National Poetry Month: Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver, who passed away this January, remains one of this country’s most popular poets.  She won both the National Book Award for Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  On a more personal level, I feel a connection to her work because she was born in northeast Ohio, near where I live.

20190405_224303Oliver frequently uses themes of nature in her work, so it is not really a surprise that she has an entire book of poems about dogs.  Published in 2013, Dog Songs contains many poems about canines in general as well as some specific dogs in Oliver’s life.  There are also beautiful sketches of dogs throughout the book.

Her simple, unadorned structures and word choice fit the topic very well.  You can easily see her familiarity with and love for dogs coming through. From the very first poem I could see how she uses the motif of dogs to discuss issues of identity, love, living well, and even what it means to be human.  

One of the poems that spoke to me immediately was “Her Grave,” as I am also dealing with a recent loss of a pet.  The lines that really struck me:

She roved ahead of me through the fields, yet would come back,

or wait for me, or be somewhere.

 

Now she is buried under the pines.

Specifically, it’s that “be somewhere” that got me.  It seems to me that the essence of grief is distilled into those two little words.  Jolee, my cat, used to be somewhere. He existed. And now he is not, does not. As simple as that.

I may have cried a bit while reading some of these poems.  But that’s good. I think poetry is one of the most powerful tools for processing emotions, both reading and writing it.  I’m happy that reading this book made me get up out of bed in the night and find pen and paper to write a poem myself before it slipped out of my head.  (You’ll be reading that one a little later this month.)

If you are not familiar with Oliver’s work, now is a great time to check it out since April is National Poetry Month.  Let me know which poem of hers is your favorite!

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NaRMo Review: Daddy-Long-Legs

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This review is my contribution for National Book Review Month (NaRMo).

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster is a charming short little novel, more of a novella, that I stumbled upon recently.  Published in 1912, it has a classic feel that has been popular with readers over the years, though I am surprised that it is not better known now.

Jerusha Abbott has lived her whole life in an orphanage, with the monotony of her studies and duties with the younger children broken up only by ice cream on Sundays.  When an anonymous benefactor offers to send her to college, she reinvents herself as Judy, a vivacious coed studying to be a writer. Her benefactor’s only requirement is that she write him letters to keep him updated on her college career, which she addresses to “Daddy-Long-Legs,” because all she knows about him is that he is tall.

Except for short introduction, the book is entirely epistolary in format, consisting of Judy’s letters to Daddy (or other epithets like “Mr. Rich Man” when she’s piqued).  Judy knows that she will receive no reply to her letters, except perhaps curt instructions from Daddy’s secretary, so the story is wonderfully one-sided yet still manages to give an impression of what her benefactor’s actions, thoughts, feelings are.

Most of the letters are amusing and often flippant, but her determination and struggles occasionally break through.  She is both full of goals and dreams for her future and at the same time determined to live life to the fullest here and now.  There are charming details of life at a women’s college mixed with her cheeky passages determining what kind of socialist she is.

The twist to the story was of course obvious to me immediately, but the dramatic irony was really enjoyable as I read between the lines of Judy’s letters to see the relationship taking shape. The ending is a bit abrupt but satisfying.

Webster also wrote a sequel called Dear Enemy, which consists of letters written by Judy’s college roommate Sallie McBride, whom Judy talks into taking over running the orphanage. While equally entertaining as the original, this novel has a few quaint thoughts (some bordering on harmful) regarding “Negroes,” “Indians,” and the “feeble-minded,” which will require some critical thinking for modern readers.  The two books together have some shadows of Jane Eyre, and I can see them being very popular with young women in particular.  

It’s National Book Review Month!

Several years ago, SUNY Geneseo created National Book Review Month to “give readers an outlet to bring lesser known works to the forefront.”  This year, NaRMo falls in March, so if you’ve read a book recently (of any genre, including “including children’s books, drama, non-fiction fiction and poetry”), you can go to the NaRMo website and submit a review for publication there.  The only real rule is that the review must be between 100 and 1,000 words, though the website does have some great tips for crafting a review.

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Although I’m not a book blogger per se, I’ve been talking about books since the very beginning of this blog seven years ago.  To my mind, there are three main reasons I write reviews of books.

First, to help other readers.  This seems pretty obvious.  Reviews can help people decide whether they want to read a book or not, which is especially useful when they are going to be spending their hard-earned money on it by buying it.  I personally like to read the 2 star reviews of books on Amazon, because those tend to have more specific, useful critiques than the one- or five-star reviews.

Second, to help the authors.  Many independently published authors depend on reviews on blogs as well sites like Goodreads and Amazon to entice new readers.  When a book only has a dozen or so reviews, every one counts.  So every time I read something by an indie author (often one of my blogger friends), I make sure to review it somewhere to give them some free publicity.

Last, to help me.  Part of the reason I started this blog was to have a space for my thoughts on books and other media.  Reviews are sometimes a way for me to process what I read, as well as an outlet for me to share my thoughts.  Like an internet-wide book club or something.  I do try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but sometimes I dive a little further into analysis than a proper review does.  I also like to do brief reviews when I don’t have too much to say about a book.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve definitely learned a thing or two about reviewing books over seven years.  I can’t even claim that I’m good at it now, and I’m certainly still learning.  Here are a few things I’ve picked up since that first review.

  • Give a picture of the book cover.  Not only does it give your post some visual interest, but it also helps people remember the book better if they come across it again.  Of course I prefer to take a pic of my own copy if possible, but most of the time I just end up using an image of the cover art.
  • A short summary is helpful to give some context of the book.  I’ve been using snippets from Goodreads summaries recently (with attribution of course).
  • I like to review both books that I know many people have read (so I can have a discussion) and also some that I know will be new to readers (so I can convince them all to read it, and then have a discussion).  I also tend to stick to the sci-fi/fantasy genres here on the blog, though I do go outside that occasionally for a special book.
  • For trilogies or series, I will often write only one review for the whole thing (though I often focus on the first book, which helps avoid spoilers).  Since I’m not a book blogger with ARCs or anything, my reviews aren’t usually about current releases, and I’m not sure that anyone wants to read a review of just the third book of a trilogy from five years ago or something.  If you haven’t read the first two already, what’s the point?  And if you have read the first two, but not the third, by now, well, that seems weird, too.

Okay, I’ve babbled long enough.  Do you guys enjoy writing book reviews?  Will you participate in NaRMo this year?  I’m going to try to post a review for NaRMo next week, as I’ve read several books recently.  Have you guys enjoyed reading my reviews?  Even better, have you read any books because I recommended them??

The Last Book of 2018 and the First of 2019

I’ve been a little bit behind on my book reviews, seeing as how this is my first of the year even though February’s almost over.  But I have been doing some good reading, so here are two great books I want to share with you.

The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The international literary sensation, about a boy’s quest through the secrets and shadows of postwar Barcelona for a mysterious author whose book has proved as dangerous to own as it is impossible to forget. –Goodreads

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This was the last book I read in 2018 and it was a great way to cap off the year.  This is a book for anyone who loves books. The Shadow of the Wind is the first in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series; it concluded last year with The Labyrinth of the Spirits.

Part of the draw for me was the setting.  It takes place in post-civil war Barcelona, Spain under the Franco dictatorship.  These were very dark and brutal times, and in my experience many people in Spain don’t really want to talk about this era.  But it is a great setting for this mystery/thriller, which also has a bit of romance that keeps it hopeful. The story shows how thin the line can be between fiction and reality.

After reading it, I even got the Spanish edition of the book so I can now read it in the original.  I really want to hear the authentic voice of the slightly-manic Fermin, even though I think I will have to look up a lot of his vocabulary.

Operating Instructions

by Anne Lamott

The most honest, wildly enjoyable book written about motherhood is surely Anne Lamott’s account of her son Sam’s first year. –Goodreads

12540I began reading this soon after my son turned one; I thought it this memoir would be a good way to reflect on my son’s first year, and I hadn’t been ready to revisit that time in my life until recently.  It is really a perfect encapsulation of the first year of motherhood, and the writing is just great. It made me alternately cry and laugh out loud, and I mean both literally. I highlighted several passages in my Kindle, which I rarely do.  Lamott had some struggles that I didn’t, and likewise I had some that she didn’t, but her story still really rang true for me.

Lamott’s voice in this really reminded me of Carrie Fisher’s in her memoirs like Shockaholic and Wishful Drinking.  Both recovering addicts, they reflect openly on their mental health and veer into dark humor. And while Lamott is liberal like Fisher (she harangues the comparatively mild George Bush in a way that now seems ironic), she also is staunchly Christian as well.  This is a potent combination for me since I am also both liberal and Christian, but it may be a turn-off for those who are not.

I did wonder a bit how Sam would feel about this book, so it was very interesting to also read Lamott’s companion book Some Assembly Required about the birth of Sam’s son.  Sam says about Operating Instructions, “To this day, that book is the greatest gift anyone has given me; I have a very special relationship with it.”

Another cool note is that this book introduces a story about her father encouraging her brother to do a biology report by taking it “bird by bird.”  This quote shapes her later book on writing of the same name, which I also really recommend.

2018 Reading Review

In some ways, 2018 was a great year for reading.  But it had its downsides, too.  I was once again able to read approximately 100 books this year (not counting re-reads).  But being a parent has really changed how and what I’m reading, which is disappointing to me.  Here are some notes from my reading this year and my goals for next year.

The Great American Read

PBS’s Great American Read was the highlight of my reading year.  I had great fun reading four of the books on the Top 100 list, bringing my total read to 36, and voting for my favorites in the contest.  To Kill a Mockingbird was the big winner, but many of my favorites rounded out the top five.  You can read more about it here.

Author Discovery: VE Schwab

When I was getting back to reading earlier this year, I picked up the A Darker Shade of Magic trilogy by VE Schwab and fell in love.  You can read my longer review here.  I then went on to read Vicious, which I may love even more!  I’m still working my way through the rest of her repertoire, so expect to see more about her other novels next year.

Audiobooks

I tried listening to some audiobooks for the first time this year and had a mixed reaction.  I listened to two romance novels and VE Schwab’s Venegeful (sequel to Vicious).  I did enjoy listening to them on my commute, but I actually like listening to music just as well.  Mostly, I felt very impatient with them.  I was listening to them on 1.5 speed, and it still took hours longer to listen to them than it would have to read them.  I also didn’t really like the voice performance aspect, because when I read of course I never do different voices for characters in my head, so that was a bit weird to me to hear that.  What do you guys think?  Should I keep trying?  Do you have suggestions for books that are really good as audiobooks?

Blogging Book Reviews

One of my goals at the end of last year was to review more of what I am reading here, and I’m happy that I did review a lot of my genre reads here on the blog.

Now for the downsides…

Although I read about 100 books, about 80 of these were Regency romances, and I would say only about half of those were worthwhile reading.  So I hit the mark for quantity but not quality.  Hence I want to change a few things in my reading next year.

  1. Read from more genres.  Although I did read a good mix of sci-fi and fantasy, as well as evenly from adult and YA, I barely read any manga or comics and no nonfiction at all this year.   I also want to read more short stories and historical fiction.
  2. Finish Heyer’s romances.  I’m not giving up Regency romance entirely! I mentioned last year that I began reading through the works of Georgette Heyer, and I was able to read several more this year.  I have yet to be really disappointed by a single one of her stories.  I want to finish reading her oeuvre of historical romances (I only have about five left) and maybe try some of her mysteries.
  3. Read books I already own.  I have shelves and shelves of books and people keep giving me more.  Yet I’m constantly requesting books at the library, and then I have to finish them first because there’s a deadline!  Which leads me to…
  4. Finish the books I started.  I started 11 books this year that I was unable to finish before they had to go back to the library.  Eleven!!  I would check out too many books on my Kindle, then not get to one until it was almost due, then be unable to finish it.  I couldn’t renew because they all have long wait lists.  It was a vicious cycle I want to break next year.  Because my reading time is more limited now, I need to be a little more focused in my reading and maybe not check out every single ebook that looks vaguely interesting.  I’ve also discovered that I can “suspend” holds, so instead of a library book just showing up on my Kindle when it comes available, it won’t come until I’m ready for it.

What books did you enjoy most in 2018?  Do you have reading goals for 2019?