Sarah Avery (dr_pretentious) wrote,
Sarah Avery

What I'm Reading

Am I a glutton for really long books? I don't know that I can be called a glutton, since it takes me so very long to read them. More like a boa constrictor. You remember that picture in The Little Prince, the one of the boa constrictor that's swallowed an elephant? That pretty much describes my current efforts to get into Clausewitz's On War. Since I'm reading it with the intention of actually learning some stuff, it'll probably take me to the end of February to finish it. And the edition I have is too heavy to be an easy addition to the already abundant contents of my handbag.

But does this doom my chances of completing the 52 book challenge this year? Why, no. I've found a cunning solution.

I have a big stack of volumes of contemporary poetry. Like, by actual living poets. Some of these volumes, I went out of my way to buy. Others were dumped on me by my beloved dissertation director, the Magisterial Presence. Since she's all Magisterial and everything, poets and presses would send her free copies of books, to curry favor with her. Sometimes she'd read them, sometimes not, but they came, relentlessly, dozens a year. Purging her library was an annual necessity. And for ten years, the receptacle into which she unloaded the rejects happened to be the trunk of my car. When I got the boxes home, I'd clean out the stuff I knew for sure I didn't want, and then there would be this little heap of possible keepers I didn't have time to read, because of the damn dissertation and the freshman composition teaching load. One of my mantras was, "I don't read the living." Although I don't need that mantra anymore, there's a big backlog of books to catch up on.

Every time the living room fills up with unread books--I'm embarrassed at how often that happens--Dan implores me to cull. And I cull as fast as I can, but I have become the world's slowest reader, because I'm always examining the seams. Finally, I'm going to burn through that stack of contemporary poetry. Since publishers expect to lose lots of money on poetry anyway, the volumes are very short. If I were in a writing phase that involved producing poetry, I'd be just as slow at that as at anything else, but I'm not. So. We'll see if I can make up some lost time.

January's been a slow reading month, with too many occasions for chamomile tea.

I read Alma Alexander's The Secrets of Jin-Shei while I was fighting off my last cold, so I can say that it makes excellent comfort reading, if you want a gynocentric fantasy novel. It was good enough, I plan to read it again next year, sometime when my sinuses aren't packed with cotton. My only objection is that I wanted the book to be about 200 pages longer. There were many Cool Things that happened offstage that I wished I could have seen, and there were Cool Things that were sped through at a two-months-story-time-per-paragraph pace that I would have liked to see happen in detail. In short, the book had too many Cool Things to do justice to them. Since projection is the besetting sin of my psychology, I can't help wondering whether Alexander wasn't pressured to cut out things that were onstage in earlier drafts, in the interest of getting the book down to a more salable length. In any case, you know what they say. We don't like books for the things they didn't do wrong; we like books for the things they do right. I strongly suspect the book would turn off many male readers, because it's so relentlessly gynocentric, but I don't think that's actually a weakness in the work. The book knows its audience, and it simply isn't worried about anybody else. I admire that.

I'm not usually a big Arthuriana fan, but two of my tutoring students are obsessed with the Round Table, so I've been doing The Once and Future King with them. I'd never read it before, and now I know what I was missing. So good! It took me three weeks to get through it, because I kept stopping to reread bits and see how they were built. Of course, it does about a dozen major things that editors say are forbidden these days, so I especially relished seeing them done well and shamelessly. It sprawls. The narrator addresses the reader directly, constantly. Anachronism abounds. Sometimes it shows, and sometimes it tells, according to the needs of the moment rather than the dictates of doctrine. Its pacing is uneven, and sometimes several chapters at a stretch pass with no tension at all, while virtues other than tension serve every bit as well to engage the reader. The book is a classic because it doesn't give a damn about orthodoxy of any kind; although it is unabashedly didactic at times, it has a higher purpose than orthodoxy or perfection. I wish I'd written it, myself. Even some of the bits in which the narrator attempts to explain the inner lives of women to an imagined audience of teenage boys are reasonably wise, and may be helpful. Who else is making a credible attempt to explain grown women's inner lives to teenage boys, anyway? And if the only thing I ever do for my two Arthur-obsessed tutoring students is get them to think for themselves about the allegories of the ants and the wild geese, and to remember what they think when they're old enough to vote, I'll have been worth every penny their parents have paid me for my time.

It's kind of weird that Dana Gioia, a poet, should be best known among poets for an essay. "Can Poetry Matter?" made a huge splash in the poetry world, while I was in my I-don't-read-the-living phase. I still haven't backtracked to read that essay yet, but whenever my poetry friends would try to tell me why Dana Gioia was cool, they'd start trying to paraphrase it, and then they'd have to say, "But he's not really as reactionary/retrograde/Republican as he sounds." When he was appointed to run the NEA in the early days of Bush's first term as president, people who knew Gioia's work sighed with relief. They'd say, "Well, it could have been so much worse. At least Gioia really gets it." And I'd say, "Gets what?" And no one was ever really able to tell me. I listen pretty well, as a general rule, so it still seems strange to me that I was never able to extract a straight answer.

Which is why I paid good money for Interrogations at Noon when I found it in front of me in the bookselling tent at the Dodge Poetry Festival. I wanted to see for myself, though I wasn't overwhelmed with enthusiasm over the guy's word of mouth.

Some of the poems blew me away. But then, some of the poems had dead spots so bad, I was embarrassed for his sake, and then embarrassed to be reading them. For a living poet, he's a very good formalist, though he doesn't hold a candle to Gjertrud Schnackenberg. I can see what he learned from being Elizabeth Bishop's student, but he doesn't hold a candle to Bishop, either. Well, that's not fair. Nobody holds a candle to Bishop. I am Bishop's partisan in all things.

It just seems to me that, if the main thing I think about his book is how he stacks up against other poets I like better, there's something wrong either with his book or with me. There are books I liked better than The Secrets of Jin-Shei, but that thought never once occurred to me while I was reading it. So, score one for Alma Alexander, zero for the poet who headed the NEA.
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