Sentimental Moment or Why Did the Baguette Cross the Road, Robert Hershon

April is National Poetry month in the United States, and since I’m traveling with extremely limited internet access April 19-May 1, I would like to share a few poems while I’m gone. I’ll be back on Thursday, May 2 with a full post.

 

Sentimental Moment or Why Did the Baguette Cross the Road

Don’t fill up on bread

I say absent-mindedly
The servings here are huge
My son, whose hair may be
receding a bit, says
Did you really just
say that to me?
What he doesn’t know
is that when we’re walking
together, when we get
to the curb
I sometimes start to reach
for his hand

Famous, Naomi Shihab Nye

April is National Poetry month in the United States, and since I’m traveling with extremely limited internet access April 19-May 1, I would like to share a few poems while I’m gone. I’ll be back on Thursday, May 2 with a full post.

 

Famous

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

Because I’ll Never Swim in Every Ocean, Catherine Pierce

April is National Poetry month in the United States, and since I’m traveling with extremely limited internet access April 19-May 1, I would like to share a few poems while I’m gone. I’ll be back on Thursday, May 2 with a full post.

Because I’ll Never Swim in Every Ocean

Want is ten thousand blue feathers falling
all around me, and me unable to stomach
that I might catch five but never ten thousand.
So I drop my hands to my sides and wait
to be buried. I open a book and the words
spring and taunt. Flashes—motel, lapidary,
piranha—of every story, every poem I’ll never
know well enough to conjure in sleep.
What’s the point of words if I can’t
own them all? I toss book after book
into my imaginary trashcan fire.
Or I think I’ll learn piano. At the first lesson,
we’re clapping whole and half notes
and this is childish, I’m better than this.
I’d like to leave playing Ravel. I’d like
to give a concerto on Saturday. So I quit.
I have standards. Then on Saturday,
I have a beer, watch a telethon. Or
we watch a documentary on Antarctica.
The interviewees are from Belarus, Lima, Berlin.
Everyone speaks English. Everyone names
a philosopher, an ethos. One man carries a raft
on his back at all times. I went to Nebraska once
and swore it was a great adventure. It was.
I think of how I’ll never go to Antarctica,
mainly because I don’t much want to. But
I should want to. I should be the girl
with a raft on her back. When I think
of all the mountains and monuments
and skyscapes I haven’t seen, all the trains
I should take, all the camels and mopeds
and ferries I should ride, all the scorching
hikes I should nearly die on, I press
my body down, down into the vast green
couch. If I step out the door, the infinity
of what I’ve missed will zorro me across
the face with a big L for Lazy. Sometimes
I watch finches at the feeder, their wings small
suns, and have to grab the sill to steady myself.
Metaphorically, of course. I’m no loon.
Look—even my awestruck is half-assed.
But I’m so tired of the small steps—
the pentatonic scale, the frequent flyer
hoarding, the one exquisite sentence
in a forest of exquisite sentences.
There is a globe welling up inside of me.
Mountain ranges ridging my skin,
oceans filling my mouth. If I stay still
long enough, I could become my own world.

For more on Catherine Pierce, go here.

This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, Sherman Alexie

For the last few weeks, the London weather has drawn me to books about the area – damp, quiet books that I’ve loved, but which say nothing to me off home. Alexie’s words, though, always bring me back to the open skied West. I leave tomorrow for Spain, and then DC, and in less than two weeks, I’ll be home again. As I stand on the brink of this trip, it makes me desperate for the hot, dry climate I’ve come to love, and rereading this story – one I’ve had occasion to go back to many times since I first saw the film Smoke Signals and learned of the author whose work inspired it – grounds me.

I love that I can find it regardless of where I am in the world too. So much of Alexie’s work is available for free online. He often posts flash fiction at The Stranger, but it all it really takes is a quick search and his poetry and stories come up in multiple locations. As much as I rely on the publishing industry to get paid myself and have great respect for the needs of other authors to sell their materials in order to make a living, there is something deliciously appealing about good writing available for free. Libraries, of course, are the best resource for that, but sometimes, when there’s no time to spare, finding a beloved story made freely and easily available can be the perfect cure for a difficult week.

And this has been a difficult week. I’ve already complained enough about the challenges of having a dead computer while traveling, and typing this all on a tiny phone screen only serves to reinforce my intense longing for my (formerly) good, old laptop. Every deadline has been a challenge, every bit of writing, a thumb-numbing slog. I’m ninety percent sure that typing with only two fingers is restricting the output of my brain – picture a brook, dammed by a fallen tree – the tiny trickle that manages to seep through is almost as useless as no water at all. As much as I enjoy reading on my phone is how much I detect typing on it, and my love for the kindle app knows no bounds.

So forgive me my brevity this week, and take the time you might have spent here to check out Alexie’s lovely little stories. It will, I hope, wrap you up in his particular American loneliness – a feeling that tiptoes down the line between sadness and strength.

For more Sherman Alexie, go here
.

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, Alan Bradley

My computer died last week. Out of nowhere, thin, yellow, vertical lines appeared, and everything froze. I did a hard reboot, the computer worked for two or three blissful minutes, and then the same thing happened again. This time, when I rebooted, I didn’t make it past the Apple logo before the same thing happened. The fear that gripped me then was nothing compared to how I felt two reboots later, when I was looking at a black screen and every five seconds, a long beep would interrupt my gnashing of teeth.

This was clearly not one of those problems that was going to simply disappear. I really wanted it to be. I left my poor computer alone and went to dinner, fingers crossed that when I returned, this hiccup would have passed. I would have access to all of those things I unwisely had chosen to write in Word rather than Google docs. These problems usually sort themselves out with a little peace and quiet, I assured myself.

I was wrong. Also, an idiot. Because only an idiot would get her hopes up, only to return to that screen of death and be reduced to inconsolable weeping. I was actually pretty proud of myself for lasting as many hours as I did before I resorted to crying; back in the day, I would have given the thing one or two good thumps and promptly run out of ideas that didn’t involve a large hammer or a window. This is what I like to call progress.

Nevertheless, I eventually troubleshot my way into the depths of despair, having called the US Apple help line and tried in-store UK service without any luck whatsoever. My husband dropped the machine off at a local repairman who handles machines still covered by Applecare (thank God it doesn’t expire until July), and now, I’m waiting. In a few days, we leave for Spain, and right now is supposed to be my last hard push for deadlines before vacation. That hasn’t so much happened though, since I can barely bring myself to type on my tiny phone screen any more than I have to.

Can you blame me for retreating into the comfort of the second Flavia de Luce novel instead of facing the mounting anxiety I have over unsaved work on my hard drive? I think not. I’m well within my rights to crawl under the covers and enjoy a little scientific suspense. I find her character and the world she inhabits so comforting, and it was charming to discover that the second book was nearly as much fun as the first. To be fair, I’m one of those people who loves to find a good series; of course, when I picked up the first book, I did so specifically because I didn’t have time for a series right now, but apparently, Fate had other ideas. It’s been quite a while (okay, maybe eight months) since I found a series that hooked me fast, but it’s a feeling that I love.

So many of the books I read these days are wonderful stand alone experiences, but when I find a world I can slip into again and again with genuine pleasure, it makes trials like computer implosion a little easier to bear. It won’t get my work done, of course, but hopefully a few chapters here and there of the next volume will bolster my spirits and give my thumbs a well deserved touch screen vacation.

For more on Alan Bradley, go here.

Also, please note that while I’m waiting for word on my computer (and when I’m on vacation next week), I may not respond to email queries or comments as quickly as usual.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley

What intrigued me more than anything was finding out the way in which everything, all of creation—all of it!—was held together by invisible chemical bonds, and I found a strange, inexplicable comfort in knowing that somewhere, even though we couldn’t see it in our own world, there was real stability.

I didn’t make the obvious connection at first, between the book and the abandoned laboratory I had discovered as a child. But when I did, my life came to life—if that makes any sense. Here in Uncle Tar’s lab, row on row, were the chemistry books he had so lovingly assembled, and I soon discovered that with a little effort most of them were not too far beyond my understanding.

Simple experiments came next, and I tried to remember to follow instructions to the letter. Not to say that there weren’t a few stinks and explosions, but the less said about those the better.

As time went on, my notebooks grew fatter. My work was becoming ever more sophisticated as the mysteries of Organic Chemistry revealed themselves to me, and I rejoiced in my newfound knowledge of what could be extracted so easily from nature. My particular passion was poison. (p 4)

This book is about a ten-year old girl in 1950 who uncovers a murder and goes about solving it using, primarily, her extensive skills in chemistry. Are there other novels written about great detectives? Obviously. About women? Sure. And scientists? Indubitably. But how often does one run across a protagonist who is all of these things at once? Rarely.

Matilda comes to mind, although she’s a very young genius (and not specifically a scientist)  and one of the characteristics I particularly like about Flavia de Luce is that she’s not. She’s inquisitive, of course, and fannishly dedicated to her field of study, but she isn’t so different from her peers in other respects. She fights terribly with her two old sisters. She goes off exploring on her bicycle for hours at a time. She hates the food she’s made to eat. All very normal, relatable quirks. She does have a way of unsettling adults with her precocious interest in the murder that has occurred (unlike Nancy Drew, who somehow managed to solve murders and be considered absolutely darling at the same time), but I know plenty of unsettling (and precocious) children.

I actually found myself fantasizing about a book where she and Christopher Boone meet – difficult to picture since both of them prefer their own company to socializing – but delightful none the less. It then occurred to me that I’ve manage to read three (ostensibly) YA books in a row set in England  (although Bradley is Canadian, whereas Haddon and Pratchett are British), and each one has been remarkable in its own way. The funny thing is, I’ve actually owned The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie since I got my first kindle back in August of 2009. It was a new release, and in my frenzy to collect books I might someday read on this novel device, I bought it and it has languished there ever since.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I actually tried to read this book four or five times in the past, and I had never gotten past the first chapter. I’m a firm believer in the patience of books though, and when, this past Friday, I was looking for something to curl up with, here it was. This time, I had no problem getting past the first few pages.  What I did have difficulty with was getting laundry done, baking bread for dinner, doing the dishes that piled up stickily in our sink…

I was completely enthralled. It was physically painful to put this book down and go on to other things – important things, things that couldn’t be avoided at all, but which I desperately wanted to forget about in favor of this book. And that, of course, meant I finished it far too quickly. I was moping around, thinking maybe I should have slipped a few of those critical tasks in just so that I could have spent a little longer with Flavia when I discovered that Bradley’s written more books about her. More! More Flavia? More science?! And poison! And well-wrought revenge?!! This was simultaneously the best and the worst news I could have gotten…or possibly that “very important things” could have received.

 

Alan Bradley (and Flavia) can be found here.

Dodger, Terry Pratchett

A couple of weeks ago, when a discussion popped up in the comment threads about Terry Pratchett, I asked for a good starting point when it comes to his work, since I’ve only read his collaborative novel with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens. I had no idea that he had written over forty books, many of which take place in the interconnected series Discworld. As much as I wanted to dive right in to the treasure trove of his collection, I was intimidated by the possibility of liking him so much that I had to read all of them immediately, which would really be more of a problem for you than it would be for me. I have an inkling that some of you might even get excited about a prolonged obsession like that, but probably the majority would prefer diversity in my selection (or possibility that my obsessive reading follow another author entirely). Whatever the case may be, one of the restrictions when writing a blog like this is that I feel an obligation to explore a more varied reading list rather than becoming completely immersed in one area.

The problem was, I couldn’t stop thinking about Pratchett. Although I didn’t know it back in the sixth grade when I was first introduced to Good Omens, much of the humor I loved in that novel undoubtedly came from Pratchett and not Gaiman (not that Gaiman doesn’t have his own brand of humor, but it’s one I appreciate more as an adult than I did as an eleven year old). A solution to my problem, however, presented itself, most fortuitously, in the form of Dodger, a new Pratchett novel that my mother recommended to me about a week ago.  Because it was unattached to a larger series, I felt it was as safe a spot as any to dip into the ocean of his work.

I found the book captivating in that way only a particularly endearing YA novel can be. I’m not sure whether his intention was for it to appeal to that age, and it’s certainly a wonderful read for anyone, but it did remind me of a certain coziness I found in books when I was young.  In fact, Good Omens has much the same element of comfort to it, and I think that if I reread it now (for the nineteenth or so time), it would be even clearer to me where the two men’s work overlap.

I was surprised though that I didn’t find the book laugh out loud funny. I was expecting it to be, possibly because the recommendations I got for his older novels hinted strongly at such a reaction. (I plan to find out just how hilarious he is when I get home and can pillage the bookshelves of several friends who are fans.) I wondered if it was related to the shift (necessitated due to early onset Alzheimer’s) from typing his own books to telling his stories via dictation.

It wouldn’t shock me at all to find a change like that had naturally occurred over the last few years. Dealing with the day-to-day reality of that particular disease while still writing one or two excellent, popular books a year? Honestly, I’m not sure he’s human. Both of my grandfathers died after many years living with Alzheimer’s, and I know all too well what that illness does to the brain. It chews it up and leaves a different person behind. It’s not a pretty thing, and having met people in their forties and fifties with early on-set Alzheimer’s, I know how quickly it can move. Pratchett’s book made me smile, it compelled me page after page, and it forced me to check Wikipedia to glean more information about the London history he was sharing; the fact that he can write such a wonderful book, whether it makes me laugh or not, after almost five years with this disease is nothing short of inspiring.

It reminds me of a truth that had gotten lost in the fog since their deaths, which is that even as my grandfathers got sicker, they still told stories. In fact, as conversation grew more difficult for them to follow, it was one of the only ways they could communicate. Those stories were a combination of memories, dreams, and a hint of reality – and if Dodger is anything, it is that. Pratchett creates a London that hovers playfully on the edges of history, and he writes a protagonist it’s impossible not to love.  When I imagine him spinning this story aloud, I get lost in the tremendous potential of the human spirit, and I’m amazed anew at what a gifted storyteller can do.

 

For more about Terry Pratchett, head over here.