Monday, March 30, 2009

A "Poem-A-Day" from the Academy of American Poets

April is right around the corner, and that can only mean one thing:

National. Poetry. Month.

Yep, that's right. We actually have a month in this country dedicated entirely to poetry, which is yet another testament to the awesomeness of this great nation. (America! Yesssss!)

National Poetry Month was started back in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, and this year their promotional poster is pretty sweet. The question in it, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" is from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot, an obscure and challenging poem which I did NOT link to because I do NOT recommend reading it if you're hoping to enjoy poetry anytime soon.

Even so, it's a great quote for a poster, and what the Academy of American Poets is trying to accomplish with National Poetry Month is pretty cool. Here's what their website says about it:

"National Poetry Month is a month-long, national celebration of poetry established by the Academy of American Poets. The concept is to widen the attention of individuals and the media—to the art of poetry, to living poets, to our complex poetic heritage, and to poetry books and journals of wide aesthetic range and concern. We hope to increase the visibility and availability of poetry in popular culture while acknowledging and celebrating poetry’s ability to sustain itself in the many places where it is practiced and appreciated."

So right about now the questions you're probably asking yourself are these: "How, oh how, can I celebrate National Poetry Month, and what mere human event would be worthy of such a lofty occasion?"

The answer, of course, is that you should celebrate National Poetry Month by signing up for an email newsletter. (Seems kind of obvious now that I've mentioned it, right?)

If you go here and enter your email address, the Academy of American Poets will deliver a poem to your inbox everyday through the month of April. What's even better is that all the poems they send you will be from books coming out this spring.

Finally, to kick off National Poetry Month, here's a short quiz for those who'd like to expand their knowledge of contemporary poets.
  • Who's the current Poet Laureate of the United States?
  • Which poet most recently won the National Book Award?
  • Who were the last two poets to win Pulitzer Prizes?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth: Final Review

Judging by the comments (or lack of comments, rather) that I've seen so far on Unaccustomed Earth, I'm afraid I have to conclude one of two things:

Either 1) no one else has found the time to read Unaccustomed Earth with me, or 2) no one is reading this blog.

To preserve my vanity (a precious and fragile thing), I'm choosing to believe number 1. So I've decided to write this final review of Unaccustomed Earth under the assumption that you haven't read it and that you still could. This means I'll leave out details that could potentially spoil the book for you. This also means I'll use this space to hopefully convince you to dig up a copy of this book and read it.

Because it's brilliant. It's magnificent. It's literary manna from heaven.

Here are three reasons you should read Unaccustomed Earth.
  1. Lahiri is remarkably sensitive to the delicate nature of family relationships. Fathers, daughters, sons, mothers, spouses. You name the familial role, and chances are Jhumpa Lahiri examines how that role is delicate and oppressive and beautiful and important. Here's an example, one favorite passage in which a man, Amit, contemplates what he calls the "disappearance" of his marriage: "Wasn't it terrible that after all the work one put into finding a person to spend one's life with, after making a family with that person . . . that solitude was what one relished most" (113). This strikes me as a poignant observation - that solitude emerges as important only after we've committed our lives to others. And the book is full of just such observations.
  2. Lahiri is remarkably sensitive to the delicate nature of cultural assimilation. In Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri began exploring the implications of globalization and cultural clashes, and she continues that examination in Unaccustomed Earth. Those who've never experienced life in a foreign world should read Lahiri to gain a grasp of what these cultural clashes can do to individuals, and those who have experienced a foreign world should read Lahiri simply to see the cultural tensions they've experienced captured so powerfully.
  3. Finally, Lahiri accomplishes all of this through quiet, almost whispered prose. I've long believed that our modern obsession with constant noise is damaging today's writing. Too few emerging writers know how to slow down and really turn an idea over in their hands. Lahiri, on the other hand, writes stories that are meant to be digested in bits and pieces, slowly. Again and again as I read this book, I found myself encountering a sentence that made me stop, close the book with my finger still in it, and think. That's a rare thing, and it's a good thing.

So that's it for Unaccustomed Earth. If you'd like to read along with me in April, the book is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I'll post my first thoughts on it (and hopefully get some of yours) on April 10th.

Unaccustomed Earth WWADY Rating = 9/10

Monday, March 23, 2009

Announcing April's Featured Book

This Friday we'll wrap up our reading of March's featured book, Unaccustomed Earth, so it's time to announce the book we'll be featuring in April. (Drum roll, please.)

As April's a time for youth and all that energetic kind of stuff, I'd like to use April to make a foray into young adult literature.

But as I live in Idaho and it snowed last night and spring may still be weeks away, I'm not completely content reading a "springtime book" just yet. In fact, I'm kind of in the mood to read something unusual, something different, something narrated by the Grim Reaper -- by none other than Death himself.

So behold, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. (Cymbal crash!)

The Book Thief, which really is narrated by Death, tells the story of Leisel, an abandoned German girl in 1939. Leisel, surrounded by the horrors of a war-torn world, finds in books a temporary refuge.

The Book Thief has received much critical acclaim, including an award as a Printz Honor Book for 2007. It's also been on the Children's Best Seller list of The New York Times for more than 70 weeks. If you'd like to learn more, read Janet Maslin's review of The Book Thief in The New York Times here.

Zusak, an Australian author, has published six books including the critically acclaimed I Am the Messenger.

We'll begin discussing the book on Friday, April 10th, so dust off those library cards and track down your copy soon.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth: A Simple Question

It's "Featured Book Friday," which means it's time to talk about this month's featured book Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri.

So far, I'm loving this book. As I mentioned last week, I'm impressed with Lahiri's handling of strained and delicate family relationships. Her sensitivity to these kinds of relationships, whether they exist between husband and wife, parents and children, or even traditional and "adopted" family members (as is the case in "Hell-Heaven"), is acute and reveals Lahiri's gift as a careful observer of human relationships.

I'm hoping those who are reading along have finished the five stories in part one, because I'd like to ask a fairly generic question about them. Here it is:

Which of the stories in part one is your favorite and why?

As for me, I like "Hell-Heaven" because I think the narrator's mother is fascinating. She's desperately lonely (and we don't learn just how lonely she is until the very end), and yet she maintains her image of a dutiful wife. Her pent-up sadness is so endearing and so disturbingly real.

Anyone else?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Poem of the Day: Some Days

The other day I asked the students in one of my classes to name their favorite living poets. Sadly (but expectedly), they met my request with the same kind of terrified, blank stares I get when I announce a pop quiz. Eventually, most of them grudgingly acknowledged that they didn't know the name of a single living poet (and these were English majors). Even those who managed to come up with the name of a poet or two had to strain to pull them from their memories. ("Oh . . . oh . . . that one guy!) All of this reminded me why I started this blog.

I believe writers matter. I believe ideas matter. I believe art matters. And if this blog exposes even a few people to contemporary literature who wouldn't otherwise see it, I'll be perfectly content.

So to all my readers who struggle to name living poets, today I offer you this -- a beautifully read poem titled "Some Days" by Billy Collins.

Incidentally, Billy Collins served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. Collins doesn't try, as I suspect some poets do, to be intentionally abstract and weird. Instead, he's a populist, writing poetry for the common man and woman.

As always, your thoughts on poetry, Billy Collins, or the above poem are welcome in the comments.

Monday, March 16, 2009

NBCC Award Winners

Last week, the National Book Critics Circle announced its winners for 2008.

According to their website, the National Book Critics Circle "is a non-profit organization consisting of more than 900 active book reviewers who are interested in honoring quality writing and communicating with one another about common concerns."

So if you're looking for a good (and fairly serious) book to read, you might want to check out one of these:

Fiction - 2666 by Roberto BolaƱo.

General Nonfiction - The Forever War by Dexter Filkins.

Poetry (2 Awards) - Half the World in Light by Juan Felipe Herrera and Sleeping It Off in Rapid City by August Klienzahler.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth: First Impressions

To make discussing WWADY featured books simpler, I've decided to dedicate one day of the week (Friday) to our monthly featured books. I'll refer to future Friday posts as "Featured Book Fridays," and you can expect a post about WWADY featured books every week. This way, if you're reading along, you'll know when to get online and share your thoughts. I hope that this will make it easier for you follow along and share your ideas with the rest of us.

So, on with business. Here are my first thoughts about Unaccustomed Earth. I look forward to hearing yours. I'll limit my observations to the first story in the book to keep myself from spoiling any more of the book than I have to for those who haven't started yet.

The main point that's struck me so far is this:

Jhumpa Lahiri addresses the complexity of human relationships as well as anyone I've read.

I was particularly struck by two passages in "Unaccustomed Earth." The first is when Adam, Ruma's husband, is urging Ruma to see if her father would like to move in with them. Adam questions why it's hard for Ruma to approach her father by saying, "He's your father. You've known him all your life," which is followed by this truth:

"And yet, until now, she had not known certain things about him."

Lahiri understands just how difficult it is to communicate honestly and really get to know other people -- even family members. Most people, I think, are fiercely private, keeping their innermost fears and doubts and wishes and desires secret from even those they love the most. After all, how well do we really know our parents or children or friends or even our spouses, should we be lucky enough to have these people in our lives?

In Ruma and her father, Lahiri shows us two people who do, in fact, care for each other but who aren't really able to open up and communicate honestly. Ruma is unable to tell her father how she feels about her mother's death, her life in Seattle, her role as a stay-at-home mom, and most importantly, the care she has for him. Similarly, Ruma's father has his secrets. He can't tell his daughter he's fallen in love with Mrs. Bagchi even though he's had many chances to do so, and he takes great pains to hide the postcard he's written to Mrs. Bagchi. He even writes it in a foreign language just in case Ruma happens upon it (though it's contents are pretty mundane).

The second passage that struck me is on page 53. Speaking of Ruma's father, we read:

"He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it."

I'm struck here by what Lahiri is willing to say. True, families are beautiful, natural, good things. True, most people love their families and lest anyone doubt it, I love mine and trust that you love yours.

But having said that, I'd bet cold, hard cash that you've occasionally felt like Ruma's father. I'd bet virtually anything that you've had moments when you became tired of the baggage families sometimes bring. That Ruma's father decides to enjoy his family at a distance and on his own terms seems perfectly understandable. He's found an independence in being alone, and he's unwilling to give that up. This doesn't, however, make him at all unlikable. In fact, I think it makes him human.

That's all for this week. Next week, I'll include all of the stories in part one in my post (the first five), so if you want to avoid having any stories spoiled, read at least that far.

And now it's your turn. Please feel free to add a comment and chime in. I'd love to know what you're thinking.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Author Appearance: Greg Pape

Since most of my readers are in Eastern Idaho, I'd like to announce that Greg Pape, the Poet Laureate of Montana, will be at BYU-Idaho this week giving a poetry reading and holding a question and answer session. Details follow:

March 11th, 7:00pm
Smith Building, Room 240

March 12th, 2:00pm
Smith Building, Room 240

Greg Pape has published nine books of poetry for which he's received a host of awards, including two National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowships, the Richard Hugo Memorial Award from Cutbank, a Pushcart Prize, and a Robert Frost Fellowship in Poetry at Breadloaf. If you'd like to explore his poetry before attending his events, you can check out a sampling here.

You can also see a video of Greg Pape reading one of his poems, "Life Cycle," below:

NOTE: I'll be posting my first impressions of this month's featured book Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri on Friday the 13th. So far my thoughts are these: "Anything Jhumpa Lahiri touches turns to gold." She's that good. If you haven't yet tracked down a copy of the book, it's not too late. You can still get it and read along.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Writer of the Day: Joyce Carol Oates

As you know, this month's featured book is Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, and I'll start blogging about the short stories in that book next week (which means that you still have time to get the book and read along -- nag, nag, nag).

Today, though, I'd like to blog about one of the most prolific writers of our time -- Joyce Carol Oates. She's published more than fifty novels (and no, that's not a typo - fifty novels!!!). Beyond her novels, she's also published more than a dozen volumes of short stories, nearly ten volumes of poetry (her tenth is forthcoming), and a fair number of nonfiction works, essays, and even a few children's books.

Her list of publications is, of course, pretty impressive by itself. But here's the real kicker. Joyce Carol Oates is an absolutely amazing writer. She's not cranking out formulaic garbage. She's a serious thinker, and her characters are powerful and unique.

Some of her best work (and let's be honest, I've only read a fraction of it), deals with pure evil and madness. A novel she published in 1995 titled Zombie, based on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer, is currently being made into a one-man play. You can see an interview with Oates about that stage play here.

And if you've never read a thing by Oates, I'd suggest you start with her most-widely read short story, a mind-bender titled, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" It's online here, and like Zombie, it takes a long, hard look at pure evil.

Curious? Then click the link, read the story, and brace yourself.