Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Lume Spento by Ezra Pound

This book is so old I can't even find a picture to go with it, sorry.

As part of National Poetry month, I tried to read as much poetry as I could, which will trickle down into reviews here as time goes on.

One of the things I tackled was some Ezra Pound, a poet I've had on my "to-read" list for quite a while now.

Maybe I shouldn't have gone with an early work, or maybe I just have to accept that I am far more comfortable with the poetry of the personal, because for me this Pound was only worth a few cents.

(I apologize, that was terrible. Blame my editor. Oh wait, I don't have one.)

In a little over 100 pages of early poems and notebook work, there is simply not a single poem I liked, not even just a little bit. Usually, I can find at least one or two good poems even from a poet I dislike. But Pound's lines are just so blandly constructed on subjects that feel so artificial--a troubadour, dryads, old men with troubles, and the like, all portrayed as distant actors, without a chance to get close to the reader.

It's almost like reading Shakespeare without talent, or a homage to old poetry without a sense of irony that someone like Atwood might try. It's not that I object to the subject matter. I am going to rave about a poet that uses Barbie as her subject sometime soon, so I'm not saying you have to write from what you know. You can write a good poem, even today, about any of those things I list above. But the language Pound uses feels outdated even for the early 20th Century and today is just downright painful to slog through. I don't get this many "thee" and "thou" references when I read old Stan Lee Thor comics!

Here's a few snippets of the poems, chosen more or less at random.

From La Fraisne:

"For I was a gaunt, grave councilor
Being in all things wise, and very old,
But I have put aside this folly and the cold
That old age weareth for a cloak."

From Villonaud for the Yule:

"Towards the Noel that morte saison
(Christ make the shepherd's homage dear!)
Then when the grey wolves everychone
Drink of the winds their chill small-beer
And lap o' the snows food's gueredon
Then makyth my heart his yule-tide cheer
(Skoal! with the dregs if the clear be gone!)
Wineing the ghosts of yester-year."

The Tree (entire):

"I stood still and was a tree amid the wood
Knowing the truth of things unseen before,
Of Daphne and the laurel bow
And that god-feasting couple olde
That grew elm-oak amid the wold.
'twas not until the gods had been
Kindly entreated and been brought within
Unto the hearth of their heart's home
That they might do this wonder-thing.
Nathless I have been a tree amid the wood
And many new things understood
That were rank folly to my head before."

This last example may be the best poem in the book, but even so, it's horribly dated for the time it's written, at least in my opinion. (I had a similar reaction to Robinson Jeffers' poetry.)

I do understand that this is Pound's early work, so maybe it gets better over time. I also think that those who like classical poetry post Shakespeare through the Victorian age (I don't) would enjoy the overwrought writings in this collection. But when your poetry requires footnotes by the poet, I think you're on thin ice and I'm pretty sure I don't want to read more, at least for awhile.

If you find yourself drawn to Kim Addonizio, Mark Doty, and other writers of the very personal, this is not the book for you. It's going to remind you of at least one of your interminable college english classes, where this type of writing was your professor's favorite. If you are a fan of classic poetry only, give this a shot. I have a feeling you'll like it. If you need me, I'll be hanging out with my complete works of Alan Ginsburg, something you'd be unlikely to enjoy. Luckily for us, poetry's nice and varied that way.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Little Round Top A Detailed Tour Guide by Garry E. Adelman

Gettysburg is arguably the most-visited Civil War battlefield in the United States. Therefore, there are a lot of books written about it and one subsection of those books are battlefield guides—books that take all or part of the conflict and help the reader/tourist understand the fighting on a more detailed level.

If you visit Gettysburg regularly—and I do—then at a certain point you want books that will take you to a certain section of the battle and walk you through the action step by step. “Little Round Top” is one of these books, and it's definitely highly recommended.

Adelman looks at the fighting on Little Round Top from a chronological perspective, rather than by walking across the top of the hill that sits at the eye of the so-called fishhook formation created by General Meade to defend at Gettysburg. Therefore, while a person walking along with the book may be a bit flummoxed by why they start at one end of the hill, move to the other, and then back again, (especially if it's ninety plus degrees and they have a hernia) the logic becomes clear as you read the text.

Fighting in a Civil War battle is never clean and neat, with a row of fighting moving left to right. It's a chaotic mess occurring—at least hopefully if you're the attacking party—several places at once. In the case of the fighting at Little Round Top, there's a need to get the perspective of General Warren first. Adelman helps you get into the mindset of those there at the time by telling you what Warren saw from the same spot that you are standing on.

From there, it's a bit of a walk to get over to the scene of the fighting made famous by the movie Gettysburg, namely Chamberlain's 20th Maine. Adelman walks you through the fighting by that famous regiment as well as its neighboring units, who actions were no less heroic—they just didn't get the top billing when the cameras rolled.

In this general area, there's a bit of nice commentary on the changing nature of the battlefield park. Sometimes we tend to think that the park comes into place whole, protecting things as they looked and nothing about it needs to be changed. Well, that's completely untrue. After all, there weren't neat paved roads, fences decay over time, and of course there's the constant threat of vandalism. Adelman helps the user of this guide understand the changing face of Little Round Top, winding it seamlessly into the narrative of the battle itself.

While the majority of the fighting did occur near Chamberlain's men, Adelman makes sure we know about the other troops involved that day. While their fighting was not quite as intense, other troops plugged the gap in the Union Line, preventing the Confederates from enacting their planned flanking maneuver. Warren grabbed troops from wherever he could, and by the end of the day (and the end of the walking tour), troops from New York and Pennsylvania manned the hill and kept the Confederates at bay, even doing a bit of late-day charging to make sure the position held the night.

The last stop on the tour is the location of an old amusement park on the battlefield. I wish I were kidding. Thankfully, we'd never stop to such crass commercialism today. Of course not.

As is appropriate for a work this detailed, Adelman gets into smaller work, such as the sweeping of the lower hill or the placement of little-known batteries of artillery. He also laces the work with pictures both old and modern to help the reader make sure they are in the right place. (Very key for a few of the harder-to-access locations.) There's also a set of visual challenges, though I did not attempt them.

Even though this is a small tour guide, Adelman notates all of his sources and references, just like a more formal work, should the tourist wish to delve into the material further. It's a nice extra touch that makes this such a well-constructed book.

One word of warning should you use this book—since it is nearly 10 years old now and the Park Service is working on redoing the battlefield, you may have a bit of trouble locating some of the tour stops. My friend—who's been to Gettysburg more times than I have and that's saying something—ran into a bit of trouble here and there. Also, when you go may play a large part in how adventurous you choose to be. I got mauled in briers and gave up trying to get across the face of the hill for location 7A.

With plenty of maps for each part of the tour and just enough description to aid the reader-viewer without bogging down into minutia, “Little Round Top” is a great book for veteran Gettysburg visitors to pick up and use on their next trip to the hallowed ground my friend refers to as the promised land.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Images of America Downtown Pittsburgh by Stuart P. Boehmig

Though I don't own too many of them, I am a big fan of the Images of America series from Arcadia Publishing. They provide a valuable service, namely putting out local history books with lots of pictures of what an area looked like from the age of photography right up to about the 1960s. (Whenever I am on vacation, I try to find at least one book that is a pictorial history, and Images of America is almost always there for me.)

This edition is pretty typical of the series in general. A topic is selected, in this case the downtown area of my home city, and the author arranges the photographs with small commentary at the head of each section. So for instance, here we have "The Forks of the Ohio," "Well-Known Places", "Landmark Buildings," "Immigrants, and Industry", and "Prominent Pittsburghers", to name a few of the chapters.

In addition to the section intros, Boehmig and his fellow authors provide notes for each of the pictures. That's not really necessary if you're a local--I can spot most of the scenes in the book a mile away, and I'm sure you could for your hometown--but those picking this up as a travel book are given the clues they need to understand what they're seeing. That's a nice piece for a project like the Images series, and I am glad they do it.

Those interested in Pittsburgh history will find a lot here to like. There's pictures of Market Square in transition, the original (and industrial) Golden Triangle, G. C. Murphy in its prime, the Mon Wharf before parking flooded it out of the commerce business, and even shots of the jail and courthouse before skyscrapers blocked out its sunlight.

But Boehmig doesn't just dwell on the static parts of the city. The immigrants section is full of photos of those who came to Pittsburgh from other countries, seeking a better life. (Nowadays, people leave Pittsburgh seeking a better life.) They stare, frozen in time, wondering if they made the right choice, just like we do today, except that their choice meant 14 hour days or worse in steel mills, coal mines, and other hell holes run by the industrial barons, who also get a feature in the back of the book as part of the famous people section. Others get their shot, too, including Dr. Salk and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. (I didn't plan on the shot pun for Salk, but that's too funny to take out.)

Overall, this is a great book for those who like old pictures and/or photography. If you want to have a look, there's a way to preview some of the pages here. I'd easily recommend this or any others in the Images of America series to anyone interested in the particular subject they cover.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Dewey The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter

This book proves I don't just read history books, poetry, and television adaptations!

I am an avowed cat lover, having had cats around me for almost my entire life--neighborhood outdoor cats first, then some of our own, then finally my own bundles of hellspawn, er, I mean joy that are with us today. Only my college years and first few apartments were cat-free, and I missed them the entire time.

So it comes as no surprise that when I heard of this book, the story of a stray kitten who should by all rights have died but instead managed to survive a cold night in a library book drop, it was something I wanted to read.

Dewey Readmore Books, the full name of the cat to the left of this text, ended up staying at the library he was found at, adopted by the staff and Director Vicki Myron in particular. It's quite unusual for a library to keep a pet, and Myron explains that the decision was not easily arrived at--not when there's a board of good old boys to pacify and the usual bogus cat rumours to deal with. It takes a special cat to find a home in a public place with open doors and not run away (there's no way three of my cats could handle the job, and the fourth is stationary just because he's fourteen), and, as it turned out, Dewey was just such a cat.

Most of the book is about Dewey's life as a library cat, starting off as an energetic, rubber band-stealing kitten and moving through his middle age, where he helps place Spencer on the map. There is also the tear-jerking story of his last days, which of course affected me, having lost an inherited cat to cancer earlier this year. (SPAY YOUR DAMNED CATS!) However, Myron also splices in pieces of her own life and how Dewey affected her during rough times, such as her relationship to her daughter or dealing with her own many health issues. Depending on how you feel about such things, the personal sections either add to the book, showing how cats really do become a part of your life, or are an attempt to get a bit of autobiography out there through the lens of Dewey's story.

Personally, I don't think you can write a book about cat without talking about the people involved. When Myron discusses her own struggles, and Dewey's ability to bond with her at just the right moments, cat owners know exactly how she feels. It's no different than the passages telling how Dewey interacted with people who needed help at the library itself, in my opinion.

Myron also works in some details about the town itself and trying to keep a vibrant, Carnegie-founded library open during hard economic times. A lot of what she said rang true for me, growing up at the edge of the similarly effected Mon Valley in Pittsburgh. Her dedication as library director to keep the library as a place that catered to the needs of all despite perceptions makes for interesting reading.

But the main star of this book is of course Dewey, possibly the most finnicky stray cat I've ever read about. Whether he was sitting in laps at geneology club, hiding in desk drawers, or looming over everyone at the top of the light fixtures, Dewey became a draw for the patrons. His adventures make the book sing, as Myron does a great job of working in just enough description for you to picture the scenes in your head. Dewey was apparently a cat that was just so in touch with humans that he was able to function in a way few other cats could.

The last days of Dewey are particularly sad to me, as they show why so many adult cats end up in shelters. As Dewey aged, he became sick and could not do all those great tricks anymore. And the same people who loved Dewey the sweet cat became agitated at seeing his fur get older, his gait get slower, and his aches and pains increase. I hate to go all "conservative" here, but that disposable attitude people have to everything from televisions to cars to pets is disgusting. Myron quietly shows her anger at Dewey's abandonment, but good for her for holding on to him for as long as possible.

Dewey got a lot of press over the years, from the usual sources (cat magazines) to regional pieces to an international spot in a Japanese special(!). A lot of people came to know him, and some even drove hundreds of miles to see Dewey in his native home. The Spencer Library keeps up a web presence for him, which I think is a nice touch. This book is a great send off for a cat that touched thousands of lives, and is highly recommended for anyone who loves cats and books.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Littlest Hitler by Ryan Boudinot

I think this one came from the NYT Book Review, if I remember correctly. I get so many ideas from so many sources--and I'm so slow to get things off the to-read list and on to the reading list--that it's hard to remember sometimes. Regardless, I have a new writer to enjoy and one that writes my favorite type of story, the short one.

While I can't say I like all of his writing, as you'll see, I like the idea that he tries to get across--namely that the short story doesn't have to be a stilted still-life that tries to be Important. There's plenty of room for the absurd and the rude, rather than just fare for a literary magazine.

All of Boudinot's characters are, for lack of a better word, fucked in the head. There isn't a single story here that's played straight for longer than it needs to be. While each of the protagonists tends to think of their lives as relatively normal, to the reader there's a definite sense of "what shock comes next?"

For some readers, that may be a turn off, but I grew up on family members who loved "Twlight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Tales from the Crypt" was taped weekly when I was growing up and seeing it on Fox reruns. I think a shock ending or odd twist, if done well, can be a hell of a lot of fun. And Boudinot provides that type of thing in spades.

The book opens with a bang--the title story is about a parent who dresses his son up as Hitler and the son who is so dressed. I think the best part of this one is that the father acts completely surprised that this caused trouble at school.

Or take "Blood Relations", a pair of tales about a cannibalistic mother and a serial killer taken to school.

Here's a pretty typical set of writing from Boudinot:

"It was Dads Day at my six-year-old's kindergarten class. We sat in miniature chairs arranged in a semicircle on the rug, answering questions about our professions. One dad broke a beer truck, another was a landscape architect. There were two orthopedic surgeons among us. The teacher, Ms. Vanderbilt, nodded at me when it was my turn.
'I'm a serial killer.'
'Pardon?' Ms. Vanderbilt said.
'I murder people. Maybe you've seen some of the books about me.' I withdrew from my Discovery Channel tote bag a number of paperbacks chronicling my career.
A boy in the back raised his hand. 'What kind of people do you kill?' he said.
'Nobody important,' I said, and the room seemed to come down several notches, terror-wise."

That's pretty typical of the protagonists contained within this book--they look at life much like the Aadams Family does. To their minds, what they do is perfectly normal, such as "Containment," which features a zombie working at a pea-checking plant. (His only crime is a lack of safety.)

Not quite all of the stories are out there. "The Flautist" is a sad story of a man trying to be something he's not, hanging with a crowd he can't truly embrace, and his prized possession may be the price he pays before waking up to the truth. (One might argue that he should try anyway, but the pain of his realization in the closing words of the story really hit me and that ocverrides any other considerations.) "On Sex and Relationships" has a similar theme, as two couples who are moving in different directions try to stay friends. These stories show Boudinot's range, and may be two of the best collected here.

Sadly, there are also a few really bad entries in this collection that keep it from making my best of 2008 (though Publisher's Weekly did name it as Book of the Year in 2006). "Civilization" is an unfunny parody of a right-wing world where Family Values are a bit skewed. Killing parents is every child's duty in a controlled society and Boudinot never misses a chance to beat us over the head with a "witty" satirical reference. "The Sales Team" involves rape as a joke, and I'm not laughing. Last but not least, "Absolut Boudinot" makes light of domestic terrorism. I'm not prudish enough to say we can't laugh in the face of the most serious horrors, but I'd request that they be a bit more subtle. Hitting me over the head with a brick is not satire, at least not the type of satire I enjoy.

Overall, I liked this book and would recommend it. But be forewarned it may not be your cup of tea, and even if it is, you're unlikely to like all of it. It's the great thing about short stories--you never waste a lot of time reading any particular one!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Star Trek 2 by James Blish

Continuing my quixotic quest to read all the Star Trek adaptations in order, next up is the second in James Blish's books that write up summaries of the original series episodes. (It's hard to call them more than that, when you're only spending 20 pages per episode.)

This time around we have two very famous stories, "Space Seed" (the introduction of Kahn) and "City at the Edge of Forever", Harlon Ellison's legally-challenged but brilliant episode.

The copy I read even boasts about the Kahn story on the cover. Sadly, I was not able to find an image with that blazoned on the front.

However, it is those two famous stories that short the shortcomings of this style of adaptation. In his cramped space, Blish must remove entire incidents, robbing them of the careful touches that make the original Star Trek so entertaining, even after all these years. "City" has a special preface note indicating the trouble Blish had working from Ellison's script and the final episode, and it shows. There's just not enough time for Kirk's love to develop, so when we have the final death scene, it's hard to tell why he's so attached to this one woman.

A similar problem develops in "Arena", where Spock helplessly watches Kirk struggle, knowing what can save him but unable to commuicate (cut), "A Taste of Armageddon", where the dipomat is shown to be unable to recognize a true threat in a cold war allusion (cut), and "Court Marshall", where the tension of man versus machine is not cut but crammed into the space Blish was allotted.

Perhaps it's just these particular episodes being hard to place into text or I'm just getting more familiar with the formula and less interested in it, but I have to say, I wasn't overly fond of this one. I don't think it's Blish's fault--he's good with a turn of phrase and his dialog actually does snap in the places where he has room to use it--but the whole exercise is reminding me of an old professor of mine who made us write papers summarizing 200 page books in 10 pages. Yes, you learn something about concise writing, but what's the point?

I'll see if the third book is better, but I may skip ahead to the books instead if not. My advice to you is to just give this one a pass.