Friday, March 27, 2009

The Best Book I've Read in Months

Hello friends! I realize it's been awhile since I've posted anything, and I apologize. However, I think I have found the book that's gotten me excited about reading and sharing again. In fact, I am ready to name it the best book (okay, at least my favorite book) I've read since finishing War and Peace way back in December.

So what book has set my heart a-flutter and filled me with joy? It's The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (with illustrations by Dave McKean).

I decided the read Gaiman's novel after reading several positive reviews for it this winter. Then, it won the John Newberry Medal. Yes, it's a kid's book (ages 9-12, according to But that didn't stop me from wanting to read about a child raised in a cemetery. I waited for the perfect time - Spring Break - to read it, and although I was worried at first about getting back into children's literature, I was rewarded a hundred times over with the two days I spent reading it.

It's fantastic. Well-written, fantastic characters, mysterious and thrilling plot - everything you want from a good book, it's here. The novel tells the story of Nobody Owens, a boy raised by ghosts in an old English cemetery after his family is murdered. As long as he stays in the cemetery, he's safe, avoiding trouble and the murderous Jack, who is still after the baby he couldn't manage to kill. Nobody, or Bod as he's called, is closely watched by his guardian, Silas, a mysterious figure who exists between the living and the dead. Gaiman never right-out tells us what Silas is, but he gives enough clues that a reader knows without needing a name for it. With Silas and the ghosts watching over him, Bod grows up, gets in trouble, has a showdown with Jack, and learns some life lessons along the way. It's a very simple story, but because of Bod's circumstances and surroundings, it's very original and entertaining.

I was less intrigued by the plot, though, than I was by the little things Gaiman does in his novel. The way he gives us the inscription engraved on every headstone Bod encounters, the sly allusion to Harry S. Truman, the way human emotions are perceived by a child - these are the moments that make this novel work. The characters are also fantastic, particularly Silas, whose mystery and tragedy collide with his love for Bod in a very human way.

In the end, this book full of ghosts, supernatural creatures, and murderers is simply a story about growing up and learning to set out in the world on one's own. It's a beautiful book, told very lovingly and with great attention to detail and atmosphere. Whether you're interested in the supernatural, in humanity, or children's lit in general, it's a great read. I loved it, despite being a decade older than its intended audience. I even cried at the end, and any book that can make me do that earns my devotion.

Work Mentioned:
Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

Happy Reading, everyone!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Some Really Awesome Books

In the last couple weeks, I have read some truly fantastic books. Although they were books assigned for class, they completely unfolded as works that touched upon what I needed at the moment - books that, for their own purposes, did not need to be anything more than entertainment. Lucky for me, they were also beautiful, insightful, and thought-provoking.

The first of these is Stop Time, a memoir by Frank Conroy. I loved this book from the very first page. Conroy isn't worried about telling his entire life story; in fact, although the book follows him by age, it's hardly chronological. Moments exist that simply stand out as memories so powerful that they overpower storytelling mechanisms like beginnings and endings, moments worth writing about. It's a complete story without literally being a complete story. It's a beautiful work. The writing is simple but detailed, and Conroy is careful with the way he uses language, imagery, and abstraction. The memoir centers around his somewhat-crazy upbringing. His family had a roaming nature, and he himself picked up heavily on those instincts. Trying to find his way through parental figures who ultimately didn't care that much about raising children, Conroy realizes he has to find his own place in the world. The memoir deals with that struggle, leading to incredible moments where all the familial and spacial tension is built up without Conroy even realizing it at the time. I don't want to give much away because I recommend this book to everyone. There are some books that are written in a way that can appeal to everyone, and I truly believe this is one of those books. Read it, please!

Yesterday, I finished Anne Carson's The Autobiography of Red, a strange but interesting novel in verse. I think Carson is a great poet, a very careful and humane poet. However, this book is certainly not for the faint of heart. It's a tale based on a Greek epic figure, Geryon, the red monster. The book places Geryon in a contemporary setting, and although we are told he is red and has wings, we do not see him as a monster. He's a human being, one who deeply feels every emotion from intense heartbreak to intense peace. The poetry itself is nicely-done, and the book works well as a modern love story. But what it excels in lies in the quiet moments, the throwaway lines and details that really get at what it means to be a human being. I didn't love it quite as much as Stop Time, but I still found it a very worthwhile read (also, it's very quick - it took me only an hour to finish). I would not be as willing to recommend it to just anyone, but anyone who is interested in the way mythology bleeds into modern life, or the way verse and narrative play with and against each other, it's an exciting and unusual piece.

Works Mentioned:
Frank Conroy, Stop Time
Anne Carson, The Autobiography of Red

I hope you are all enjoying your own reading these days, and never hesitate to send me your own recommendations!


I apologize for how long it's been since I've updated. I've gotten back into the groove of the semester now, though, and I have lots and lots of things to talk about here in this blog. I've read some really amazing books the last few weeks that need to be talked about.

So I promise something will be up soon - maybe even the next 24 hours.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Hockey!: Or The Miracle On Nonexistent Pages

Lately, my Friend Who Cooks and I have really gotten into hockey. We've been attending Indiana Ice games and watching Miracle far too often. Hockey is a fantastic sport. I may even like it more than football (and I think football is the greatest sport ever invented). There's action, sweet gear, and fights. Even more importantly, there's major chances for injury. Hockey brings out the brute in me, the lover of violence and danger. Much like I love movies where men shoot each other while chasing elaborate plotlines (see The Departed), I enjoy hockey because it is far outside the realm of "normal" for me. I can't ever imagine myself shooting an informer or checking a guy while slamming him in the face with the end of a stick, so these things work as my escapism.

So how does this apply to books, you might wonder? Well, that is exactly my point. There's not enough of a connection. In my sudden hockey-obsession, I realized that it is next to impossible to find quality fiction about hockey, or sports in general. The only serious one I can think of is Updike's Rabbit books, which have to overcome my inate dislike of John Updike (RIP, sorry) if they want to be read. But outside of that, I haven't been able to find any good books about sports - about the culture of them, about the players or fans or coaches. Why? I want these things to be connected! So this entry isn't so much a rumination as much as it is a call for help.

Here's what I want:
1. More books involving some aspect of sports - and the more violent the better!
2. Recommendations for what to read as a lover of both literature and hockey? Even nonfiction works at this point. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

January Reading/Writing Playlists: Or, Now I Know Why the Frustrated Writer Sings

Music plays a major role in my reading and writing life. I am one of those people who concentrates better with background noise, so I have always listened to music while reading. Sometimes, it greatly enhances the reading experience. When I was an angry teenager, listening to loud guilt-laden metal made reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein a million times better. (Granted, sometimes music warps a reading - listening to Led Zeppelin the first time I read Catcher in the Rye certainly made for what I'll call an "interesting" experience, as much as I love those two things separately). Some music, when heard for the first time, also can remind you of a favorite book or literary moment. Music comes from the same creative impulse as writing - the need for human connection - which makes it a great prop. So whether it's pop or classical or rock, good music can be a great benefit to reading.

Music is just as important to writing as it is to reading, maybe even more so. A really good song or piece of music is a great way to work through an idea, a character, or a setting. For example, when I listen to Sufjan Stevens's "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!" I get at least one-hundred ideas for a good short story. Music also works as a fantasic motivator. The Roommate and I often go to the Indianapolis Symphony, and I always come back itching to put together a poem. I don't personally know any creative writers who don't listen to some form of music while writing.

Anyways, all this is a long introduction to today's entry, my monthly playlist for reading and writing. This is the music that got me excited about reading and writing this month. Feel free to give them a try yourself. (Warning: I make no claims to being cool. This is just what's doing it for me these days.)

The Reading Playlist
1. Bela Bartok, "Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta"
2. Death Cab for Cutie, "I Will Possess Your Heart"
3. Led Zeppelin, "Achilles's Last Stand"
4. Okkervil River, "So Come Back, I Am Waiting"
5. Supertramp, "Rudy"
6. REM, "Country Feedback"
7. Foo Fighters, "Come Back"
8. Smetana, from Ma Vlast: "No.4, From Bohemia's Woods and Fields."

The Writing Playlist
1. Modest Mouse, "People as Places as People"
2. from the original Broadway cast recording of Spring Awakening, "Don't Do Sadness/Blue Wind"
3. The Beatles, "Day in the Life"
4. Bon Iver, "For Emma"
5. Great Lake Swimmers, "Passenger Song"
6. Grieg, "Funeral March" (the original piano piece)
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Supernaturally"
8. Robert Randolph and the Family Band, "Ain't Nothing Wrong With It"

So there you go. Listen and enjoy.

But before you go, a literary anecdote:
In my American Lit class, we are reading John Smith and my professor promised we'd meet Pochantas. So tonight, while flipping through the assigned pages, I angrily said, "I don't see any fucking Pocahantas." To which my quick-witted Friend Who Cooks said, "He didn't write about that part of their relationship."
It was the highlight of my day.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Theodore Roethke: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Poetry

My favorite website - the one website I cannot live without - is the AV Club. Last Friday, one of my favorite writers there, Nathan Rabin, mentioned that he did not like poetry. I was okay with this; poetry's not for everyone. But it was the Comments following the entry that so angered me. One lovely commentator, sure in his knowledge, claimed that poetry was a bastardization of language; that it was a butchering of prose with ridiculous rules like rhyme and scansion patterns. According to him, poetry got in the way of true human communication. I cannot even begin to express the anger I felt at reading this. The reason poetry exists, and particularly the reason poetry with rhyme and meter exists, is because of the need for human communication. These patterns of writing were developed in order to be the closest to human speech patterns. Iambic pentameter, etc. was created so writers could express something that could be easily understood, then repeated for illiterate audiences. So technically, prose is the real bastard of human communication. Asshole.

Anywhosen, my experience with this idiot made me think about my own experiences with poetry. Because truth be told, a few years ago, I would have agreed with the commentator. Now, I'm planning on getting an MFA in poetry. So what changed? The answer is pretty simple; I found the right poem. My theory about all forms of literature - poetry, fiction, comic books, etc. - is that anyone can be converted simply by finding the thing that speaks to him or her. I didn't like poetry because in high school I was exposed only to the things that bored me: Longfellow, Emerson, Browning. Once I read some poems that really meant something to me - poems that got under my skin or that I understood or whose language I craved - everything changed.

For me, that first poet was Theodore Roethke (with a smattering of Seamus Heaney on the side). Reading Roethke opened up a less restrictive, more concrete form of poetry than what I had seen earlier in life. My life with Roethke started out with the slight but image-packed work of "My Papa's Waltz" or "Dolor" (read that poem and tell me you don't want to hang out in an office supply closet all day). But last year, I carefully re-read a long, multi-part poem by Roethke entitled "The Lost Son." It's an amazing work - tense, beautiful, very strange and sprawling. Do I totally understand it? No. But that doesn't stop me from loving every single word in it. Here's the first stanza (from Part 1: "The Flight"):

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

Bah! I love this poem. There are probably only a handful of people in this world who get tingles down their spines while reading this, and for us, it means everything. If you're not one of those people, awesome (I personally must confess that I have never liked a single Emily Dickinson poem I've ever read). Every poem in the world is meant for a different person, and every person was meant for a different poem. The hard part is finding what you like. The easy part is falling in love.

So for that bastard commentator on the AV Club and for everyone else: Try to actually read a poem once in a while. You might be surprised by what you get.

Book Referenced: Roethke, The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Hi everyone. This is my blog. Here, I will write about books, writing, maybe some music, and possibly some life. Enjoy.