A masterpiece of American literature

Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Song of Solomon is a masterpiece of American literature by Toni Morrison. Morrison has won all sorts of awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. If you haven’t read her work before, this is a great one to start with. It is one of those rare books that’s about people, politics, and American history all at the same time. The personal, political, and historical all resonate to create a powerful tapestry of human experience. It’s complex, beautiful, and marvelous. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Don’t read anything more about it; just read it.

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So much more than a Victorian romance

North and South

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

North and South begins in London, where Margaret Hale is staying with her wealthy cousin. After her cousin is married, Margaret returns home to find that her father, the parson in a small village, is having a crisis of conscience. He decides to quit his post in the church and takes a job as a private tutor in the northern manufacturing town of Milton. The air there is polluted, and the people suffer from poverty, starvation, and disease. Margaret comes to know people of different classes and gets involved in their affairs, including a conflict between a mill owner and his workers.

It’s best not to say much more about the plot, but Elizabeth Gaskell is, as always, entertaining and easy to read even as she depicts the most painful things. This book is admittedly not as masterful as Wives and Daughters. There is a very unlikely and frankly unnecessary coincidence to move the plot, and there are also some characters that she doesn’t treat with the empathy and sophistication that she does virtually all the characters in her later work. But I like how daring this was in its approach to social issues. It is partly a romance, which many seem to see it as, but it also tackles larger economic and social questions. Gaskell is clear-headed and prescient in her thoughts about technology and the constant changes it will continue to bring to society. In the end, though, this book really hinges on Margaret learning to grow up, take responsibility, and make her own choices. It’s almost a coming of age story at its core. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would rank it as one of the great works of Victorian literature.

One final note about the 2004 BBC production. I have loved many of these productions and couldn’t wait to see this one after reading the book. I had been really wondering how they could ever depict all these internal thoughts and revelations in a drama. After seeing the beginning, I realized they weren’t even trying. It may be great on its own merit, but I just couldn’t watch the thing, it seemed so far from the book in spirit.

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Touring the poetry universe

Poet's ChoicePoet’s Choice by Robert Hass
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read some of the columns by U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass that make up this book when they were first published in the Washington Post. As a collection, this “notebook of a poet’s readings,” as Hass describes it, makes a wonderful bedside book. I would read one or two entries before turning off the light and fall asleep thinking about what I’d just read.

Hass is a thoughtful guide, posing questions and pointing out details to pay attention to. A particularly strong aspect of his selections is the wide range of different types of poems represented. Hass includes classics like Robert Frost’s haunting “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Paul Laurence Dunbar’s powerful “Sympathy,” and Matsuo Basho’s haikus. You’ll also find wonderful poems by more contemporary poets such as Denise Levertov, Hayden Carruth, and Michael Ondaatje. You never know what you’ll encounter next. It’s a surprising voyage of discovery, and there’s a lot to treasure if you keep an open mind.

Haas wrote that he aspired to help “give us back what we are losing–a shared, literate public culture.” I think this is a great model to follow, and makes a gem of a book.

Reading Beowolf

An epic poem written somewhere in the seventh to tenth century in Anglo-Saxon? Beowulf always sounded intimidating to me and sat on my shelf for years because of it.

I shouldn’t have waited. This is a great yarn told beautifully. Seamus Heaney‘s verse translation makes the poem exciting and accessible. It’s a gripping tale of heroes and monsters and dragons. But like all great literature, it’s also a lot more.

This poem tells of a feudal time before Christianity, a world before countries and their governments protected people. The fall of a king or a warrior could mean catastrophe. The bloody conflicts between the Geats, Danes, and Swedes bring a palpable sense of terror even more threatening than the monsters. An old woman’s worst fears at the end of the poem aren’t about monsters, but an invasion leading to slavery and abasement.

Beowulf is great not only for its story and its musings on glory, heroism, and aging, but also for the glimpse it gives us into a very distant past.

What’s Going On In There?

Hand opening doorI’ve been working on some poetry lately. “What’s Going On In There?” isn’t at all representative of what I’ve been doing. But I recently saw a call by Drunken Pen Writing for scary Halloween poems. A few days later, I was looking through some old poems of mine and noticed this short story that I’d never quite gotten to work. I wondered if it could work as a poem and gave it a try. I was much happier with it, and sent it off to DPW, which accepted it for publication. Read it here.

The Life and Opinions of the Housecat Hastings

Cover of the novel "The Life and Opinions of the Housecat Hastings" by Harrison Bae WeinHastings is a sophisticated housecat with a serious mission: to raise the social status of the feline species. Born the runt of the litter in an apartment overflowing with cats, Hastings becomes inspired to make his mark upon the world. He teaches himself to read and write, and then chronicles how he developed his unique vision for the betterment of feline society and went on to establish the famed feline community Catamenia. This is the insightful life story of an extraordinary cat told with warmth, humor, and humanity. With echoes of classic literature, the novel is suitable for teens to adults of any age. The Life and Opinions of the Housecat Hastings is written by Harrison Bae Wein and illustrated with warm pencil drawings by the artist Natalie Ewert. Published by Derwood Press.