Reviews

New Poetry to Discover

Because it's National Poetry Month, I've been checking out new collections for a few weeks. Here are a couple more titles that I particularly enjoyed.

The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990-2010

Forget the sappy title--James Tate's poems are accessible yet deep, eccentric, and sometimes bizarre. His gifts include a fluid poetic style and the ability to continuously surprise.  Here's how "It Happens like This" begins:

"I was outside St. Cecilia's Rectory / smoking a cigarette when a goat appeared beside me...." The poem's speaker admires the goat, wonders if there's a leash law for them, and then when he walks away the goat follows him.  "People / smiled at me and admired the goat. "It's not my goat," / I explained. "It's the town's goat. I'm just taking / my turn caring for it." "I didn't know we had a goat," / one of them said, "I wonder when my turn is..." Whether you're a goat-lover or not, you will enjoy the odd realism here, the tongue-in-cheek humor.

In fact humor is another one of Tate's paramount qualities. Check out some of his other poetic titles in The Eternal Ones of the Dream: "Uneasy about the Sounds of Some Night-Wandering Animal,"  "Doink," "The Flying Petunias,"

Quote Poet Unquote

I'm both a poetry and quotation aficionado, so what could be better than a twofer? Dennis O'Driscoll's wonderful gathering of quotations about poetry Quote Poet Unquote: Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetry is the kind of book you read through to inspire you, make you laugh, or help you figure out what modern poetry is and does. Appropriately, Copper Canyon Press (the publisher) chose for their pressmark the Chinese character for poetry. It's constructed of two parts that mean word and temple.

O'Driscoll begins his introduction with Boswell's question to Samuel Johnson (the famous dictionary maker), "What is poetry?" Johnson's witty reply was, "Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not."

The book itself is arranged in sections each beginning with a phrase. Examples include: "What is it anyway," "Making a Start," "Inspired Moves," "Call Yourself a Poet," "Best Words," "The Audience," "On the Contrary," and "In Memory." This is just a sampling. O'Driscoll has devised a lot more categories.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes (although there are so many good ones it's hard to winnow them down to a short list.)

The Man Within My Head

The spirit of Graham Greene whispers through these pages. Pico Iyer is my favorite contemporary travel writer. The Man Within My Head differs from most of his books because he delves more into his own past than usual in this volume, detailing many connections he sees between his own life and that of Greene: they lived near each other in Oxford but never met, and each suffered a major house fire. They also traveled to many of the same places including Viet Nam.

Especially involving are the sections about Pico's childhood. He lived first in Britain, his father having come to England from India as a Rhodes Scholar. He was an only child and some of his earliest memories are stacking magazines with articles by his father. The little Pico loved to arrange them and stare at his Dad's pictures. When he was in grade school both of his famous parents were invited to California to be part of a think tank promoting ways to end violence. Pico tried to be an American student, to wait in the hills for the school bus with his plastic lunchbox, but he soon realized that education in the states did not challenge him. He asked his parents to send him back to England to attend boarding school.

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

SwamplandiaThe Pulitzer Prizes were awarded this week with the announcement that there will not be a fiction winner for 2012.  This isn't the first time that there was no prize, but the announcement still comes as sort of a shock.  Three finalists had already been announced, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace. 

While Sig Gissler, an administrator for the Pulitzer Prize awards says "it is not a statement about fiction in general -- just a statement about the process", Ann Patchett disagrees.  Patchett who is an author, reader and book store owner wrote an op-ed in the New York Times criticizing the lack of award.  She argues that there were actually many deserving books this year and the excitement created for both readers and sellers of books is something that is desirable and necessary. 

Good Pop Psych Reads

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow is still a bestseller and heavily in-demand at the library, after receiving lots of publicity late last year. This exploration of intuitive vs. deliberate thinking makes fascinating points about what motivates decisions both personal and business-related. It's top notch popular psychology, a genre I really love for the way it forces you to examine actions and thoughts that seem simply natural or logical. Here are a few other great examples.

A Partial History of Lost Causes

There aren't many good novels about chess. A Partial History of Lost Causes is a fabulously good one.  In Jennifer Dubois's debut novel, two chess players from different countries alternate telling their stories until their paths cross in Russia in 2006. 

The first, Aleksandr Bezetov, a child prodigy, moves to St. Petersburg to attend an elite chess school while he is still a teenager. Exceedingly naïve and innocent, he's assigned to a boarding house where prostitutes and a crazy assortment of other Russians live. 

On his first day, while attending a celebration honoring Stalin's memory, he meets two young dissidents who invite him to their gathering spot, Café Saigon. Soon Aleksandr is drawn into a world of samizdat and far-left causes.

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