Moby Dick

If you are one of the many people vaguely familiar with the basic story arc of Moby Dick (man, whale, revenge, conflict), and believe that this limited knowledge is probably sufficient to sustain you in life, then I would urge you to reconsider because you simply do not know what you are missing. As a girl whose interest in whaling went as far as "isn't the ocean pretty?," I think it's safe to say that I was not the prime market for this particular novel. I find its main proponents are, let's face it, generally men or anyone who has a great appreciation for the sea and vessels upon it. That said, I still found Moby Dick to be a marvelous work of literature whose place on the shelf of classics is well deserved. It might require a bit of persistence at times, but in the end, you'll be amply rewarded for your dedication. Indeed, I was incredibly surprised at how funny Herman Melville can be (perhaps even more so when he's not intending it) and I couldn't be more pleased that I was all but forced to read this seminal work of English literature.

For many people, there will always be certain classics that do not leap from their time-tested space on the shelf to say, "Read me! I'm still relevant and exciting and funny!" Indeed, many classics fail to do this with the larger population and as a result, lots of people become inordinately proud of themselves if they manage to read a book deemed "a classic" after graduating formal schooling. I'd like to think that I'm not quite that bad, but Moby Dick was, I admit, not high on my list of "books I ought to eventually read if I want to consider myself a well-rounded literature enthusiast." It's actually a possibility that I might not have ever even read Moby Dick if it wasn't for my significant other. This is his *favorite* book. He is one of those previously mentioned men who has a great appreciation for the sea and its vessels. He corrects me when I interchange the words "boat" and "ship." He insists on touring submarines or other large crafts when we happen to find ourselves in a city that features such tourist activities. I suppose that it was somewhat inevitable that Moby Dick would be his favorite book... and I also suppose that I may have misled him with my personal interests when I bought him the pop-up version of Moby Dick for Christmas one year. (I eagerly pulled tabs to open the white whale's mouth and, as he saw my enthusiasm, an idea crept into his head.) While I generally believe that those whom I choose to date have excellent taste in literature, whenever I submit to read their "favorite book," it rarely goes well. (I'm looking at you, Watership Down and Spoon River Anthology.) My current fellow and I, however, made a deal; we wouldn't simply read the other person's favorite book, each of us would read our own favorite *to* the other... aloud and in its entirety. He had actually read my favorite Austen during our own courtship (already he's a better person than I), so I moved on to select Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Why did I get two? Well, he chose Moby Dick and simply by virtue of page count, I managed to get through two Austens while we sailed on the high seas in pursuit of the white whale.

As far as Moby Dick goes, you know the story. A sailor going by a potentially fake name (famous first line alert: "Call me Ishmael.") narrates a voyage on the whaling ship known as the Pequod where a somewhat obsessed Captain Ahab seeks to kill the albino sperm whale called Moby Dick. Ishmael, a former schoolteacher who has never previously embarked on a sea voyage, travels to Nantucket and finds himself sharing lodgings with a harpooner named Queequeg (whose entire body is covered in tattoos and who hails from a cannibalistic tribe in the South Seas). The two become fast friends and decide to sign up on the Pequod together, despite some forebodings on land. The mates of the Pequod (named Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask) are each interesting and very different characters. Starbuck is a Quaker and a thoughtful man, who often seems to be the only person on board with any sense when Ahab works everyone up about hunting down Moby Dick. He insists that it's lunacy to seek revenge against a dumb creature, particularly when their very lives are at stake, but it's unsurprising that Starbuck's objections fall on deaf ears. (Fun fact! The coffee chain Starbucks was named for this particular first mate and Battlestar Galactica fans will also recognize the name.) Stubb always has his pipe clenched in a smile and his constant talk (be it on deck or while lowered for whales) is reminiscent of the wise fools of Shakespeare. Finally, there's Flask, who is stout and reliable, but seems to believe that "the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered." There are also three harpooners on board the Pequod, aside from Queequeg; all of them are foreigners and non-Christians (aka savages, naturally, in this book), consisting of a Native American, an African, and a Persian. They don't speak much but each has significance on the ship. The rest of the crew members originate from across the globe to create an impressively international crew, though more focus is really made on those Nantucketers who always look towards home with eagerness.

Of course, there's still one character that everyone is a bit awed by/scared of, and that is the infamous Captain Ahab, who takes his sweet time in making an appearance on deck. In a previous encounter with Moby Dick, Ahab lost his leg and gained an unwavering series of revenge fantasies that motivate his every action. He also has a long scar on his face that is implied to run the length of his body, acquired after being struck by lightning. Ahab might simply seem a bit fanatical at the beginning of the journey, but his obsession quickly takes over the narrative as Ishmael, Queequeg and just about everyone else fade into the background. He is, perhaps, one of the greatest creations of American literature.

Melville (who went to sea in a whaling ship during the 1840s) was deeply committed to presenting a thorough account of what it was like to live and work on a whaling ship, so the reader will learn a great deal about the experience whether s/he likes it or not. The chapters on types of whales are often cited as being particularly vexing (though I found them to be quite funny) for the fact that modern science has left them riddled with inaccuracies. Quite honestly, I think this only makes them better because it forced me to go look up a few things so I could see if Melville's understanding had been proven wrong yet or if he was, indeed, spot on (though more often than not, the former was true). One has the sense while reading Moby Dick that Melville's writing style was to sit down and write furiously for hours or days at a time, then the next time that he picked up his pen, it would be with a totally different objective or outlook. As a result, you'll find those "educational" chapters every now and then, between scenes of doom-riddled mumblings or whale-dismembering. We even, randomly, have a few chapters that are written like a play with stage directions and soliloquies.

Some of the events that take place in Moby Dick were inspired by the real-life tragedy of the Essex, though frankly, Melville didn't focus on the truly horrific/fascinating parts of that story. The whale ship was charged by a large whale and sank in 1820, an event that was apparently quite rare. The men of the Essex, many of whom survived the ship's sinking as their boats were lowered and in pursuit of another whale, eventually landed on an island but quickly exhausted its resources. The rest of the story consists of illness, starvation, and cannibalism... none of which make it into Melville's masterpiece. Like Ahab, he focuses relentlessly on the whale... which evidently has its inspiration in life, too, with stories of an albino sperm whale called "Mocha Dick." All the general summaries of Moby Dick mention the Essex as a primary inspiration, but once I read about Mocha Dick, I feel like we've got our main culprit right there. A whale-induced shipwreck is one thing, an albino whale covered in futile and twisted harpoons is quite another.

Evidently, Moby Dick was not all that well-received upon its initial publication, though that might have had a lot to do with the fact that the publisher screwed up and forgot to print the epilogue, which is kind of important. It wasn't until years later that Melville's popularity grew and Moby Dick struck a chord with the disillusioned masses (particularly after WWI), who were finally able to appreciate a story of futile and tragic obsession. Since then, Moby Dick has been heralded as the greatest American novel and while I'm not honestly sure I can cheer that statement, I'm also not sure what else merits that title, so let's just put it in the top ten, shall we?

I could go into the symbolism behind Ahab and Moby Dick, the themes of obsession, religious fervor, prophesies, quixotic endeavors, fate, and so on, but I found more to love in the details of the novel and the characters themselves, like poor, doomed Starbuck and delightful Queequeg (with his creepy idol, Yojo). Pip, a cabin boy who loses his wits after being thrown from a boat, annoyed the heck out of me; when you have Ahab, then you know you're all stocked up on crazy so Pip seemed an excess. I was sorry to see Queequeg and Ishmael fade into the background as Ahab's revenge took over the narrative entirely, but obsession does kind of take over. Few people have probably taken more delight in the potentially homosexual undertones that frame the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael -- one can easily revert to the state of a twelve-year-old when reading how they share a bed together and, later, Ishmael starts blissfully squeezing the hands of his shipmates while kneading collected sperm oil. Thankfully, my reader also seemed to be amused by these points, though he'd loyally insist "they're not gay!" when I gave him significant looks after questionable passages. He may be right, but Melville did seem awfully devoted to Nathaniel Hawthorne. I'm just sayin'.

Moby Dick is a truly magnificent novel and now I can clearly see why it has endured to hold such a revered place in the canon of American literature. Captain Ahab is the poster boy for doomed obsession and a magnificent character. I can hardly believe that there was a time when I thought I could probably skip reading this particular novel. I'm not sure I'll be diving directly into another work by Melville, but I certainly don't feel as daunted at the prospect as I did before. It's also rather nice to know that, for perhaps the very first time, I can wholeheartedly embrace a significant other's favorite book. If you're looking to read only one book about albino sperm whale revenge, then look no further, you've come to the right place. You will, however, have to get your own reader if you seek to repeat my experience... and if your reader doesn't do a Captain Ahab voice for you, then you're not getting the five star experience.


The Red Pyramid

For those of you thinking that The Red Pyramid is code for Percy Jackson Does Egypt, I'm here to let you know that you're wrong. Mostly. Well, about 50/50. The tone of voice is pretty similar and we're still working with the idea of kids saving the world while trying to figure out the complicated god-mortal dynamic, but there are enough differences that Percy Jackson fans won't feel like I've read this book before. Of course, it's still Rick Riordan taking ancient history and making it fun for modern day kids without totally slaughtering every story, which is kind of why I liked him in the first place, so it's not a bad thing to have some similarities. Personally, I thought that a huge part of his success with Percy Jackson rested in his comprehensive knowledge of Greek mythology, thus enabling him to create modern characters and yet still promote the myths. Evidently, his knowledge is not limited to Greek mythology and he's got Egypt pretty down pat, too.

The Red Pyramid is the first in what will become "The Kane Chronicles," focused on Carter and Sadie Kane, two kids who are about to realize that their family is way more screwed up than they could ever have imagined. Their mother died six years ago and as a result, their grandparents in England (their mom's parents) received custody of Sadie while Julius Kane (their dad) retained sole custody of Carter. Sadie stayed in England while Carter traveled the world with their father, a noted Egyptologist. Each thinks the other must have it easier. The two children have grown up as virtual strangers and because they're multi-racial kids whose appearances each favor a different parent, they don't even look related (and with Sadie's accent, they don't even *sound* alike). Carter, raised by his father, was taught to always appear as an impeccably dressed and proud black man, whereas Sadie has remained in England and been raised as a fairly normal English girl. They see each other only when Julius is permitted to visit his daughter for a single day every six months and that isn't much time to develop any real bond. That all changes when, on one of these visitation days, Julius blows up the Rosetta Stone, unleashes imprisoned gods, imprisons himself while channeling one, and destroys life as his children know it.

You see, Sadie and Carter come to understand that their parents were not just magicians (a bit of a major revelation in itself), but they're the descendants of ancient Egyptian pharaohs. With these two royal blood lines united in Sadie and Carter, they are incredibly powerful... more powerful than any two mortals have been in centuries. Part of the reason behind splitting them up rested with the fact that together, their powers only seem to grow. Once their father disappears, their Uncle Amos (dad's brother) steps in and the children are taken on a crash course of Egyptian mythology and present-day manifestations of that. Years ago, it was decided by the House of Life (a powerful group of magicians) that the gods needed to be controlled and imprisoned. In the magical event that killed their mother, the Kanes seem to have been working against this desire to imprison the gods (just *why* they did this is something Sadie and Carter intend to find out), and thus became enemies of the House of Life. Now, Sadie and Carter have to figure out a way to either work with the House of Life or stay a few steps ahead of them so they can save their father and possibly the world. The Egyptian gods become particularly fascinating here as Sadie and Carter realize that they're each hosting a god and need to maintain their own independence or the god might take them over. They do, however, need the power that comes with hosting a god if they're going to defeat Set, a god of chaos who is intent on destroying the world.

My description sounds a bit muddled, but it all makes more sense in the actual book. It's a very quick read -- as evidenced by the fact that I took advantage of the Barnes & Noble "read in store" offer and read this for free on my nook over the course of a few days an hour at a time. The narration is passed between Carter and Sadie, allowing each to present their perspective of events and bicker with each other in the telling. It's hard to believe that they ever spent time apart, as they certainly act like feuding siblings who would be loathe to admit that they love the other. Their narrative voices can sound similar at times, but on the whole, Riordan does a good job of keeping things clear -- it helps that both Carter and Sadie each have a potential "love interest" (Carter is 14 and Sadie is 12), so their storylines sometimes veer towards some particular notice given to those respective interests. Sadie and Carter learn to work together and it doesn't take much for them to learn the real value of family. Whether or not they can make theirs whole once more, though, is the real dilemma, as they'll ultimately have to choose between personal desires and the good of the world.

Riordan has certainly made some kind of deal with the gods, if not the devil, because he's really got the golden touch when it comes to these YA novels. The Percy Jackson series was quite charming and the Kane Chronicles look as though they'll follow a similar successful trajectory. I only hope that he can keep things as original and interesting for however many books he plans to write -- particularly because I believe he's got another series coming out that's set in the Percy Jackson vein of things, with new kids headed to Camp Half-Blood. Hopefully he won't simply bounce between Egypt and Greece, though, because I'd love to see which culture he tackles next. Norse? Sumerian? In the meantime, though, I'll be quite pleased to continue reading the Kane Chronicles.


How Did You Get This Number

Sloane Crosley's debut novel I Was Told There'd Be Cake earned her a spot on the "writers to watch" list for many people, myself included. Now I can say without a doubt that I will purchase anything Sloane Crosley happens to publish from here on out, I don't care if it's a grocery list. She's a delight, a fantastic wordsmith whose small observations are to be cherished as comic gold. Indeed, it's often the sentences spoken as asides that have me laughing out loud in the presence of strangers. Her command of language means that she always seems to have the perfect phrasing for the most bizarre or whimsical circumstance... and she knows when to let the simple description of a thing speak for itself. She, herself, is credibly droll even in the moment (as opposed to reflectively looking back on the event) with a knack for locating the absurd and mapcap in everyday situations... though her own poor luck (or good luck as far as the reader goes) does tend to stretch these scenarios into the farcical. As a twenty-something New Yorker with thirty looming on the horizon, she strikes an obvious chord with me, but I think that her humor should be accessible to anyone... or at least any reasonably intelligent person who understands that we all have our own flaws and if we can't laugh at them once in a while, then we're in for a long, dull ride.

I Was Told There'd Be Cake was so fresh and funny that I worried that there might be too much pressure placed on Crosley for book two, but if anything, I think she's gotten better. As with all delicious things, there is the dangerous tendency to gobble down How Did You Get This Number without any time to breathe. Try to take some time between stories so you can savor the humor... or maybe just re-read it all over again as soon as you finish the first read-through. The stories seem a bit longer, but that's only because she takes her time with each, exploring multiple emotions and ideas that can all be wrapped up in a single experience. She's a little older and a little wiser, so there are fewer foolish events and a greater number of wry observations, though there's still plenty of ridiculous inner turmoil. Part of Crosley's charm for me is the fact that she's very much a New Yorker and the stories in this collection are often set in New York, though she ventures out for various reasons, ultimately always desperate to get back. She starts off with "Show Me on the Doll," describing an impromptu solo journey to Lisbon that gives us all ample justification for not taking more impromptu solo journeys the way our ten-year-old selves might have thought we would when the definition of adulthood encompassed doing whatever we wanted. "Le Paris!" discusses two different trips to Paris, one of which involves a contender for "most awkward conversation" in Crosley's life as she finds herself in confession at Notre Dame, despite the fact that she's Jewish and the priest only speaks French and Japanese. In "Lost In Space," Crosley describes her mother's dreams of a genius child quickly thwarted after discovering that Sloane has a learning disability resulting in terrible spatial relation skills. You might not think this is funny, but wait until you read about Crosley's method for cheating at the SATs which involves padding her bra with post-its. "Take a Stab at It" and "It's Always Home You Miss" are both very New York tales of apartment woe and cab smells, respectively, while "Light Pollution" sees Crosley head to Alaska for a friend's wedding (where "bear bells" are part of the wedding favors). "If You Sprinkle" is a story that any girl can relate to, describing the horror of middle school and then "An Abbreviated Gift of Tongues" is for everyone with a catalog of family pets buried in the backyard, though the Crosley family pets are all interred in duct-tape sealed tupperware. The final story, "Off the Back of a Truck," is perhaps the most poignant of all as a shady arrangement to furnish her apartment with stolen merchandise is described alongside a doomed love affair. This might be the true gem of the collection, for while Crosley often admits to faults and flaws, in "Off the Back of a Truck," she manages to convey emotional vulnerability, heightened by the sense that the wound hasn't quite healed. Through it all, Crosley presents a fantastic image of a strong and independent Manhattan woman... who never has it all quite as together as she might wish. It's easy to relate to Crosley on nearly every level and by the end of each story, you feel as though you've just been told a hilarious story by an old friend over cocktails.

If you need to compare Sloane Crosley to any other popular writer out there, then the closest you'd get is David Sedaris... except Crosley is female, straight, and the epitome of the neurotic New Yorker. She also manages to tell hysterical stories without giving the impression that she's completely exploiting her family and friends. Indeed, despite the presence of those people in her stories, somehow it's Crosley that always comes out as the ridiculous one or, more often, the situation itself is hilarious without injuring or offending any named parties (well, except the one about a bitchy classmate in grade school, but she deserved it). You can toss in some comparisons to Dorothy Parker, but Crosley retains her optimism and sense of whimsy as opposed to cynicism (though there certainly is enough of a New Yorker's suspicion). If you have not yet been privileged enough to read a book by Sloane Crosley, I pity you... but consider this your chance to set things right. Go out to get How Did You Get This Number and pick up I Was Told There'd Be Cake for good measure. I dare you to glance at the first page of either one and not get sucked in by her wit and charm.


The Mysterious Benedict Society

It's a pretty popular and time-tested children's book plot device to suggest that only a child can bring about the destruction of an evil power because said evil power would never see it coming. It's so very popular that I feel this concept should make it onto the list of things to beware if you become an evil superpower (along with monologues spoken just prior to your attempt to kill an archnemesis that might give away your evil plan and incompetent underlings). The Mysterious Benedict Society follows in the tradition of books where kids save the world, tossing in some healthy doses of "orphans banding together," "improbable boarding school arrangements," and "eccentric adult leaders."

Our main character is Reynie Muldoon, an orphaned child of impressive intelligence who answers an unusual ad in the newspaper after being encouraged to do so by his tutor, Miss Perumal. "ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?" the ad asks -- and Reynie notes with some surprise that the question is directed to children and not parents. After undergoing some very surprising tests that aren't simply looking for general knowledge, Reynie finds that he has passed and is offered a place working with Mr. Benedict, a narcoleptic genius who has uncovered a villain's evil plot to control the world through the television and radio. Reynie is one of four children (all of whom are orphaned or otherwise alone in the world) that Mr. Benedict has recruited to join a secret society of child spies who will help him save the world. These four children each have their own unique talents and to accomplish their goals, they'll have to work together. Sticky Washington, a nervous boy who fidgets with his glasses, has a photographic memory. Kate Wetherall, who would like to be known as the Great Kate Weather Machine, has recently been part of a circus and is like a pint-sized MacGyver, carrying a bucket of useful items and tools. Constance Contraire... well, she's small, stubborn, and pretty annoying, but don't worry, she has her talents, too.

Together, the kids (who dub themselves the Mysterious Benedict Society) infiltrate an elite island school called the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (one of the kids jokes that at least the initials don't spell out DIE). Apparently, the man who runs the school, Mr. Curtain, is somehow broadcasting subliminal messages to the people of the world, sowing the seeds of panic and discontent that make up "the Emergency" which is a generally perceived notion that things are going downhill. Upon arriving at the school, however, the kids are totally on their own and find that the man who runs the school, Mr. Curtain, looks exactly like their beloved leader, Mr. Benedict! Together, they need to figure out what this means, how the subliminal messages are being broadcast, what purpose the messages have, and how they can stop it all to save the world... which seems like rather daunting tasks for four kids all on their own, but these are no ordinary children.

Trenton Lee Stewart has created a charming story with fun characters. There were a few times where I felt things dragged on a bit or certain characters would be a bit annoying, but on the whole I thought this was really a wonderful children's/YA book with some very positive messages contained within. Fans of Roald Dahl will find a kindred spirit in Stewart, who isn't perhaps as wicked, but is still quite witty. For kids who enjoy solving clues and figuring out a puzzle right alongside the protagonists, this would be an excellent read. The book also deals with some pretty serious issues including parental abandonment, the true nature of family, dealing with one's fears, forgiveness, and loyalty to the people one holds dear. Ultimately, Stewart has written an excellent novel and given the creativity in this one, I doubt that he'll have much trouble sustaining a series.


Different Hours

Stephen Dunn, I love you. Different Hours might be, I suppose, Dunn's most famous volume of poetry, as it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. It's a bit darker and a bit more somber than I expected, clearly written by a man who is aware of his aging self. He primarily looks back on his own life, at the things he did and did not do, and yet he also looks beyond his own existence to the world and its issues. One of the blurbs in the front of this book calls his word "simultaneously haunting and reassuring," which I find to be a very apt description of Dunn and this volume in particular. It's lovely, wry, heartbreaking, and buoyant. It makes me pleased to know that Dunn received the Pulitzer, not necessarily for this work, but just in general so that he could be recognized for being such a strong and necessary voice for the contemporary world.

Below are a few of my favorites from Different Hours,

"Dog Weather"

Earlier, everyone was in knee boots, collars up.
The paper boy's papers came apart
in the wind.

Now, nothing human moving.
Just a black squirrel fidgeting like Bogart
in The Caine Mutiny.

My breath chalks the window,
gives me away to myself.

I like the intelligibility of old songs.
I prefer yesterday.

Cars pass, the asphalt's on its back
smudged with skid. It's potholed
and cracked; it's no damn good.

Anyone out without the excuse of a dog
should be handcuffed
and searched for loneliness.

My hair is thinning.
I feel like tossing the wind a stick.

The promised snow has arrived,
heavy, wet,
I remember the blizzard of...
People I don't want to be
speak like that.

I close my eyes and one
of my many unborn sons
makes a snowball
and lofts it at an unborn friend.

They've sent me an AARP card.
I'm on their list.

I can be discounted now almost anywhere.

"The Reverse Side"

The reverse side also has a reverse side.
-- A Japanese Proverb

It's why when we speak a truth
some of us instantly feel foolish
as if a deck inside us has been shuffled
and there it is --the opposite of what we said.

And perhaps why as we fall in love
we're already falling out of it.

It's why the terrified and the simple
latch onto one story,
just one version of the great mystery.

Image & afterimage, oh even
the open-minded yearn for a fiction
to rein things in--
the snapshot, the lie of a frame.

How do we not go crazy,
we who have found ourselves compelled
to live within the circle, the ellipsis, the word
not yet written.

"A Postmortem Guide"

For my eulogist, in advance

Do not praise me for my exceptional serenity.
Can't you see I've turned away
from the large excitements,
and have accepted all the troubles?

Go down to the old cemetery; you'll see
there's nothing definitive to be said.
The dead once were all kinds--
boundary breakers and scalawags,
martyrs of the flesh, and so many
dumb bunnies of duty, unbearably nice.

I've been a little of each.

And, please, resist the temptation
of speaking about virtue.
The seldom-tempted are too fond
of that word, the small-
spirited, the unburdened.
Know that I've admired in others
only the fraught straining
to be good.

Adam's my man and Eve's not to blame.
He bit in; it made no sense to stop.

Still, for accuracy's sake you might say
I often stopped,
that I rarely went as far as I dreamed.

And since you know my hardships,
understand they're mere bump and setback
against history's horror.
Remind those seated, perhaps weeping,
how obscene it is
for some of us to complain.

Tell them I had second chances.
I knew joy.
I was burned by books early
and kept sidling up to the flame.

Tell them that at the end I had no need
for God, who'd become just a story
I once loved, one of many
with concealments and late-night rescues,
high sentence and pomp. The truth is

I learned to live without hope
as well as I could, almost happily,
in the despoiled and radiant now.

You who are one of them, say that I loved
my companions most of all.
In all sincerity, say that they provided
a better way to be alone.


Everything Else in the World

Prior to reading Everything Else in the World, I had only come across Stephen Dunn poems by chance. An anthology here, a poets.org search there. Finally, after discovering the poem "The Kiss," I knew it was time to take a deeper look at this particular poet and so I bought Dunn's fourteenth collection of poems, which happens to contain the one that pushed me over the edge.

With only a few poems to form an opinion, I was not quite expecting what I found here in this collection. It all feels distinctly similar to Billy Collins, though Dunn seems to make more of what it means to be an adult in today's world. Playful at times, but always incredibly attentive to subtle shifts of thought and understanding. There's honesty and precision, coupled with a deep emotion and need to communicate more than just a field of vision. Dunn seems more interested in the people that inhabit the world and how they shape it as opposed to the world as it exists apart from them (perhaps noting that there really is no such world any longer). Indeed, more time seems spent in a mental world than a physical one, though one is overlaid on the other.

Having now spent more time with Dunn's poetry, I can say with absolute certainty that I'll be seeking out even more of it. To give you a taste, here are some of my favorites, including the poem that brought me here and the one that lends its name to the collection:

"Everything Else in the World"

Too young to take pleasure
from those privileged glimpses
we're sometimes given after failure,
or to see the hidden opportunity
in now getting what we want,
each day I subwayed into Manhattan

in my new, blue serge suit,
looking for work. College, I thought,
had whitened my collar, set me up,
but I'd majored in history.
What did I know about the world?

At interviews, if asked about the world,
I might have responded--citing Carlyle--
Great men make it go, I want to be one of those.
But they wanted someone entry-level,
pleased for a while to be small.

Others got the jobs;
no doubt, later in the day, the girls.
At Horn & Hardarts, for solace
at lunchtime, I'd make a sandwich emerge
from its cell of pristine glass.
It took just a nickel and a dime.

Nickels and dimes could make
a middleman disappear, easy as that,
no big deal, a life or two
destroyed, others improved.
But I wasn't afraid of capitalism.
All I wanted was a job like a book
so good I'd be finishing it
for the rest of my life.

Had my education failed me?
I felt a hankering for the sublime,
its dangerous subversions
of the daily grind.
Oh I took a dull, well-paying job.
History major? the interviewer said, I think
you might be good at designing brochures.

I was. Which filled me with desire
for almost everything else in the world.

"You'd Be Right"

He often needed two women. Just one--
how unfair to expect from her so much!
Intelligence before and after sex,
a certain naughtiness during,
gifts of companionship and solitude.
But he liked the day-to-day of marriage
and its important unimportances,
quiet moments made livable
by the occasional promise of a fiesta.
And though he knew it wasn't enough
for her either, and always assumed
she had similar thoughts, if not secrets,
nevertheless you may be thinking cad,

maybe even monster, you who've been happy,
or differently unhappy, or obeyed all your life
some good rule. And you'd be right
if you guessed his wife's eventual coolness,
her turning away, and, when he didn't leave,
the slow rise of the other woman's disappointment,
which would turn to anger, then to sadness.
You'd be right, but can you imagine what joys
accrue to the needy over a lifetime of seeking love?
Can you say you're not envious, or that you're sure
it wasn't worth what he risked and lost?

"Cut and Break"

Each morning the sullen but excellent masons
arrived at six to cut and lay stone
for the riding walls of our walkway.
Hung over, they worked deliberately, didn't care
that anyone might be sleeping or disturbed.
We learned not to speak to them before noon.

It was western Maryland; for me a new home,
new love, at once connected and removed.
Guns and Jesus rhymed on many a pickup.
The local newspaper ransacked
the Bible to edify and guide. Democracy:
how hard to like it every hour of the day.

Meanwhile, when the stonemasons spoke
they cursed. When they were silent
they were making noise. At 6 a.m. I could think
of a few freedoms I wished to curtail.
But of course they worked with what wouldn't
easily yield. They had to cut and break

before they could make anything whole.
I should have been all sympathy,
I who'd recently torn apart a marriage,
discovered what was and wasn't there.
In a few weeks the walkway was finished.
They were out of my life, gone.

Sometime solid remained, and the mountains
seemed to collect around us,
seemed even to redefine the sky,
but not for long. In this foreignness
I recognized an elsewhere
I carried with me, no one's fault.

Yet my love had a way of finding me
wherever I was. And soon I'd meet a man
whose decline in tennis matched mine,
and another I knew would be a friend
after I saw the stunning useless art he made
out of metal, discarded things.

"The Kiss"

She pressed her lips to mind.
--a typo

How many years I must have yearned
for someone's lips against mind.
Pheromones, newly born, were floating
between us. There was hardly any air.

She kissed me again, reaching that place
that sends messages to toes and fingertips,
then all the way to something like home.
Some music was playing on its own.

Nothing like a woman who knows
to kiss the right thing at the right time,
then kisses the things she's missed.
How had I ever settled for less?

I was thinking this is intelligence,
this is the wisest tongue
since the Oracle got into a Greek's ear,
speaking sense. It's the Good,

defining itself. I was out of my mind.
She was in. We married as soon as we could.

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner is, essentially, a character study that Stephenie Meyer expanded into a novella. You may not have noticed, but Twilight fans get a little obsessed, so it's not terribly surprising that Meyer is adding to the existing four-book series in small bites (particularly as it looks as though the main quartet will stay a quartet). Any book that offers a glimpse of Bella and Edward is sure to sell. Admittedly, at least The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner is telling a different story than the leaked-and-then-posted-online Edward POV re-write of Twilight would. Fans will know that Bree Tanner made one very short appearance in Eclipse, the third novel in the series. The vampire Victoria, desperate to have revenge on Bella and Edward for the killing of her mate James, created an "army" of newborn vampires so that she might strike out against Bella and the Cullen family. It consisted of twenty-or-so young vampires who were not well-controlled and if you've read Eclipse, then you'll know from the get-go that things don't end well for any of these young vampires, including Bree. It's not giving anything away to know this, and Meyer only wrote this to provide her readers with a closer look at a darker world of Meyer vampires and to let them enjoy another new, brief dip into the Twilight world.

Bree doesn't have much time to develop a personality that could be easily differentiated from any other nice-enough teenage girl dealing with a somewhat difficult situation. Her only true distinct characteristics seem to be a desire to stay out of sight and her tendency to read a great deal of books. Not even sixteen before she was turned, Bree had been living on the streets -- easy prey for those seeking lone individuals that could be conscripted into the newborn vampire army. She remembers little of her mortal life and instead, she provides us with eyes into a twisted and dangerous situation. Survival for Bree seems to depend on hiding in a corner, behind another vampire who has the ability to divert attention... or at least produce a zone around himself that makes others want to look away. Near-invisibility is not a bad thing, I suppose, for a vampire, and Bree tries to hide in the aura of this, reading books and waiting for her chance to leave the safe-house at night. She manages to find what she might be able to call a friend, a rare commodity in a place where losing limbs (don't worry, they apparently re-attach) is commonplace and lies form the foundation of their daytime prison. Since we know it will all end badly, the reader simply has to watch it all play out, seeing another side of the story and perhaps developing some deeper pity for creatures that Meyer evidently felt hadn't been properly examined.

For such a short piece, it's hard to really have any real character depth, but Meyer does have this magic ability to create girls who long to know and be known by quiet and beautiful boys. For Bree, this is Diego, a slightly older vampire (only by a few months in vampire life, but by two or three years as a mortal before being turned). They both consider themselves outsiders, unwilling to socialize with the other vampires who cannot think beyond their thirst for blood. Bree and Diego even find themselves questioning the rule that suggests they will turn to dust if they set foot outside in the sunlight. (Get ready for more sparkly vampires!) Naturally, they are considered "better" vampires than the others who are simply out of control and violent. The definition of "better" here still means Bree and Diego kill humans for their meals, it just also means that they think for themselves and are unwilling to let themselves be used as pawns in some revenge game once they get an inkling that something isn't right.

This is one of those books where those who read it are largely made up of true fans, so it's hard to go wrong as long as one doesn't over-promise a new look at the beloved lead characters. On the whole, I think fans will be pleased with this small new novella, though the glimpse of Bella and Edward is, indeed, limited to the end scene. Meyer seemed to go to a lot of trouble to emphasize that this novel is from the perspective of someone who doesn't know anything about Bella, Edward, and the Cullens... yet seems quite interested by them and so keeps track of them at the crucial moment (she does know her audience). Edward is referred to as "the redhead" at times, which surprised me and got a little annoying. I found it hard to develop any real connection to Bree beyond a small amount of sympathy for her situation -- after all, she seemed to have a sad life even before being turned and then was destined to have any small hope for improvement taken away. The Bree-Diego tragic romance is a given, along with the knowledge that they won't get to actually do anything about their attraction in chaste Meyer world. Readers will notice that the vampire with the gift to repel attention (described as quite handsome if one can manage to look at him) makes it out alive and thus gives Meyer some future potential to explore his past and future.

My cynicism about releasing such a short novella to capitalize on the Twilight craze is tempered by two things: (1) you can actually read this book for free on Stephenie Meyer's website for a short period of time and (2) the $1 donation to the American Red Cross is a kind of clever philanthropic move when it comes to a series about vampires. Thus, I find it hard to grumble too much about the situation. She does at least seem to appreciate her fans, which is important, as only real fans will enjoy this book. If you loved it, you'll appreciate the book. If the series annoyed you... well, then you probably won't bother with this either, unless your projected attitude of "this series sucks" is really masking your true feelings of "well, this series is entertaining, if extremely flawed" and you refuse to admit to the fact that you read the whole Edward rewrite on the Meyer website and already have plans to see Eclipse on opening weekend. Ahem. Not like that describes anyone here.


Twilight: The Graphic Novel Volume 1

In my defense, it was purchased for me as a gift and so I felt obliged to read it. And if it's any consolation, I think I was punished enough by the process of actually reading this. For fans of manga comics who loved Twilight, this might be an amazing experience, but I just don't get it. Not only does this just seem to capitalize on the complete obsession that some people seem to have for the books, but it doesn't seem to enhance the text at all and so really it's just fangirl art. I found things even more laughable in this particular form of illustration (though I suppose Edward does lend himself towards a rather nonthreatening and effete visual depiction) than when it was just text -- the jagged lines of tension were especially irritating. Another artistic annoyance: Bella seemed to be crying most of the time -- though perhaps what looked like tears were beads of sweat?

Overall, clearly I wasn't pleased, but I also admit that (a) this whole style isn't for me and (b) I went into reading this with the assumption that it would be ridiculous. A word of warning: this isn't even the entire Twilight book, it's just "Volume 1"! Talk about milking this franchise for as much as it's worth! The only really positive thing I can say is that clearly the illustrator is talented, even if this style isn't something I like, but I hope she directs her talents towards more original work.


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: the Graphic Novel

If Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had been like this from the start, I would have liked it a great deal more. However, since two volumes were required to produce the effect, I must say I'm not thrilled with either, but this comes out ahead. For those itching to read a zombie-filled version of a Jane Austen classic, I suggest that you opt for this one. The basic plot is this: a zombie plague has stricken England and many upper class men and women now study martial arts in the Orient so that they might return to protect their families from the undead. The plot of Pride and Prejudice is firmly maintained, with undead flourishes here and there.

What grew tiresome in the novel of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies continues to amuse for a bit longer in the graphic novel format. In the original P&P&Z, I was annoyed with the pace -- it was an amusing joke taken to such ridiculous length that it seemed as though it would have better served its purpose by simply existing as a three chapter comedy piece. At least with the this, one can visualize the "Unmentionables" quite clearly, though the artwork does look a bit rushed, as if the artist were hurried along at every step of the way so that this book might still profit from any lingering craze. It's not simply the lack of color in the frames (for actually, I prefer the black-and-white look for a "historical" comic), it's something about the roughness of the illustrations. While this is certainly a quicker way to satisfy one's interest in seeing zombies in Regency England, I still think it manages to wear on a bit.

The worst mistake, however, is this: no true story of Pride and Prejudice would feature Lizzy as a blonde. She can chop off the heads of the damned, but blond hair just doesn't work.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

Charming, poignant, and utterly original, I cannot think of another novel that's quite like The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet by the multi-talented Reif Larsen. It was given to me as a gift and I knew very little about it before I started reading, aside from the fact that my flipping through its pages revealed a somewhat "illustrated" story. Perhaps "illustrated" is too specific, for The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet is more like a novel with doodles in the margins and some interesting tangents (Reif Larsen evidently calls this "exploded hyper-text), done by a truly exceptional artist that has an eye for scientific observation and precision.

T.S. Spivet lives in Montana and his full name is Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, the fifth in a line of Tecumseh Spivets, all manly men who work with their hands yet all seem to have attracted accomplished and educated wives. Even at twelve, it's clear that T.S. will never be a manly man -- he wants to be a cartographer, drawing maps and scientific illustrations as a way of mapping the world around him. (Side note here: it's to the author's credit that while reading the novel, I thought of these pieces as belonging to T.S., but clearly Larsen has incredible talent... and quite likely was a similar child to T.S. in terms of devotion to his craft.) The Spivet family originally consisted of three children; the youngest brother, Layton, was a true ranch boy and the apple of his father's eye before an accident (almost a year before the opening of the book) killed Layton and left the family silently reeling in the aftermath. So now it's just T.S. and his older sister, Gracie, left to deal with their parents: a rancher/cowboy father and a reclusive scientist mother. When not out working the land, their father seals himself in his "setting room" that features shrines to various historical figures of the West and the television constantly plays westerns. Their mother, meanwhile, has spent twenty years looking for a particular beetle, losing any chance she might have had to make her mark on the scientific community by moving on to other research. For some time now, T.S. has had a mentor named Dr. Terry Yorn who works at the University and it appears that Dr. Yorn's opinion of T.S.'s work is even beyond what T.S. could have hoped. For over a year at Dr. Yorn's encouragement, T.S. has been submitting his illustrations to various publications and a particularly detailed piece was used in an exhibit at the Smithsonian. The event that truly sets things in motion for the book is a a call that T.S. receives from a representative at the Smithsonian, informing him that Dr. Yorn nominated T.S. for the the prestigious Baird Award and he has won. The museum would like to see T.S. in Washington, D.C., in a week to accept the award and give a speech at a benefit that will feature his work. After an initial period of panic, focused mostly on the fact that the museum is unaware of his age and lack of qualifications, T.S. decides to go... and for transportation, he will "ride the rails" like hobos of old.

The book encompasses the journey T.S. takes across the country and his interior monologue that reflects upon a wide variety of items as he travels, yet constantly returns to his family and life in Montana. Whenever a book comes out with a young narrator (and the book qualifies as actual fiction/literature as opposed to being a children's or YA novel), there tends to be a good amount of fuss about the originality of the precocious young person. They all seem to have eccentric families, somewhat distant parents, and strong abilities in a scientific field. I'd argue that while T.S. and those other precocious narrators can often come out sounding the same in simple prose, T.S. really shines when speaking about his need to map the world, from sewer systems to shucking corn. The illustrations are wonderful and really serve to make T.S. a unique figure. His family is lightly sketched, but detailed enough and believable when it concerns a twelve year old boy who cannot quite grasp the complexities of his parents. Gracie is nice foil to her brother, a very "normal" teenage girl with a sharp sense of humor and a touching depth to her emotions. As for Layton, it wasn't long before I suspected his story was, clearly a bit more tragic as far as T.S. was concerned; the devotion to a younger brother can be explained by their closeness (despite their different interests) and yet one can easily tell that T.S. feels like he's doing penance or feels responsible for the loss of his brother in the way that children do when, clearly, something is not actually their fault. (Perhaps one of my favorite details from the story is the idea that T.S. has taken to inserting Layton's name into every illustration that he has done since his brother's death and sure enough, if you look closely you can see this small tribute.) Dr. Yorn hovers in the background and while it would have been nice to know more about the man so committed to T.S.'s talents, I'm glad that we were not given insight into his character at the expense of T.S.'s family. Ultimately, this is not just a story of a brilliant young boy's journey to D.C., it's the story of a grieving family that needs to re-knit itself if it is to recover.

On the whole, the book is a delight. The story is charming though T.S. can sometimes be a bit too earnest and enthusiastic. It's very easy to picture a very intelligent and loquacious child who has no problem discussing a favorite topic at great length. Of course, his prolix writing makes it easy for the reader reader to set the book down from time to time to breathe and absorb the copy and fantastic drawings. (It's actually a challenge to not think of this book after setting it down. It's been days since I've finished and I find myself thinking of it quite frequently, even in the context of "I wonder how T.S./Larsen would map this location/event/historical trajectory?") The text itself is, indeed, dense. Don't let the double-spacing and wide margins fool you into thinking that this will be a really fast read. The margin illustrations and tangential stories require the reader to shift gears a bit and spend time giving them a lengthy study. Thankfully, dotted lines indicate to the reader the appropriate time to examine those stories and drawings, but it does tack on some time to then re-enter the story once pausing for the marginalia. All this means is that you should be sure to take your time with this book -- it deserves it.

Indeed, for the illustrations alone, I suggest you should pick up this quirky and touching coming-of-age novel. Even prodigies need to still be children sometimes, aware that their parents can handle things and, more importantly, that they love their children and want what's best for them. As for children themselves, well, when adventure comes knocking it's hard to turn it down and it's amazing the things one can accomplish with dedication to one's craft and talents. The same is certainly true for the author, Reif Larsen, who is only 29 and has produced quite an impressive work. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is lovely volume with great depth and spirit, a welcome read for anyone who enjoys an original story with a charming hero.



In Ballistics, the reader will happily find the Billy Collins of his or her previous acquaintance: whimsical, thoughtful, and hauntingly eloquent. As a collection, the poems of Ballistics flow together nicely, but then, there's always something so clearly Collins about his work that I imagine this effect could be achieved with any grouping.

While I love poetry, I admit that I'm never quite sure how one should "review" a book of it. I tend to be introduced to poets by others and only then do I purchase a book by a single poet, confident that I enjoy their voice and will eagerly listen to whatever it is he or she has to say. Such is the case with Billy Collins, who is one of my favorite living poets. I almost wish he was more obscure so that such an observation could be deemed interesting, but Collins is well-respected and rightfully so. Since poetry always feels so personal, I find it hard to write up a true review, so I will simply say that I quite enjoyed this collection and here are three of my favorite poems from this work that will have to represent what I love about Billy Collins's poetry.


Go, little book,
out of this house and into the world,

carriage made of paper rolling toward town
bearing a single passenger
beyond the reach of this jittery pen,
far from the desk and the nosy gooseneck lamp.

It is time to decamp,
put on a jacket and venture outside,
time to be regarded by other eyes,
bound to be held in foreign hands.

So off you go, infants of the brain,
with a wave and some bits of fatherly advice:

stay out as late as you like,
don't bother to call or write,
and talk to as many strangers as you can.

"Oh, My God!"

Not only in church
and nightly by their bedsides
do young girls pray these days.

Wherever they go,
prayer is woven into their talk
like a bright thread of awe.

Even at the pedestrian mall
outbursts of praise
spring unbidden from their glossy lips.

"The Mortal Coil"

One minute you are playing the fool,
strumming a tennis racquet as if it were a guitar
for the amusement of a few ladies
and the next minute you are lying on your deathbed,
arms stiff under the covers,
the counterpane tucked tight across your chest.

Or so seemed the progress of life
as I was flipping through the photographs
in Proust: The Later Years by George Painter.

Here he is at a tennis party, larking for the camera,
and 150 pages later, nothing but rictus on a pillow,
and in between; a confection dipped
into a cup of lime tea and brought to the mouth.

Which is why, instead of waiting
for our date this coming weekend,
I am now speeding to your house at 7:45 in the morning
where I hope to catch you half dressed--

and I am wondering which half
as I change lanes without looking --

with the result that we will be lifted
by the urgent pull of the flesh
into a state of ecstatic fusion, and you will be late for work.

And as we lie there
in the early, latticed light,
I will suggest that you take George Painter's
biography of Proust
to the office so you can show your boss
the pictures that caused you to arrive shortly before lunch
and he will understand perfectly,

for I imagine him to be a man of letters,
maybe even a devoted Proustian,
but at the very least a fellow creature,
ensnared with the rest of us in the same mortal coil,

or so it would appear from the wishful
vantage point of your warm and rumpled bed.