Sometimes the Hype is True!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

I am not one of those people who is automatically turned off by something just because everyone else is talking about it.  So when the hype started about Room earlier this fall I was open-minded.  But when reviewer after reviewer gave it five stars and rhapsodized about how fabulous it is, I started to wonder if the publisher was passing out that special kool-aid along with the ARCs.  When my book club chose it for our January selection, I was excited to find out if all of the mayhem and foolishness was warranted.

And it was!  For anyone living under a literary rock for the past several months, Room is the story of Jack, a five year old boy who lives with his mother in Room, an 11x11 foot shed in the backyard of Old Nick, the man who kidnapped Jack's mother seven years before.  Room is the only home, and indeed the only world that Jack has ever known.  To protect him from wanting what he could not have, Jack's mother, Ma, told him that everything outside of room was "in the tv".  When he discovers the truth, he is forced to confront a world that is completely alien to everything he has ever known.

Room is a novel unlike any other I have ever read, and not just because of the five year old narrator.  Donaghue does an admirable job of taking a sensationalized headline and turning it into something multi-dimensional and very human.  As a society we were rather obsessed withe the myth of the rabid stranger collecting young girls-even before we found out that it is not always a myth.  Elizabeth Smart's ordeal seemed to put an exclamation point on all of our fears about the stranger in the parking lot, waiting to pounce.  While her experience is still much more rare than lightning strikes or shark attacks, the very fact that it happened at all lends credence to some of our darkest societal fears.  Donaghue could easily have taken this fictional kidnapping and told it from the mother's point of view, or the media's.  What she did instead makes it a much more human story.  And not just a story about violence against women.  Jack's short life and entry (I can't call it a re-entry) into the world outside of Room was a fascinating look at how children are socialized, and what makes a person part of the world. 

Let the Great World Spin (Which Should Be Titled The Dark Side of New York)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

New York seems to elicit strong emotions in most people.  New Yorkers generally seem to consider themselves slightly better than the rest of us just for residing in its hallowed boundaries.  Theater people can't wait to make it there, artists have only made it if they've shown there.  It's big and noisy and beautiful and ugly and cultured and gritty.  I myself have only visited once, for one long afternoon.  Being from Chicago, I expected that it would feel like a city-I am not unfamiliar with the hustle and bustle, after all.  But there is something different about New York.

I imagine that it is that je ne sais quoi that makes New York the subject of so much art.  Books, plays, movies, television-there is no lack of New York themed writing out there.  Since 9-11 I think that to a certain extent all Americans have adopted New York.  We celebrate it as a shiny example of America at its best.  But like any large urban center New York has its dark side, which is what Colum McCann so artfully portrays in Let the Great World Spin.

Let the Great World Spin is a multi-layered, non-linear look at the lives of several New Yorkers, and how they intersect in the summer of 1974.  The backdrop for the story is the tightrope walk of Phillipe Petit between the World Trade Center towers.  There is Ciaran Corrigan, whose brother is a missionary working with the hookers in the Bronx.  Then there is Claire, a Park Avenue matron whose son was killed in Viet Nam.  You have Lara, an artist trying to dry out after the hedonism of the New York art scene in the early 70s, and Tilllie, one of the hookers from under the bridge.  As the lives of these people, and more, intersect in seemingly random yet meaningful ways, we see a side of New York that is gritty, dirty, ugly, and hidden from most of the world.

First let me say that I was distracted while reading this novel with the juxtaposition in my mind of the man walking between the Towers and the memories I have of watching the footage of people falling from the Towers on 9-11.  I think that for those of us who lived through that horrific day, we will never be able to think about the Towers in any other way again.  Every time I watch a movie shot in pre-9-11 New York, I am startled by the World Trade Center in the background.  I can't read about the construction of the Towers without thinking about their destruction.  This preoccupation may have caused me to miss at least some of what McCann was trying to do in this novel.  Because I will admit to not really getting it.  I was intrigued enough by the characters and their relationships with each other that I wanted to keep reading, but I've seen this work described as a great New York novel, and I'm not sure what it was trying to say about New York.  Most of the novel felt soiled-even the story of the Park Avenue mother and her judge husband felt a little bit dirty.  Perhaps the point was that despite Watergate, and Viet Nam, and the Civil Rights movement, and yes, the tightrope walker, the real story was in the lives of the ordinary people, trying to find meaning in the chaos.  But surely that story is not uniquely New York.  Regardless of what McCann wanted to say about New York, what I took away from Let the Great World Spin is a feeling like he took the rock called urban America and turned it over, exposing the creepy, crawly things living just under the surface.

Historical Fiction, Anyone?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

So I wasn't going to do any challenges this year, after failing at the 100+ Book Challenge this year (but I got to 91, which is nothing to sneeze at), but I think that I can do this one.  Thanks to Historical Tapestry for hosting.  I'm going for the "Daring and Curious" level, which is 5-10 historical fiction titles.  I can think of at least five I already have on my shelves, so I should be able to meet that with very little pressure.    If you want to join the challenge, sign up at Historical Tapestry.  Happy historical fiction to you!

Be an Armchair Activitst

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In 2001, the world turned its attention to Afghanistan.  In the wake of 9-11, everyone suddenly wanted to know more about this small country in Asia where Osama Bin Laden had planned and orchestrated the attack on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon.  All of a sudden the media was full of experts who wanted to explain the Taliban to us, explain what dangerous crazy extremists they were, and why we needed to go over there and take them out.

Here's the thing-some of us already knew about the Taliban.  Some of us had been urging the US government to intervene in Afghanistan for years.  The loudest voice came from the Feminist Majority Foundation, which educated people about the horrific conditions that existed for women under Taliban rule.  Because I found the FMF, I was able to explain to my confused, grief-stricken friends exactly who it was that had let Bin Laden find a safe haven.

There is a whole 'nother post in the question of why the US did nothing to help the women in Afghanistan until aafter 9-11, but the question I want to pose is whether things in Afghanistan would have happened the way they did if A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini had been published in the 1990s instead of after 9-11. If more people had known about the conditions for women and girls in Afghanistan, would more have been done to remove the Taliban before Bin Laden moved in?  I realize this is a fairly simplistic view of geopolitics, but as someone who believes in the power of reading to create understanding across cultures, I have to believe that increased knowledge of world issues would somehow lead to different results.

Teachers will tell you that reading opens doors in your imagination, that by reading you can explore new worlds and escape to exotic places.  And that is certainly true.  But there are authors who are out there writing truth to power, authors who have written works that hold up injustice and demand us to look, not to turn our heads.   And because reading is transactional, those of us who read those authors and those books can't help but be changed by the experience.

This may seem a fairly passive way to participate in social justice.  After all, there are people doing good works in our communities all the time, people who volunteer, who protest, who lobby, who take to the streets in an effort to make peace and justice a reality for all people.  But if you are like me, with a spouse, a child, a job, a mortgage, chances are that the best you can do is write that check to the charity of your choice.  While this is an important act, allowing people who can to do the work, it might leave you with a thin patina of guilt, a small voice in your heart telling you that there is more you can do.  It might seem like a gross over-rationalization, but I argue that by reading, you can do something to change the state of the world.

Obviously non-fiction seems like a good place to start when talking about books that can lead to social  change.  And to be sure there are plenty of thoughtful, passionately argued non-fiction books that can lead to greater insights about the issues of human rights and justice.  Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen is an example of non-fiction that is both informational and emotional.  But what about those of us that prefer fiction?  Well I say that sometimes, fiction is the best way to highlight social issues.  Fictional narratives on the scale of A Thousand Splendid Suns do more than tell us the facts and figures about oppression-they allow us for a period of time to live the lives of those affected by injustice.  They give us a cultural context for the what we see on the news.  And making connections with characters that lead such seemingly different lives can bring home to us just how similar the human experience is, regardless of place or time.

So, what should you be reading?  I've added a new page to the blog, where I've listed some recommendations of books that I have read or read enough about that I can attest to their worth.  If anyone has other titles, just put them in the comments.  All of the blurbs come from Goodreads or Amazon.  Some of them are difficult to read, some are joyful and uplifting, but all highlight issues affecting people somewhere in the world.  As that prolific author Anonymous said, "Nobody's free until everybody's free."

You Can't Judge a Book By Its Title

Saturday, December 18, 2010

I admit it-I am a romance novel snob.  Not in a only-the-best-romance-writer-for-me kind of way, but in a I-can't believe-anyone-reads-this-drivel way.  While I am not trying to imply anything about the relative maturity of readers of romance novels (after all, some of my best friends are romance readers), I haven't really enjoyed a romance novel since I was about 19.  I'm not anti-romance in general-I like a good literary love story.  But genre romance novels leave me pretty cold.

So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to read The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton.  I mean, that title!  Isn't there something inherently cheesy about any phrase that ends with "of love".  Think Power of Love by Huey Lewis and the News.  Major cheesefest!  And the publisher's blurb wasn't much help...

A warm and uplifting story of how a woman falls in love with a place and its people: a landscape, a community and a fragile way of life. A rural idyll: that's what Catherine is seeking when she sells her house in England and moves to a tiny hamlet in the Cevennes mountains. With her divorce in the past and her children grown, she is free to make a new start, and her dream is to set up in business as a seamstress. But this is a harsh and lonely place when you're no longer just here on holiday. There is French bureaucracy to contend with, not to mention the mountain weather, and the reserve of her neighbours, including the intriguing Patrick Castagnol.

Sounds like a formula romance novel, right?  But I read it, and here are the two reasons why-
  • it was free
  • it was British
Yep, I'm a cheap date sometimes. 

Lucky for me, you can't always judge a book by its title.  The publisher did this one an injustice in the blurb making it seems as though the romance was the central story.  What Thornton wrote is a novel about a woman transitioning from one stage of her adulthood to another.  It is not a love story in the strictest sense of the word, but a story about the many loves that surround us-love of self, love for family, love for community, and, yes, love of a partner.

I found the book charming.  The descriptions of the Cevennes region of France evoked a slowed down, quiet pace of life that I found myself envying.  But not everything was perfect in Catherine's new world-the French government and their bureaucracy being the most obvious example.  Her plan upon moving to France was to start a small custom needlepoint/soft furniture business (hence the tapestry of the title).  She runs up against the French prohibition of any non-farming business opening within Cevennes National Parc.  Questioning her place in France, she is drawn back to England in the wake of her mother's death, ultimately forcing her to choose where she feels she belongs.  And yes, she was eventually forced to confront the feelings she had developed for the Patrick Castagnol mentioned in the publisher's blurb.  But the romance is only one aspect of the larger story of a woman choosing her own path.  And frankly, in the time that she has lived alone, first in England after her children went away to school and then in France, she has grown accustomed to her independence and peace.  The resolution is one that I think is more realistic and less simplistic than a lot of love stories turn out to be.  Which is just fine by me.

Cevennes Mountains, France

What Catherine's rural idyll make have looked like

What Am I Looking Forward To in 2011?-Top Ten Tuesday

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the ladies at The Broke and the Bookish.  This week's topic is one I thought I was going to have to skip-Most Anticipated Books of 2011.  Cuz here's the thing-I don't really keep up with the publishing world AT ALL.  Thinking on it that seems strange for a book blogger and voracious reader.  Shouldn't I know what my favorite authors are doing, or what the critics are saying about what my favorite authors are doing, or what new favorite authors of mine are out there waiting for me to discover them?

What keeps me from doing more to keep my finger on the pulse of the publishing world?  Aside from time, I'd say the most influential factors is the 500 books in my waiting-to-be-read room.

Yes, I said 500 books in my TBR room.  Some bloggers have a TBR pile or a TBR shelf, I have an entire room.  This stems from the many years that my mother, retired in Michigan with nothing but time for reading, gave me all of her books.  At 5-7 a week, that adds up quickly.  Since I average about a book or two a week in a normal year, there is no way I can keep up.  Mind you, I'm not complaining-who doesn't love free books?  Ditto almost free books!  When I discovered Goodreads bookswap I was over the moon!  You mean, I can clear my shelves of all but the few books I want to keep after reading, and get receive frequent gifts of reading in the mail for just the price of postage?  I'm in!

So, not one of the books on my Top Ten this week will be published in 2011.  Most of them weren't published in 2010.  But they are the books I am looking forward to reading this year nevertheless.

1.  Under the Dome, Stephen King

Normally when I get a new Stephen King book I devour it immediately.  However, I signed up for the 100 Book Challenge this year, and at over 1000 pages I knew that it would take me longer than normal.  I was into slim volumes this year!  With the challenge soon over (and me still 10 books away from the goal-grrr), I plan to pick it up right after the new year.

2.  Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie

For years I've been telling myself I was going to give Rushdie a try, and the whole fatwa thing makes this novel the obvious choice for me.  I also have The Moor's Last Sigh in mt room, but we'll see how I feel about Satanic Verses first.

3.  Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger

I've had this book on my shelves for a while now, and the plain truth is that I love The Time Traveller's Wife so much I'm afraid that this will be a disappointment.  But I've put it off too long-especially since my copy happens to be borrowed from my best friend.  She loves me and all, but eventually she'll start giving me those looks-you know those looks!

4.  You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, Heather Sellers

This one just came out in October, and I lucked into an ARC on bookswap.  It's about a woman who has face blindness, and doesn't remember people's facial features.  The very idea of living your life never recognizing anyone is fascinating and terrifying!

5.  The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff

Ordinarily I stay away from books that are made into Lifetime movies, but this title sounds too interesting to pass up.  The story of a modern day murder in a polygamous community, tied with a mystery from the past.  I'm a little bit obsessed with the whole polygamy thing, in a train-wreck sort of way.  And according to the reviews I read of the movie, Lifetime actually made a movie that didn't suck!

6.  Room, Emma Donaghue

My book club has a rule that we will only read books that have come out in paperback.  With the many good books out there, sticking to that rule has never been a problem-until Room came out.  But being teachers, we have to stick to the rules!

7.  Kindred, Octavia Butler

I just finished her Patternist series, and I'm ready to read what many say is her best book.  Considering I've pretty much universally enjoyed her books, I think that's a safe bet regardless.

8.  My Fair Lazy, Jen Lancaster

I've got this rather strange notion in my head that Jen Lancaster and I are meant to be friends.  Like I'll be walking in the city one day, and there she'll be coming out of Macy's or something, and we'll strike up a conversation, which she will find so fascinating that she will ask me to lunch, and we will end up at Uncle Julio's downing margaritas and dishing on the latest gossip.  I know, it's a sickness.

9.  People of the Book,  Geraldine Brooks

I actually thought I would read this in 2010, but when I requested it from bookswap I didn't realize it was an audiobook.  I don't really do audiobooks-it feels like cheating.  Well, I don't really do audiobooks, except for ones written by celebrities and read by celebrities, which brings me to...

10.  Life, by Keith Richards

Aside from what I'm sure will be a really interesting story, the audiobook is read by Johnny Depp.  I mean, come one!

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Monday, December 13, 2010

Imagine the most embarrassing thing your parents ever made you wear or do.  Now multiply that by 10 and you may have some idea of Rhoda Janzen's childhood.  In her memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Janzen tells the story of growing up in the Mennonite community in California, and going back to that community at 40 in the wake of a divorce and major health crisis.

Janzen's father was a leader in the Mennonite community, traveling the world and converting non-believers.  Her mother was the backbone of their family.  She was the one that made their lard sandwiches for their school lunches (yes, I said lard), and sewed mismatched strips of fabric at the bottom of their pants when they got too short (you begin to see where the embarrassment comes in).  Rhoda and her sister are very close, and both of them left the community for college.  Their three brothers married nice Mennonite girls and settled down to raise nice Mennonite children. 

Janzen describes her family and her life as an adult with humor, which is good, considering how challenging some of it was.  She was married for 16 years to a man with bi-polar disorder, and like many people in her situation she rationalized away much of his behavior, telling herself that he really loved her underneath all of the cruelty and obsessive behavior.  What she couldn't rationalize away was Bob, the man that her husband met on  Despite having become a non-believer herself, when she goes home to heal after her divorce and a major car accident, she finds herself comforted by how little has changed.

Janzen is an English professor, and you can tell.  Her vocabulary is impressive, though it can be disconcerting to read a story about some rather mundane aspect of life and have to look up a word to understand her point.  Despite my rather frequent trips to, it was an easy, enjoyable read.

Literary Blog Hop-My Literary Pet Peeve

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Literary Blog Hop
Welcome Literary Blog Hoppers!  The Literary Blog Hop is hosted each week by the fine folks at The Blue Bookcase.  This week's question is...

What is one of your literary pet peeves?  Is there something that writers do that really sets your teeth on edge?  Be specific, and give examples if you can.

This was an easy question for me, because there is only one thing that writers do that really makes me crazy-that is, other than bad writing.  But assuming for the moment that we are only talking about authors with the actual capacity to write well, I hate hate triple hate stream-of-consciousness narrative.  Not because it is difficult to understand (though sometimes it is)-I enjoy the mental gymnastics.  But because most of the time it comes off as vainglorious, narcissistic craziness!

Well, let me soften that a bit.  There are novels that use stream-of-consciousness as ONE of the techniques in the narrative structure, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's  Nest and Wide Sargasso Sea.  What really frosts my buns is being subjected to the rambling thoughts of character's (read: author's) inner monologue, as though every single thought that enters their head is a pearl to be thrown before the swine.

The most famous example of this is, of course, my old friend James Joyce.  I have heard all the arguments for why he is in the cannon, and I don't understand or buy any of them.  I have never read Ulysses, but I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school, and remember wondering at the time why our teacher wanted us to read something that sounded like it had been written by a person at the end of an all-day bender.  Blech!

I also gave the old college try to Fight Club.  Apparently stream-of-consciousness makes an excellent movie and a crappy book.  (Yes, I know, Fight Club is beloved by many.  Yes, I know it makes a profound statement about what it means to be a man in a post-feminist world.  Before you write me a nasty-gram about the genius of that book, please remember I said I LIKED the movie version.  I just don't want to read it!)

My experience with Joyce is why I will never read Gravity's Rainbow, On the Road, or Naked Lunch.  I'm sure that I will miss out on some wonderfully wise commentary on the human condition-and I'm equally sure I don't care!

Top Ten Tuesday-My Favorite Places to Read

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Time for another Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  This week's topic is "Favorite Places to Read".  While not the most literary of topics, it does go to my belief that reading is more than a cerebral/emotional act.  It is also a sensual one, with the weight of the book in your hands and the smell of the pages.  This is one reason I personally believe that e-readers will never fully replace books.

It is probably foolish to begin this post on my favorite places to read right before I go to work, where I will not be curling up with a good book anytime today.  But with a great blog comes great responsibility, so I will persevere.  My favorite places to delve into a good book are, in no particular order...

  • "My" Chair-Don't we all have one of these?  We have a small extra bedroom that we call the reading room (because calling it the library wold sound pretentious, and be a total exaggeration despite the 500 or so books stored there).  It is where I go for a quiet place when my daughter and partner are both watching TV. 
  • My parents' porch in Northern Michigan-though clearly only in the summer.  Right now it is probably cold and snowy.  But in the summer it is glorious, facing out on the woods.  I can look up and watch the hummingbirds at the feeders if my eyes need to rest.
  • My parents' study in Northern Michigan-though usually only in the winter.  It is warm and cozy and looks out on the snowy woods.
  • North Bar Lake, Empire, Michigan-Are you seeing a theme here?  Some of my favorite places to read are also the places I go away to when I need a little relaxation.  North Bar Lake is a small lake connected to Lake Michigan by a narrow stream.  Sitting on the beach at North Bar, you can look through the gap and see the big lake-that is, I can see it when I infrequently look up from  my book. 
  • Sitting on a boat-Yes, my parents also have a boat where they live (ahh, to be retired!), but it doesn't have to be their boat.  Really, any boat will do, as long as it's stationary and comfortable.
  • Misquamicut Beach, Rhode Island-My extended family lives in Rhode Island, and when I was a young single mother with very little money (as opposed to what I am now-an older married mother who still doesn't have very much money!), I would drive from Chicago to Westerly, Rhode Island and stay with my Aunt Roseanne and Uncle Tom.  It was free-and it was 10 minutes away from one of the most beautiful beaches in New England.  Soft sand, enough surf to make swimming interesting but not dangerous-and a great spot to sit and read in the sun!
  • Over a Meal-Yes, I am one of those people that would be perfectly happy eating just about every meal with a book open in front of me.  Since my family and friends actually want to, you know, TALK to me when we share a meal, I don't get to do this as often as I like.  I actually enjoy going to a restaurant by myself, because it gives me an excuse to read while I eat and not seem rude!
  • In a cabin in the woods in the winter, preferably in front of a fire-Let me start by saying I have never actually experienced this.  We'll call it a reading fantasy of mine.  Round about the end of January, when the holidays are over and winter feels long and the school year is at its most tedious, I often think longingly of holing up in a small cabin alone, with a fire, a stack of books, plenty of coffee, and no cell phone or computer.  So if anyone has a spare cabin I can borrow in late January, let me know!
  • On an airplane-While reading on a plane may seem more like a survival skill rather than a preferred activity, I look forward to plane trips because I know that there will be a period of at least a couple when I will have no responsibility except to sit in my seat and let the pilots and flight attendants do their job.  Being held hostage to the rhythm of the flight absolves me from the occasional guilt of reading instead of cleaning/homework/lesson planning.


    Literary Blog Hop-My Favorite Poem

    Thursday, December 02, 2010

    Literary Blog Hop
    Welcome to this week's installment of the Literary Blog Hop, hosted my The Blue Bookcase.  What is the Literary Blog Hop, you say?

    This blog hop is open to blogs that primarily feature book reviews of literary fiction, classic literature, and general literary discussion
    This week's question is

    What is your favorite poem and why?

    Oh, Literary Blog Hop, we were getting along so well!

    The fact is that I read almost no adult poetry.  I'm an elementary school teacher, so I do read lots of kids poetry, but not much for the over 10 set.  It's not that I dislike poetry, or find it boring or difficult to understand.  When I hear people read their poetry out loud I usually enjoy it, and I will occasionally run across poems that I love through random encounters.  But sitting down and reading a book of poems is just not my thing.  I think it has more to do with their relative brevity than anything else. I don't read short stories as a general rule either.  I guess I prefer the longer, overarching narrative, with lots of plot to keep me busy.

    Now, my favorite children's poems are easy to identify.  Shel Silverstein's "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out", and "Life Doesn't Frighten Me At All" by Maya Angelou.

    The Silverstein poem is actually one that I read as a child myself, so we have a long-term relationship.  The title explains the events of the poem pretty well, but it is the disgusting imagery that I love:

    Greasy napkins, cookie crumbs,
    Globs of gooey bubble gum,
    Cellophane from green baloney,
    Rubbery blubbery macaroni,
    Peanut butter, caked and dry,
    Curdled milk and crusts of pie,
    Moldy melons, dried-up mustard,
    Eggshells mixed with lemon custard,
    Cold french fries and rancid meat,
    Yellow lumps of Cream of Wheat.
    " Life Doesn't Frighten Me At All" is a wonderfully empowering poem for children, and in my head when I read it I can hear Maya Angelou's strong beautiful voice.  I tried to choose my favorite few lines to share, but I love it all so that I didn't want to break it apart:

    Shadows on the wall
    Noises down the hail
    Life doesn’t frighten me at all
    Bad dogs barking loud
    Big ghosts in a cloud
    Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

    Mean old Mother Goose
    Lions on the loose
    They don’t frighten me at all
    Dragons breathing flame
    On my counterpane
    That doesn’t frighten me at all.

    I go boo
    Make them shoo
    I make fun
    Way they run
    I won’t cry
    So they fly
    I just smile
    They go wild
    Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

    Tough guys in a fight
    All alone at night
    Life doesn’t frighten me at all.
    Panthers in the park
    Strangers in the dark
    No, they don’t frighten me at all.

    That new classroom where
    Boys pull all my hair
    (Kissy little girls
    With their hair in curls)
    They don’t frighten me at all.

    Don’t show me frogs and snakes
    And listen for my scream,
    If I’m afraid at all
    It’s only in my dreams.

    I’ve got a magic charm
    That I keep up my sleeve,
    I can walk the ocean floor
    And never have to breathe.

    Life doesn’t frighten me at all

    Not at all
    Not at all
    Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

    While I don't seek out adult poetry, I do occasionally stumble upon it (through no fault of my own), so I'm not completely ignorant of poetry in the 20th/21st century.  "Phenomenal Woman", also by Maya Angelou is another one of my favorites.  One poem that I discovered by accident that I love is "Stream of Life" by Rabindranath Tagore.  It was used during a Sunday morning service by the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church I was attending:

    The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
    runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

    It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
    in numberless blades of grass
    and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

    It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth
    and of death, in ebb and in flow.

    I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
    And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

     The imagery is gorgeous, and I love the way that the word sound together when said aloud.  The language dances and flows so effortlessly, much like the life spirit that Tagore is describing. Of course, have I ever sought out another Tagore poem?  No, because apparently I prefer my relationship to poetry to remain random and spontaneous.

    Patternmaster, by Octavia E. Butler

    Wednesday, December 01, 2010

    Patternmaster is the last book in story-time in the Patternist series by Octavia E. Butler, but the first of her novels to actually be published.  I find that fact astonishing on a couple of levels-first, because the book clearly mentions "past" events in the world of the characters that Butler had not in fact written yet, and because without the other books as backstory I'm not sure how an editor understood it enough to publish it.

    Patternmaster tells the story of Teray, son of the current Patternmaster, the one person who hold the Pattern of thought connecting every Patternist on Earth.  The Patternmaster is the strongest of the Patternists, and his or her strength is what controls their society.  Without a Patternmaster the Patternists would not be able to live together without eventually killing each other.  Occupying the planet along with the Patternists are the Clayarks, human mutants who carry the only disease that can kill a Patternist, who can heal themselves.  Teray, just out of school, is tricked into becoming the slave of a brother he never knew he had-as Teray is the son of the current Patternmaster, he is a threat to his big brother's quest to take control of the Pattern.  When Teray tries to escape, his brother hunts for him, causing a showdown that leads to major changes for the Pattern.

    The fact that Butler saw her story so clearly that she could mention past events in the arc of the story that were actually still in her future is remarkable.  I'm not talking about rather general statements that could be expanded on later, but specifics, like where the Clayark disease came from and who killed the being who bred the first Patternist.  Considering that it took Butler eight years to finish the books in this series, that is a long time to keep specific details in mind. 

    But more remarkable is that this novel got published at all, especially since it is her first.  While the story is fast paced, and the characters are interesting, if I hadn't read about Doro and Anyanwu, or the Clay's Ark mission, or the creation of the Pattern, I don't know if I would have understood half of it.  This novel also doesn't carry the usual social commentary that I've found in Butler's books.  It does explore the idea of morality, in that the Patternists had a definite sense of morality that was completely different than ours.  Does that mean morality is relative?  It also explores the idea of power being a corrupting influence, and yet every character in the novel is seeking it in some way, whether it is the power to make their own choices or power over others.

    I'm glad that I decided to read the books in the order of the story, rather than the order of their publication.  I don't mind non-linear narrative, but I think reading Patternmaster first would have left me without the strong sense of attachment to the story that I got from starting with Wild Seed.