Book Review: The Trouble With Poetry; And Other Poems

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The Trouble With Poetry; And Other Poems is a poetry collection by Billy Collins. I started reading this to pass the time while breastfeeding, at my husband’s suggestion. Billy Collins is my husband’s favorite poet.

Confession time: I don’t have a favorite poet. Confession, part two: I’m not really comfortable with poetry at all. I consider myself a writer. I always got great grades in English. I got so good at using different writing styles that I could tell what my English teachers were looking for, and I gave them exactly what they wanted – and when it came to poetry, this meant I could put together something sappy and flowery for my flowery teachers, and something witty and sarcastic (usually about the pointlessness of the assignment) for my saltier teachers. But I don’t think I ever put an ounce of introspection, outerspection, or any other kind of perspection into it. As a result, I’m really good at mocking poetry, and I have absolutely no idea what’s good and what’s not.

So, being a complete amateur, I’m not going to try to review this. I’ll simply say that I liked it, Collins’s approach to poetry feels honest and fresh, and here’s one of my favorite pieces from the collection:

“The Lanyard”

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the pale blue walls of this room,
bouncing from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past –
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift – not the archaic truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Book Review: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

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E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a childhood classic and a Newbery Medal award winner. It’s a classic tale of growing up and coming to know yourself, with a little adventure.

I found this book pleasantly dated: it’s a story about a boy and girl running away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. And maybe it’s the history geek in me, but I just kept thinking, “Wow, inflation has skyrocketed since then!” The book took me back to the late 60s, a time when I wasn’t even alive, let alone reading, but the book itself still appeals easily. The cost of living is different: the internal struggle is not.

The book follows Claudia Kincaid as she faces the “injustices” of her family life: taking out the trash every Saturday, taking care of her little brother Kevin, and getting by on a small allowance, for a few examples. She runs away, thinking she’s looking to teach her family a lesson, but slowly realizes she’s looking for more than that: she’s looking for some way to be different from everyone else. Along the way, she and her brother Jamie unravel the secret of a statue of an angel, supposedly carved by Michelangelo.

While this isn’t an action-packed book, it’s a good, lighthearted adventure story, and it’s friendly for all ages. I recommend it to kids and adults alike. ♦

Book Review: The Return of the King

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If you haven’t read my reviews on The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers, let me sum up:

Tolkien wanted to write one huge, epic novel. His publisher said no. They split it into three parts and called it three novels, hence the Lord of the Rings series. This means that the books don’t really make sense on their own, but they’re fantastic when you read all three of them.

While The Two Towers is probably the most action-packed of the books, The Return of the King has the most spectacular action; there are less battles, but the ones in there are more glorious and pivotal and necessary for the salvation of Middle Earth and stuff. Frodo destroys a ring (spoilers). Eowyn kills the lord of the nazgul. (Spoilers.) And you should definitely watch the movies before you read any of this, because otherwise, there’s no way you’re going to be able to tell the characters apart. At least, I wouldn’t have.

This is one of the few times I’m going to tell you to watch the movies first – usually, I like to bring my book bias to the theater with me, but on this one, the books are so detailed that it’s actually going to be really helpful to have some idea what’s about to happen and what each character looks like. It’ll help keep the cities straight, too.

Overall, I’d give each book two stars on its own – but the series gets five. ♦

Book Review: The Two Towers

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Even after reading all the books, I still think the elves are pansies. Sorry, Orlando Bloom.

This review is going to be short, because this book really shouldn’t be treated as its own book. For those of you who didn’t read my review of The Fellowship of the Ring (or are generally unfamiliar with Tolkien), you should know that the Lord of the Rings series was written as one book. Tolkien just wanted to publish one epic novel, and his publishers were like, “Dude. No. Nobody reads that much.”

And Tolkien probably just raised one sage eyebrow at them and said, “Oh, really?”

But the publisher was in charge of the publishing, and he sent Tolkien into a corner until he could find a convenient place to split the thing up into thirds. Hence, the trilogy.

The Two Towers is the dead middle of the series/book, the filling in the novel. The peanut butter in the PBJ. The meat in the meatloaf. The cheese in the cheesecake. You get it. This is where all the action builds up, but doesn’t really resolve. Also, since the assumption is that you’ve already read The Fellowship, you’re not going to get much explanation, either. So don’t – I repeat, don’t –  try to read this as its own book.

As long as you’re reading this as part of the series, it’s delightful. This section is an action movie of epic proportions, with battles and skirmishes peppering the pages in blood (but mostly ink). It will take a while to wade through, because it’s Tolkien, but it’s well worth the wade, and you’ll be left hungry for The Return of the King. ♦

Read-a-thon Week!

Well, folks, here’s how it is.

Postpartum depression sucks.

Don’t read that wrong: I didn’t say motherhood sucks. I didn’t say babies suck. Babies are awesome. My baby is exceptionally awesome. But he’s taken a lot of my time, and every now and then, depression hits and hits hard. Which means that about 90% of the time (and getting better), I feel great, and I’ve got a marvelously renewed purpose in life. And then sometimes I just want to throw things.

Which brings me to the reason I haven’t posted practically anything since my son was born. Most of the time, I’ve got this newborn baby to play with, take care of, and just stare at, wondering how something so dang cute could ever have been living inside me. So naturally, I’m not thinking about my blog. Then, whenever I’m not taking care of Little John, it’s because I hate the world. So naturally, I don’t care about my blog.

I’m repenting, because I need this blog. It’s an outlet. I’m also repenting, because I flatter myself by thinking some people have missed it. I’m apologizing, because the coming week is all going to be book reviews. I’m nursing. I have a lot of down time, stuck in one spot, with very little conversation to pass the time. I’ve done a lot of reading.

So, since I’ve been having a read-a-thon, I’ll invite you to join me! If you don’t particularly care what I’ve been reading, or what I thought about it, you can pretty much just skip this week. Toodles. ♦

Fresh Out The Womb, Paying Student Debt

So I’m sitting here on Facebook, looking at cats and babies and trolls, and I notice my sidebar ad has this adorable picture of a newborn, with that cute little surprised face babies make where their mouth makes a perfect O. It catches my attention: well played, ad. But then I read the title below: “Need Help With Law School Debt?”

Now, here’s what probably happened. They probably had a slough of attention-grabbing stock photos (like cats and babies and possibly even trolls) that would catch your eye enough to get you reading the ad, and they just cycled them randomly through the ads. Doesn’t matter if it’s relevant – it gets you reading the material, right?

But here’s what happened in my brain: Oh, a baby! I love babies! (Glance at the baby in the bassinet next to me, making sure he’s still sleeping soundly.) I wonder what they’re selling. … Law school. No, wait – not law school. Debt management. For law school. The internet thinks my firstborn son came out of the womb with a financial payment plan for all the crippling debt he’s already acquired from a law school program he hasn’t entered yet. Wow, internet. You have such aspirations for my son.

And this got me thinking – I know the internet doesn’t think my son has crippling debt. But most people think we do. My husband has put “debt-free” on his resume, and it’s been the most impressive part of his job interviews. When we told people my son was due in January, they immediately told us to “hurry up” so we could get a tax break. We frequently refuse credit card offers from our bank tellers, and when we tell them we’re planning on getting by without a line of credit, they stare at us like one of us just sprouted a tumor on our head that looks the spitting image of Jaleel White. Being debt-free is not only uncommon, it’s unheard of. Debt is so normal in this society that going without a credit card is like going without pants.

It’s completely possible, though. My husband and I both have Bachelor’s Degrees from a major university. We have zero debt. He had a trust fund, and I had help from family, friends, scholarships, and a constant part-time job. When we got married, we got help from my family, and didn’t overspend. We didn’t go into debt for a honeymoon. My husband bought a used car from his parents, with the money he already had. And while we’re applying for – and would really appreciate – Medicaid’s help with our bills from my son’s birth, we’ve kept enough money in savings that we could pay the bills ourselves in a few months if we need to.

We rent a small apartment, because that’s what we can afford. We eat out occasionally, and usually stick to fast-food or just a step up from that. We shop at secondhand stores. And you know what? Nobody notices. Ethan goes to work in secondhand slacks and nice (but cheap) white shirts, and he looks just like anybody else would (but with a red beard). It’s not a huge sacrifice.

When we decide to buy a house, we plan to buy it outright. If we can’t find a way to save up that much money, we may simply continue to rent. If we find a house we really want to buy, we’ll discuss alternative payment plans with our lender.

I’m not harping on those paying off debt. What I am harping on is the peculiar modern notion that it’s “responsible, adult behavior” to spend more than you earn. This is how the Great Depression happened, people. If you’re working on your student debt, keep going. I’ll cheerlead that effort. But if you’re using your credit card because your weekly paycheck isn’t enough to fund your Starbucks addiction… check that. In the meantime, I’m going to keep laughing at people when they ask how I survive without a credit card.

With money. That’s how I do it. I use money. ♦

Thoughts: Letter from Birmingham Jail

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here are a few of my favorite quotes from his Letter from Birmingham Jail. The letter was written while Dr. King was in prison for joining nonviolent protests, and he wrote it in response to criticism from eight white clergymen in the area who argued against the methods Dr. King was encouraging.

I’m also including a link, both to the Letter, and to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that has become so famous. Please take a few minutes to celebrate this holiday by reading the words of the man we’re celebrating. You can leave your own favorite quotes in the comments, if you’d like.

Wikipedia article: Letter from Birmingham Jail

Text (pdf): Letter from Birmingham Jail

Text: “I Have a Dream”

My own favorite quotes:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said: ‘All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.’ All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either distructively [sic] or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill-will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

“But they [those ostracized for joining nonviolent protest] have gone with the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

“Over the last few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But not [sic] I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more so to use moral means to preserve immoral ends…. T.S. Eliot has said that there is no greater treason than to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

“One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thusly, carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” ♦