Saturday, April 22, 2023

Ballad of the Harp Weaver/A Few Figs From Thistles/Eight Sonnets from American Poetry: A Miscellany by Edna St. Vincent Millay

 As far as I can tell this is the only time they gave the Pulitzer to such a mix of works by one author. Sure there are multiple collected editions, but this one is strange. It won the prize in 1923. The single poem, Ballad of the Harp Weaver was published in 1922, and later became the title poem of a collections a couple years later. The collection A Few Figs From Thistles was published in 1920. And the 1922 anthology American Poetry: A Miscellany had eight of her sonnets included. It took a little digging just to identify what she actually won for. Looking at the list, I think this will be the only time that happens.

I've been mixed on Millay in the past. I read a selected poems collection a few years back and liked it well enough, but it wasn't entirely to my taste. Last year, though, I reread that collection concurrently with the excellent biography Savage Beauty. Getting the context for her life made me enjoy this pass more. Her first major poem, Renascence (and the title poem of her first collection) will probably never work for me, but in context I understood it better. And the selected was good overall. I find that I have to be in the right mood for her poems, as I tend to like poetry in a sublime or prophetic mode, and these are primarily love lyrics. They are very good, but I have to work to get into the right headspace for them.

Ballad of the Harp Weaver was actually my least favorite of the poems in this batch. It struck me as saccharine, though the ending did hit hard the first couple times I read it. But overall, the tone of it didn't work for me. Thankfully, I enjoyed the rest much more.

There are some shorter (4 lines or so) poems in A Few Figs From Thistles that I didn't really care for, but the others were generally very clever and well structured. I recognized a lot of them from the selected edition. Of the poems I hadn't read before, The Singing Woman From the Wood's Edge and some of the sonnets were the ones that I really liked from it.

Millay's reputation as one of the best sonneteers is well earned. The eight sonnets from the anthology were uniformly great. 

I have a Collected edition of Millay's poems, and I was wondering whether to read the whole thing or not, but the sonnets are collected separately. I think I will read through them, and then assess whether or not to read the others.

Highly Recommended

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

 I’ll start with the book is a damn delight! I’d read two Discworld novels in the past, The Color of Magic back in the late 90s and Guards! Guards!, both of which I enjoyed immensely at the time of reading. I’ve also read his collaborative novel with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, several times. The first time I read it, I was just in an early stage of losing my faith, so while I enjoyed it and laughed a good bit, I don’t think I was quite ready for it ideologically. I read it again three years later in 2009. When I read it again in 2019 and again in 2020 before the TV adaptation was released, I was more open to what it was doing. It’s great. But Small Gods covers similar territory as that book and does it better I think.

It’s as much a statement of a sort of humanist philosophy of religion as it is a novel. A satire of a certain fundamentalist mindsetl. That it does that while coming across more as a comic novel than an exercise in didacticism is impressive. He understood that it has to be a good novel first, and if it’s a comic novel it had to be funny first or second rather than putting a narrative veneer on a tract. He even has a major character called Dydactylos, which was perfect.

And the novel is great. I’ve liked/admired Pratchett and thought he was hilarious ever since I first read one of his books. But this is the one that made me a fan, I think. I picked up a stack of used copies of his stuff at Mr. K’s last year, and I am now looking forward to the rest.

Brutha, a novice in the service of The Great God Om, is a dull but kind man. He’s also the last person in the whole hierarchy of the religion who actually still believes in Om, who has fallen on hard times as belief in him dwindled away almost completely. Gaiman does a great riff on the premise of Gods needing worship to survive in his excellent American Gods, but, pending rereads, I like this one more. Om is an aging nearly powerless tortoise with one missing eye.

Brutha’s religious order is ruled by a fundamentalist Inquisitor type (an Exquisitor) who intends to be the Eighth Prophet of Om. He’s a cruel sociopath out for power. He catches wind of Brutha’s incredible memory and chooses him for a spying mission/invasion of a nearby nation. We know from the start of the book that Brutha is the actual chosen prophet and his development across the book as he becomes more and more aware of what’s actually happening around him is incredibly done. The book is very well structured, both as a study of his and other characters and as a tightly written narrative.

But of course, the real star of the show is Pratchett’s prose which is hilarious and light, but carries a lot of heft nonetheless. It’s impressive how he can sum up characters in a few strokes. Or show the absurdity of a point of view without being meanspirited about it.  And as hilarious or insightful as the prose is, it’s all in service of the whole. Just masterful.

Really looking forward to more of his work now.

Canon Worthy

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Sparks (and some catch up on other Sparks books)

 The Girls of Slender Means is a thorough delight. I'm starting to expect that now that I've read a few Spark books recently. It's a savagely witty comedy about a group of women, mostly young, living in a hostel called The May of Teck club in WWII London. I cannot overstate how funny it is.

But like Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood, or the very different humor of Flannery O'Connor, this skates lightly over some very heavy subtext. Setting this against the backdrop of the war (like the Isherwood), the author's almost ironic use of Catholic faith (similar to O'Connor), and death (like both writers) gives the novella real heft. 

Muriel Spark will be someone I revisit often, as this type of writing yields a lot to rereading, I suspect.

Years ago I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but while I remember it being funny and having a school setting, I had forgotten a lot of what made the book special. Rereading it earlier this year, I was convinced it was a masterpiece. I had forgotten how concerned it is with the rise of fascism, and the danger of charismatic leaders. I had thought of it as maybe a funnier version of something like Dead Poet's Society set in a girls' school in Scotland. It is so much darker and better than that impression.

I'd gotten free copies of several Spark books within the past couple of years and I finally read a few more. Like The Girls of Slender Means, Loitering With Intent was incredibly funny and had a similar heft. I will be returning to these books at some point I'm sure, and reading more Spark. I think I'll read Mememto Mori next, which given the premise, I have very high hopes for.

Aiding and Abetting, Spark's final novel, alas, didn't quite work as well for me, but I'm glad I read it.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Canon

Loitering With Intent - Highly Recommended/Canon Worthy

Girls of Slender Means - Canon Worthy

Aiding and Abetting - Pass

Monday, April 10, 2023

Collected Poems (1921) Edwin Arlington Robinson

I started a project last year to read all of the Pulitzer Prize Winners in Poetry in order, and to pick up with the National Book Awards when they started in 1950. There were three prizes handed out with the Pulitzers before there was an official prize for poetry, and they went to Love Songs by Sarah Teasdale, which was good but not to my taste, The Old Road to Paradise by Margaret Widdemer, which was very good except for the God on the battlefield war poems in the early going, and Cornhuskers by Carl Sandburg, which I was very mixed on, but the better poems were great.

And then came the first Pulitzer Prize for poetry that was actually called that: Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1921 omnibus Collected Poems. It contained eight books; six collections and two book length epic poems about the Arthurian Legends. I was not prepared to plow through the whole thing, but since it’s an omnibus edition, I was able to read them one collection or book at a time with other poetry in between to break up the pattern.

I may have discovered Robinson some day, but I was unlikely to have picked this up any time soon without the long term reading project. I have to say that I think he’s great most of the time. I’m not upset that this won the first official Pulitzer. Set the bar high. He won the award two more times, so I will probably end up reading all of his books since there would only be a few left at that point.

He excelled at both sonnets and long blank verse poems, though many of the other poems were good or great. Several times in the longer blank verse poems I started to wonder if I was going to make it through them, then by the end I was blown away. This was true most recently of the title poem in Avon’s Harvest, the final book in the collection.

I was only seriously mixed on one of the eight here, the third book, Captain Craig, though I’m willing to revisit it at some point. The rest were somewhere on the scale between really good and great.

I’ll break down where they fall for me by collection:

The Man Against the Sky - Highly Recommended
The Children of the Night - Canon Worthy
Captain Craig - Recommended/maybe pass
Merlin - Canon Worthy
The Town Down the River - Canon Worthy
Lancelot - Highly Recommended
The Three Taverns - Highly Recommended
Avon’s Harvest - Highly Recommended

If the Pulitzer Prize project only yielded this and The Old Road to Paradise, I think it would have been worth it. Having read a lot of the newer ones, though, I’m very excited for what’s coming.

During a time in which the modernists and other experimental poets were dealing with the changes of modernity in new forms of poetry, Robinson stayed away from experimentation and stuck with formal verse. He’s at his best when in an elevated prophetic or sublime mode, which, fortunately, seems to be his primary approach. I was much less fond of the battle of the sexes poems. The Aruthurian poems were a great take on the mythos, especially the first one, Merlin. Robinson in combination with Robert Frost sold me on longer blank verse poems. I loved the first sections of Paradise Lost for instance, but eventually felt I was going crosseyed as I pushed through to the ending. This has made me want to go back and give it another go at some point. In the shorter term, I’m looking forward to more of Robinson’s work.

Overall collection: Somewhere between Highly Recommended and Canon Worthy.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

I've been a fan of David Mitchell since I first read Cloud Atlas in 2009. I know that his structural gimmicks don't work for everyone, but they work entirely for me. I love mosaic books in which shorter works interact with each other; Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe, Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergris books, 2666 by Roberto Bolano, etc. Nearly all of Mitchell's books work that way, and they work with each other. The novels interact in ways that, if they work for you, really enhance the reading experience, and if they don't, smack of fan service. It all really works for me. 

The various strands of Utopia Avenue form a more straightforward story than Mitchell usually employs. The book is structured around the discography of the titular band, going through the albums side by side, song by song, with each chapter consisting of the time in which the song was written with the song's writer as the perspective character. The band has three primary songwriters, one woman and two men, keys, bassist, and guitarist respectively, though both the drummer and manager get a writing credit on a song. The weird connections come through references to Mitchell's previous books.

Jasper de Zoet, the guitarist for Utopia Avenue is the descendant of the protagonist of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and he is carrying a traveler around in his head that has tormented him since his youth. This strand is in that genre of horror that doubles as an exploration of mental health issues and carries the novel into territory that overlaps with Thousand Autumns, The Bone Clocks and Slade House.

This might or might not work for someone who hadn't read Mitchell before, but I found it enchanting, and the ending incredibly moving. Mitchell's prose is always excellent. There are several of his books I like more, but this was very good indeed.

Highly Recommended

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley

This is my seventh book (and sixth novel) by Walter Mosley, who has cemented himself on my favorite authors list. This is up there for me a little ahead of the first couple of his Leonid McGill books. Those are heart of darkness style noir as PI McGill tries to redeem himself and go into (relatively) legitimate business as he solves cases. Another Mosley novel I loved, The Man In My Basement wasn't a crime novel per se, but in the deeply weird (but not supernatural) scenario of that book, among other things, a black man must make heads or tails of white man's bizarre idea of how to rid himself of guilt. In all of those books, class and race form much of the backdrop against which the ethical dilemmas take place. In Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, that backdrop is even bleaker and starker and the ethical questions are asked more explicitly.

It's a mosaic of interrelated stories about Socrates Fortlow, a man in his late fifties who spent over half his life in prison. Originally from Indiana, he is attempting to rebuild his life in the Watts neighborhood in LA. He begins in abject poverty that gradually becomes marginally less abject over the course of the book. Socrates has no illusions about his own guilt. He was guilty of the rape and murders that put him in jail and does not pretend he was not. Like his namesake, he asks questions of those around him. The main ethical point seems to be that he can't undo what he did, but he can, within the limits of his situation attempt to do good. This takes many forms over the course of the book, but the main one is trying to keep a younger man from falling into the same pattern he did. 

I think a lot about the degree to which individual choice and societal pressure act on a person; in existentialist (specifically De Beauvoir's) terms, how much is a person an object and how much a subject. I don't know to what degree Mosley was thinking in those terms, but he certainly was thinking about that problem as he wrote Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. This is no treacly, leave-the-world-better-than-you-found-it existentialism light, though. Fortlow is firmly bound by his status as a black ex-con trying to make it through post prison life. Mosley doesn't flinch from the bleak implications of that status. But in Fortlow's insistence on trying to find ways to do good in that context, a more authentic version of the make-the-changes-you-can-in-the-context-you're-in trope emerges.

The book works perfectly as a compelling group of interrelated stories and as philosophical rumination on guilt and redemption. The ethical discussions are not preachy; rather they apply the Socratic method to the question of how to live in a context that makes the question seem absurd. The stories could stand on their own, or at least most of them could, but they truly make a compelling and unified whole. A stellar book. In a group of three with Circe by Madeline Miller and Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand as the best things I've read for the first time this year.

Canon Worthy

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand's obsession with outsider art might find it's apex in Cass Neary, the aging punk photographer from Generation Loss and its sequels, or in Curious Toys her historical serial killer thriller which featured Henry Darger as a secondary character. Or here. Artists of all types populate her work from the band Wylding Hall from the folk band in Wylding Hall to the Xtian singer and cyberpunk adjacent art in Glimmering. This, which is, at least in part, her take on the La Belle Dame sans Merci trope continues her obsession with artists bohemian and otherwise and the source of their inspiration. Here those themes are in service of an excellent literary horror/fantasy thriller.

There is an historical set of characters including some of the pre-Raphaelites and the poet Swinbourne. There's a fictional artist who seems to be based on Richard Dadd. There's two generations of artists named Comstock and several bohemian types in the present day, including one writing a history of the Tristan and Iseult legend in all its incarnations through history. Behind it all there is a mysterious woman who functions as model, muse and predator for generations of artists. 

There is a density of literary and historical reference here that ensures I missed a fair amount, but I got enough to realize that it doesn't entirely matter. Hand's prose and command of character motivation and structure make it compelling. The references I got only enhanced my enjoyment and sent me on several google dives to catch myself up on some things. The books that I found myself thinking of most while reading it were The Course of the Heart by John Harrison, mainly in mood and theme, and with The Stress of Her Regard/Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers, his take on murderous muses and how that drives art. But as much as I love those books, I think I like this one more.

Hand proves over and over she's a master in every genre she works in. This is a profound meditation on mortality and art. It's an equally exciting story with a climax that I absolutely did not see coming. It's horror and fantasy and capital L literature. I don't think it's recency bias to say this is among her best if it's not her actual best. I realized last year while reading one of her story collections she is my favorite living writer, and this only reconfirms that. I'll be returning to this many times, I suspect.

Canon Worthy