Sunday, September 22, 2013

Open Letter to Quiet Light by Francesca Lia Block

Open Letter to Quiet Light by Francesca Lia Block

Open Letter to Quiet Light will make readers feel as if they are peering at secret writings meant for the eyes of a lover alone, but these carefully crafted lines somehow transcend the personal to touch everyone who has experienced this kind of consuming, wrenching love.

In these fiercely passionate, devastatingly revealing, sometimes spiritual, and often painful poems, Francesca Lia Block describes in fiery detail the rise and demise of a year-long love affair. Her rich use of language infused with the power of sex and spirit finally paint a transcendent, almost mythic portrait of the way two wounded people—both searching for connection—find each other, collide, and eventually separate. The words seem to bleed onto the page and even the most graphic moments have a devotional quality filled with nuanced expression and unbridled intimacy. (Blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: R, 4 stars
Trigger warnings: Sexual content, miscarriage, cancer

So, as part of my honors thesis, my advisor and I have agreed that I’m to read one book of poetry per week. “Book” is to be defined at my discretion, since obviously I can’t read an entire anthology in a week. Most of these books I likely won’t review, because for whatever reason, I find it really difficult to review poetry. However, Francesca Lia Block is definitely an exception, because I love her work.

I didn’t really take a look at what this collection was about before I selected it. I already owned it, and had been meaning to read it, so it struck me as an obvious choice. I’m glad I picked it, for a variety of reasons. First, the book has a loose (very loose) narrative arc, and my thesis poems are (ideally) going to be based around a narrative. It was really interested to look at a collection of poems that was bound by a cohesive structure while not being as confining as a novel in verse. Something I’m struggling with in my own writing is the idea of balancing between poetry and narrative arc, and Open Letter to Quiet Light made me think about possibly loosening the arc of my collection until it is more implied than told, which is something that I think Block really excelled at in this collection. At all times, I was able to follow the developing relationship without feeling like I was bogged down by the connections between each poem.

At first the book surprised me with it’s sexual content, but I’m really not sure why--it’s not new to me that Block’s writing can be sexually charged, even her poetry (see my reviews of Nymph and Fairy Tales in Electri-City). If you’re already familiar with much of Block’s work (though admittedly more than Weetzie Bat), the sexual content won’t be much of a surprise. For those who are new to Francesca Lia Block, there’s sex, quite a bit of it, in fact.

My one complaint with the collection is that when writing about sex, some words just aren’t poetic, and in certain contexts, they even took me out of the poem a little bit. I’m not exactly sure what she could have done to prevent that besides being less direct, and I did like the directness--so often erotic poetry is wrapped up in innuendo and subtext, and sometimes it’s nice to have everything out in the open. Still, those moments did pull me out of the poetry a little bit.

Un-poetic wording aside, however, I did enjoy this collection. I found myself underlining a lot of particularly enchanting lines or phrases, which is always a sign of love with me and poetry. For fans of Francesca Lia Block, this collection is a must-read.

PS--Sorry for the lack of an update on Wednesday. I’m considering cutting back to one post a week, but hopefully I’ll get a backlog of reviews ready to go soon.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunday Update

I have no review to post today. The school year has started back up in full swing, and I just don't have time to read like I would like to. Or should I say, I have plenty of time to read poetry for my thesis, but I have a really hard time reviewing poetry, so that doesn't really help me. Maybe near the end of the semester I will do a long post about all the poetry I read for my thesis. Maybe.

For now, I thought I'd do a post about writer's block. Specifically, the kind of writer's block where you have so many ideas that you don't know where to start. My honors thesis is a collection of poetry, and I'm working with historical documents. This means that I have an unending supply of inspiration, and that nearly every time I sit down to write, I'm starting fresh. What I'm finding that means is that I have so many general ideas with no ideas of how to start or, for some, how to articulate them. Example: I know I want to do a poem or poems on the idea of taking on a persona and what that means personally and culturally. But that's all I know, and that's a very intellectual way to start a poem. And so I haven't (yet).

This is a situation that I've never really been in before, and I'm interested in seeing how my thesis develops around this problem of having too many ideas and no starting points. I suppose I'll post updates whenever I don't have a review ready to go. :)

Until next time!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.

Two doctors risk everything to save the life of a hunted child in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together. “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” Havaa, eight years old, hides in the woods and watches the blaze until her neighbor, Akhmed, discovers her sitting in the snow. Akhmed knows getting involved means risking his life, and there is no safe place to hide a child in a village where informers will do anything for a loaf of bread, but for reasons of his own, he sneaks her through the forest to the one place he thinks she might be safe: an abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded. Though Sonja protests that her hospital is not an orphanage, Akhmed convinces her to keep Havaa for a trial, and over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: R, 5 stars
Trigger warnings: violence, torture, sexual assault, sex slavery

I’ve tried mentally writing this review several times, but I keep getting caught up in, “AAAAAH, it’s so beautiful.” Seriously, this novel captivated me with it’s writing, and with the way it wove everything together. I love novels that leave me actively wondering how everything is connected until, one by one, pieces start falling into place, and I am able to draw conclusions, not because the author is sloppy, but because it’s completely intentional. I love this book so very much.

I will admit, though, that for as much as I loved this book, there were moments I was confused. I’m not sure if this a weakness of the book or merely a moment where my education is lacking: I really felt like I was missing so much context for the situation in Chechnya. For the first few chapters, I kept double-checking the year the book was set, because I was so surprised that things in Chechnya were that bad in 2004 and I had never heard about it. Again, that could easily just be a problem with my education, but it was disconcerting to feel like I had no contextual background.

I really admire the way that Marra wove together so many threads from the lives of different characters into a whole tapestry. Throughout the first half of the novel, there were many times when I wondered where everything could possibly be going, and then miraculously it came together to paint a lovely and sad whole picture. Where I writing an analytical paper on this book, I might write paragraphs about how his well-rounded characters capture the human condition and reveal the ties between all of us. But since this is just a review, I’ll leave it at that.

I wish there was more I could form into cohesive thoughts, but I’m still too emotionally close to this book. If you can handle violence, including sexual violence, and have even the remotest interest in literary fiction, I urge you to read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. It truly is a beautiful book.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Back to School Time!

Sorry for the lack of updates this week. I'm back at school now, and the settling into a new routine + schoolwork and actual work really kicked my butt this past week. Have no fear, updates will resume as normal on Wednesday. :) Until then, I hope everyone is able to find something lovely to read!


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.

March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.

June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG-13, 5 stars
Trigger warnings: death, war, mentions of miscarriage and abortion

Oh this book, where to begin? I suppose I could start with the fact that about 20 or so pages from the end, I started crying and didn’t stop until well after I had finished. I didn’t anticipate this being a crying book (and I cry a lot when I read. Actually, I just cry a lot in general), and I’m still not completely sure why it emotionally impacted me so strongly, but I’m glad it did. I always consider it a form of praise if a book elicits a visible emotional reaction from the reader. Letters from Skye succeeded in that many times over.

As you might be able to guess from the title, Letters from Skye is a novel told entirely in letters. It certainly isn’t the first novel to do so, but it’s definitely the most well-done of the ones I’ve seen. This works so well in part because the voice is so genuine. Brockmole did an excellent job of writing characters with distinct and different voices. As an American, Davey uses different vocabulary from Elspeth, and since Margaret spent most of her life in Edinburgh, her letters have less of the Scottish highlands language than Elspeth’s do. The writing style took me straight into the time period, and the different letters took me from Chicago to Skye to London.

The period details worked especially well at not making the story overly sentimental. As a hopeless romantic, this book checked all the right boxes for me, and with its World War era atmosphere (the commonness of writing letters, the sense of urgency in relationships), I didn’t feel like any of it was over the top. This is a love story, so if romances aren’t your thing, this might not be a good choice for you. However, it isn’t sappy or overdone.

I think my biggest disappointment with Letters from Skye is that it isn’t a true story. The language was so real, and the characters felt so alive, that there were times when I almost convinced myself it was true, that Brockmole merely found a trunk of letters somewhere and compiled them into a book. In addition, there was one letter that I thought was borderline unrealistic. By the end of the letter, I though the details included were justified, but it still seemed a little like maid-and-butler talk. That’s only one letter out of a whole book, though--hardly worth noting.

Fans of historical fiction and romance novels are likely to enjoy Letters from Skye, and do to the skillful writing, I also recommend it to those who favor literary fiction. Or everyone. That works, too.

PS--A big heck yeah to all the reviewers who wrote their reviews as a letter. I wanted to, but I’m very particular about keeping my format. :P