Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Drowned, by Al Maginnes

Another beautiful poem this week from Linebreak, The Drowned, by Al Maginnes. It also includes a wonderful reading of the poem by Penelope Pelizzon.

The Drowned
by Al Maginnes

                              Already the first of the year has entered
                                        the calm prayer of the lake and become
                              a part of it, his last essential song trapped
                                        forever below the surface, blued syllables
               (5)          slipped from the vessel of his body.
                                        They remain though the rest of him was
                              raised, pale, a creature of half-land, half-water.
                                        Spring and summer claim their share
                              of drunken boaters, careless fishermen.
               (10)                  But rarely this early in the year, this close
                              to shore. I know that bend of water, how shallow
                                        it stands close to the bank. Only
                              the very drunk or unlucky, only one determined
                                        not to rise would slide under and stay.
               (15)        When I was fourteen, a minister who professed
                                        a home-brewed faith of his own sent
                              blurred photos of himself walking on water
                                        to a newspaper. When a covey
                              of reporters came to see the feat repeated,
               (20)                  the minister announced he could not
                              perform miracles in the face of such doubt.
                                        He left the brown river untrod, returned
                              to his congregation whose prayers would
                                        rise like floodwaters, unstopped by doubt.
               (25)         Deep in the gummy mud that is the lake's floor,
                                        the last words of the drowned burrow
                              deeper than any prayers can reach, preserved
                                        in water where no miracles come to pass.

I just want to focus on the first sentence of this poem, which spans several poetic lines. 

"Already the first of the year has entered / the calm prayer of the lake and become / a part of it, his last essential song trapped / forever below the surface, blued syllables / slipped from the vessel of his body."

Maginnes has some interesting language here--interesting use of pronouns. 

In the beginning we have the "first of the year" entering "the calm prayer of the lake." So the actor is the "first of the year," the action is entering. And what is the "first of the year" entering? "[T]he calm prayer of the lake." It isn't entering the lake, it is entering a prayer. 

Then the "first of the year" "become[s] part of it." What is it? The lake? The calm prayer? The calm prayer of the lake? I think the answer is yes. Can you really separate a lake from it's calm prayer?

Then Maginnes uses the male pronoun--"his." As in "his last essential song trapped / forever below the surface." I am assuming that the his refers back to the "first of the year" since that is our character. The first of the year is a he?

Well, regardless, it is a beautiful, interesting line of poetry.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Review: The Dinosaur Lords

The Dinosaur Lords (The Dinosaur Lords, #1)The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Many people have talked about this book by saying that it is a cross between A Game of Thrones and Jurassic Park, which could not be further from the truth.

The Dinosaur Lords follows four protagonists in different parts of this world. One is the daughter of the Emperor of the land, a daughter who doesn't always agree with her father, or the way the empire is run. The second is the Princesses lover, who is the darling of the empire--a poet, leader of a religious order of dinosaur knights, and one of the most brilliant military commanders of his time. He is pushed by an unflinching sense of duty to the empire. Then we have Rob and Karyl whose story is really one because they are so intertwined. These two are charged with helping a small defenseless town prepare for raids from a much larger, aggressive kingdom. Giving that part a very similar vibe to the film Seven Samurai.

There were parts of this book that I liked. There were other parts that I didn't really care for, thus why I only gave the book a three star rating.

Milan's world building is interesting. I liked this world and especially the little bits of world info at the beginning of each chapter. It seems to me that people from our world, many ages ago, were transported to this new world. They brought some things with them--cats, ferrets, horses...etc.--but they went to a world where dinosaurs were not whipped out. This was extremely interesting to me. I would love to read a book about that--where the characters are figuring out how to get to this new planet with dinosaurs.

I enjoyed the Rob and Karyl storyline. It was the most interesting to me. I liked that it was interspersed throughout all of the chapters. I did enjoy Melodia's plot towards the end. There were parts of the book where she was a snore-fest. Jaume's plot was the least interesting to me. I just did not care about him.

There are some awesome battle scenes in this book. Milan is really great a writing battle so it is easy to follow and so the reader can sense the importance of what is happening. Milan excels here where George R. R. Martin has failed in the past--A Clash of Kings I'm looking at you. And Milan is certainly an accomplished writer. He has some wonderful sentences and many of the descriptions are just gorgeous. You feel like you can see these things unfolding in front of you.

But, I felt like this story could have happened anywhere. The dinosaurs could have been horses just as easily and the story would have been the same. And the dinosaurs didn't even make this novel. The story was unimpressive and the dinosaurs didn't make up for that. It was just an average story that had some dinosaurs in it. The problem I have with this is that there was sooo much hype for this book. People were raving, "Why hasn't someone thought up this before?" But I don't know that Milan did all he could this idea. This book was an instant buy for me when I read the description and it was just an average fantasy novel, at best.

I had a difficult time getting into this book as well. The first couple chapters are confusing and a hard entry point--beautifully written, but hard to get into this world. It's as if Milan doesn't want you to feel welcomed until after the battle in the first couple of chapters is over. And I don't know why an author would want that to happen to his readers. I would think that some people would put the book down because of the difficult entry point in this book.

Now, let's get back to the comparison that I noted at the beginning. This book is not a cross between A Game of Thrones and Jurassic Park. The intrigue is no where near A Game of Thrones. The characters are not as fleshed out. The dinosaurs aren't nearly as interesting as those in Jurassic Park. And this is the one that gets me the most: this isn't as good a book as either of those. Now, I love George R. R. Martin as an author. I think he has done some awesome things with his Song of Ice and Fire series. But to be not as good as Jurassic Park? I mean I like Michael Crichton, but he is no Martin. Jurassic Park, while not the best book, is better than this. Go read A Game of Thrones or Jurassic Park instead!

I don't know if I will be picking up the second novel. This one ended in a way that certainly points towards a sequel. I'm assuming that these books will eventually be turned into a movie or maybe a television series. I think they would totally work in that venue. Seeing dinosaurs clash in jousting tourneys would certainly be something to behold on the screen. I would probably tune in. But as a book, it just doesn't do enough to get more than an average rating.

View all my reviews

Fight Club ch. 1

Palahniuk has a very interesting style, one that gets tiresome quickly in his other novels, I hear. It seems to work here though. He repeats lines. The emphasis increasing throughout the chapter. "Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth [...]" is the first one. We see this idea, or some iteration of this idea repeated throughout this first chapter. We are constantly reminded that the narrator has the barrel of a gun in his mouth. And really, what a way to start a book. Not exactly with a bang, but pretty close.

The second thing that keeps getting repeated is the fact that the building is wired and will explode in ten minutes. The narrator has set this whole thing up and acts like a count down, reminding us over and over that the building is going to blow.

These two repetitions provide tension to this scene. Palahniuk wants the reader to feel stressed right as they start this novel. He wants to stress to be overwhelming. You have two immediate problems with no quick solution--the barrel of a gun in the mouth of the protagonist, while he is in a building that is set to explode in ten minutes.

The two best lines:

"I tongue the barrel into my cheek and say, Tyler, you're thinking of vampires."

"With a gun stuck in your mouth and the barrel of the gun between your teeth, you can only talk in vowels." Not exactly like the animated GIF above, but pretty close.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

John Green at Central Library in Indiana

I like John Green as a person. I think that becomes apparent very quickly since with only nineteen posts in this blog I have now discussed something John Green has said twice. I am a consumer of John Green's work. I love his work on Youtube (especially Crash Course: Literature). I have read one of his novels--The Fault in Our Stars--and while I didn't gush over that novel like some people did, I did appreciate the book that Green had produced. Because, you see, The Fault in Our Stars was not written for me. It was written for those high school students who struggle and want to know that they are not alone in the world. For those students that I had in Read 180, who struggled to know whether or not they really enjoyed reading, and upon completing Green's novel were able to say, "Yes. Yes, I do like these book things." This novel is for those people who need to understand what is inside of themselves. Now, I need to feel and know those things too, but Green wasn't the author that helped me discover those things.

Anyway, I've gone off on a tangent a little bit. Let's talk about this speech that I have linked. John Green delivers a wonderful speech at the Central Library in Indiana. High school students are in attendance, both from Indiana and from Germany (through a video conference).  He speaks about Kurt Vonnegut, whom I have never read before, but now have placed Slaughterhouse-Five on my someday list. But in the midst of all this talk about Vonnegut and Indiana, Green discusses some very poignant things about why we read. Why we study and enjoy literature. 

In my profession, I have to field this question often, both from students and from adult friends who scoff at my chosen profession. They ask me why I teach literature, or why we need to read literature, or why I chose to become an English teacher when I could very easily do something else--something that will earn me quite a bit more money. And I think John Green did a better job here at articulating what I wish I could say than I ever could. So, I will list some of the things that Green said that stood out to me:
  • Green talked about traveling to a college when he was in high school to listen to Vonnegut speak. I have had similar experiences, granted, not while I was in high school, but later when I was in college. My question is, do high schoolers still travel to listen to authors? And if they don't, why not?
  • "We are incredibly ambitious, and hopeful, and stupid."
  • "Humans got places because the light is on."
  • "Human socials orders are always flawed."
  • "Stories can wake us up from our stupor and help us make thoughtful conscious decisions."
  • Reading makes us feel understood and un-alone. Reading helps us to see the world outside of ourselves and inside ourselves.
  • "Stories show us that the pain inside us is, in fact, human-ness."
  • "Authors light up the world for us."
  • We make (and consume) art to experience becoming. To find out what is inside of us.
  • "Stories can make life not only bearable, but better.
  • Green pointed out that many people don't like The Catcher in the Rye because they feel that Holden Caulfield is a whiney, bratty, liar. But then John Green said that we are all Holden Caulfield because we all act like that sometimes--especially teenagers.
Those are the ideas that stood out to me, and you really should do yourself the favor of sitting down and watching this talk in one sitting because Green says many other wonderful things and does a better job than I could. But the words ring true for me.

I read literature to understand what it means to be human, to understand that I am not alone in the world. Other people have experienced what I am experiencing. I teach literature so my students will also gain these understandings. And I feel that classical literature does a better job of helping readers understand human-ness than popular literature. I did not learn very much about life from Harry Potter, but I have learned something of life from Holden Caulfield, Jay Gatsby, King Lear, Jane Eyre, Kurtz, and Okonkwo. I have learned so much from reading, and I can't think of a better group of teachers.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Coming Soon...again

After I finish my vacation read of the Dinosaur Lords, by Victor Milan, I will be re-reading Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk. This was inspired by a student in my class who transferred to Pomona at the beginning of the year and was assigned Fight Club for summer reading by the AP Lit teacher at her old school. It has been a long time, but I think it is time to revisit this one.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Oranges, by Roisin Kelly

Another beautiful poem found on the Poetry Foundation's website.

Oranges, by Roisin Kelly

Some highlights:

  • Wonderful stanza breaks: "but hold my hands above // a pile of oranges / as if to warm my skin / before a fire."
  • "scrape some rind off // with my fingernail / so that a citrus scent / will linger there all day."
  • About halfway through the poem she transitions from first person pronouns (I) to second person pronouns (you) to marvelous effect.
  • "the sun / you swelled under / the tree you grew from." is beautiful.
  • "A drift of white blossoms / from the orange tree / will settle in my hair / and I'll know." What a distinct image! Almost transcendent.
  • In the final lines of the poem the image that will stick with me for the rest of my life is revealed: "Maybe then I'll climb / the hill, look down / on the town we live in / with sunlight on my face // and a miniature sun / burning a hole in my pocket." This image is why you read poetry. What a perfectly gorgeous image.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Poetry Warms the Soul

Today in my AP Literature and Composition classes, I introduced poetry. We did a fun activity and then start by reading a easy Seamus Heaney poem. But. my students groaned when I told them we were introducing poetry. GROANED! Of course, I made them fix that; had some students cheer for poetry. I'm hoping that they just haven't had many good experiences with poetry, and hopefully we will fix that this year. Hopefully they will accept that poetry is good for them, just like green beans are good for them. They still might not cheers, but secretly they will know.

Today I wanted to blog about poetry since it was on my mind, but I had a hard time finding a recent poem that spoke to me. Nothing was really striking my fancy until I stopped by Poetry Magazine. I decided to try one of the featured poems, and wow!

And so, I present: Marine Snow, by Miriam Gamble--

          The memory of sun, it is what they subsist upon
          down where the jaws snap blindly
          at whatever passes, where drifter is a meaningless term

          and to hunt is to proffer teeth and tongue
          and ghost-lit lantern
          into a sea like liquid wind,
          without prior compass
          of the way the wind is blowing.

          Should they be gifted with a corpse
          whose half-spoilt flesh holds distillate
          eternal summers
          spent glittering in the euphotic zone,
          they will give gross thanks and, in their way, be holy.

          In the cartography of sea,
          they are kin not to dragons nor the Stella Maris
          but to your own bright band--

          yes, you there, eating your sunlight secondhand
          from a long-gone grocery display,
          drinking it from the guts of lazy lemons.

Holy cow! This poem is a beaut! First some definitions:

  • Marine Snow--"is a continuous shower of mostly organic detritus falling from the upper layers of the [ocean]. It is a significant means of exporting energy from the [top of the ocean, down to the bottom of the ocean]."
  • Euphotic Zone--again, a part of the ocean, the upper layers. Sticking with this whole upper ocean levels feeding the lower levels.
  • Stella Maris--north star, Polaris
There is so much we could analyze in this poem, but the sounds really stood out to me. The sounds in this poem hit the ear with such beauty. Let's just look at a couple phrases in closer detail.
  • "[...] proffer teeth and tongue / and ghost-lit lantern"--teeth and tongue is alliteration and I love me some alliteration. Also some alliteration with "ghost-lit lantern." But the word "proffer" gets me. Gorgeous sound in this line.
  • "[...] whose half-spoilt flesh holds distillate / eternal summers / spent glittering in the euphotic zone"--these lines sound so good. I love the bevy of "T" sounds going on in these lines. Makes a rat-tat-tat when you read it. A machine gun of "T's."
  • "sunlight secondhand"
  • "long-gone grocery display,"
  • "guts of lazy lemons."
I think you get the picture though, now here is the point--

This poem is about getting our sunlight through our food. That, in reality, we eat sunlight. Everything lives off of the sun, we need it to survive. This is a science poem. Fish living in the deepest depths of the ocean need sunlight, and humans do too. It is a poem about eating sunlight. That is beautiful. 

But who really cares what the poem is about. Does it really matter? Does it matter what the poem was about? Or if we connected to the topic as a reader? Maybe. In the end, this poem, this poet spoke to me. Her words, her ideas, her soul, jumped out of the page, across space and time, and told me something. Something about life, and being connected, and being human. I felt fed. I felt better about the world. I felt better about myself. If you can get that from poetry than it is a worthwhile endeavor to read it.

Eat those lazy lemons, and read your poetry!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

John Green & The Road Less Traveled

An Open Letter to John Green.

Dear John Green,

First, big fan! I've been watching Vlogbrothers and Crash Course for several years now, Vlogbrothers for longer obviously. I love the things you and Hank do, but more than anything I love this video.

Let me explain...

I like Robert Frost. His poetry is wonderful, deep, and full of interesting discussions. My favorite is Out, Out. But I have to tell you, it really frustrates me when people misinterpret and misread The Road Not Taken. This happens most often in church and in the English classes I teach at school.

So, thank you for doing your part in correcting this rampant problem.

Best Wishes,

Mr. Allen

Now, lets get this poem on the screen and dig in.

                         Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
                         And sorry I could not travel both
                         And be one traveler, long I stood
                         And looked down one as far as I could
               (5)     To where it bent in the undergrowth;

                        Then took the other, as just as fair,
                        And having perhaps the better claim,
                        Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
                        Though as for that the passing there
              (10)   Had worn them really about the same,

                       And both that morning equally lay
                       In leaves no step had trodden black.
                       Oh, I kept the first for another day!
                       Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
             (15)    I doubted if I should ever come back.

                        I shall be telling this with a sigh
                        Somewhere ages and ages hence:
                        Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
                        I took the one less traveled by,
             (20)    And that has made all the difference.

I understand and totally subscribe to the idea that people can read poetry and glean any message that is meaningful to them, but let me explain to you how I interpret this poem.

Many people misinterpret this poem by saying that (much like John Green in the video was saying) that by taking the "road less traveled" your life will be better or meaningful. It happens in church all the time. People like to interpret this poem saying that if you follow the straight and narrow you will eventually reach heaven because you took the "road less traveled by." That is a nice message and all, but unfortunately that is not what Frost was getting at.

So we have the speaker, he is walking through the woods, he comes to a fork in the road, he looks down both paths. One path is well worn, and the other is "grassy and wanted wear." But then look at lines 9 & 10: "Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same," Frost contradicts himself. One road isn't better than the other. One isn't less worn, they are pretty much the same. So does it really matter if you choose one path over the other? Let's keep reading.

In line 11, Frost uses the word "equally" to once again discuss how these two paths are the same. Then he says that "[he] kept the first for another day!" He'll just come back and travel the other road some other time. Sounds good. But, oh, wait, "Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back." So you're not going to come back? Well then why did you say you would. You contradicted yourself again. NOT COOL ROBERT FROST!

So then we get to the final stanza. Where the speaker envisions himself in the future, detailing to generations of his offspring how he took the path that was "less traveled" and "that has made all the difference." That's the end right? Poem over? Not so fast. The problem is that it didn't make all the difference. The speaker cannot know that his path was any better than the other because

  1. the paths were "worn [...] about the same." and
  2. he never took the other path, "I doubted if I should ever come back," so how can he know that the path he took made all the difference.
This is how I interpret this poem. If we read closely we find contradictions. I love to use this poem to teach Deconstruction when we study Critical Lenses in AP Literature and Composition.

Close reading is the best!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Great Play-By-Play Read Along of A Rose for Emily

Check out one of my students awesome read along of A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner.


A Sentence from William Faulkner

Man knows how to sport a pipe.
I love William Faulkner!

I really wish we could do more with him in AP Literature and Composition, but some of his books are very difficult and harder to access when reading. As I Lay Dying is one of my all time faves. But we do get to read A Rose for Emily, which I guess will just have to do.

I wanted to highlight just one sentence from this story, because I doubt we will find the time to actually discuss this sentence in class. Faulkner (as well as Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy) loves complex, compound sentences, and this one is a great example.

"The held the funeral on the second day, with the town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath a mass of bought flowers, with the crayon face of her father musing profoundly above the bier and the ladies sibilant and macabre; and the very old men--some in their brushed Confederate uniforms--on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years."

Woah! What a sentence! There is so much going on, let's break it down a little:

  • sibilant = hissing
  • macabre = disturbing or horrifying
  • Tons of appositive phrases
    • "with the crayon face of her father musing[...]"
    • "some in their brushed Confederate uniforms"
    • "believing that they had danced with her[...]"
  • All of these appositive phrases could be taken out, but think of what you would lose if you did. This sentence wouldn't nearly be as rich.
  • Faulkner uses commas, a semicolon, and dashes to punctuate this monster.
  • We start out with very concrete images: the funeral, Miss Emily in her coffin, the ladies hissing to each other. But then the sentence shifts into very imaginal territory. At the end of the sentence we are discussing the progression of time, how it is not a diminishing road, but a huge meadow, no winter can touch it, narrow bottle-necks. All of these ending images are very symbolic. 
  • This sentence is a masterpiece in its own right. Faulkner was a genius.