Sunday, February 26, 2012

February 2012 Books - updated March 1

A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry by Mary  Oliver
Published: 1994
Rating: 4

Poetry has become an important part of my grief journey and is a genre requiring much self-education.  Thus a trip to the local Barnes & Noble yielded this slim book as well as the denser How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch.  Oliver's book gives a high level view of poetry and its terms.  Most of it was easy to comprehend although I confess to my eyes glossing over in the chapter discussing line, length and rhythm as they relate to the metrical verse and such words as feet, stresses, scansion, iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee, iambic pentameter, etc.

She has a high standard for her own poetry and thinks about writing....
for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from reminds me, forcefully, that everything necessary must be on the page.  I must make a complete poem - a river-swimming poem, a mountain-climbing poem.  Not my poem, if it's well done, but a deeply breathing, bounding, self sufficient poem.  Like a traveler in an uncertain land, it needs to carry with it all that it must have to sustain its own life - and not a lot of extra weight, either. 
It takes 40-50 drafts before she is begins to feel content with one of her poems.  Not surprisingly, she is the winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for American Primitive and the 1992 National Book Award for Poetry for New and Selected Poems.   I look forward to reading her work.

I love how she describes language, the tool of poets, as "vibrant, malleable, living material."

My favorite quote is at the end:
A mind that is lively and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry.  Poetry is a life-cherishing force.  And it requires a vision - a faith, to use an old-fashioned term.  Yes, indeed.  For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.  Yes, indeed. 

Reading Like A Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
Published: 2007
First read: 2010.  Re-read: Feb 2012
Rating: 4
Other review: A Guy's Moleskine Notebook

Prose begins her book with an interesting question: "Can creative writing be taught?"  This book answers that question with a definitive "yes".  She, as the author of numerous fiction and non-fiction books for adults and children, says that while she learned valuable information in classes and workshops, she really learned to write by writing and from reading, more specifically, from "close reading," focusing on words, phrases and paragraphs, quite opposite of speed reading, which is what I tend to do.

By reading and re-reading her favorite authors, she learned the tricks of the trade: how to structure a plot, create characters, the effective use details and dialogue - "private lessons in the art of fiction".  Her goal in this book is to "help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads."

There is a list of 117 books in the back called "Books To be Read Immediately".  I've read 11 and 19 are on my TBR.  This means that according to Prose, I need to add another 87 books to my wish list - yikes!

Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady - Volume 1 by Samuel Richardson
Published: 1748
Rating: 5
My Vol 1 review
My Vol 2 review
My Vol 3 review
2012 Year long reading co-hosted by Terri and JoAnn

I am reading this huge tome as part of my own challenge to read through the bibliography of The English Novel, an audio course by Professor Tim Spurgin.  I plan to write a post on each of the nine free volumes downloaded to my iPad.  I bought the book at a library book sale but it is so thick and the type so small that I will stick with the ereader.

Richardson is a genius of the epistolary form; he tells a tension-filled story with fully drawn characters, all by the letters they write!

Modern Scholar audiocourse: Giants of Irish Literature: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce and Beckett by Professor George O'Brien
Rating: 3

Not my favorite course.  Not sure if it was because of my unfamiliarity of the authors or the professor's flat delivery of the material - probably a bit of both.  Unfortunately, I am not motivated to read any of the works that were discussed.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Published: 1605
Rating: 4
My review
Read as part of Risa's challenge

Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson
Published: 2005
Rating: 2

Looking for a break from the more challenging works of Shakespeare, Richardson and How to Read Poetry, I choose this book, recently bought at my local library's book sale; intrigued by the description on the back page:
"Veronika, a young writer from New Zealand, rents a house in a small village in the midst of a harsh Swedish winter.  She has come here alone hoping to come to terms with a recent tragedy while finishing her latest novel.  Her arrival is observed by Astrid, her elderly, reclusive neighbor who harbors a dark secret from her past.  Astrid offers Veronika companionship in her grief, and the two embark on an unusual and unexpected friendship." 
I expected a moving story about a writer on her grief journey and was sorely disappointed.  I was unmoved at the unveiling of both character's tragedies which is surprising, as my personal grief lies so close to the surface and is easily pricked by the words of skillful writers.

I found Olsson's writing to be cliche and forced.  The characters were one-dimensional, shallow and uninteresting.  Astrid's ultimate tragedy, occurring while a young married woman, was downright unbelievable.  

That said, I did find some quotes that resonate with me.

Astrid - on her memories:
My life's memories take up space with no regard to when they happened, or to their actual time-span.  The memories of brief incidents occupy almost all time, while years of my life have left no trace (30). 
Like memories.  You can make yourself believe that they have been erased.  But they are there, if you look closely.  If you have a wish to uncover them (67). 
Grief quote - at the beginning of chapter 25:
Grief, it's shadow in the room
doesn't move with the sun
doesn't become dusk
as dusk beings to fall (151).

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Published: 1597
Rating: 5

I found this play the most accessible of the three read thus far.  A Midsummer Night's Dream would be next, followed by Macbeth.  I still used the No Fear Shakespeare version which happily, I found the paraphrase matched my understanding of the original text.  Is this because the language gets easier with each play?  I am not sure but look forward to finding out next month, when I read Henry V as part of Risa's challenge.

I continue to enjoy Shakespeare's mastery of the English language and reading the context of infamous phrases such as "O Romeo, Romeo!  Wherefore art thou Romeo?" and "Parting is such sweet sorrow", both spoke by Juliet in Act II, Scene II.

I love this quote - when Juliet is impatiently waiting for her nurse to catch her breath so as to impart important news about Romeo.
How are thou out of breath when thou hast breath
To say to me that thou art out of breath?
The excuse that thou dost make in this delay
Is longer than the tale thou dost excuse.
I have written two detailed posts on Josh's blog.  One that focuses on the teenage suicidal ideation within the play and the other, on the loss and grief expressed in both this play and in Macbeth.

Aspects of the Novel  by E. M. Forster
Published: 1927
Rating: 4

A short, easy-to-read book that is a publication of lectures given by Forster at Trinity College, Cambridge in the spring of 1927.  The tone is witty and informal, reminding me of the published lectures of Virginia Woolf in the Virginia Woolf Reader.   I envy those who were able to hear the pearls of wisdom from both these authors!

In the introduction, Forster readily admits that while English poetry has no equal, English literature takes a back seat to the great Russian authors, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in their treatment of a man's personal/heroic life and the soul respectively, and to Marcel Proust in terms of illuminating of man's consciousness.

The lectures, for they read as lectures, define critical aspects of the novel, helpful for both the budding novelist and the wanna-be-a-more discerning reader, which is me.

Story - "is a narrative of events arranged in time sequence."  'The king died, and then the queen' is a story.

Plot - "is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.  'The king died, and then the queen died of grief' is a plot....Plot demands intelligence and memory.....The plot-maker expects us to remember, we expect him to leave no loose ends."

The best chapter is on the subject of people or characters.  Here we find the famous discourse on the difference between "round" and "flat" characters.

Flat characters - "are sometimes called types, and sometimes caricatures.  In their purest form, they are constructed round a single idea or quality, when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round." Forster says that most of the characters in Dickens are flat, and while they are "types and caricatures, people whom we recognize the instant they re-enter", the genius of Dickens is that they are not "mechanical" or "shallow".

Round characters - "the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.  If it never surprises, it is flat.  If it does not convince, it is flat pretending to be round."  Forster says that all of Jane Austen's characters are round and "they are ready for an extended life".  I totally agree which is why there are numerous sequels to her books - we simply do not want them to end.

He references numerous books and authors that I have yet the pleasure to read: Tristam Shandy, War and Peace, Vanity Fair, Moby Dick and Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, and Dickens.  I will have to re-read this gem of a book after doing so.

Ajax by Sophocles translated by Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb
Published: 420 BC
Rating: 4
Great Authors challenge

Next to Achilles, Ajax was one of the most valuable Greek warriors. In Homer's Illiad, he single-handedly prevented the Trojans from burning their ships.  He expected to receive the dead Achilles' armor as the worthiest successor - instead, by vote, it was giving to Odysseus.

Ajax took this as an affront; dishonoring his name and deeds.  So he plots revenge - no less than killing his Greek comrades.  Athena intervenes and makes him mad, such that he tortures and kills sheep, thinking they are men.

Ajax comes to his right mind and is so filled with shame and remorse that he is suicidal.  He does not listen to the pleas of his wife on behalf of herself and their young son.

When the deed is done, Teucer (Ajax's half-brother) wants to bury him but Menelaus says no.  Odysseus intervenes, convincing all that Ajax deserves to be buried.

We meet Ajax again, in Homer's Odyssey, where he meets up with Odysseus in the underworld and refuses to speak with him, thus nursing the grudge even in death.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Clarissa Volume 2 by Samuel Richardson

Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson
Vol 2: Letters 45 - 92
Published: 1748
Rating: 5
Other posts: 2012 Year long reading co-hosted by Terri and JoAnn
Challenge: The English Novel audio course bibliography

Clarissa continues to be a prisoner in her own home yet somehow manages to continue her correspondence with her best friend, Anna Howe, and with Lovelace, the hated "libertine".  Regarding her contact with LL, I am reminded of the saying, "play with matches, you will get burned."

Her relationship with brother James and sister Bella continue to deteriorate.  So much so that Anna remarks in one of her letters, "A brother may not be a friend; but a friend will always be a brother" (Letter 47).

After a particularly cruel, heartless letter from James, Clarissa writes to Anna in Letter 52:  "But it is time to lay down my pen, since the ink runs nothing but gall."

In letter 56, Anna recounts a conversation between her friend, Sir Harry Downeton and Solmes in which  they were talking about women and marriage.  The horrid S is quoted as saying that "if LOVE and FEAR must be separated in matrimony, the man who make himself feared fared best!"  Anna wrote that "if my eyes would carry with them the execution which the eyes of the basilisk are said to do, I would make it my first business to see this creature."

Poor Clarissa describes her life as her family continues to pressure her to marry Solmes and LL is begging to rescue her.
How I am driven to and fro, like a feather in the wind, at the pleasure of the rash, the selfish, the headstrong!  and when I am as averse to the proceedings of the one, as I am to those of the other...what a perverse fate is mine! (Letter 80)
Volume 2 ends with a short letter 91 from C to A:
You will soon hear (if already you have not heard from the mouth of common fame) that your Clarissa Harlowe is done off with a man! - 
 Oh no, Clarissa, what have you done?!?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Published: 1605
Rating: 4
Other reviews: Joy's Book Blog, Rebecca Reads

I read the No Fear Shakespeare version of Macbeth in which the original play is written on the left side of the page and the easy-to-understand paraphrase on the right.

I began with with the original text and understood about 75% on my own.  The 25% I would've missed if not for the paraphrase was enough to have dampened my understanding and appreciation of the work.  Here is an example:  "The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be, Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see." Paraphrase:  "I won't let my eye look at what my hand is doing, but in the end I'm still going to do that thing I'd be horrified to see" (I, IV, 54-55).

At the beginning of the play, we are introduced to Macbeth, a courageous Scottish general fighting on behalf of his king.  After a series of victorious battles, he hears a prophecy from 3 witches that set he and Lady Macbeth on a path of wanton destruction and murder, ending with their own deaths.

While Macbeth struggles with his conscious, Lady Macbeth does not.  She is heartless and ruthless, almost inhuman.  The only other villainous character I could think of that is remotely similar to Lady Macbeth is from a fairy tale - the Evil Queen in Snow White.  Some chilling quotes:
Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, un-sex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
of direst cruelty.  Make thick my blood.
Stop up the access and passage to remorse (I, V, 41-45).
The extent of her willingness to do what was promised:
I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I sworn as you
Have done to this (I, VII, 54-59).
Macbeth says of her:
Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing by males (I, VII, 72-74).
Macbeth is set and ready to commit the ultimate treason; regicide of the good, noble and beloved King Duncan.
I am settled, and bend up
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.
Away, and mock the time with fairest show.
False face must hide what the false heart doth know (I, VII, 79-82).
After killing the king, Macbeth goes a bit batty and foreshadows the sleepless nights that he and Lady Macbeth will more baths, balms and nourishment for them.  I love this description of sleep.
"Sleep not more!
Macbeth does murder sleep" - the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
the death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,
balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
chief nourisher in life's feast (II,II, 33-38).
Once Macbeth is king, the 3 witches continue to cause mischief.  I now know where this famous couplet comes from:
Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble (IV, I, 10-11)
This play is about unchecked ambition.  About a man, egged on by his conscious-less wife, unable to trust his fate to Fate, and willing to do whatever vile act necessary to secure a destiny believed to be rightfully his.  Macbeth's ambition eventually drives Reason away, shown by his decision to kill Macduff's innocent wife and children.  Macduff is a nobleman who supports Malcolm, King Duncan's son and rightful heir:
From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand.  And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to th' edge o' th' sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunately souls
That trace him in his line (IV, I, 147-154). 
The words below are spoken by a Scottish nobleman to Macduff after he hears of the horrific murders. These two sentences articulate why I write in my journal, Josh's blog and this blog.  See this post
Give sorrow words.  The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'refraught heart and bids it break (IV, III, 211-212)
Murder begets murder.  This is Macbeth cry when he hears of Lady Macbeth's death by self-murder:
Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more (V, V, 23-26).
In the last battle, a father loses his son.  Here is another "grief quote" that speaks to me:
Your cause of sorrow
Must not be measured by his worth, for then
It hath no end (V, VIII, 44-46).
At the end, Macbeth is overtaken and vengefully killed by Macduff, who cuts off his head and presents the grisly prize to the new King Malcolm.  Poetic justice, albeit after much violence and bloodshed, finally reigns supreme.  What kind of legacy does Macbeth and Lady Macbeth leave behind?  Not much when one considers the last speech of the play, recited by King Malcolm in which they are referred to as the "dead butcher and his fiendlike queen" (V,VIII, 69).

I have rated this play a "4", having no context as to how Macbeth compares to Shakespeare's other plays.  By virtue of the number of quotes (and I could've have written many more), I would not be surprised if, after reading other works, I later revise it to a "5".

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"Clarissa" Volume 1 by Samuel Richardson

Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson
Vol 1: Letters 1 - 44
Published: 1748
Rating: 5
Other posts: 2012 Year long reading co-hosted by Terri and JoAnn
Challenge: The English Novel audiocourse bibliography

This has the distinction of being the longest English novel and at just under 1,500 pages, my paperback is HUGE.  I prefer reading the free downloads (9 volumes) on my iPad.

Like Pamela, Richardson's use of the epistolary format is brilliant, allowing the reader to see the events from each character's point of view.  In Volume I, most of the letters are from Clarissa to her best friend, Anna Howe but we also hear from both of C's parents, her uncles and one aunt, the horrible brother and sister, James and Arabella (think Cinderella's jealous and vengeful stepsisters, hundred fold); Mr. Lovelace, the handsome, rich scoundrel who relentlessly pursues Clarissa;  Mr. Solmes, the ugly and disagreeable chosen husband for Clarissa whom she despises, and Anna.  The view is close and personal.  Richardson uses all the novelist's tools within these letters: scene and setting, description and dialogue.  It is fascinating to read.

Regarding the plot, not a whole lot happens within the first 44 letters but the story remains interesting and the drama/tension between the characters is high.  Clarissa is pressured from all sides to marry Mr. Solmes, a wealthy man whose fortune, if tied with the Harlowe family could result in a coveted peerage for James.  When she continues to refuse, she suffers the ultimate "time-out", banished to her room, sees her personal maid dismissed and must resort to corresponding with her family members living in the same home via, you guessed it, letters.

I am taking notes while I read and writing down favorite quotes.  At this pace, I may be reading this book for most of the year!   Here are a few quotes and why I like them.

Anna writes very candidly about the greed and envy that motivates James and Arabella's actions against Clarissa.
Avarice and envy are two passions that are not to be satisfied, the one by giving, the other by the envied person's continuing to deserve and excel.  Fuel, fuel both, all the world over, to flames insatiate and devouring (Letter 10).   
Poisons and poniard have often been set to work by minds inflamed by disappointed love, and actuated by revenge.  Will you wonder, then, that the ties of relationship in such a case have no force, and that a sister forgets to be a sister? (Letter 15) 
...they must look upon you as a prodigy among them, and prodigies, you know, though they obtain our admiration, never attract our love.  The distance between you and them is immense.  Their eyes ache to look up at you.  What shades does your full day of merit cast upon them?  Can you wonder, then, that they should embrace the first opportunity that offered, to endeavor to bring you down to their level? (Letter 27)
Anna and Clarissa both recognize that wealth does not equal happiness.
...none of your family but yourself could be happy were they not rich.  So let them fret on, grumble and grudge, and accumulate; and wondering what ails them that they have not happiness when they have riches, think the cause is want of more, and so go on heaping up, till Death, as greedy an accumulator as themselves, gather them into his garner (Letter 10: A to C). 
I am fully persuaded, that happiness and riches are two things, and very seldom meet together (Letter 19: C to A). 
Both girls liken C's situation to being a bird caught in a snare.
My brother got me into his snares; and I, like a poor, silly bird, the more I struggle, am the more entangled (Letter 22: C to A).  
I most heartily despise that sex! ...but to be cajoled, wire-drawn, and ensnared, like silly birds; into a state of bondage, or vile subordination; to be courted as princesses for a few weeks, in order to be treated as slaves for the rest of our lives (Letter 27: A to C). 
In spite of tremendous pressure to marry Solmes, Clarissa remains stubborn in her refusal. 
But surely they will yield - Indeed I cannot.  I believe the gentlest spirits when provoked (causelessly and cruelly provoked) are the most determined.  The reason may be, that not taking up resolutions lightly - their very deliberation makes them the more immoveable (Letter 14: C to A).
Letter 30 - finally one from Mr. Lovelace to his friend, John Belford. This letter reveals LL's pursuit of C to be motivated by a selfish and vain love; she rejects him which makes him want her more. This is very reminiscent of Mr. B in Pamela. What is it with men?  They like the chase, the pursuit, the challenge, the conquest?  The following quotes show his true colors to the reader which makes it even more awful when we see Clarissa's skeptical distrust of LL slowly eroding.  I want to warn her - watch out!

He makes plans "to secure her mine, in spite of them all; in spite of her own inflexible heart; mine without condition; without reformation-promises....bringing that sordidly imperious brother to kneel at the footstool of my throne."  As he imagines his victory..."then the rewarding end of all!  To carry off such a girl as this, in spite of all her watchful and implacable friends and in spite of a prudence and reserve that I never met with in any of the sex; - what a triumph! - What a triumph over the whole sex! - and then such a revenge to gratify....."

With writing like this, I am looking forward to reading Volume II.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

January Monthly Poetry Post

I came across this event hosted by Lu at Regular Rumination and thought I would join the discussion. For the first post of the year, I cut and pasted a post that I published a few days ago on Josh's blog which says it all:

It is coming up on three years since I have been thrust on this grief journey by the tragic and irrevocable action of our youngest son, Josh. This blog was created with a duel purpose: to remember him and to chronicle the painful trek.  As I try to find ways to express myself, a new path has emerged, one evidenced by recent posts - POETRY.

I am losing myself in this unchartered world, profoundly impacted by the writing of newly found authors such as Lord Alfred Tennyson, Robert Pinsky, Anne Sexton, W.H. Auden, and John Berryman, while excited to discover more.

My attraction to this genre is surprising.  I've never been one for poetry, finding it too obscure, archaic and ambiguous for my simple taste and analytical mind.  I've not had the patience or motivation to read closely, dig deep for meaning, or make the extra effort to find and interpret ideas or supply connections.  I've gravitated towards the vast material written in prose form: fiction, memoir, biography, non-fiction.  And while I find prose easier to read and comprehend, it is far harder for me to write. Poems, at least right now, are an easier medium for me to portray a certain thought, feeling or emotion as evidenced by the three penned so far:  A Mother's LoveSilence Is the Answer and Over and Over Again.

For example, I have tried to write about the horrible day that I found Josh, not necessarily as a blog post but just within my own journal.  Where do I start?  What do I say?  How can I ever hope to convey what happened in that life-changing second?  Simply put, I cannot.  But when I was writing in my journal this morning, I started stringing words together that began describing that terrible morning.   The resulting poem says what no amount of prose could:

No Answer
by Sue Anderson

No answer,
   Voice silent.

No response, 
   Mind gone.

No sight, 
   Eyes unblinking.

No movement,
   Body stiff.

No breath,
   Chest still.

No beat, 
   Extremities blue.

No life,
   Hope abandoned.

Why?  I screamed,
   No answer.