National Poetry Day in Britain

logo-no-dateIn the United States, April is designated as National Poetry Month, but September 28th is Britain’s National Poetry Day with this year’s theme of freedom.  The official website offers many poems – Poems on Freedom – not all by British poets, but I like this one by Mary Coleridge:

I had a boat, and the boat had wings;
And I did dream that we went a flying
Over the heads of queens and kings,
Over the souls of dead and dying,
Up among the stars and the great white rings,
And where the Moon on her back is lying.

One of my favorite poets is William Butler Yeats, who received the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature.  When I was in Dublin, I visited the exhibition of his work at the National Library of Ireland, and I bought a small illustrated anthology of his poetry – one of the books I treasure on my limited bookshelf.

Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree is among the poems on freedom included by the National Poetry Day site. Perhaps you remember memorizing it in school. My favorite stanza…

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

As I read through my small volume of Yeats: Romantic Visionary, I was struck by this one:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
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The Chalk Artist

9781400069873_p0_v1_s192x300   Allegra Goodman cleverly combines the worlds of computer gaming with poetry and art in The Chalk Artist.  Through her three main characters’ disparate interests: a young man, Colin James,  with a untapped artistic talent; his true love, Nina Lazare, a struggling idealistic teacher; and a bright teenager caught in the hypnotic trance of an imaginary computer game world, Goodman addresses their common element – the need to relax into themselves to find happiness.  But this is not a book about art or romance or happiness; it is about gaming.

Just as Nathan Hill used one of his characters in The Nix to demonstrate the evil effects of addiction to computer games, Goodman targets the dangers of living in the virtual world by having her teenage character, Aiden, play to exhaustion and eventual hospitalization.  Hill had his character sleep his way into a new life, but Aiden’s addiction is harder to kick.  Surprisingly, his young English teacher, Nina Lazarre, leads the way with poetry.

In a complicated riff on the effects of computer games on teenagers, Goodman connects her characters with the game itself.  Nina’s father is the wealthy game developer.  Recognizing Colin’s potential when she meets him waiting tables and drawing on chalkboards, she helps him get a job drawing dragons and avatars for her father’s new game.  Through a marketing ploy, Aiden, who happens to be in Nina’s American literature high school English class, gains access to the unpublished game, and falls into the pit of nonstop playing, disregarding his school work, his family, his life.

The story jumps around from Colin’s descent from pure artistry to the cynical world of marketable images for the company, then to Nina’s frustration over not being able to convey the magic of Shakespeare to eleventh graders, then to Aiden’s downfall from A student to disaffected drone in school.

Goodman’s descriptions of the virtual world have the most impact, as Aiden’s gaming takes on more reality than the real world.  The effect of dissolving, at times, into a movie set rivaling The Neverending Story or The Hobbit can be disconcerting, and its believability easily demonstrates how Aiden could have difficulty leaving a place where he is a knight conquering monsters to return to his teenage world of angst and uncertainty.

Sometimes the action seems as fast and furious as the virtual gaming the author is describing, and connecting the three plot lines can be a little harrowing.  Not everyone will appreciate Goodman’s style, but her intent is clear.  Eventually, Aiden finds his way by participating in a poetry recitation contest.  The sixteen year old finds wisdom through an Ezra Pound poem that demonstrates the universality of his feelings, realizing that “these lines scared him,” that “a stranger had been telling his secrets, publishing his dreams before he was born.”   English teachers all over the world who read these lines will rejoice and have their faith restored – someone finally got it.

If you get to the ending, you will find it dutifully romantic, with a final nod against the computer world, as Colin leaves his lucrative yet artistically confining job to find true love with Nina, and venture into the indie-animation world.

Not a compelling book, The Chalk Artist was easy to put down.  Nevertheless, Goodman, who has a Ph.D. in English, had a clear message – good literature outweighs virtual reality, and relationships are far more important than video games or chalk dust.

 

A Brief Detour into Nonfiction

 

9780374156046_p0_v2_s192x300  Flâneuse

After wandering around New York City with Lillian Boxfish in Kathleen Rooney’s novel, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse seemed a natural follow-up.  In a series of essays, each targeting a city – Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, Elkin introduces the concept of the Flâneuse  – a woman who is “determined, resourceful…keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.”  Whether or not you are familiar with each city, her attention to the idiosyncrasies of the neighborhoods connects you to the landscape. As she addresses famous women who have walked the cities – Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and others – a connection between creativity and the dangers of women’s striving for independence in a man’s world emerges.  I have not yet finished the book – had to take time out to take a walk.

9780062300546_p0_v6_s192x300   Hillbilly Elegy

I was determined not to read this book, but too many like-minded friends urged me to try  J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.   Although Vance’s conversational style makes the book easy to read, the misery detailing the violence, poverty and addiction in poor white communities makes it hard to digest.  So much has been written about the book, both as social commentary and political influence (see reviews in The New Yorker and  major newspapers), but basically the memoir is sad and depressing – despite the author’s rise from poverty to the Marines and finally Yale Law School – yet, raising awareness and asking questions.

61eioJoO+wL._AC_UL160_  The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down

The English translation of Korean Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down offers a series of short essays followed by short messages based on his 140 character tweets about faith and mindfulness.  The book reminded me of a gift I received years ago when I was in the throes of career building – Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.  Open either book at any page to get a short fortune cookie message with advice. Sometimes it is amazingly appropriate.

 

The 2017 Newbery Books

Each year I anticipate the winner and honor books for the Newbery Prize. Past winners have included authors I regularly seek out, like Kate DiCamillo  (Flora and Ulysses). Among my favorite winners are a book about a gorilla (The One and Only Ivan) and Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpernia Tate.  One quote from that tale of an eleven year old budding scientist still rings true: “It was too bad, but sometimes a little knowledge could ruin your whole day…”

This year’s winner and honor books include a fantasy – The Girl Who Drank the Moon -magic is often a theme in Newbery books.  As a fan of “The Canterbury Tales,” I look forward to reading the Honor Book – The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz.  Another honor book, Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow found its way into book club discussions, as its theme of bullying and discrimination mirrored present-day angst.  Finally, Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan, completed this year’s winners, with the music of poetry and the rhythm of song telling a story of history.

Read them all – it won’t take much of your time – and you will find satisfying tales written well.  Sometimes a good children’s book can be better than one written for adults.

9781616205676_p0_v4_s192x300   The Girl Who Drank the Moon

This year’s winner of the Newbery Prize – Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon – delivers other worldly magic – we all need some right now. In a world similar to Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery,” one person is sacrificed each year to appease an evil witch and keep the rest of the village safe – for another year.  Unknown to the villagers, the baby is rescued each time by a good witch of the Forest, who safely whisks the child off to a new family in a safer place, while the evil witch, disguised as mother superior in the local convent, thrives on the sorrow and despair of the sacrificing town.

One year the good witch, Xan, who shares her home with an ancient Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, keeps the baby.  When Xan accidentally feeds the baby girl light from the moon, instead of the usual fare of stardust, Luna becomes enmagicked with amazing powers.  Xan subdues Luna’s powers until she is thirteen, when she joins forces with her mother, imprisoned all these years in a tower, whose magic changes paper birds into lethal weapons,  and Antain, a young man from the village with a good heart whose baby would be next on the list to be sacrificed.  Of course, evil is defeated and a new world order of hope replaces the misery.

Each minor character has notes of the familiar in everyone’s life.  Antain disappoints his mother’s ambition for him by leaving the head Council and following his own yearning to be a carpenter.  The little dragon never seems to grow up, until a crisis tears away his youthful outlook and forces him to deliver.  The old Swamp Monster offers steady and sage advice and comfort when needed.  But, my favorite character in this story is Ethyne, who knows the evil witch from her days as a novice, before she left to marry Antain.  Ethyne’s outlook is always positive and cheery, with a steady sense of self which she uses to steer both her husband and the despairing villagers as well as her former subservient connections in the Convent.  Ethyne is that voice of common sense who might bring you a cup of tea when you are down, or suggest a plan to overcome your inertia when you need motivation.  She is someone everyone should have as a friend.

Related Review:  Wolf Hollow

 

Who Won?

Although the outcome of the Presidential election in the United States remains in the minds of most Americans, tonight the National Book Award ceremony, hosted by Larry Wilmore, affirmed the power of books. The host wryly noted: “Books may be our only evidence of a civilized society at some point.”

Live streaming the National Book Award today on my iPhone was an easy way to rub elbows with literary luminaries. A few of my favorite authors were at tables eating dinner together; judges included Katherine Paterson (The Bridge to Terabithia) and Karen Joy Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves).

unknown  I saw an emotional U.S. Congressman John Lewis, civil rights activist and Freedom Rider, win the award for Young People’s Literature for  his graphic novel about the civil rights movement in March: Book Three.  I heard Daniel Borzutzky acceptance when he won the poetry prize for The Performance of Becoming Human – a book published in a New York apartment.

9780385542364_p0_v3_s192x300 The award for fiction was awarded to Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad.  Michiko Kakutani called the book “…a potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery” in a review for the New York Times.  Whitehead is a MacArthur Fellow but also had the dubious honor of being placed on the Oprah Book Club list.

Lynn Neary for National Public Radio offered a succinct assessment of the National Book Award and its influence…

The bitter presidential campaign exposed a fault line in the United States that will not easily be repaired. And while there’s no one simple answer, Lisa Lucas, head of the National Book Foundation, recommends one way to understand the other side: read.

“My life is small” she says, “and I think books are a way to make your life larger…We all need to be reading across the lines we’ve drawn in our lives…a book is a great connector, so the next time you’re looking for something to read, don’t just read the thing that you think is for you … read the thing that’s not.”