The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Poetry and “meh” books

Posted on: July 23, 2007

I’ve been so pleased at the verbal response to my Lousie Glück poetry posts. For more I’d suggest reading Robert Peake’s blog. He’s a poet who is, if I’m not mistaken, *studying Glück, among other writers, in his MFA programme.  His posts are lucid and technically informed which makes them a real treat to read in complement to my more “reader response” style. Browse through his Lousie Glück tags and go nuts. After that do try his posts on the sonnet form which I find particularly interesting now since I’m going through all of Shakespeare’s.

Every two months or so my book reading sky rockets. I’ve returned to January form and have so far read about 10 books in July, although one should note that not all were started this month and two of them were tiny things, each with less than 150 pages. Most provided good to great experiences but a few provoked tepid responses.

The Alphabet of Thorns by Patricia A. McKillip was a great disappointment for me. Her story had two plot lines but only one of them was any good, the other was typical mediocre fantasy fare. We have the young female orphan with a mysterious past, a mage — a mage! I can’t get over the fact that I actually read a book that had a mage — in love with her, her dorky male companion who has a huge crush on her, kingdom in flux with King’s death and young female heir who seems hardly capable, seer advisor, mysterious magical artefact. Yawn.

The good story line involved the intertwined lives of a king and his advisor. It turns out that the two were cousins and close companions since their childhood. A tragic death of the then ruling king by his son who raised powers he did not know he possessed, the cousins obsessive love and the lengths that the girl goes to to keep them together, all of it was compelling stuff. McKillip showed love not as light and cheery, or even heroic, but dark, destructive, and overwhelming; add supernatural power to the mix and you have a woman who would conquer worlds for a man she cannot publicly claim as her own. That story was mesmerising to the end, particularly since it was connected to the thorn symbol. Like Winter Rose McKillip presents love in all its prickly, potentially harmful glory — not without its joy but always exacting a price. That‘s interesting. No one cares about magical prophecies and floating mage schools! (I don’t.)

My other “meh” was, surprisingly, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Judging by my tastes you would think I’d find it far more satisfying that Blankets, and I did. The graphic memoir was definitely more “literary”, the plot was rife with familial complexities, even the drawings had more thematic oomph behind them. There was one fatal flaw, something rooted completely in my taste and had nothing to do with Bechdel’s skill: it read like a personalised Cliff Notes.

Each chapter has a book as its theme, so to speak, and Bechdel proceeds to explicitly map her life on it. By “explicit” I mean that she takes a certain idea or theme from the novel, spells it out, and then shows you how a particular facet of her family life fits into it. I was fine the first time she did it, maybe even the second, and the Proust chapter was the best because it was handled more delicately than all the others (and needed the “This is the theme! Now this how it applied to my life!” approach the least) but after that it was a bore. Maybe even hokey. I a) don’t like to have my allusions (if these can even be called such) and b) don’t appreciate this sort of overtly personalizations of text. Books are personal and can affect your lives or have particular meanings etc. but I just can’t take take this sort of tactic over a sustained narrative.

It’s related to why I can’t stand the oppressive biographical approach to literary analysis where every major theme and symbol must have a corresponding counterpart in the author’s life. I do realise Bechdel did not map her entire life in Remembrance of Things Past, for instance, and I know that the book could not work as it did, without the approach she took — it was the basic structure of the memoir. So if this sort of thing doesn’t bother you by all means do pick it up. Despite my criticisms it will linger in a more definite manner than Blankets by Craig Thompson. It’s too bad it wasn’t as much fun to read. I’d buy another Craig Thompson comic/graphic novel/what have you but I’d pass on the Bechdel. I like to have fun.

On an unrelated note I’ve decided to add Yale Press‘s site to my sidebar, primarily because of Ms. Bandur’s (apologies for getting your gender wrong) positive response to my blog post on the matter.

*Originally I said that Peake was studying with Gluck, which turns out not to be the case as he corrected in comments. 

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3 Responses to "Poetry and “meh” books"

Thanks so much for your kind words, Imani. I’m not actually studying with Glück in person, but certainly “apprenticing” myself to her works (though she may never know it). Yet another confirmation that in literature, we may never know to whom we touch and how.

Last month was my speed reading month. This month was haltered by me being too sick to read! It was pure torture!

Robert you’re welcome and thanks for the correction. I’ve edited the post.

Kelly it’s too bad about your illness. I hope that you’re feeling better now. I’ll check your site for updates.

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