phyllis and Eugene Unterschuetz
  32. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia—Elizabeth Gilbert
  33. Watchmen (graphic novel)—written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons
  34. Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform—Christina Katz
  35. Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the U.S.A.—Julia Alvarez
  36. Coraline (graphic novel)—written by Neil Gaiman, art by P. Craig Russell
  37. What Ever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? (graphic novel)—Brian Fies
  38. Wish You Well—David Baldacci
  39. Mushishi (Vol. 1)—Yuki Urushibara
  40. Smile (graphic novel)—Raina Telgemeier
  41. Inside the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire—Ron Elliot (as told by Wayne Dammert)
  42. Their Eyes Were Watching God—Zora Neale Hurston
  43. Maus (graphic novel)—Art Spiegelman
  44. Sarah’s Key—Tatiana de Rosnay
  45. New Covenant Bound—T. Crunk
  46. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel—Nat Gertler and Steve Lieber
  47. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere—ZZ Packer
  48. American-Born Chinese (graphic novel)—Gene Luen Yang
  49. The Art of Reading Poetry—Harold Bloom
  50. Watership Down—Richard Adams
22 fiction.
11 non-fiction
7 memoir (though maybe Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? should be here too)
4 juvenile/YA (or 5, since Smile is a YA memoir)
3 collections
2 poetry collections
1 play
Out of those books 6 were graphic novels. (A medium I started exploring in 2010.) And 10 were on that literature list I like.

There were other things I read that were too short/word-light to make the list. I thought a few of these were worth mentioning:
  • A Day in the Life of Ireland: Photographed by 75 of the World's Leading Photojournalists on One Day, May 17, 1991—Collins Publishers
  • Mouse Guard: Fall 1152—David Peterson (graphic novel)
  • The Arrival—Shaun Tan (graphic novel/picture book)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nikky Finney Wins National Book Award (and some other news)

If you know me on Facebook, you know that even though I am far away from Kentucky now, I am ecstatic over Nikky Finney's recent winning of the National Book Award for poetry (for Head Off and Split). She is a Kentucky resident, a professor at the University of Kentucky, and a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets. Below is a video of the award ceremony from LexGo. The award announcement for poetry starts at about 12:30. At about 17:00 Finney gives her acceptance poem/speech.

I first heard Nikky Finney when I was in high school. One of my writing mentors, Judy Milford, had lent me some books, including a copy of Finney's Rice, so that I could read some Kentucky poets in preparation for Kentucky's Governor's School for the Arts. When Nikky Finney showed up at our GSA class, I asked her to sign Judy's book as a thank you.

This story segues nicely into some other (slightly more nepotistic) accomplishments I've been meaning to acknowledge.

Judy Milford now has a book of poetry out: Surfacing (Finishing Line Press)an exploration of grief and faith in the everyday. I've been waiting a long time for this book.

And my aunt, Rachel Clark, created the cover art and designed the book cover for the recently released Circle of Law (Xlibris) by Lia Londona Young Adult fantasy adventure. (I really should get a picture of the back cover on here too, so you can see her awesome cityscape.)

Congrats all around!

Also, my artist sister and I have started a joint Tumblr account:  Magical Bipolar Sofa. We'll hopefully be putting some of our own work up there, but it's mainly a catch-all for reblogging things we find interesting, amusing, or wonderful, but that don't fit our individual blogs. In other words, it's awfully strange. I don't know whether to recommend that you click the link or that you stay very far away.

(Note: The second book image I stole from my aunt.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sidekicks by Jack D. Ferraiolo

(Warning: The book discussed in today’s post deals with young male sexuality. Since I have never been teenage boy, this is bound to be awkward. Since I am full of unverified opinions on all kinds of topics, this is bound to be very soap-box-y.)

Now that I’m blogging again, what work of classic literature am I going to tackle first?

I’ve been on a bit of a superhero kick lately (no pun intended), and I have a long-standing love for juvenile/YA fiction.  

Sidekicks (Amulet Books 2011), a middle-grade superhero novel by Jack D. Ferraiolo, seemed like a perfect fit.

I enjoyed the middle of this book. Once the arch-nemesis is revealed the story picks up speed, the dialogue becomes both more interesting and more believable, and the plot takes several unexpected turns. It was all good, action-driven fun. 

But the beginning and the end gave me some problems. 

The book is marketed as middle school fiction (Amazon suggests ages 10 and up), and for the most part it reads like light-hearted, slightly satirical middle grade fare. But the story begins with the hero, Scott Hutchinson (a.k.a. Bright Boy) rescuing a woman and, to his great embarrassment, experiencing an erection. All while news teams film him and shout insults.

A recurring debate in juvenile fiction is whether to mention sex and puberty and how much to mention. To oversimplify, the arguments for introducing sexual changes generally fall under two categories: 1) that this makes the story more realistic and the characters more relatable and 2) that this lets kids know that puberty is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

Sidekicks sets itself up as a realistic (give or take a little for the sake of comedy) comic book story. Phantom Justice and Bright Boy fight in our New York City (rather than in a stand-in like Gotham or Metropolis). They have our technology and something of a medical explanation for superpowers. Yet the morning news show continually replays the footage of Scott’s boner. I had some trouble buying that premise. It’s no surprise that the media can be cruel to young celebrities (Rebecca Black, anyone?). But the coverage Ferraiolo depicts seems more likely for late night shows and internet sites. And the news plays nothing but that clip for about twenty minutes. No news day is that slow. 

When Scott goes to school, everyone is talking about what a “perv” Bright Boy is. Everyone. It would be one thing if the character only felt that everyone was talking about it. That would be realistic. That would be teenagehood in a nutshell. But even the kindergarteners are talking about it. Scott’s mentor doesn’t have any encouragement to offer beyond, “Yeah, you embarrassed yourself on national television. Forget about it and train.”

What exactly is the message middle school boys are supposed to get from this? “Your sexual desires exerting themselves will result in the single most shameful and embarrassing moment of your life. And everyone will notice. And no one will forget it. And you will live eternally in the shadow of your shame. (Or at least, until you learn to dress better and manage to kiss a girl. Because then you will be virile and manly. And not just a perv.)”

Or maybe I’m over-thinking this. Maybe the message is simply that erections are hi-LAR-ious. 

Someone who’s actually experienced the boy’s version of puberty can correct me, but I don’t sense that this book is setting middle-schoolers up for a healthy understanding of their bodies. 

Another problem I had with the beginning is a problem I often have with stories marketed toward middle/high school students. (Here’s the point where I step away from Sidekicks specifically and climb onto another of my soapboxes.)

It's a story-telling trend to try to garner sympathy for the main character by placing him or her in embarrassing situations right off the bat. We all love an underdog. The unpopular kid. The under-appreciated employee. The long-suffering sibling/child/parent. We’ve all felt this way. We see ourselves in these characters. And this setup makes it easy later on to show that the character’s circumstances have changed.

The pitfalls here are two-fold. First, being a character the reader/viewer pities is not quite the same thing as being a character the reader/viewer relates to. Sometimes, the writer wants to garner too much sympathy too quickly and ends up putting the main character into horrifically embarrassing situations. At this point the reader may withdraw emotionally from the main character because the reader does not want to see him/herself as capable of suffering such embarrassment (particularly if the character seems unusually passive in the face of his/her difficulties).

And the second pitfall is that moving from unpopular to popular, unsuccessful to successful, or uncool to cool, is an easy change to depict, but it does not indicate any sort of lasting change in the character. Often we understand “more popular” to be shorthand for “more confident and self-assured.” But self-confidence, by definition, comes from the inside and cannot be given through the sudden approval of peers. It’s important to show that the change is more than external. And since character change is plot (generally), cheap changes are like long journeys that go nowhere. 

Moving back to the book I’m supposedly reviewing, as I said, I enjoyed the plot twists in the middle of the book. It’s not often that I read a book for middle-schoolers where I’m surprised by the plot turns. I appreciated Ferraiolo’s inclusion of modern technology. (I laughed when Scott pointed out that his phone can probably do ninety percent of what Phantom Justice’s Main Crime Computer can do.) I liked the parody of the whole Batman and Robin setup. And I particularly enjoyed the villains.

A few hours after I finished Sidekicks, Fridge Logic started to kick in. The ending flowed naturally out of the rest of the story, but some of the solutions could have been explained better or hinted at earlier on. And there were loose ends. I suspect a sequel. But I have no idea if a particular character is dead. I get the impression I’m supposed to know whether or not this character is alive but the author just forgot to make it clear.

I think Ferraiolo is a good writer, and I suspect that with a little more care and attention Sidekicks could have been a better book.