Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Story of a Girl

Being on a "pause" from writing, I've been reading quite a bit. One of the books I read last week was Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl, Sara's debut novel.

As the novel opens, we learn that three years ago, Deanna Lambert was caught in flagrante delicto with Tommy Weber in the back of his Buick. By her father, who has since refused to meet her eyes or speak with her, despite her numerous attempts to apologize. As she lives and attends school in the small town of Pacifica, California, everyone in her school quickly learns about the incident, with various false slants by Tommy, and hence she's considered a slut, notwithstanding that Tommy was her one and only trysting partner. And that he's been over for three years.

While the issue of reputation amongst peers is raised by the novel, the real core of the issue can be summed up with a bit of Shakespeare's take on the subject, from Othello. Frequent readers will know that I like this one so much I've got it memorized, even if I still have to look up the act and scene. (Turns out it's Act 2, Sc. 3):

&emsp Reputation is an idle and most false imposition:
&emsp Oft got without merit, and lost without deserving;
&emsp you have lost no reputation at all unless
&emsp you repute yourself such a loser.

The thing is, in her heart of hearts, Deanna reputes herself such a loser. And during the course of the book, Deanna examines why she made the choice she did in the first place -- not for love, certainly -- and why she hasn't been able to let it go. Her yearning for a return to a happy relationship with her father, who she remembers from the time before he was layed off from the job he loved (long before Tommy's Buick), permeates the book. Her yearning to feel worthy of love and respect will ring true with teen readers, even if they haven't experienced Deanna's particular losses. And that particular desire extends to her relationships with everyone else around her -- her brother and his girlfriend, who have a young child together; her friend Jason, who she introduced to her one true girlfriend, Lee, the two of whom are now dating; and even Tommy Webber, who turns out to work at the same crappy pizza joint as Deanna for the summer.

Between the chapters of the book are some journal entries from Deanna. At first, I wasn't sure what they might add, since the entire novel is first-person p.o.v. anyhow. But it quickly became clear to me that in art, as in life, journaling is a very different kind of writing. We "feel" Deanna most clearly in her journal entries, even if she's not always sure what she feels herself. We see Deanna most clearly in her ongoing narrative. But we hear her, all of her, by putting those parts together.

At the core of the novel are issues not only of reputation, but of forgiveness and acceptance, as Deanna makes new decisions, and starts to move forward into the rest of her life.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


"I promise this to the people of Darfur: the United States will not avert our eyes from a crisis that challenges the conscience of the world." President George W. Bush.

From the AP:

The sanctions target government-run companies involved in Sudan's oil industry, and three individuals, including a rebel leader suspected of being involved in the violence in Darfur.

"For too long the people of Darfur have suffered at the hands of a government that is complicit in the bombing, murder and rape of innocent civilians," the president said. "My administration has called these actions by their rightful name: genocide.

"The world has a responsibility to put an end to it," Bush said.

From me: Better late than never.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Spring -- a Poetry Friday post

With Memorial Day weekend here in the United States, accompanied by warm weather almost country-wide, folks will be celebrating the unofficial start of summer. But summer doesn't truly arrive for another three weeks or so, and so I thought I'd post a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins to remind us all to enjoy the spring.

Hopkins was a Jesuit priest who wrote in traditional forms during the Victorian era in England. However, he used fresh imagery and techniques like sprung rhythm (echoing actual conversational tones instead of adhering rigorously to iambic pentameter or some other set metre). Here is a lovely sonnet in an italianate or Petrarchan form (abba/abba/cdcdcd) for you:

Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
&emsp When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
&emsp Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
&emsp The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
&emsp The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
&emsp A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,
&emsp Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
&emsp Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

And should you, by chance, prefer something more in keeping with the nature of Memorial Day, once called Decoration Day, and established to remember those who've died in the service of the United States, then I'll point you to some war poems -- even though the poems I'm pointing you to are by men who were English and Canadian.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Austenland by Shannon Hale

In a radical departure (for me), I read an adult book today. Make that a book for adults, as the former iteration has negative connotations somehow. Anyhoo.

Today, with much anticipation and even greater enjoyment, I read Austenland by Shannon Hale.

And, rather like my well-watched DVDs of the 1995 BBC/A&E version of Pride and Prejudice, I am looking forward to enjoying it all over again.

Is it because it's the best-written book ever? Probably not.

Is it because it's charming and fluttery and a frothy bit of wish fulfillment? You betcha.

Jane Hayes, single thirtysomething from NYC, is hopelessly infatuated with Mr. Darcy (as played by Colin Firth in the 1995 P&P). And with each failed actual romance, she drifts ever further into her fantasy world. When her great-aunt sniffs out Jane's obsession, poor Jane is left feeling as if she's been caught outdoors in her knickers. And when that great-aunt's legacy to Jane is an all-expense paid trip to Austenland, a three-week playacting/wish fulfillment place in England, Jane debates whether to go or not.

And I am so happy that she chose to go, where she exchanged her everyday panties for a set of cotton drawers, and traded her jeans for an empire-waist gown. Now known as Jane Erstwhile, she's expected to spend her time in character as a Regency era heroine, although with a comfy mattress and working bathroom facilities. Two other "young" ladies share the grounds with her, and at first, only two young men, but as time passes, a third joins as well. Jane spends time sorting out which Austen archetype each character is "playing," and finds her own affections torn between sanity, Mr. Nobley, and "Martin" the gardener.

Can Jane overcome her Darcy obsession once and for all? You'll have to read it (or rather, romp through it) yourself to find out. But I can tell you in all honesty that I adored this fun, funny book. Maybe even more than I liked the award-winning Princess Academy (I know! Shocking! Especially since this book is a grown-up romance novel!)

The best part? Teenage Hale fans can actually be let loose with this one, which, while not entirely chaste, is very nearly so. Will they get all the Austen references? Perhaps not. But the best part is, one needn't get the references in order to enjoy the very romantic plot of this novel.

I should note that Kirkus calls this "Mindless froth that Austen addicts will love." As if that's a bad thing.

Brava, Ms. Hale, brava!

Equal and opposite reactions

According to Newton's Third Law of Physica, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

For instance, last week I was on a writer retreat, away from family with its attendant cares and woes. This week? No retreat, lots of family (and woes).

Last week, I wrote something like 6 poems in 4 days. This week? Nada. Niente. Zilch.

Last week, I woke early, full of energy and ready to write. This week, I'm tired. Tired, tired, tired.

Stupid physics.

Still, I'm off to get some writing done today anyhow.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood -- a Poetry Friday post

William Wordsworth was a linchpin in the development of modern poetry. Prior to Wordsworth, poets cast about to find a subject. With Wordsworth, in many ways, the subject was always himself. In fact, even during Wordsworth's life, Hazlitt observed that Wordsworth was "his own subject," which was, at the time, an original concept. Wordsworth's poems focused on emotion, ideas and sentiment as much as they did on the natural world, often with some interconnectedness. Even today, Wordsworth's poems tap into the subconcious (or even unconcious) minds of his readers and teach them how to feel, and how to connect with their true, spiritual self.

When I was in high school, one of the poems that had the greatest effect on me was William Wordsworth's Ode "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood". Although the entire poem is fairly long -- eleven stanzas of varying length -- it is worth taking the time to read it in its entirety. First, to read its full content. Second, to bathe in the glorious language of the poem. If you have the time and inclination, I hope you'll follow the above link, and then come back to "talk" about the Ode with me.

The Ode leads off with an epigraph:

The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

&emsp Paulo majora canamus

The first three lines of the epigraph are the last three lines from another Wordsworth poem, "The Rainbow." The complete text of the poem is as follows:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
& emsp Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

The last line of the epigraph is a Latin quote from Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, and means "let us sing of greater things". Taken together, I believe that Wordsworth took his earlier nature poem about rejoicing in nature, and started thinking more carefully about the two ideas raised in the poem -- rejoicing in nature, and the idea that childhood influences later adulthood. Certainly those are topics explored in "Intimations of Immortality".

The Ode is essentially in three parts. Stanzas I through IV, which were written at least two years before the remainder of the poem, convey the poet's wistful sense that something has been lost. Stanzas V through VIII speak of resistence to the idea of growth or aging. Stanzas IX through XI reflect the acceptance of what remains, that there is still beauty in the world, and "strength in what remains behind": sympathy, empathy, faith and philosophy. Throughout the entire poem, the speaker's emotion is at odds with the joyous, bounteous world around him -- a departure from established traditions. At the same time, this poem can be read as a nature poem -- how children are very connected to nature and the world around them, but adults have dissociated themselves from the natural world, and can no longer feel their correct place in the natural world.

I want to focus in particular on three stanzas from the middle of the Ode, which are the ones that sang loudest to me when I first studied this poem in high school. I should note that these particular stanzas have been interpreted as believing in reincarnation, or at least in the pre-existence of the human soul. Wordsworth issued a denial that the Ode argues for preexistence of the soul, at the same time noting that there is nothing in Christian doctrine to preclude or contradict such a thing. They are stanzas V through VII:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
&emsp Hath had elsewhere its setting,
&emsp &emsp And cometh from afar:
&emsp Not in entire forgetfulness,
&emsp And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
&emsp From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
&emsp Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
&emsp He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
&emsp Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
&emsp &emsp And by the vision splendid
&emsp &emsp Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind;
And, even with something of a Mother's mind,
&emsp And no unworthy aim,
&emsp The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man,
&emsp Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,
A six years' Darling of pigmy size!
See, where 'mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother's kisses,
With light upon him from his father's eyes!
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learnèd art;
&emsp A wedding or a festival,
&emsp A mourning or a funeral;
&emsp &emsp And this hath now his heart,
&emsp And unto this he frames his song:
&emsp &emsp Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;
&emsp But it will not be long
&emsp Ere this be thrown aside,
&emsp And with new joy and pride
The little Actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his 'humorous stage'
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage;
&emsp As if his whole vocation
&emsp Were endless imitation.

I hope you enjoyed the reference to Shakespeare's As You Like It in the seventh stanza, to the little Actor playing parts on a humorous stage. It's a reference the soliloquy which begins "All the world's a stage", and discusses the roles played by a man throughout his life, from infancy to old age, a "second childishness."

I confess that even now, more than 25 years after I first learned this poem, I still love the idea of little souls streaming to earth, trailing clouds of glory, to be housed in new little people. And I thought of it often when my children were infants, looking into their newborn eyes and seeing in those eyes all the secrets of the universe, or so it seemed. But perhaps I was simply sleep-deprived; who can tell?

In this middle part of the Ode, Wordsworth traces the aging process, and how the soul gets shoved aside gradually by the daily concerns and obligations of life, causing man to lose connectedness with nature and the divine. At least, that's my reading of it. The middle four stanzas deal almost exclusively with the aging process and its effect on the soul. Stanza number 9, the longest stanza of the Ode by far, represents the "turn" in this work, where Wordsworth takes all the "facts" he's presented, and begins to make his "argument", that even with things fallen away, he can raise songs of thanks and praise knowing that somewhere in him is a soul that remains connected to the source from whence it came. Stanzas 10 and 11 return to nature and to appreciation for nature,

One more quote from the poem, the tenth stanza of which includes these lines:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
&emsp Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
&emsp We will grieve not, rather find
&emsp Strength in what remains behind;
&emsp In the primal sympathy
&emsp Which having been must ever be;
&emsp In the soothing thoughts that spring
&emsp Out of human suffering;
&emsp In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

Yes, movie-lovers, this portion of the poem is quoted in the movie, Splendor in the Grass, starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. It is also, in many respects, the key point Wordsworth makes in the entire Ode.

According to many sources (including Harold Bloom), this poem is one of the most important poems in the English language. At the very least it was tremendously influential over a host of other poets, from Wordsworth's contemporaries like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and George Gordon, Lord Byron to later poets, including W.B. Yeats, and including most American poets from Ralph Waldo Emerson through Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens.

For today, and taking a line from Stanza 10 out of context,I hope that you will "Feel the gladness of the May!"

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Whatcha readin'? -- a meme

Today, Bookmoot tagged me for a meme. I can use the procrastination time. Also, it's an easy one, being only one question:

What books are you reading?

First up, a bunch of Jane books:

Jane Austen in Context ed. by Janet Todd

The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World by Maggie Sullivan (who runs AustenBlog and Tilneys and Trap-doors).

Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders by Josephine Ross and Henrietta Webb

Juvenilia by Jane Austen, Cambridge ed.

And there's more, but I'll leave off there for now.

Also, as Jane research:

Introducing the Enlightenment by Lloyd Spencer et al.

Other reading:

Maude March on the Run by Audrey Couloumbis

American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds by James Maguire

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry

Nine Horses: Poems by Billy Collins

I should note that I'm reading straight through Introducing the Enlightenment and taking notes, that I'm partway through American Bee but stalled, and that reference to the poetry books is an ongoing thing. Plus I've got a lot more poetry books that I riffle through now and again, but right now I'm reading a few from Nine Horses every day.

I'm not sure which is the sadder part -- how many books I'm reading, or how very many I have that I wish I had the time to read.

Tagging Debbi Michiko Florence, Literaticat, and Colleen Cook.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Your Own, Sylvia (redux)

Colleen Mondor over at Chasing Ray had a great idea. On Mondays in May, she's posting about Wicked Cool Overlooked Books. Books that you've read that are fabulous and that you can't get out of your head, but that don't seem to be garnering the sort of attention they truly deserve.

Not that I have the sales figures to back this up or anything, but Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill seems to be in this category based on its conspicuous absence from most blogs I read. Those of you who read my blog regularly may recall that I was somewhat disappointed to find that a verse biography of a famous female author was already on the market, what with me working on just such a beastie (albeit a different author). If so, you will also remember that this book knocked my socks off.

Part of what makes this book memorable is, of course, the astonishing life of Sylvia Plath. But it's more than that -- it's the impact that Hemphill's poems have. Good poems have a way of conveying emotion through imagery, and Hemphill's poems do just that. The mental image I have of college-aged Sylvia, presumed missing, found wedged behind the woodpile where she'd attempted suicide, stays with me because of Hemphill's poem, which describes not only the scene, but also how Sylvia's body betrayed her -- she'd taken the pills, but vomited.

My 14-year old daughter, S, caved in to my pressure to look at it. She read the first poem and was okay with it. She read the second and third, then considered putting the book down, because it's all in poetry, and she's not usually that into reading a lot of poetry (I know, I know -- the irony of it all). But she couldn't let the book go. Those three poems had been enough to hook her into reading a little more. And then she couldn't put the book down. And when she was done with it, S, like her mother, was blown away by the writing as well as the story.

So, on this sunny, breezy Monday morning in May, my pick for Wicked Cool Overlooked Book is Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Two from Robert Herrick -- a Poetry Friday post

Late in the day, but just on time for the season, here are two poems by Robert Herrick, a 17th-century English poet (not to be confused with the American novelist Robert Herrick, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

First, one written in iambic pentameter using rhymed couplets from Hesperides, a work dedicated to Charles, Prince of Wales (later King Charles II).

The Argument of his Book.

I sing of Brooks, of Blossomes, Birds, and Bowers:
Of April, May, of June, and July-Flowers.
I sing of May-poles, Hock-carts, Wassails, Wakes,
Of Bride-grooms, Brides, and of their Bridall-cakes.
I write of Youth, of Love, and have Accesse
By these, to sing of cleanly-Wantonnesse.
I sing of Dewes, of Raines, and piece by piece
Of Balme, of Oyle, of Spice, and *Amber-Greece.
I sing of Times trans-shifting; and I write
How Roses first came Red, and Lillies White.
I write of Groves, of Twilights, and I sing
The Court of Mab, and of the Fairie-King.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.


The next poem is one often quoted in favor of seizing the day, and is formally considered a carpe diem poem. It's likely you've heard the first line, even if you've never seen the whole poem. It is also from Hesperides.

To the Virgins, to make much of Time.

1. Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.

2. The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun,
The higher he's a getting;
The sooner will his Race be run,
And neerer he's to Setting.

3. That Age is best, which is the first,
When Youth and Blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times, still succeed the former.

4. Then be not coy, but use your time;
And while ye may, goe marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.

On a beautiful May afternoon, I believe I'll sing of blossoms and birds and otherwise seize the (remains of) the day.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Tips on Having a Gay (ex)Boyfriend -- a brief review

Okay, here's the thing: Carrie Jones is my friend. As in, when I talk to other people, I say things like "I'm so excited that I'm going to see my friend Carrie at the NE SCBWI conference in about two weeks." Or "My friend Carrie's book came out the other day." Or "Excuse me, bookseller. Do you have my friend Carrie Jones's book, Tips on Having a Gay (ex)Boyfriend?" And so you know, when I say that title aloud, I make "air parentheses" around the "ex" part.

And here's the next thing: I love Carrie's book. But not because Carrie is my friend. Take that, Roger Sutton (whom I happen to admire greatly despite his rather jaded view of bloggers reviewing books, interviewing authors, etc.) In fact, when I first got the ARC of Tips on Having a Gay (ex)Boyfriend, I was vaguely nauseated at the thought of reading it. Because, you see, Carrie Jones is my friend. And this is her first book. And so it's extra important to her, and I know that, and I want her to be successful, but part of me was thinking what if it isn't very good? And really, I think that part of me was just being empathetic with Carrie's own worries on the very same subject.

I approached the book like I would any other. I looked at the cover -- cool, collage-like cover. What's with the duct tape? I thought. (That question is answered inside the book.) I looked at the back cover (after all, it was in paperback, so there wasn't any flap copy to see). Kathi Appelt and Tim Wynne-Jones both liked it -- there're blurbs. And then I read the excerpt, which at the time I liked, but having read the book, I don't think it does the book justice. And now that I said that, I'll have to share the copy and later on, explain myself.

"It isn't every day that my entire world falls apart."

Is it fair to be mad, mad, mad at your boyfriend for being gay? Anything but straight in small town Maine won't exactly be a walk in the park, even for invincible Dylan. Can't heartbroken Belle whine just a little? What should the Harvest Queen do when dumped by the guy who was supposed to be ger soul mate? For starters, she makes a list on how to deal.

By the way -- not only Carrie's website, but also the Class of 2k7's, was on the back of the book. Clever marketing, I think.

Then I read the note to me from "The Flux Crew", explaining why they put this book out and talking about how great they think Carrie is (must check to see if that's in the actual book, or just in the ARC!), and then I read the first few pages, and completely relaxed. Carrie's authorial voice is so assured (even when the MC is conflicted and twisty) that I knew I had noting to fear.

Let me share the first "real" paragraph of the book, and I think the writer types among you will see what I mean:

We walk outside first. We walk outside beneath the October stars and hold hands in the cold, cold air. The dim light from neighbor's windows wishes us well. No cars drive by because there aren't that many people in Eastbrook, Maine driving around at eleven, a sad fact but true.

The repetition of cold in the second sentence is echoed throughout the rest of the scene, and serves as a reminder of the coldness creeping into Belle's life as her perfect boyfriend unravels their relationship -- the relationship that started in 8th grade. The "ever-after" kind of relationship that first love brings.

The book takes place in the span of a single week. On Saturday night, Dylan breaks the news (and Belle's heart). On Sunday, Belle and her best friend Emily (Em) talk it over. By Monday, word of Dylan's sexual preference is all over this small Maine town, and by midweek, Dylan's being threatened and Belle is being bullied because her exboyfriend turned out to be gay -- she's called a "fag hag", among other things. But along the way, Belle receives steady support from Em and from Tom Tanner, yummy soccer star and son of the police chief. And Belle learns that saintly Dylan wasn't so saintly after all (which is where my personal dissonance with the backcopy comes from) and that most people are essentially good (including some of the adults in the book -- most notably her science and German teachers). The novel concludes on the following Friday night at a school dance.

If you remember my Tips on Why You Should Add Tips on Having a Gay (ex)Boyfriend to your must-buy list, or the interview I did with Carrie for The Edge of the Forest, then you already know some of the other stuff in the novel. Like that Belle has a seizure disorder, and lives in constant fear of having a seizure at school. And that Belle and Em run the school's Amnesty International chapter. And that Dylan and another boy get picked on for being gay, and that Belle gets picked on because Dylan turned out to be gay.

The actual story is about how Belle gets her heart broken and her eyes opened and finds hope and love, all within a week's time. The REAL story, which is never once preached, is how people with seizure disorders are normal folks who have to cope with prejudice, how people who are homosexual are still marginalized and/or threatened in our society, and how teens who come out need support and love, and (surprisingly), about the degradation of constitutional rights in the United States due to the so-called Patriot Act and other decisions by the administration. And the thing is, you're never told to come to any particular conclusions. It's just that, knowing the characters as you do, those conclusions are obvious. As plain as the chapped red nose on my face (I have a cold and allergies -- must buy Puffs with lotion!)

This one is my pick to win the Schneider Family Book Award in the teen category for next year. I'll be tuning in to the ALA announcements as I always do, and hoping to hear that my friend Carrie Jones won an award. Maybe even two.