Tuesday, January 29, 2008

sooo many books

The best way to introduce me is to introduce the media and my wacky takes on it! Here is a list of the books I’ve read in the last year (roughly) with annotations and in some cases, links to longer reviews. Enjoy.

How Poetry Works (PD Roberts)
I made myself get through this. For a poet I have a very atrophied sense of rhythm, which I constantly attempt to ameliorate. This book helped in a little in that respect, though perhaps the most enjoyable part of it was reading the anthology of poetry in the back.

Lascivious Pleasures: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century (Julie Peakman)
I read this as research for my short story about Casanova. I have to say I really liked researching it and writing it! This is a very colorful, well-written history of a period that, indeed, had a lot of sex in it.

(Nigel Jenkins)
A slightly older but still accomplished offering from Nigel [my poetry professor at University of Swansea]. My favorite poem was probably his rendering into “English” the words to the Welsh national anthem, illustrated with exciting pen and pink drawings of “O let the hens fly!”

Dreams of Empire (Justin Richards)
see the full review at the link

The Collected Poems of Idris Davies
Idris Davies preceded R S Thomas by a bit, but his long poem “The Angry Summer” is an amazing piece of work. By today’s standards he might be considered a little old-fashioned, but I was impressed by his oeuvre.

The Three Sisters (Anton Chekhov)
In my time taking creative writing courses in University, I’ve never heard anyone criticize Chekhov. In fact, I got so fed up my final year of undergrad at my professor worshipping Chekhov, I wrote a poem called “F*ck Chekhov.” That was when I had only read one of his short stories. Having read this play by him, I can now see the praise might be justified. Subtlety was his middle name, and I can understand why his plays can remain so fresh because it’s all in the subtext.

Mesmerized (Alison Winter)
Another excellent history survey, which I used to research my disgraced radio play.

101 Sonnets ( Ed. Don Patterson)
A strong and varied collection of sonnets, from the familiar (Shakespeare and Milton, of course) to the more contemporary. My attempts at a sonnet were completely shot down.

Burning the Candle (Christine Evans)
Fabulous long poem and quite an inspiration for my long poem about tea. I went to Christine Evans’ reading from the book before I knew I had to buy it and read it for my poetry module. I wish I had known them what a great book it was going to be. It’s about light and science and creativity (and Michael Faraday, who showed up in Mesmerized) and it’s thus a little cheesy to describe it as luminous, but that’s the best description I can come up with.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 (Asa Briggs)
This was a large, coffee-table-sized book with a good selection of illustrations. Again, research book, and indispensable, though I can’t say the style really knocked me out.

Paterson (William Carlos Williams)
I admire Williams’ tenacity in writing this mother of all long poems, but to tell you the truth, I got quite bored with it. I did, however, read it all the way through, and parts of it are definitely beautiful and lyrical and meaningful. It’s all the stuff in between!

Short Trips: A Universe of Terrors
see the full review at the link

The Book of Nightmares
(Galway Kinnell)
I admire a lot of Galway Kinnell’s poetry, and even wrote a poem in his honor. Unfortunately I don’t remember a lot about this long poem.

Station Island (Seamus Heaney)
I can’t remember where I was first introduced to Seamus Heaney, but we did read some of his work in my Modern Irish Novel class in undergrad. He is good at being concise, which I always find difficult. This collection includes a long poem, the eponymous one, but also some shorter ones. In general I think I preferred the short poems.

Correspondences (Anne Stevenson)
This was an interesting transmutation of the long poem, or the poem sequence. This poet wrote poems based on letters and the lives of her ancestors. One particular poem I remember was from an Edwardian father to a daughter upon the daughter wishing to go to college. I was impressed by the tone the poet was able to capture in each of the poems, with none of that self-conscious evocation of history that so many of us are guilty of.

Singing in Chains (Meredid Hopwood)
The englyn is the most difficult poetic form I know of, and though I almost achieved a proper English englyn, it would not have stood up for the purists. Meredid Hopwood does her best to explain cynghanedd in this slim volume with its accompanying CD, and dutifully I tried my best to understand Welsh verse. I came to Wales with the intention of trying to learn some Welsh, and the closest I got to it was singing it in choir.

The Shadow in the Glass (Stephen Cole & Justin Richards)
see the full review at the link

How Are Things? (Roger Pol-Pot)
see the full review at the link

Marie-Antoinette: The Journey (Antonia Fraser)
see the full review at the link

On Film-Making (Alexander MacKendrick)
This is supposed to be a classic for film writers by a master at the craft. I found it to be helpful in the abstract sense; it gave quite a few common sense rules. I even took some notes on his ideas about structure and dialogue (don’t write dialogue that you think is funny just to demonstrate how clever you are . . . ha).

The Empire of Tea (Angus and Iris Macfarlane)
One of my tea research books, very attractively put together and an attempt by the old scions of the tea plantation industry to defend themselves from criticism of exploitation and imperialism. While I found the mother Iris’ introduction interesting (describing “how the way things were” on a tea plantation in Assam in the 1930s), her overly apologetic tone got on my nerves. The history sections of the book were much better with an especially good overview of the early years of European tea as well as its alterations to meet a twentieth-century consumer market.

The Book of Tea (Kakuzo Okakura)
A classic, one that I had wanted to possess for years and finally bought it for my “research.” Again, beautifully arranged. I feel like Okakura and I would have gotten along (he wrote this text in English at the end of the nineteenth century, though it has to do with explaining to a Western audience the role of tea in Japanese life). He has reverence for tea but also a sense of humor about it, too. It was highly influential for my tea poem.

The Ruby in the Smoke (Philip Pullman)
I tried to use this as research for my radio play, but in truth it looked interesting and I was curious about it, since I missed Billie Piper and her famous lisp starring in it over the holidays [2006]. Pullman is an excellent author and one of those few who can create a historical world you absolutely believe. His characters were just on the edge of historical credibility, but they were loveable and I cared what happened to them.

Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire (Roy Moxham)
Unapologetic in tone, this study skewers imperialist policy on the tea plantations while providing some really interesting facts that were completely absent from the Mcfarlanes’ study. For example, there was a roaring trade in smuggled tea in the eighteenth century. It also provides an up-to-date picture of tea in the era of Fair Trade and Tescopoly.

Short Trips: Monsters
see the full review at the link

The Resurrection Casket (Justin Richards)
see the full review at the link

All the King’s Men (Robert Penn Warren)
I got recommend this by a friend on a drunken night in Gregynog. It was superb. I get chills thinking about how consummately Penn Warren opened the novel—I was completely sucked in by the tone, the diction, this fallible yet fabulous narrator, and the characters of this Depression-era southern US world. Penn Warren’s background as a poet comes through clearly in the amazingly calculated phrasing, while his ability as a novelist comes through in structure and giving us stunning portraits of characters. Easily one of the best books I’ve read all year.

Perfume (Patrick Suskind)
I saw the film first, read the book in France (which was appropriate). The main character Grenouille is more difficult to sympathize in the book; he is completely remorseless, less than human really. Cleverly written and taking us to places we’ve never been before (especially in the olfactory sense) this was a lot of fun to read and kudos to the translator.

Mistress of the Elgin Marbles (Susan Nagel)
I was given this after a friend in my course read it and wrote a review for her journalism module. I agreed with her assessment that the book was deceptive and written by an author with sensationalism and bias as her backbone. The story, of course, is a fabulous one—Mary Nisbett, wealthy Scottish lady travels with her husband to Turkey and France at a very exciting historical epoch—and the concluding love triangle is definitely filmable. However, it has almost nothing to do with the marbles of the title and is very clumsily told indeed.

The Gallifrey Chronicles (Lance Parkin)
see the full review at the link

HMS Surprise (Patrick O’Brian)
see the full review at the link

The Time Travellers (Simon Guerrier)
see the full review at the link

Being Alive (ed. Neil Astley)
I read the first poetry collection in this series last summer. Both are spectacular. I love poetry anthologies because they introduce me to poets I might never have found before, particularly ones in translation, and if I get sick of a particular poet or theme, I can just move onto the next poem or section! Some outstanding poems on loss in this collection.

Short Trips: Seven Deadly Sins
see the full review at the link

Poems (Robert Penn Warren)
After All the King’s Men blew me away, I was somewhat disappointed with this poetry volume. I found most of the poetry boring.

New Poems (Kenneth Rexroth)
I gave it a go because I had liked some of the poet’s work I’d seen elsewhere. His debt to the East definitely shows, as his poems are mostly haiku-like and about nature. Some of them are very beautiful.

Winter in the Blood (James Welch)
Randomly picked this up at the library. It reminded me of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water which I was forced to read back in high school. The author is an American Indian writing about life in Montana in the 1970s for a young man with no prospects. It would be facetious to call it a Cree Catcher in the Rye, but the same sense of drifting aimlessly pervaded it. I hated Catcher in the Rye but I thought parts of this had a lot of wisdom, plus it was a nice change of scene.

The Last Dodo (Jacqueline Rayner)
see the full review at the link

Elizabeth’s London (Liza Picard)
Exhaustively researched with a definite authorial voice of a certain charm. A strong history book and more than mildly entertaining. Unfortunately I read it on the plane back from Wales to the US and was crying my eyes out most of the time, so that colors memories of the book slightly.

Who Is Witter Bynner? (James Kraft)
Witter Bynner is a poet from the early twentieth century whom I admire, having come across his work randomly when I worked at the Center for Southwest Research in Albuquerque. He is an underrated poet and New Mexico transplant, and I read this biography (the only one, so far) in order to write an article on him for Poetry Canada (which they never published). The book itself seemed slight, when I don’t think the life was slight.

Pint-Sized Ireland (Patrick McManus)
Amusing, likeable, sometimes trying too hard but on the whole an enjoyable travel book. Definitely a good command of the accent and probably does pick out the best bits of everything, though a little prejudiced against American tourists, I think! Since I’d recently been in Ireland when I read the book, a lot of it rung true—though I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve still not had any Guinness.

That’s Not What I Meant! (Deborah Tanner)
Long on interesting socio-linguistic explanations, short on any meaningful ways to improve communication.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J K Rowling)
I got to it about a month after everyone else, partially because I didn’t want the series to end and partially because it was such a huge undertaking. I’m a Harry Potter fan of both books and films, not an obsessive one, mind you, but I love Ron and even got a bit Snape-obsessed because of this book. Anyway, I remember being miserable at the time I read this, so the book made me even more miserable because so many people died. But I think it was an impressive achievement and overall one of the better books of the series.

Boy: Tales of Childhood (Roald Dahl)
Well-written and charming. Read, of course, because I knew Dahl grew up in Cardiff and I was desperately yearning for Wales. I’ve always been a Dahl fan, but I knew next to nothing about him (even though I’ve been to the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay twice). His childhood in Wales, England, and Norway was quite interesting and well-expressed for a young (and not-so-young) audience.

Gwalia in Khasia (Nigel Jenkins)
Given to me as a birthday present by the author. I was a bit weirded out by the fact I was given an autographed book by its author, but in all fairness to Nigel, it ended up being one of the best birthday gifts I’ve ever received. Really interesting and unusual book, well-written except for some poetic flights of fancy Nigel takes with the language. It could have benefited from some photos, of course, but overall good weaving of old and new stories. It is, by the way, the account of the Presbyterian presence in the northern Indian provinces in the Khasi Hills in the 19th century, and by extension, Nigel’s forays there in the 1990s to do research.

How Green Was My Valley (Richard Llewellyn)
Evidently I was on a Welsh kick. Actually I had heard this was great for years, and I thought it was finally time I read it. Told in a strange chronology, but very Welsh—unsentimental while being nostalgic and beautifully written in some places—offering no easy answers. I’m glad I waited to read it until after I had been to Wales, because it felt so familiar.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera)
see the full review at the link

Just Jane (Nancy Moser)
see the full review at the link

Timbuktu (Paul Auster)
see the full review at the link

Inventing the Victorians (Matthew Sweet)
see the full review at the link

Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness (Sheila Kohler)
see the full review at the link

The Shadow in the North (Philip Pullman)
see the full review at the link

The Mouse and His Child (Russell Hoban)
see the full review at the link

Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez)
see the full review at the link

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell)
see the full review at the link

The Shipping News (E. Annie Proulx)
I didn’t much like it. Obtrusively poetic language, unlikable characters, no hope or joy—until it got all local and cutesy. The dialogue was good at least, real. Pulitzer people must be off their rockers.

Eventually, I’ll have posted all the long reviews with links and all.

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