The years flare up and are gone: “Sometimes it happens” by Brian Patten

I’ve been a terrible slacker about National Poetry Month; I did have grand plans to post more than one post that was poetry-related this month, but life got in the way, as it does. Darn you, life, being in the way of poetry! I would think that would be illegal. Shouldn’t that be illegal?

I can assure you, however, that I have been celebrating in my own way. I have been writing a lot of poetry (which I cannot show you, because I am submitting it for publication, so it has to stay off the interwebs, otherwise it’s previously published, and no one likes that, do they? I promise I’ll tell you if anything gets accepted, so you can read it in various places and celebrate with me. And won’t that be fun? Sure it will!)

I have also been reading a lot of poetry, but I can’t say that’s something I just do for poetry month. That’s something I do year-round. I try to read a new-to-me poem at least once a day, if not more often. And it’s not even “try to read” as much as I just DO read them, because I follow a lot of poetry blogs and magazines and what-have-you, and love to fill my eyeholes with poetry. Poets do this, you see.

I did want to post something for National Poetry Month, however, because well, come on, people! National Poetry Month! And when I saw that Serena at Savvy Verse and Wit was having a National Poetry Month Tour, I bugged her until she let me be a part of it. And that is how you do it! Stand outside someone’s house with a boom box blasting “In Your Eyes” until they relent!*

*Please do not do this. You will be arrested. Unless you are a 1980s John Cusack.

Then I hemmed and hawed for, like, ever, about what I should write about. Should I review a book? Should I write about writing poetry? Should I write about a magazine, or the submission of poetry, or something random, like poetry in the movies?

Probably could have. But then I decided, no. I ran across a poem that moved me to tears last year, and I wanted to share it. It’s National Poetry Month and I’ll cry if I want to.

Sometimes it happens
–Brian Patten

And sometimes it happens that you are friends and then
You are not friends,
And friendship has passed.
And whole days are lost and among them
A fountain empties itself.

And sometimes it happens that you are loved and then
You are not loved,
And love is past.
And whole days are lost and among them
A fountain empties itself into the grass.

And sometimes you want to speak to her and then
You do not want to speak,
Then the opportunity has passed.
Your dreams flare up, they suddenly vanish.

And also it happens that there is nowhere to go and then
There is somewhere to go,
Then you have bypassed.
And the years flare up and are gone,
Quicker than a minute.

So you have nothing.
You wonder if these things matter and then
As soon you begin to wonder if these things matter
They cease to matter,
And caring is past.
And a fountain empties itself into the grass.

(Special thanks to Elaine for introducing me to Brian Patten in this post.)

I love this. This is an excellent author photo.

I spend a lot of time thinking about love, and friendship; about those various ties to others that we all have, and how they work, and how they don’t work, when they fail.

Read this. Just read it, please. Oh, it’s National Poetry Month. You can spare me the reading of a poem.

You are friends, and then you are not friends.

You are loved, and then you are not loved.

Isn’t it beautiful? And relatable? Isn’t the feeling in your chest when you’re going through that loss a fountain emptying itself into the grass – that feeling of loss, that feeling of emptying, of being emptied?

And then it gets better. There isn’t anywhere to go…and then there is.

The whole poem builds to you ceasing to care…but I love that everything’s not alright. It’s not that you’re healed. It’s just that you’re empty.

It’s very true, this poem. It’s not sunshine and flowers, and it’s not doom and gloom. It’s true. You lose people, and you are hollow inside, you are empty. Things do get better…but you’re changed by the experience, no matter how much you’ve moved on.

This is what I love about poetry. Other people experiencing what you have, putting their words to it, letting you into their lives for a moment, letting you feel your feelings through their own.

And a fountain empties itself into the grass.

(Thank you, Serena, for the chance to participate!)


Office Minotaur: “Toothpaste for Dinner” by Drew

All it takes is two pencils taped to your head to transform any office into a deadly cubicle maze, where all who get lost meet a grisly death at the hands of the OFFICE MINOTAUR!!

Toothpaste for Dinner by Drew
220 pages, HOW Books, October 2005

I’m not sure when I started reading Toothpaste for Dinner. Had to have been many years ago, because I feel like I’ve known about it forever. Something about Drew’s weird, off-the-wall sense of humor and strange, somewhat-melted-looking drawings makes me happy, and totally makes me snort-laugh. I even have one of his tee-shirts. Yep. I like him just that much. 

Drew is…I really don’t know how to describe his work. They’re comics, but he’s like this jaded sarcastic scientist you want to be best friends with in your office. Except you totally couldn’t, because he wouldn’t be friends with anyone. He’d be in his cubicle scowling at everyone and probably drawing unflattering cartoons of you. He’s like the cool guy that doesn’t know he’s cool. He’s the hipster who would hate being called a hipster. And he’s hilarious.

I’ve had this book around forever (I mean, look at that publication date. 2005? That’s just embarrassing, it’s been sitting around so long) but was saving it for when I needed a really good laugh. This week, I needed a really good laugh. Plus, with the unemployment and all (oh, yeah, my job disappeared this week – thanks, economy!) I have more time to read than I probably should. More time to read, and apply for jobs, and think, “huh, in about a month, I’m going to have NO MONEY IN THE BANK.” So it’s nice to laugh a little when you’re panicking. Right? Right.

This book won. It made me laugh. A lot. There were some comics I’d seen – like I said, I’ve been following his site for a while – but since he’s so prolific and I tend to miss days here and there, there were a lot of comics that were new to me, so the whole thing made me happy. I got to revisit old favorites and got some new content in the bargain.

This book (and Drew’s site) is for you if you have a weird sense of humor, if you like webcomics, if you’re heavily into sarcasm, if you don’t mind a cuss here and there (I don’t, but I know some people are sensitive to such things), and, well…if you’re one of my people. My people tend to really like Toothpaste for Dinner. Because most of us have the same kind of warped sense of humor. I assume that’s why we’re drawn to one another. In good news, this book is now out of print, and you can get it used from a variety of sellers for a penny. A PENNY, YOU GUYS. With shipping, you’ll pay about $4 for this. That is NOTHING. That is daily-coffee money.

And on a side note, Drew also has a site called The Worst Things for Sale, and it’s just what’s promised – he finds ridiculous things daily and pokes fun at them. I’m constantly sending these things to my friends. “WORST THING EVER, THIS IS YOUR BIRTHDAY PRESENT!” I will say. They are not amused. Or, ok, they’re a little amused. They won’t be when I send it to them as their birthday present, I’d guess.

Go read some snarky webcomics, either on Drew’s site, or with this book. They’ll make you happy. And I think we all want to be happy, right? Right.

I don’t think you noticed me falling in love with you: “Missed Connections” by Sophie Blackall

You were so into your book, I don’t think you noticed me falling in love with you.

Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found by Sophie Blackall
128 pages, Workman Publishing, August 2011

I honestly have to say I don’t know how to categorize this book. It’s not just illustrations. There’s text, too. It doesn’t fit in any category I know of.

Sophie Blackall is a children’s book illustrator who became enamored with the mystery and romance in the missed connections in the paper (or on Craig’s List, or wherever else you might get your missed connections…well, if you do, indeed, get your missed connections anywhere, I suppose.) 

I’m going to assume you’ve all read these, at least once or twice. I’m not saying you’ve read them hoping to find yourself there, and someone longing to have missed you…but I’m not NOT saying that, either. They’re also just kind of fun to read, aren’t they? And there is a little poetry in them. Here’s a random one from our local Craig’s List today: We locked eyes exchanged smiles and man you were beautiful. I doubt you’ll check this but if you do please respond with what store we first saw each other at and what I was doing. I don’t know. I find these kind of wistful and throwing hope out into the void, or something. And I’m glad Blackall did, too…because this is a lovely little book.

Her illustrations are beautiful and hopeful and sweet without being cloying, kind of quirky in a twisted whimsical way. And she picks the best of the missed connections…the ones with the most poetry in them, the most love and loss and mystery and wonder. There are people who have locked eyes on the train, there are people who have met once over a glorious sandy summer and lost touch, there are people who spent the night dancing and lost phone numbers from their hands on the walk home. All of them hoping to connect. All of them hoping that the person they had that one, magical moment with was the one they wanted to spend a million more moments with…to spend Harry and Sally’s “for as long as we both shall live” with.

We’re eternally hopeful creatures, aren’t we? It’s one of our more endearing qualities. We see someone across a crowded room and we think, “maybe” and we think “forever” and we infer, from the toss of her hair or the slow way he smiles, that they were there just for us, that night. That there’s magic in the air. That, if only we can find them again, we can be happy.

It’s all we really want, right? That happiness. That forever. That one-enchanted-evening person.

Don’t worry. I won’t judge you for thinking it. I still think it’s out there, too. That magic. I like that Blackall understood that. It was like reading a book from a friend. A friend who illustrated the beautiful, half-wild, fairy-tale people in my mind – and those are the people I fall in love with every day.

Often defying logic: “The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion

An inability (or reduced ability) to empathize is not the same as an inability to love. Love is a powerful feeling for another person, often defying logic.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
304 pages, Simon and Schuster, October 2013

When I start hearing that a book is AMAZING and LIFE-CHANGING and OMG YES NOW YOU MUST READ THIS I almost always tune out. I like to stumble upon books. I often feel that books get built up too much, and then they can’t be anything but a disappointment.

Sometimes, however, I am pleasantly surprised. I like pleasant surprises. I think life hinges on them.

Don Tillman is a professor of genetics. He has trouble getting along in social situations, although he’s brilliant, scientifically. He wants a wife, and realizes he can apply his scientific skills toward getting one: he creates a questionnaire covering everything he wants in a partner and proceeds in giving it to women (or taking it for them under tables while they’re on dates.) Enter Rosie: she’s completely incompatible in almost every way, so Don writes her off as a potential partner. Only love’s not really able to be contained in a lab or on a spreadsheet or in a questionnaire, is it?

I fell in love with these people. Don, with his rigid rules and structures and schedules and inability to understand feelings or emotions; Rosie, with her fiery personality and fierce need to know (know what? hell, everything – Rosie’s amazing); Don’s friend Daphne, slowly losing her past; Rosie’s stepfather Phil, unable to communicate with his daughter. I rooted for Don. I cheered for Rosie. I laughed and I cringed and yelled “Good grief, Don, NO” and there were a number of places where I cried some very unflattering tears.

It’s not a stupid book. It raises some interesting questions. How much of love is science, and chemistry, and how much is that magic and that mystery you can’t put a finger on? Can you pigeonhole love like this? Does it just happen? Can you stop it once it does? Can you plan for it? We all think we have answers about this, based on past experience, and the stories of our friends, but it’s new every time, isn’t it? It’s different for all of us. So how will it be when it comes for you? And will you recognize it, or let it get away from you?

But is this high art? Did I learn huge truths and was my mind stretched and did I come away thinking I’d read an award-winning tome answering all the mysteries life had to offer?

Oh, hell, no. This is most definitely one step up from Nicholas Sparks. I’m laboring under no preconceptions.

But it’s happy, and it’s true, and it leaves you with that really good feeling in your chest, that you got to share some time with these people and they left you better for it.

I love things like that. Almost as much as I love pleasant surprises.

At some point, you’re going to want to read something like this. Something that makes you laugh and cry and cheer a little. Grab it. Go meet Don and Rosie. Go learn a little about love and science and the magic of New York City and marriage and friendship and family. Go, go, go.

Don’t love anything that can be taken away: “Serena” by Ron Rash

It amazed Rachel how much you could forget, and everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it. After more time passed you could let yourself remember, even want to remember. But even then what you felt those first days could return and remind you the grief was still there, like old barbed wire embedded in a tree’s heartwood.

And now this brown-eyed child. Don’t love it, Rachel told herself. Don’t love anything that can be taken away.

Serena by Ron Rash
384 pages, Ecco, October 2008
Literary Fiction

I’ll admit, the reason I heard of this book was that I read it was being made into a movie with Jennifer Lawrence, who I have a bit of a crush on. Also, I like American history and period pieces and look at that cover. That’s a gorgeous cover, right there.

However, the book itself won me over. It didn’t need an upcoming movie to market it. It markets itself. Because it’s all kinds of brilliant, and I want you all to grab it and read it and sit curled up with your eyes huge like I did until it’s done wondering “Holy hell, what is Serena going to do next.”

Because if you read it, you’re most definitely going to do that.

George Pemberton, lumber baron, brings his new bride, Serena, to the North Carolina mountains. It’s 1929. Women are still very much seen and not heard. And Serena’s more than seen – she’s tall and blonde and cool, quite a comparison to the women that age too quickly due to hard work and a harder life in the mountains – but she’s to be heard, too. She’s heard without yelling. She doesn’t need to yell. She slowly takes everyone and everything around her in her iron fist and it becomes very clear to the camp who’s really in charge. No one dares stand in her way – because those that do don’t last long. When Serena finds out the one thing she wants more than anything is the one thing she can’t have, she sets her sights on Rachel, the woman who shared George’s bed before she arrived.

This has been mentioned here and there as a retelling of Macbeth. It’s got aspects of the Scottish play, yes. Serena makes a fine Lady Macbeth, and there are the plots and the machinations. There’s even one of the three witches. But honestly, I think you can twist anything into a version of something Shakespearian, if you try hard enough. Let’s just say it’s got Macbethian aspects, and leave it at that. (Not every strong woman is Lady Macbeth, though, people. Even if she’s murderous.)

Here’s what struck me in this book (and a lot of things did, really – but this is what struck me the most, I think) – Rash was not afraid to write a female character with no redeeming qualities. Yet, somehow, you never really hate her. You fear her, sure. But something in you almost ADMIRES her. She’s got this ruthlessness, this implacable streak. She’s a force of nature. She does despicable things, but something about the way she does them makes them seem…fated, somehow? None of the men make a move to stop her (or, if they do, they’re powerless in the face of her.) She’s a woman, competing what is most definitely a man’s world – and she’s not only winning, she’s winning by miles. None of them even compare.

I’m not sure about the casting for the movie. Jennifer Lawrence – maybe. She’s got the acting chops, and I’m interested to see her stretch into a role like this. As much as I like Bradley Cooper, I’m a little wary of this. Pemberton isn’t a pretty playboy. He’s a hardscrabble lumber baron. He’s Serena’s match. But I’ll give it a chance – again, Cooper’s a good actor.

And the stills coming out of the studio are gorgeous. There are some scenes I can’t wait to see on the screen. Ooh, and the COSTUMES. Just LOOK at them.

Do me (and yourself) a favor, though, before seeing it? Read the book. You need the slow burn of this. You need to read this country poetry and wait with bated breath on every word to see, exactly, how far Serena will go…and if she’ll succeed.

Watch Jennifer Lawrence later. Read the book now. You’ll be glad you did.

The helplessness of endings: “This is Not an Accident” by April Wilder

…I felt achy the rest of the day – the ache that comes with the helplessness of endings, any ending.

This is Not an Accident by April Wilder
224 pages, Viking Adult, January 2014
Short Stories

I was never much of a short-story person. I like meatier things. I like to know more about characters, and I like to know their whole story, not just a snippet that a short story gives you.

I have, however, been very lucky with short story collections lately. Either authors are stepping up their games or I’m getting old-age short-attention-span-syndrome.

April Wilder’s This is Not an Accident is eight short stories and a novella. It started slow for me; I was a little worried where it was going. Then it got better, but not only did it get better, how much better it got made me reevaluate the earlier stories and realize they were actually kind of beautiful, as well…and now, looking them over, I don’t know what I originally didn’t relate to in the earlier stories. She absolutely won me over.

Her theme, overall, is the fragility of relationships…how we destroy each other, how we destroy ourselves, how we try so hard to hold it all together and how it slips through our fingers, sometimes without us even noticing it. Each of her characters is more broken than the next, and more relatable. I know these people. I have been these people, I’ve been surrounded by these people, I’ve loved these people, I’ve been destroyed by these people.

If I told you about each story, and why I loved each one, we’d be here much too long, so just let me briefly tell you, as briefly as I can, about some of the things that hit me right in the chest, that made me gasp a little, that brought quick hot tears to my eyes and made me say “yes” and “I know” and “oh” and “oh.

In “We Were Champions,” a revelation about her past makes the narrator’s boyfriend both explode and implode at the same time, while the narrator herself is mired in the memories; they’re dangerous, those memories, and they’re an unsafe place to stay, but she thinks, “It’s strange how much you miss and overlook, how little you know about the one you want most,” and my heart caught at this. We’re all mysteries to one another, aren’t we? No matter how well we know one another, how close we are…there’s a mystery there. We’ll never know all there is to know there. There’s always that space.

In “It’s a Long Dang Life,” we meet Laney, who married the wrong man and was lucky enough to find the right one, the one she’d lost, many years later. She loves her children, and her grandchildren, more than her own life – she’s given up everything for them – but this man. This man is hers. “…he will drink too much again and he will play too hard, he will pick them up…hold them screaming in midair, and some day he’ll play until he’s not playing anymore. And Laney won’t stop him. She never will. If he asked her, if it’s what he needed to make it through the night, she would deliver them to him in her own arms.”

We love until we have nothing left, and then we keep loving; we love until we are empty shells of ourselves, and if we’re lucky, we find someone who loves us back just as hard…and sometimes we make it work between us, don’t we? Sometimes we don’t destroy one another. Sometimes we collide and it just…works.

In “Three Men,” Jess thinks back to three broken men who have affected her – her father, her husband, and her brother. Her father, with his war stories that mutate, depending on who he’s telling them to; her husband, who she is leaving (or is he leaving her?) who can’t dress himself, who always has a ripped seam, a stained shirt, a frayed tie; and her brother, a child stuntman who has never grown up. “His wife told Jess once he has to drink until one in order to write his name legibly. But write this name on what?”

Each story so full of sorrow and pain and darkness that your heart hurts with every word; but even as you’re hurting, you have to read more. You need to know what happens to these people. Because these people are you, and these are the people you love, and you have a vested interest in their lives, somehow; if only they can make it work, maybe you can, too. Maybe you’ll be alright.

We’re all broken, and we all destroy one another and destroy ourselves…but sometimes we find ourselves, right before things go too far. Sometimes there’s a way out.

(For the most beautiful review of this book, and the reason I knew I had to read it, please read Cassie’s review here; she does it much more justice than I can. She’s who I aspire to be in my reviewing, this woman. And also just a damn amazing lady, to boot.)


Oh, John, you’re home: “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers

Yet when she said, “Oh, John, you’re home,” I did not believe her.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
230 pages, Little, Brown and Company, September 2012
Literary Fiction

When I was in high school, I became strangely (and somewhat disturbingly) obsessed with the Vietnam War. I’m not old enough to remember this war. It ended right about when I was busy being born. I was kind of a crazy hippie kid, and I desperately wanted something to protest, so apparently I decided I was going to retroactively protest something that had been over for a very long time. I don’t know. Don’t try to figure out teenage Amy. She had issues.

I still find war fascinating. Not in a strange way, now, though. More in a psychological way. What drives people to kill one another. What it does to a person, having to shut off their basic humanity in order to survive. How fragile, and yet how tenacious, a human being can be. How when a person comes home, they’re expected to bounce right back to the person they once were, as if that time away hadn’t happened; as if that person they had to be wasn’t still inside of them, screaming for attention.

The Yellow Birds is a beautiful, heartbreaking book about terrible things that you’ll want to avert your eyes from. It should be required reading about war, along with my personal favorite, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. They have a similar feel; the poetry of loss and blood and death and sweat; the lyricism innate in the dying cries of the people you’ve grown to love as family and the screams of the people you’ve had to forget are people in order to kill them.

Private Bartle and Private Murphy meet in basic training. Bartle, being older, is assigned to Murphy, to keep an eye on him; he idly promises Murphy’s mother, as they are shipping out, that he’ll make sure Murphy comes home alive.

Idle promises. Men’s bodies hollowed out and turned into bombs; whores with bruises gone black and red and yellow and kindness in their hearts and fear in their eyes; friends blown to pieces as you watch; learning how to survive a bombing by lying flat on the ground, covering your head, and opening your mouth so you won’t blow your eardrums; watching townspeople mourn their dead, who were only moments ago trying to kill you; wondering if it will ever end, hoping it will end, hoping it will end quickly, and without too much pain, hoping it will end slowly, and with as much pain as you deserve.

What happens when you come home, and you still have the ghosts of the war screaming in your head, and you don’t feel like you exist, and your mother insists everything will be fine, just fine, but the only thing holding you to the ground is alcohol and trying to piece it all together, where it all started to go wrong, where you could maybe have fixed it, if you’d tried, if you could only go back, if you could only braid the threads together into something resembling a story that made sense, a story that someone might want to listen to.

Powers is a poet who served in Iraq. Somehow, a poet went to Iraq, and came back to us with this book. How this is possible, I don’t know. I don’t know that I could survive seeing that kind of destruction day after day and come back and still have this kind of broken beauty in me; I think the desert and the heat and the blood and the loss would take my voice from me and leave me mute, shattered by screams no one could hear but me and with no way to get out through my tongueless mouth, my jittering fingers.

This is a book to teach in classrooms and discuss with children whose eyes still hold the future in them. This is a book to teach to politicians who see soldiers as expendable. This is a book to give to grieving mothers and wives and husbands and fathers.

There is poetry in death and pain and loss; the art is going to the poisoned well to find it and coming back in any sort of shape to share your words with a world that may not want to hear them.

Happier to have you alive than dead: “Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date” by Katie Heaney

Here is a good tip I’ve learned: Don’t like anybody who won’t tell you happy birthday on your actual birthday. Someone who likes you, I think, will remember to take the time on the day you were born to say “Hey, happy birthday,” and in so doing, at least be willing to acknowledge that he is happier to have you alive than dead.

Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date by Katie Heaney
272 pages, Grand Central Publishing, January 2014

Sometimes I feel like everyone else in the world totally understands this dating thing, and I’m the only one who finds it completely baffling. I don’t know how to talk to people and I feel like I have to watch other people at the restaurant for social cues as to how a person on this strange thing called a “date” should act. Oh, the napkin goes ON your lap? Oh, you’re supposed to NOT have cocktail sauce all over your face? I’m like Jane Goodall studying the chimps.

Katie Heaney doesn’t get dating, either, which is a relief. There are, apparently, two of us completely baffled about how this works and what we’re supposed to be doing with our hands at any given time. It’s nice not to feel alone, right? Right.

Heaney’s book tracks her dating life from when she started elementary school to the present, covering crushes and near-misses and tragic romantic mishaps. It’s got a blog feel, and in reading her bio, she’s contributed to a number of blogs, so that’s where that came from. (I was actually alerted to this book by reading an exerpt somewhere online, but don’t bother asking me where, because I don’t ever remember things like that. I visit too many sites in one day. My head’s a mess.)

I started out really enjoying this. The humor was right up my alley; I very much enjoy when people can make fun of themselves in an intelligent way. Heaney’s a good writer, too.

But it got tedious, and quickly. What was funny, and self-deprecating, and kind of adorable, at first, starting being whiny and complainy and repetitive. I’m not saying I’m any better at finding someone to go home with at the end of the night…but I don’t whine about it quite so much. Or quite so publicly. Because there’s a fine line between “funny” and “this emo Facebook status was a terrible idea.”

And worst of all: the title’s not true. She HAS a date before the book’s over. (Sorry. That’s a spoiler, I suppose, but not a big one.) So the title really needs to be Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Boyfriend or else it just doesn’t make any sense.

I’m kind of torn, here. It kept me reading, but as it progressed, it annoyed me. So I don’t really know if I liked it overall, or didn’t. I suppose I can split the difference and just say it was middle of the road.

Here’s my thought. I think a lot of bloggers want to write a book. And bloggers are hot right now, especially humor bloggers. So I think there’s a possibily the powers that be over at the publisher jumped on this one without thinking it over too well, and she didn’t have a solid plan about how she was going to finish it. She had a solid beginning, and a so-so middle, and then the end just went downhill.

She’s not a bad writer, though. I think if she wrote about something else, it’d be readable. As it is, with this one, read until she leaves for college, then you’ve got every last permission of mine to put it aside. Just not worth your time. If you want emo, go read the status updates from your younger friends on Facebook. Same thing, only they’ll be briefer, so better for your attention span, you know?

The other will look at you: “Carthage” by Joyce Carol Oates

The phobia against looking at another person. For then, the other will look at you.

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates
496 pages, Ecco, January 2014
Literary Fiction

I’m a fan of Joyce Carol Oates.

You know how some authors just have that voice? That sound to their writing. If you were given a sample of their writing – say, an unpublished page, with nothing telling you who wrote it – you’d know immediately which author had written it?

I feel like there are a few authors I’d know immediately from a sample of this sort. Stephen King; John Irving; Margaret Atwood; Peter Straub; Joyce Carol Oates.

She has a very distinctive way of writing, especially with dialogue. A lot of sentence fragments; a lot of hesitation, dashes, nervous laughter. Her men are all bluster; her woman are usually timid mice with moments of fire. The circumstances might change, but the characters mainly remain the same.

We Were the Mulvaneys remains my favorite of her books; never have I read a book that hits so close to the experience of a rape victim, that shame, the way it tears up a family and a community. I also love her Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is my Heart (and not only for the title, a quote from one of my favorite poems) and her Black Water (if you want a barely-fictionalized take on the Chappaquiddick incident, that’s the one for you. It’s heartbreaking.) Or Zombie, the grimmest little realistic serial killer novel you can get your hands on. And if you want to read one of the creepiest short stories ever written, here. Read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I just re-read it and got the shivers all over again. Arnold Friend, with his empty boots and holding you so tight you won’t even think of getting away. His just doing two or three things to you, that’s all. I have actual gooseflesh over this.

Carthage treads familiar territory for Oates, both setting-wise and plot-wise. In a small upstate New York town (there were so many places I recognized – this is set where I grew up, so we had Potsdam and St. Lawrence and Plattsburgh and Dannemora, with a little Albany thrown in for good measure) live the Mayfield family – Zeno and Arlette and their two daughters, Juliet and Cressida. Juliet is the pretty one. Cressida is the smart one. Juliet is engaged to Brett Kincaid, who, after 9/11, immediately signs up to serve in the military, and comes back a broken man. Once he’s home, Cressida disappears – and all signs point to the severely disabled war veteran as the culprit.

I had problems with this book. I love Oates, and I loved the setting, and as always, reading her voice made me happy – but the plot and the characters left a lot to be desired.

There was no one to root for. Zeno was a holier-than-thou blowhard; Arlette ended up ok, but was a bit of a non-entity; Juliet was similar to her mother, somewhat non-existent other than as a plot device; Brett was probably the most interesting character, but not used enough. And the book wasn’t about them, anyway. It was about Cressida. And Cressida was a terrible character.

There was no explanation for her. She seemed to be annoying just to be annoying. There was a mention here and there that she might be autistic, but that was dropped, as if Oates forgot about it. She was described in the most derogatory of terms, with frizzy hair, like a little monkey, like a boy (she apparently never developed); she was rude to everyone, she didn’t know how to socially interact and no one dared correct her when she was being rude, she purposely ruined people’s things and lives…

How am I supposed to feel any empathy for this person? And the book needed me to feel empathy for her to work. I just couldn’t. She was a spoiled brat whose only impetus for anger was that people thought of her as “smart” and not “pretty” like her sister. Who the hell CARES? I’d choose being the smart one over the pretty one any day of the week. The pretty one eventually fades; the smart one endures. Maybe you don’t realize that until you’re older, but still, that’s the reason for everything that happens in this book? Weak. Weak plot.

I can’t totally dislike the book. It kept me reading and interested throughout. I love Oates’ work. I’ll continue to read her. But this just wasn’t that successful for me. (And it seems a lot of people are agreeing with me, scanning reviews online.)

If you’re not an Oates person, I can recommend a lot of her books that are better for you, if you’d like to BECOME an Oates person. She’s written enough that there are a ton of starting points for you. I just wouldn’t make this one of them.

And everything was rainbows and kittens: is there a need for negative book reviews?

Recently, in the New York Times, there was a discussion between two authors on the subject of reviews. More specifically, whether or not there was a need for negative book reviews.

Apparently, for a variety of reasons, negative book reviews are being frowned upon. The book publishing industry is in trouble, so we shouldn’t pan books; we should only encourage people to read, not discourage them. There are so many good books to review, so we should concentrate on those, and not spend our time reviewing bad books. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s just mean. Isn’t there enough negativity in the world? Why create more?

I call bullshit, you guys.

Listen, I’m all for nice. I think the world could use a little more nice. I completely agree that there’s enough negativity in the world – most of all, on my beloved internet, where I tend to live – that putting more out there is something that needs to be thought about before you do it. (Please note: I’m all for some good-natured snark. But outright meanness? I just think you might find something better to do with your time.)

However, anyone that knows me knows – I’m also all for honesty.honesty

I take my writing very seriously. More so my reviews, both my book reviews and my theater reviews. And I’m not comfortable putting out a review of anything that I’m not honest about.

When I’m writing my theater reviews, I don’t have a choice to review or not to review the show. I’m assigned certain shows, and I have to write a review of them. Sometimes I write a good review, sometimes a bad one, depending on how I felt about the show (and all the accompanying things like the set, the costumes, the direction, the acting, and the list goes on.) If I can’t write a good review of a show, I just can’t. This tends to really upset the readers of the paper, and they write very scathing (and often poorly-written) comments on my review, sometimes calling me names. However, I can still sleep at night. I told the truth as I saw it.

Now, here, on my blog, I can choose what to review and what not to review. And, to some extent, I do; if I read a book that I don’t feel enough about either way (or I don’t think I could write a whole review for), I just write a brief review on Goodreads and leave it there.

I suppose I could do the same with bad books, right? I could just read the book (or even NOT read the book; write it off as a bad job and give up and move onto something else) and write “I didn’t enjoy this” on Goodreads and forget about it.

But why would I do that?

Before I read a book, I often do a search for it online. I read a few Goodreads reviews (or reviews on Amazon, or on book blogs I trust, or elsewhere) and this helps me make an informed decision about whether or not to read the book.

If there were no negative reviews of it, and I read it, and hated it, I’d be kind of sad I hadn’t been tipped off and I’d wasted time on the book. And I’d write a review, stating exactly what I didn’t like about it, in the hope I could save someone else from reading it.

I’m not saying I’d write things like “OMG THIS BOOK MY EYES MY EYES” or something. (OK, unless it was 50 Shades.) But I’d say exactly what I didn’t like. And WHY I didn’t like it.

Also, even if the publishing business is in trouble…why would a bad review hasten that along? Really, in my eyes, what it would do is warn people off one book, and onto another. It’s not like it’s going to stop them from reading forever. It’s just going to warn them off this PARTICULAR book. There are MORE books. This isn’t the ONLY book.

Also, you’re not doing authors any favors by not writing honest reviews of their work, be they negative OR positive. Once you publish a book, it’s out there. It no longer only belongs to you. It belongs to every reader who puts eyes to it – and they’re entitled to an opinion. They might like it; they might not. But to muzzle all negative reviews – well, not only are you not doing the author any favors (how can they improve if they’re not aware they’re doing anything wrong?) but you’re not doing the readers any favors (it’s only fair they know what they’re in for) and you’re certainly not doing the reviewers any favors (I don’t know about you, but I have a slight issue with being told what I can and cannot write about, book-wise, on my own blog.)

Do we need negative reviews? Well, here’s my answer to that. We need HONEST reviews. We need reviews that reflect exactly what the writer felt about the book they read – good, bad, or otherwise. Yes, there’s more than enough negativity out there – but there’s always a place for honesty. And as long as you’re honest with yourself and your readers, you can sleep with a clear conscience. And isn’t that always the best kind of sleep, after all?

(And the two women in the article, after much discussion, agreed with me on this point. Only they did it in a much more New-York-Timesey way. I’m more of a free-newspaper-you-pick-up-in-the-gas-station writer. Sorry to break it to you, all.)