For someone who loves books and reading, and is inflicted with an incurable case of curiosity, working in a library is often both a blessing and a curse. I read hundreds of book reviews every year, I see tons of books every day, and I talk about books with patrons, coworkers, and friends incessantly. On top of those sources, my love of bookstores and the existence of the internet means there are untold book discoveries to be made. All those books lead me to seek out even more books, and there's really no hope I'll ever get to all the titles that catch my eye. Earlier this week, while working in the 400 Dewey range of adult non-fiction (the section for language) I stumbled upon a newer book called 101 Two-Letter Words by musician Stephin Merritt, front man of pop band the Magnetic Fields. It's a little book of short poems, one for each of the two-letter words allowed in Scrabble. I recently started playing Scrabble again, so this book was a happy discovery. Merritt's poems make memorizing the two-letter words easier and more enjoyable. Here are a few poems:
The ai, a threatened three-toed sloth
Found only in Brazil,
munches on leaves and sleeps in trees.
I hope it always will.
Qi, in Chinese medicine:
vitality, or breath;
say it "chee," as in "Say cheese!"
Its opposite is death.
"Sh," says the librarian,
"people are trying to read.
And turn that goddamn cellphone off,
before I make you bleed."
The book is illustrated by Roz Chast, whose graphic memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, appeared on numerous best of 2014 lists and was a National Book Award finalist. 101 Two-Letter Words persuaded me to finally pick up her book and reminded me that the library's digital magazine service, Zinio, now offers access to the New Yorker, which Chast works for as a cartoonist. My to-read pile continues to grow!
Citizen: An American Lyric is a powerful meditation on race from author Claudia Rankine. It adorned many ‘best of’ lists in 2014 and was nominated for several literary awards. The slender book is an intense yet lyrical portrait of American racism in 2015 that explores both the veiled and unambiguous manifestations of this most insidious fact of life. Rankine possesses a spirited voice and expresses audacious candor in linking everyday racism with its corrosive impact upon the marginalized and powerless. Rankine’s book, characterized by a hybrid form that mixes prose, essay, memoir, and the occasional image investigates the relationship between race, invisibility and the notion of citizenship. April is National Poetry Month and for those who have not read this powerful, timely book, place it on your future reading list.
Ander Monson is the most bizarre, versatile, prize-winningest writer who hails from Michigan that you have never heard about. He won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award for Other Electricities, the Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize for his poetry collection Vacationland, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for his book of criticism called Vanishing Point. If not for that last one, I would have had to add that the prizes he has won are just as unheard of as he is.
I read Other Electricities several years ago which left me with a vivid impression of the mix of tenacious survivalism and self-destructiveness of the residents of the Upper Peninsula and the image of snowmobiles jumping snow banks out on to frozen Lake Superior; occasionally breaking through the ice and disappearing.
His newest book, a collection of essays titled Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries, comes out on February 3rd. Check it out and see what you think of Ander Monson and if you can resist writing in a library book about people writing in library books.
“What is it the wind has lost that she keeps looking for/ under each leaf?” The answer to Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison’s question may be found in Melissa Sweet’s collage illustrations. Although this looks like a book for very young children, it’s really a beautifully-illustrated collection of short American poems for all ages.
Firefly July is organized by season with poems written for children and adults. It’s definitely worth venturing into the Children’s Room to see this lovely book.
The New York Times Book Review started a feature called “By the Book” a year or two ago. Someone, usually an author, is interviewed about their reading habits. Several of the questions are repeated almost every week like; What is currently on your nightstand?, What book are you embarrassed that you have not read yet?, or What book was a great disappointment to you?
Another one of the recurring questions is: “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?” I’ve noticed that Mark Twain and Charles Dickens get invited a lot.
In Stanley Plumly’s, The Immortal Evening, we learn about an actual dinner party involving three literary giants: William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Charles Lamb. The dinner took place on December 28, 1817 at Benjamin Robert Haydon’s house who was working on a painting called Christ’s Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. Interestingly, in the crowd around Jesus in the painting, Haydon included the likenesses of Wordsworth, Keats, and Lamb.
If you enjoy poetry and art history, this might be the one for you.
By the way, my answer to the New York Times Book Review question would be: Wallace Stegner, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders. Who would you invite?
Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes is a short story told in poetic verse. The story is about a girl named Gabriella and, although her grade and age aren’t revealed, she’s probably in junior high. Each page is a poem with a one or two word title that captures a day in the life of Gabriella who was named after the Angel Gabriel. Her parents are now separated, she has moved to a new school, and Gabriella uses day dreaming as a way to escape life… separation from her father and being the shy new kid in class. She day dreams when she hears any particular word and her thoughts are carried away on wings. For example, the word Dragon takes her riding on a dragon across the sky till the sun dives into the sea. However, both her mother and her teacher, Mr. Spicer, tell her to quit day dreaming. “Mom names me for a creature with wings, then wonders what makes my thoughts fly.” When Gabriella finally does stop day dreaming her mom and Mr. Spicer know that she is unhappy. Will Gabriella ever return to day dreaming?
I like this book because it is an effective poetry story. It is interesting that Grimes uses two different fonts to categorize the moods of the poems. Nikki Grimes is an award winning author and this book received a 2014 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award. Kalamazoo Public Library owns many books by Nikki Grimes.
How profound! That Maya Angelou’s last book would be His Day Is Done! Like Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, the “global renaissance woman”, has been a crusader for many. For me, her life has paralleled Mandela’s. She, too, has opened many doors and as she says in the book about Mandela she has enlarged many hearts with tears of pride.
Though this is a small book of poetry, it makes an awesome footprint
and melts a little bit of your heart. And now we can say Her Day is Done.
His Day is Done: a Nelson Mandela Tribute
According to Pew, there is a growing number of young Americans that are not affiliated with any particular religion, a.k.a. "nones." This book, a sort of spiritual memoir by Roger Housden, is one example of a "none" trying to keep his faith. Or rather redefine it.
A very short book, almost an extended poem, his faith amounts to this: beauty, nature, kindness and love. Read poetry; look at art; walk in the woods; love people. The book is more like a memoir, a Whitman nature poem, a reflection on faith as solitary, personal, open-ended - a life-journey.
Now, I sympathize with his faith and applaud his ideals, but we must admit that this kind of faith is drastically different from the faith of many other people. That's okay. (disclaimer: I didn't read the entire book so I have no room to comment, but yet here I am commenting). Is Housden merely describing his own happy, privileged, care-free life and calling it faith? Going to Starbucks, writing best sellers, enjoying art and peotry, watching the waves through his window. Sounds great to me! But what happens when you reduce faith into a few ideals? Is anything lost? Perhaps not. Where's the pot-lucks? Mr Housden has redefined faith into a solitary pursuit of truth and beauty (nothing wrong with that, he comes from a long tradition), but let’s be honest - he is getting rid of something here. Or, another way to put it: he probably got rid of his faith, kept a few things from it (truth, beauty, love, awe), and started something new and different.
If you are spiritual-but-not-religious, and you like poetry, you will like this book.
Keeping the faith without a religion
Last week the application to be a Book Giver on World Book Night became available! What is World Book Night? It's an "annual celebration dedicated to spreading the love of reading, person to person." Book Givers give out 20 copies of a book they love to adults and teens who may not have access to reading materials.
The folks behind World Book Night also revealed the titles that will be given out by tens of thousands of people in their communities on April 23, 2014. The list of titles includes some of my favorites, like Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.
The deadline to apply to be a Book Giver is January 5, 2014. Apply here. Kalamazoo Public Library will again serve as a pick up site for Book Givers.
John Berryman is the kind of poet that has always interested me. He was an emotionally tormented soul for most of his life and whose complicated verse radiated both a deep intelligence and humane tenderness, sometimes within a single line. His most famous work, the epic Dream Songs series, is considered by many critics to be among the best written, if not some of the most highly influential poetry of the post-war period. Berryman’s work is difficult to describe but he’s often lumped in with the Confessional Poets (see: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton). One moment, Berryman’s voice is raw and revealing, the next, lyrically abstract but heartbreakingly profound. For those looking into his work, I recommend the Dream Songs, a masterful work that like Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Pound's Cantos or Olson's Maximus Poems, possesses both variety and thematic continuity.
John Berryman: Collected Poems