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A few things of minor interest today:

I finished Ted Kooser's The Poetry Home Repair Manual last night (started it way back in March for a class I was teaching); paired with David Orr's Beautiful and Pointless: Modern Poetry, I've been getting outside my own poetic mind a bit more of late.  Last night, we had our second meeting of a new Writers' Group I'm a part of (my first ever!), and my mind's been shuffling around in bedroom slippers all morning trying to figure out where to begin in the revision process, trying to decide who and what I want my poems to be.  It has been quite an interesting exercise, and I'm thankful for this final day of emptyhouse to allow my thoughts to jangle on unimpeded.

Like Kooser, I believe theoretically a poem should be accessible, should allow entry to many readers, so as to invite discussion, interpretation, engagement, and response.  The problem is that some of the poems I write are born of things that interested me enough to learn more about them, and they are not often things in which the collective readership would already be well-versed.  I also love literary allusion, mostly because my reading colors so much of my world that it would be false to not include those shades.  But again, for many readers, those references can be confusing, and I come off sounding like a pretentious jerk.  Where do you draw the line, reader?  How much are you willing to work?  Or perhaps the better question is: what is required of a piece to make you want to know more?

On a completely different note, I saw a little blurb on something called ebookfling, and even though I don't have an e-reader, the idea interested me, so I checked it out.  One of my friends who does have a kindle, recently said she wished she had the nook because of its ability to "borrow" and "lend" books with friends.  To my knowledge, the kindle now has this option as well, so I'm not sure how necessary this site is, but it is a great idea.  Like paperbackswap and its ilk, ebookfling allows you to "fling" your ebooks at other site users, and in return, you can have books "flinged" at you.  I don't like the connotations of fling as it feels somehow violent to me, but it might be worth a look for you ereaders out there.

Finally, my lonely days at home have been mostly submerged in things related to the house renovation, but I did get a chance today to look through some new (used) acquisitions for my children's book collection, including my first score of a Medal winner sans medal: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.

Despite its maturity, this graphic novel won the Caldecott Medal in 2008, and I found this true first edition at McKay for $11!  I was beside myself.  It seems like a silly thing to want, but the idea of owning a book before it "arrives" intrigues me.  This purchase does not fully qualify as I definitely bought it after the accolades, but it is a partial win because it was published before the award.  (Look for a full review in July as part of Paris in July!)

During that same great trip to McKay Used Books, (a place Brenna from Literary Musings recently called a bookworm mecca after seeing a photo on Beth's Bookworm Meets Bookworm site), I got two copies (one for my kids' school library) of Caroline Kennedy's A Family of Poems, which features paintings from my favorite illustrator, Jon J. Muth.



The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge

You know Frances?  That really cool girl over at Nonsuch Book?  She had a good idea for a challenge.  And when she let some people who might be interested know about it, they agreed it was a good idea.  And they totally got on board and made a pretty picture (see above) and even added prizes.  And now, I am considering getting involved.  What do you think?  Should I make August the month of the novella?  I don't have any of these pretty editions currently, but I'm pretty sure I can make something happen. 

If you could read that list at right, you would see some good titles, only a few of which I've read before.  Any recommendations?  The Country of Pointed Firs has been on my list for awhile, but I don't have any particular leanings otherwise.

While we're on the subject of challenges, I plan to return to my TPR Challenge soon.  It has languished of late, and I am definitely ready to remedy that.  Perhaps I will participate in Paris in July again and use the month to make some real headway.  So many plans, so many books....


Tuesday First Drafts


A house is a palimpsest
A familiar retelling of stories,
Of paint samples and plaster,
Renovation and rebirth.
You may cleanse insistently
The traces of lives before you, but
They will continue to speak, to breathe
Within the ancient hardwood framing,
The modern metal joist hangers, the
Copper water lines, and the thick black
Wires hiding and seeking, taking refuge in
Green-grey junction boxes covered with
Rust and damp and dryer lint, and coursing in
Ungrounded current, threatening to flame,
To spark the destruction of these pages.

When Daniel pulled the ceiling panel
To access the upstairs plumbing,
A frenzy of rat droppings washed over him
And he jumped off the ladder, alarmed
By his mind's interpretations of what next
Might fall from this long-neglected sky.
Outside to brush off his clothes, face,
To catch fresh breaths, he shakes off the past
Before returning to his work replacing
Cast-iron (when you cut it, the taste stays
in your mouth for days) with PVC fittings,
The sort the kids and I later tossed
By the dozens back in a bin on the driveway.

I wasn't there the day a different crew
Prepared that ceiling for drywall.
When I returned, it had been covered over,
Sheathed in self-righteousness and new, and
I was left wondering about the nest:
Had its inhabitants long ago abandoned it,
Or would they remain our neighbors,
Decorating their new space alongside ours?
Would I, years later, hear their children,
The certain scritch of their claws, and
Dream of their life within my life,
Their story between my stories?


Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna

I have long held the notion that if Barbara Kingsolver created it, it is worthy of my most careful attention.  I have read all her published work (I think!) and own most of the collection.  I even have a withered and torn clipping from The Roanoke Times - an editorial piece she submitted as a response to the particular brand of patriotism being sold to Americans in the days after 9/11.  Her words have encouraged me in my quest to feed my family well (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), my understanding of the beautiful symbiotic relationships on my family's farm (Prodigal Summer), and in my identity as a woman, a writer, a mother, an American, and an environmentalist (pretty much everything she has written).  She even helped me break a bizarre fascination with "Dawson's Creek" in the days immediately following the birth of my first child (Small Wonder).  To say I owe her a lot is an understatement.

Also of interest is that she lives around the corner from my beloved college (though she spent more of her time in AZ when I was there), and she and her family have been instrumental in some exciting developments in the area.  She was this year's commencement speaker and is going to be the guest of honor at the college's literary festival this fall.

So why in heaven's name did I not have The Lacuna pre-ordered and gobbled up within moments of its publication?  Why did I listen to the reviewers who felt it was not as good as her previous work?  Why did I let them keep me from reading this amazing continuation of Kingsolver's conversation with the world around her?  I don't know why I waited, but now that I've read it, let me be a dissenting voice among many around the blogosphere: It more than measured up.

The Lacuna is at its core about the life of a man, Harrison William Shepherd, who was born in Virginia to an American father and a Mexican mother.  The novel opens as he returns to Mexico with his mother as a young boy and concludes after his death at an early age.  Shepherd is known by many names throughout the book (Will, Harry, Shep, Soli) and seems to have lead many lives along the course of his days, recounted in his journals and letters.  The book's structure is interesting in that it is crafted in the style of a posthumous autobiography of Shepherd, a once-famous writer.  His secretary, Violet Brown, preserved his personal writings and compiled these documents in the form of a book to be published 50 years after her death.  It is a unique structure that works well as a tool for conveying many different perspectives (from news articles, letters, reviews, and of course, the journals) on the times and places Shepherd inhabited.  It is often billed as historical fiction for the way it intertwines truth with fiction in the United States and Mexico.  I think that is a misnomer, for though it uses history gorgeously, it is much more than just an outsider's observations of past events.  Read that way, I can see why some might feel it is boring.  I also think that reading is a damaging simplification of a complex work.

It is the life of this man.  And it is not.  It is also Kingsolver's post-9/11 novel, a beautifully nuanced and skillfully layered indictment of the ways in which we allow fear to direct our policy, our communities, and our personal interactions.  By using the 1950s McCarthyism era as a mirror, Kingsolver is able to reflect our own hysteria, our misguided attacks on one another and make it quietly sing a song of rebuke.  This is what Kingsolver is so good at (although some - not me - argue that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle went too far in its proselytizing).  She can redirect you with her quiet passion and move you to actions you didn't know you needed to take.  And for me, who already agrees with her most of the time, her words strengthen my resolve to do something, say something, or change something - to make my own points.

The crazy-good thing about this book is that the writer whose life she chronicles in The Lacuna does the same thing.  By writing books about the Aztec or the Mayan peoples, he has a vehicle by which he can examine and question the world around him - and it is one of the things that gets him in trouble.  For example, when he allows his characters to question their leaders, he opens himself up to being viewed as an incendiary plotting to overthrow the government.  It speaks to the power of words, whether spoken or written, and the great strength that comes from wielding them well.  Here's one excellent exchange between Shepherd and his lawyer, Artie:
[Artie] leaned forward, his blue eyes watery, feverish looking.  He held up both hands as if he meant to clasp my face between them.  "You know what the issue is?  Do you want to know?  It's what these guys have decided to call America.  They have the audacity to say, 'There, you sons of bitches, don't lay a finger on it.  That is a finished product!'"
"But any country is still in the making.   Always.  That's just history, people have to see that."
And a few moments later:
Suddenly he looked weary.  "You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap.  No boldness.  No good ideas for fixing what's broken in the land.  Because if you happen to mention it's broken, you are automatically disqualified." (424-425)
It really is a thought-provoking and powerfully good book.

I borrowed this book from a friend, so I didn't mark up passages, but I feel that I wouldn't have marked many anyhow.  Its greatness falls not in the individual sentence or phrase (although there were several great ones); rather, it is in the structure, the design, the importance of the message, and the complexity of this book.  If you previously cast this book aside based on the negative reviews, I urge you to give it a try.  Sharing our thoughts on a blog does allow us to spread the word about books we love and books to avoid, but it can be a dangerous power.  I hate to think of all those who will never try this book based on some readers' responses.  I am glad to have found the evidence against this book to be lacking.  It has been a joy to have learned from Kingsolver again.