Friday, May 9, 2014

Third Grad School Reading List of Fourth Semester

After five years, I was kind of sick of my old header, so this week I designed something new. I'm kind of in love with it.

I know this is shocking, but I have once again fallen way behind in posting on my blog. With summer coming closer and grand school coming to an end, I have a lot to share. Over the next few days, I'll catch up on my reading list, and then I can post about my summer adventures.

Baseball ABC edited by A. Grobani: I thought I’d go through some of the digital children’s book collection at the Library of Congress, and I have to say, this book is kind of delicious in its horribleness—forced rhymes, lost rhythm, strange word choice. I'm so glad children’s publishing has changed so drastically in the past 130 years.

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt, narrated by Rosalyn Landor: I read a great review of this book by Publisher’s Weekly that effectively boiled down this complex book to one sentence: "Buried somewhere in here is a fine novel." I know Byatt from her novel Possession, so when I heard such a prolific historical fiction writer who understands poetry had written a book about WWI, I was excited to read it. In reality, the beauty of this novel gets completely lost in the details, a prime example of showing your research in historical fiction—specifically the extensive descriptions of the Paris World’s Fair that has very little to do with setting the scene for character development. The author also had a tendency to use pet phrases that would appear multiple times and make me wonder if I had accidentally hit rewind and was re-reading a passage, and while this can sometimes be done for literary purposes, these instances felt more like mistakes than purposeful echoes.

Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins: While I’m very familiar with Collin’s work—as a poet, performer and teacher—it was rather fun to read a collection of work by him. I was struck by his humor, which for some reason became much more obvious when observed against his other poems of more serious tones. As I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetic voice of a novel in verse, I loved the poem “Workshop” in general and the fourth stanza in particular where he explores words and sounds in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way: “his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging— / a hook in the slow industrial canal below. / I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s.” It made what you’ve been saying about evocative words and the feel of a sound make a little more sense. The words themselves don’t have to be complicated or even unique, but how they are used together and to invoke feeling gives them their power.

London Town by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton: This is kind of a poorly written love poem to Victorian London. While A Walk in London by Salvatore Rubbino is a far superior children’s tour of London, this book has a sweet and nostalgic view of 1883 London. The illustrations are surprisingly fabulous.

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman, et al.: While the concept of this book is incredibly complicated, I felt the dialogue was overly simplified—something I didn’t notice when I first read this series in middle school. There are kind of three elements that make up a comic book (or graphic novel or manga, whatever you prefer): the storyboard, the illustrations and the dialogue/text. So the storyboard carries the plot, the illustrations carry the description and action, and the dialogue carries the character development, although all three elements can trade roles. This is something I’m going to have to think more about.

Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill: What a bleak look at the life of such a talented writer. It was almost painful to read this book, not because I think that I’m even close to the skill level of Plath, but because I can understand those manic swings, self-destructive behavior and deep need to be loved yet not feeling that love is deserved. Feeling a kinship to a woman who was obviously suffering from mental illness is quite frightening. The form of this creative biography in verse is ingenious. To use Plath’s own poetry as a structure and telling her story through the eyes of those closest to her echoes Plath’s life of voluntary solitude and emotional remoteness. Most of the time I didn’t even realize I was reading a sonnet or a villanelle until I was half-way through the poem.

The Children’s Object Book by G. Loewensohn: This book makes me realize how much more accessible books may be to children of today but how out of touch publishers still are of the class disparage in our society. This is basically a board book of common objects and portrays the life of the upper class as if it is the every-day experience of all children. At least now we portray the middle class in children’s books. The pretty Victorian illustrations keep this book from being a complete waste. (I am not so naive about the business world that I don’t realize that consumers drive a product more than altruistic values do. At the turn of the century, only the wealthy could afford to buy books—especially books with color illustrations. And now, the majority of books are purchased by middle-class women. So it makes sense that publishers look for books that reflect this demographic, even when it’s a picture book.)

Heaven Looks a Lot Like a Mall by Wendy Mass: This is a novel in verse that has no purpose in being a novel in verse, and writing issues can be found in abundance. First of all, there’s no arc to the narrative voice. That might seem like a strange statement, but this book starts with a teenage narrator who then reverts back to childhood in a near-death experience. While it is all told in present tense, there is no difference in the narrative voice from before her accident at 17 to when she is a toddler to when she is again 17 after her enlightenment. There is also an issue with completely unlikeable characters. Seriously, this narrator treats others—especially those she refers to as friends—horribly, and any glimmer of hope you see for character growth is completely lost from one verse to the next. Her mother is image-obsessed, her father is a doormat and her brother is an egomaniac. Even the kid she shares a hospital room with pulls the plug on her ventilator! There’s also the issue with the ending telling rather than showing what Tessa has learned about her relationship with her mother—“I know that by trying to fix me, / she us really trying to fix herself” (247)—and her father—“my dad might not be the greatest / dad of all time… / but he never stopped / trying to protect me / and trying to make me feel special” (247). What makes this even worse is that Mass doesn’t even lead up to this enlightenment through the rest of the novel—so without her spelling it out in the ending, readers would have no clue how Tessa has grown. As it stands, I’m not sure I buy into this realization even with it being spelled out. But none of those are this books most egregious sin.

Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Rabb: This is perhaps the most introspective book I have read in a long time—a true grief novel about what it’s like, not to get over loss, but to learn not to let it consume you. Each memory is presented almost as a vignette, a brief image of what happened to make Mia who she becomes. It is interesting to see how Rabb chose to open and close each vignette, and while there is almost a complete lack of transition between each passage and no discernible timeline, there is a distinct emotional arc that carries readers through.

Roland Wright: Future Knight by Tony Davis, illustrated by Gregory Rogers: This was a much better early reader than most. It uses reading-level-appropriate language, uses humor and history (kind of) effectively, and for the most part manages to stay away from cliché phrases and stereotypical characters. It also uses a secondary character—Roland’s pet mouse—as a rather unexpected foil to Roland’s boyish fearlessness.

No comments:

Post a Comment