Reviews and Regrets

OMG, my review killed Mary Oliver! I posted about her book yesterday, giving her a low grade, and today she died. This is why I hate giving low grades. Low grades bring bad news.

Mary, I’ve always loved your poems. If I hadn’t discovered your work, I might have given up on poetry entirely. I will always be grateful. RIP

And I’m really sorry about the C+.

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Three Books on Poetry

In my quest to better understand poetry, I read three books on the subject.

  1. The first book was Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled. I’ll tell you the bad news first: the book suffers from what seems to be an authorial compulsion to cover everything about the history and mechanics of poetry, a realization that it wasn’t possible, followed by a hurried sprint to the finish. Fry spent pages upon pages on iambic pentameter, even took the time to talk about Old English poetry and sprung rhythm, but gave a light, hurried treatment of certain verse forms, and swept right past free verse. I wish his editor had asked him to drop some of the discussion of meter (no one cares about amphibrachs and amphimacers) and save some space for teaching other things. That said, it’s an excellent book in many ways. It’s well-structured. The writing exercises follow naturally from the lessons. The instructions for the writing exercise are clear, subjects are provided, and Fry even offers up what he wrote himself using the same exercises (an act of trust that makes it so much easier to take the plunge yourself). Nerdy at times and bawdy at others, he is thoroughly present in the book, and generally entertaining. I had only read the book to improve my understand of meter and learn more about poetic forms, but it inspired me to write poetry. In short, he’s a supportive writing coach who makes poetry feel like something not only worthwhile, but within the grasp of anyone with the heart to try it. I originally gave the book a B+, having felt a little overwhelmed by some of the sections on poetic forms, but raised the grade to an A- because ultimately I was impressed with how much territory he did manage to cover.
  2. Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio. Addonizio’s book is nearly the opposite of Fry’s. It is poorly structured, the writing exercises are randomly scattered throughout the book, and the focus is free verse. The two books together cover just about everything, actually, which worked out well for me. Initially, I thought I was going to hate Addonizio’s book. At the head of an early chapter was the Zen saying, “Leap, and the net will appear,” which is a terrifying and unhelpful message for new poets, as it leaves one with no direction in which to proceed. Its place there, so close to the beginning, suggested that the author was about to embark on a long series of platitudes that could be summed up with something along the lines of “just follow the Muse.” That did not turn out to be the case. The book is full of writing exercises, most of which make good sense and provide paths to follow. Most importantly, Addonizio has great advice on how to build free-verse poems that hold together. One of my complaints about modern poetry is that the line breaks so often seem arbitrary. Her explanation of how to do line breaks properly was a revelation. She also has a well-stocked toolbox for fixing broken poems, and she shares freely. Because the book was so chaotically structured, it required more effort to sort through the information, but it was worth the effort, so I gave it an A- grade.
  3. A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver: Of these three poetry books, this is the only one that I bought (the other two were library books). My reasoning was that because Mary Oliver is such a big name in contemporary American poetry, and because she is one of the only poets whose work I’ve deliberately purchased, her book was sure to be the star of the show. I was wrong. Mary Oliver writes lovely poetry, and I admire her as much now as ever. However, her book on writing poetry had a pretentiousness about it that was off-putting. It started on the first page, with her statement that poets are born, not made in school. School and poetry don’t always mix so well, I agree, but the “born” part was troubling. She continued on, in an artsy-fartsy, airy-fairy way, occasionally dropping a nugget of concrete information or helpful advice, but never dispelling the feeling that poetry is for artistes, not ordinary people such as ourselves. It’s a short book, so even if everything she wrote was pure gold, it wouldn’t amount to much. After the disappointment has worn off a bit, I’ll look the book over again, just to be sure I don’t want to keep it. It’s possible that I’ll raise the grade a little at that time. For now, I’ve given it a C+ grade, and I recommend that if you want to learn about poetry from her, read her poems and let them instruct you instead.
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Books on My Nightstand

  • 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
  • Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction by Chris D. Thomas
  • Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (finished)
  • Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
  • The Girl Who Saved Christmas by Matt Haig (returned to library unread 1/16/19)
  • The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic by Leigh Bardugo
  • The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde
  • Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor (finished 1/15/19)
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Thirty Books

30 Must-Read Books for 2019

I picked these 30 “must-read” books based mostly on size. I wanted all of them to be conveniently located on the same area of shelf, and this is what fit. I think it’s a nice selection, though. There’s a lot of YA, which is quick reading, but also some novels intended for an adult audience, plus several non-fiction works and a couple of classics. All of these books have probably been in my possession for at least a year, and some for over ten years. Some have come so highly recommended that it’s just plain silly that I haven’t read them yet. It’s time for all of them to prove their worth.

The rules: I must read all of these books by the end of 2019. I can read them in any order. If I don’t like a book, I can bail on it, but then I have to give the book away.

Here are the 30 books in list form, so that I can cross them off as I finish them:

  1. Mrs. Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins by Theodore M. Bernstein
  2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  3. The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
  4. The Big House by George Howe Colt
  5. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  6. Word by Word by Kory Stamper
  7. Common Sense by Thomas Paine
  8. King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
  9. The Colorado Kid by Stephen King
  10. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor: On list of Top 100 Children’s Books.
  11. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen: On list of Top 100 Children’s Books.
  12. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson: On list of Top 100 Children’s Books. I
  13. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry: On list of Top 100 Children’s Books.
  14. The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox
  15. Telling True Stories edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
  16. Learned Optimism by Martin E. P. Silgman
  17. Smiles to Go by Jerry Spinelli
  18. Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones
  19. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli: On list of Top 100 Children’s Books.
  20. Flush by Carl Hiaasen
  21. Of Cabbages and Kings by Marguerite Hurrey Wolf
  22. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  23. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
  24. Time and the Art of Living by Robert Grudin
  25. Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill
  26. Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
  27. The Midnight Folk by John Masefield
  28. Beyond the Laughing Sky by Michelle Cuevas
  29. Jazz by Toni Morrison
  30. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
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Okay, Okay, Let’s Deal With This

I was partly serious in my conversation with myself yesterday. I do have a book problem. It was bad before Christmas, and it’s gotten worse since. I received several books for Christmas (some of which I asked for, and all of which I’m happy to have received). Then I went and ordered more from the bookstore afterward (one of which arrived yesterday, prompting this discussion). I’ve got three books waiting for me at the library, and more requests pending. Plus, I have a lot of unread books on my shelves (and some in boxes), and a stack of library books on my nightstand. And let’s not even think about how many unread books there are on my Kindle.

It’s too much. Not counting reference materials and other books that I intend to keep unread forever, I probably have somewhere between 100 and 150 unread books (not including the Kindle). Even if I were to read 52 per year, as I always hope to do, it would still take at least two years to get through the unread books I already own, and probably closer to three.

I know I’m not the only one with this problem. I’ve read articles claiming that it’s actually a good thing. And maybe it is, if you have unlimited space for storage. I don’t, and though I expect the storage situation to improve within the next couple of years, it won’t change the fact that I’m storing books that I might not even like.

January is a good time for setting goals for the year. I’d rather not set reading goals. I’d rather just read as my mood takes me, but I need to deal with this situation. So, I am officially making it my goal to reduce the number of unread books in my house. I’m not going to say that I can’t order any books from the library or buy any at the bookstore, but I am setting the current number of books in the house as the absolute maximum. That is, no new books are allowed into the house until some old books go out.

I’m also going to pick out 30 of my unread books to be “must-reads” for the year. I haven’t decided yet how to choose. Maybe I’ll pick the most appealing, the least appealing, the shortest, the longest, the newest, the oldest, or a mix. It doesn’t matter too much. The point is that I know I can get through 30 books within a year and still leave myself the freedom to explore outside my own library from time to time.

Doesn’t that sound totally reasonable, self?

Yes, it does. Thank you. Now go pick out your 30 books.

You got it. Thirty books coming up!

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Talking to Myself

We have to talk about our book problem.

OK. I’m listening.

We have too many books.

Define too many.

More books than fit on the shelves.

By that definition, I concede we may have one or two more than is convenient.

Quite a few of them are unread.


So you’re storing books that you might not even like, and buying more books without having read the ones you already paid for, and borrowing from the library when you have perfectly good books at home. Do you see any problems with that approach?

No. I must have them on hand because at any moment I might get into the perfect mood to read them!

But even if you were to stop acquiring books right now, it would probably take you three years to read all the unread books.

Really? That long?



Yeah. So what are we going to do about it?

Order more books!

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Grateful for Pencils With Erasers

For the last few months, I’ve been clipping crosswords out of The New York Times but not solving them. I now have a large folder full of unsolved puzzles. So, because this has been bugging me, I decided to solve today’s puzzle rather than put it aside for later.

My brain had gotten rusty, and it protested the sudden demand for intelligent thought. But I persisted, and it finally cooperated. My favorite answer/clue combinations were a 6-letter word for “Museum installations” and a 3-letter word for “Labrador greeting” (answers in the comments section, to avoid spoilers). I am relieved that I can still solve the Saturday puzzle, but also grateful that my pencil had an eraser on it.

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Otherwise Occupied

Sorry, but I can’t blog right now. I’m too busy studying poetry. Be back soon, after I’ve learned the rules of pantoums and villanelles.

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Time Off

Me, before time off: “I am going to make great use of my time off and do creative and adventurous things!”

Me, during time off: “I don’t know what to do with myself.”

Me, after time off: “I wish I had more time off so I could do all those creative and adventurous things that I never have time for!”

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Marshall’s New Year’s resolutions: “I promise to watch more TV and play more video games.”

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