Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review: Cards of Grief

Cards of Grief Cards of Grief by Jane Yolen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have had this book on my Kindle for years. I bought it because it was on sale a long time ago and it sounded really good, but then other books caught my attention more than this one. The only reason I picked up this book at this point was because a colleague in my department suggested we participate in a informal book club. The idea behind the book club is the read things that we wouldn't normally read--trying to stretch ourselves in our reading habits. So, I got to choose the first book, and my colleague asked for something science fiction. I figured that this book would be a good first choice.

Cards of Grief is a very interesting novel. Yolen, at the end of the book, states that this is the only science fiction novel she's ever written, but it isn't even really science fiction. This is more of a fantasy novel with some sci-fi elements. Cards of Grief is about an alien civilization that is under observation by humans. The humans live in a space station or ship that circles the planet and they travel down to the surface on occasion. But that part of the plot is muted and the least interesting part of this novel. The alien civilization, their culture and practices, are what keeps you reading Cards of Grief. It is interesting because while these aliens appear human in many respects, they are very different from our own culture. The main difference is how their entire civilization revolves around the emotion of grief. We might say that our culture focuses on love or anger, but their's focuses on grief. They spend much of their lives grieving their dead loved ones, preparing to grieve for dying loved ones, and hoping that people will grieve when they die. It is interesting how this has shaped their entire civilization.

The writing style is probably the most interesting part of Cards of Grief. It is not presented in chronological order, we don't see the action through the eyes of one or two characters, nor do we have traditional dialogue throughout the story. This novel is told through the notes of the humans that orbit the planet--through the transcripts of their interactions with the denizens of this planet. There are recorded stories, monologues, and transcribed interviews; these are what flesh out the world and this story. It certainly is a very interesting structure. I wouldn't say that I was ever lost while reading Cards of Grief, but it made for a very slow burn of a read. Plot points are unwrapped slowly rather than the break-neck pacing that most modern stories adopt. Everything is told in past tense too. The action of what characters are talking about happened in the past and they are recounting it to another. In the beginning it made me question whether these characters were reliable as narrators, but in the end, I don't think I ever came across something that didn't jive with what another character said. I don't think this story would have been as effective if it were presented in another manner. Yolen understands what she is doing and creates a style that really flavors the book as a whole. The style makes this novel and is what makes the plot and characters interesting.

Yolen is a fine writer; perhaps not the poetic, imagery heavy prose I usually gravitate towards, but Yolen does a good job. I enjoyed this novel for what it was. I am happy that it wasn't longer--I don't think she could have sustained much more in this plot. It was slightly higher than average book for me. I rated it a 7/10 on my own scale, but here I would rate it a 3.5.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

My Son's an All-Star Speller

My Son’s an All-Star Speller

My son’s the baddest lad in Sunnyside, Queens.
My son roughed up not only honors kids but also

the honors teacher. My son still pulled an A.
My son hopped the turnstile to surf on the E-

train to Rego Park to Kew Gardens to Jamaica +
back. My son does not spit sunflower seeds.

My son spits sunflowers. My son spits suns.
My son has a firm secret handshake

named EARTHQUAKE that takes Flushing Creek
waves down the Atlantic to Neptune,

New Jersey. Turning spumes on fumes, my son
hawks fake gold spoons from womb to tomb

then schools his foes on who vs. whom.
At the spelling bee, his adversary Jimmy Roe

(all pomp) nailed psoriasis + sarcophagus
but fumbled a gimme: “sacrilege.” My son

stepped to the mic + spelled vivisepulture.
Vivisepulture (n.): the act of burying alive.

My son put Jimmy Roe in a viselike headlock,
then mock-vivisepulture position before releasing

the runner-up from his clutches. My son won
the spelling bee; he won bullying; he won empathy.

My son can spell awry, rhythm, + ukulele, + —
oh, most definitely — he can spell trouble.
I know that sometimes I can go a little overboard with praising Linebreak and featuring poetry from that website--it is just so easy because the poems are delivered in my email in-box. If you haven't signed up for Linebreak yet, you really should. My posts about the novels I am reading usually have some substance too. I have more to say.

But I just could not help myself with this poem today.

I wish that more poems were fun like this one. This is a fun poem. It doesn't pretend to be something super serious or deep, it is just a story and I love that. I mean, we could spend quite a bit of time talking about the poem and its structures. Or maybe an hour or two on its theme, but sometimes I like a poem to just be a poem. A fun read and nothing more.

This is a fun read. 


Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Wolf in the Trailer

The Wolf in the Trailer


The wolf in the trailer,
tired of drinking every meal, licked the last bowl
’til it was dry and fled into the darkened woods
because she couldn’t stand it here
(lamplight like snakes biting her eyes)
but soon returned because forest at daybreak fills
itself with such undimmability.
Panting with the kind of pain that makes
people forget which lie they told themselves,
she moves from chair to chair as if a ray
were chasing her (her feet crack scattered dishes like
they’re chipmunk bones). The paramedics, when
they force the door, will find her curled as if
in sideways prayer, head resting in a spot
of dawn so clear that they’ll mistake her fur
for hair. One man will crouch and touch two fingertips

below her ear to prove no sun beats there.

I think the obvious thing to start with, in this poem, is the extended metaphor. There isn't a literal wolf in this trailer: "head resting in a spot / of dawn so clear that they'll mistake her fur / for hair." They will mistake her "fur for hair" because it is hair. But really isn't hair and fur the same thing? Anyway...the "wolf" is a woman, one that is hardened by alcohol, abuse, pain, and the darkness of her situation. She keeps returning, coming back to the trailer night after night because...well because she does. That is what is expected of her. In the turn of this poem, the paramedics arrive, but at that point it is too late. I believe that when Raappana states that "One man will crouch and touch two fingertips / below her ear to prove no sun beats there." that the wolf/woman is dead. She should have escaped and run free, but in the end the abuse of this trailer did her in. It is a sad ending. Often we think that these poor people will rise and get out of their current situations, but sometimes people just aren't strong enough to fight against the status quo. 

My absolute favorite line is "lamplight like snakes biting her eyes." The imagery in this line is strange and beautiful, which you know I enjoy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Elegy: An Email

Elegy: An Email


Fw: sad news

My son,
A man you knew twenty years ago
has died. His wife has cancer
and cannot travel home
for the funeral. You may remember
he took you camping once, water-skiing
on the Pearl River, far enough
from home to drink beer,
far enough to think I didn’t know.
This is the third time I’ve forwarded
an email like this to you
and I know each time you see
the subject line, you think
“Oh God” (the only time you still pray)
“it’s Dad or Grandma.” I know this.
I do it anyway.
                         Not out of meanness.
What would I change it to? All the news
I get of people you knew when you
were one of us is of their deaths,
or that they’ve left the church,
lost faith after so many years.
Like you. Like the grandson
of the man in this email
who sinned at an inconvenient time,
and will watch this funeral alone
amid the congregation.
Like you will, when you come home.


I love the conversational tone of this poem. It reads like an email and I feel like we don't have enough email poetry. It is strange since email is such a huge thing in our world now. But I have gotten off track. And my absolute favorite line is "I do it anyway / Not out of meanness." I love the line break here, which adds significant levels of meaning to the poem. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Next Book

I just heard about this book the other day. It sounds marvelous and I haven't read very much Japanese literature. I think this will be a very good read.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

One final passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God

With this post I just want to provide a beautiful quote that we can just revel in. Some marvelous poetic lines that we can root around in and just enjoy because they sound wonderful.

"So Janie began to think of Death. Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way out West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then. She was liable to find a feather from his wings lying in her yard any day now. She was sad and afraid too. Poor Jody!"

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in preparation for teaching the novel to my AP Literature and Composition students. I had heard of the book for years, but never expressed much interest. Maybe it was the time period, or the characters, or the subject matter that didn't appeal, but I never took the initiative to pick this book up.

But...I'm glad that I did. This is a marvelous work of fiction and deserving of its place on the same list with other literary greats.

Hurston's style is interesting. At times I struggled with the southern speech. I often needed an adjustment period when I would begin reading, but after a few pages of dialogue I would find myself reading these lines of dialect without any trouble. As a general rule I don't much care for writer's use of dialect, and here I felt it was just okay. I don't think it added as much as say Twain's use of dialect in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I also noticed that Hurston has a tremendous ability to provide the reader with beautiful and interesting images. She does include her fair share of lyrical language, which you know that I love.

I won't go into too much detail on the plot as others have done that to excess and you can read their reviews if you really want to know what the novel is about. What I found interesting is the fact that this story is really three stories that are all interconnected through one character: Janie. Her three marriages are the three different tales that this book weaves and it is interesting that this is what Hurston focused on. Janie grows as she experiences being married to these three very different men, and I would say that each marriage improves upon the last. But because of the way these stories are approached, it is almost as if we have three completely different characters named Janie. Three versions of the same person. I think there is a lot to be said about this aspect of the novel. How people change throughout their lives and could you really say that I am now the same person that I was when I was 16. We want and care about wildly different things. We act, speak, and live very differently. So, is the sixteen-year-old me really me? This is the wonderful depth that Hurston evokes with her main character.

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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Janie's Face

Just polished up my glasses and now it is time to blog. It is amazing how dirty glasses get throughout the day. I try not to touch them and still...

Several times throughout the novel, Hurston refers to her main character as "Janie's Face," or spends time describing Janie's face. Here is one notable passage after Jody passes away.

"Janie starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral behind her veil. It was like a wall of stone and steel. The funeral was going on outside. All things concerning death and burial were said and done. Finish. End. Never-more. Darkness. Deep hole. Dissolution. Eternity. Weeping and wailing outside. Inside the expensive black folds were resurrection and life. She did not reach outside for anything, nor did the things of death reach inside to disturb her calm. She sent her face to Joe's funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world."
And here is another one from earlier in the novel:
"The years took all the fight out of Janie's face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. Sometimes she stuck out into the future, imagining her life different from what it was. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods--come and gone with the sun. She got nothing from Jody except what money could buy, and she was giving away what she didn't value."
As I was reading Their Eyes were Watching God I noticed these phrases peppered throughout the novel and wondered about their importance. It wasn't until I got to the the end of the novel that I figured it out. Well, I think I figured it out. The story of Janie is a story of a woman who is forced to follow societies norms for women at the time. Janie doesn't want to marry, she doesn't want to keep house. But the worst part is that Janie doesn't know initially that she doesn't want these things. She is just going along with the flow. She marries her first husband because her grandmother expects it and society expects it. She marries Jody because it seems like a good choice based off of societies expectations. in these first two marriages that phrase "Janie's face" crops up. She isn't a whole person. She puts on an act for the people around her: playing the part of the dutiful wife. Society expects her to be dumb, and submissive, and not play checkers and so she puts her face on, just like any woman would put on makeup in the morning. It's a mask. 

But after Jody's death, Janie is finally able to take that mask off when she hooks up with Tea Cake. No more expectations because Janie just doesn't care anymore. And that is where the phrase "Janie's face" disappears because she isn't "Janie's face" anymore, she is just Janie.