Tag Archives: Don

The Brentwood Anthology Reading: The Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange

brentwood poetry CS5_slider

Since 1974, the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange has been a staple of the Pittsburgh literary scene. On Saturday, January 24th, from 3 to 4 pm at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh–Main in Oakland, there will be a reading from, and a celebration of, the recent publication, The Brentwood Anthology, which includes the work of 22 nationally and regionally known poets who are members of the Exchange. Many of the poets from the anthology will be present to read their work.

The anthology has received some fine press, including this great article on the TribLive website. The publisher, nine toes press (an imprint of Lummox Press) has put up a generous sampling of poems from the anthology in a digital ‘flip book’ format for ease of reading.

In the introduction to the collection, founder and guiding luminary, Michael Wurster, notes that, for the last 40 years, the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange has served the greater Pittsburgh community as “a voluntary association of local poets, especially those out of the university loop.” The organization produces readings, such as the one upcoming at the Carnegie Library, and events, as well as creating a network for local practitioners of the poetic arts. The workshops have been the mainstay of the organization throughout the years and continue on a monthly basis at the Brentwood Public Library. The effect on the lives of Pittsburgh poets, both established and struggling, of the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange has been truly immeasurable.

As well as highlighting the work of PPE members, the reading on January 24th is a way of saying thanks to the organization and to the poets for all they’ve done in making Pittsburgh one of the most active urban hubs of poetry in the Northeast. Come out and join us for what should prove to be a stimulating, provocative and moving afternoon of poetry live.

~ Don 

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Toi Derricotte & Vanessa German: Saturday Poets-In-Person

Samuel Hazo_postcard flyr (5_5x8_5)

Come join us on Saturday, September 20th, at the Main Library in Oakland, for the inaugural reading in our brand new series, Saturday Poets-In-Person. The series will focus on well-known Pittsburgh poets, with the featured poets for the first reading being Toi Derricotte and Vanessa German. Readings will take place from 3 to 4 pm on Saturday afternoons. Sign language interpretation will be provided for our Deaf community.

Toi Derricotte is an important American poet whose work resonates deeply with the sorrows and the joys of being human, utilizing elements of her own life to inform us all what it is to be alive in the late 20th and early 21st century. An award winning poet who is the co-founder of Cave Canem, an organization “committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets,” she was elected Chancellor of  the Academy of American Poets in 2012.

Vanessa German is a multidisciplinary artist based in Pittsburgh’s historic Homewood neighborhood. Her performances have been described by Creative Mornings  as being in a “style called Spoken Word Opera; a dynamic hybrid of spoken word poetry infused with the theatrical elements of Opera, Hip Hop, and African Storytelling.” Her love of Homewood, her personal courage in the face of adversity, and her performance work, the stuff of Pittsburgh legend, are well-known both nationally and internationally.

All readings will take place in the International Poetry Room on the second floor of Main Library. The poetry collection housed there contains over 4,500 books and is one of the largest standalone poetry collections in a public library in the US. The collection was begun by the Carnegie Library in collaboration with Dr. Samuel Hazo, the founder and Executive Director of the International Poetry Forum, with a few dozen books back in 1976 and has grown into a destination point for poetry lovers in Pittsburgh and throughout Allegheny County.

For lovers of the written word, performance art, or poetry, this is a program not to be missed. I hope to see you there. FYI, here is a flyer for the complete series. Just click to enlarge:

page0001~ Don

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The Found Art of Letter Writing

letters cover

What would you say if I told you there is a brand new collection of letters that you just have to see?

“Letters,” I can hear you saying, “who writes letters, let alone reads letters, anymore?”

Well, bear with me a moment. I think you’ll find this worthwhile.

Might you be interested in a letter written by Emily Dickinson to her one, true love? Or one written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler? What about one by Philip K. Dick on getting a brief preview (he didn’t live to see the final cut) of Bladerunner, the movie adaptation of his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Or maybe a letter by Groucho Marx to Woody Allen might hit just the right spot?

Still not sold? There is a smoking note by Nick Cave to MTV, written with appropriate sarcastic grace (often referred to as the “My Muse is Not a Horse” Letter), in rejection of their nomination of “Best Male Artist of the Year.” Or a letter from Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando saying he’d be great as Dean Moriarty in a film version of On The Road. Or Mark David Chapmen to a memorabilia expert inquiring as to the possible worth of an album signed by John Lennon mere hours before he murdered him?

I could probably go on and on tantalizing you with glimpses into Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving a Wider Audience.

Nearly as amazing as the contents, however, is the presentation. It is something of a coffee table book, though perhaps a bit on the smaller end of the format. The fact that it is a tad oversize is put to great advantage – it reproduces, in large format, the original typed or handwritten letters, telegrams (one from the Titanic), plus a clay tablet, alongside transcripts (particularly useful in deciphering the dodgy handwriting of creative types), as well as brief summaries giving context to the various exchanges.

May I mention just a few more? How about letters by Charles Dickens, Jack the Ripper, Charles Bukowski, Leonardo da Vinci, Mary Stuart, and Albert Einstein addressing, respectively, the topics of public executions, unimaginably abominable behavior, censorship, employment as a military engineer, final thoughts before being executed, and a sixth grade class’s query as to whether scientists pray?

And, oh, yes, there is the thousand plus years old ancient Chinese form letter written in apology for drunken behavior at a dinner party the evening before. It begins:

Yesterday, having drunk too much, I was intoxicated as to pass all bounds; but none of the rude and coarse language I used was uttered in a conscious state. The next morning, after hearing others speak on the subject I realized what had happened, whereupon I was overwhelmed with confusion and ready to sink into the earth with shame.  …

That’s right, it’s a form letter – and you thought you knew how to party!

Billed by the publisher as a “spectacular collection of more than 125 letters,” this is no adperson’s hyberbole: it’s the real deal.

In my estimation, this collection is not the mourning of a passing art form but a celebration, a celebration perhaps not so much of the specific form itself (though it is, of course, that), but of the human races’ constant striving to communicate, to understand, and to survive.

Even if we don’t continue to write letters much anymore, we continue to communicate, which is reflected in the fact universities and libraries worldwide are collecting electronic correspondence as they once collected letters. The form may differ, but the creativity behind it is, if anything, becoming more varied and incredible as the years go by.

I do believe it might just be worth the wait to read the curated email correspondence of say, Margaret Atwood, or Neil Gaiman and, perhaps even of the notoriously reclusive Thomas Pynchon.

Just sayin’ or, more accurately, just readin’.

What follows is a letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol in Letters of Note, at once charming, practical, and endearing, if sprinkled with casual obscenity, in a manner only Brits seem to be able to pull off with aplomb.

~ Don

jagger to warhol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Communion of Reading: William Stafford

The poet William Stafford and my father were born in the same year, 1914, one hundred years ago. I’m having trouble reconciling that, for some reason.

My father fought in World War II; Stafford was a conscientious objector. Stafford was a poet and a teacher. My father loaded trucks for a living.

As far as I can intuit, there is one thing that they shared: there was a depth of feeling, tinged with sorrow, that framed their lives. One found an outlet; the other did not.

In this one hundredth anniversary year of his birth, a wonderful new collection of William Stafford’s work has been assembled, Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, compiled by his son, Kim Stafford.

stafford ask me

Perhaps the two most complex relationships in (human) life are between mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. Kim Stafford’s collection of his father’s work testifies to a depth of understanding and emotion in life, including the father/son relationship, that is rare, indeed, even amongst the finest of poets.

My father was an avid reader though, like most of us, not often of poetry. Still, one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me was a penchant for the works of Thomas Hardy. For an aging, exhausted shipping clerk to catalyze this kind of connection, classic author to father to son, was no mean feat. It was a way to express emotion, something far more difficult than even the grueling, mind numbing job which helped shorten his life.

Oddly enough, looking at what I’ve written so far, it is readily apparent that, during this National Poetry Month, this wonderful retrospective selection of William Stafford’s work has, in memory, given me back my father in a moving, important way.

That is what the communion of reading can do.

Here is a poem by William Stafford from Ask Me that speaks directly to the feelings I’ve been grappling with, in a manner I feel no prose account might do:

Listening

My father could hear a little animal step,
or a moth in the dark against the screen,
and every far sound called the listening out
into places where the rest of us have never been.

More spoke to him in the soft wild night
than came to our porch for us on the wind;
we would watch him look up and his face go keen
till the walls of the world flared, widened.

My father heard so much that we still stand
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for a time when something in the night
will touch us too from that far place.

– William Stafford

~ Don

PS:  Thanks,  David Mahler, for the gift of William Stafford.

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The Last Word For 2013

A group of us got together and decided that the last blog post of 2013 should be a shared effort, with each of us offering a notable quote from something he or she read during the 2013 calendar year.  So we each humbly offer you our last words for the year that was 2013.  Just a note: we’ve preserved any idiosyncratic formatting when it seems important to the meaning and impact of the quote.

Scott

In the midst of a tough year I oddly found myself reading Dante for the first time in my life.   Here’s one of many quotes that stuck with me.

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Inferno, Canto I  by Dante Alighieri

Don

The best invitation to a classic novel ever comes in the form of this quote from the book itself: Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse:

Anarchist Evening Entertainment
Magic Theater
Entrance Not For Everybody

For Madmen Only!

Natalie

I am not from West Virginia but I married a true mountain man who grew up in the hollows of the southern part of the state. Reading Dean King’s The Feud over the summer gave me a new perspective of this bloody family history that helped mold the state, its inhabitants and the nation.

Mountains make fighting men. No matter where in the world you go, you’ll find that’s true. – Ralph Stanley

The Feud: The Hatfields & McCoys. The True Story by Dean King; 2013; Forward

Jess

I’m currently reading The Little Women Letters and as to be expected, it’s put me in the mood for Louisa May Alcott‘s original text.  This line has always stuck with me:

I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.

Holly

I can identify with Scott: 2013 was a tough year, so this lady was diving head first into self-help books, while she’d spent most of her life rejecting them.  At the end of the year, I was recommended the best self-help-book-that-isn’t-a-self-help-book: Letters To A Young Poet by Rilke.  Rilke praised solitude so highly, and I’ve found solitude to be a great friend.  So apologies for getting a little emo – but this is the quote hit me the hardest this year. And here’s to 2014, may it bring you all peace, love, healing and good books!

Embrace your solitude and love it. Endure the pain it causes, and try to sing out with it.

Art by Scott M. Fischer, copyright held by Wizards of the Coast, Inc.

Art by Scott M. Fischer, copyright held by Wizards of the Coast, Inc.

Leigh Anne

There’s a gorgeous quotation near the end of Quiet Dell, Jayne Anne Phillips’s astonishing novel based on actual events, that captures what I’ve been feeling about the darkest nights of the year, and the return of the light. The passage is taken from composer David Lang‘s work “again (after ecclesiastes),” which you can listen to here.

these things make me so tired

I can’t speak, I can’t see, I can’t hear

what happened before will happen again

I forgot it all before

I will forget it all again

Suzy

I took one book with me on my epic bike tour and it was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (somehow in the midst of all those Women’s Studies classes during undergrad I missed reading it). I’m not sorry because I read it exactly when and where I needed to.

There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say: “I’ll go take a hot bath.”

Richard

I’ve written about Phlip Caputo’s The Longest Road : Overland In Search Of America, From Key West To The Arctic Ocean before, but it merits another mention.  In an age dominated by “social media”, how connected are we as Americans; how tolerant are we as individuals?  Which is greater, the ties or the divisions? What is it about being Americans that we discover as Caputo, his wife Leslie and their 2 dogs traverse almost 12,000 miles from Key West to the Arctic Circle and back?

“Kaktovic had the architectural charm of a New Jersey warehouse district: a dirt airstrip, a hangar, houses like container boxes with doors and windows.” – Philip Caputo

Irene

In 2013 I fell in love with the illustrations of Kay Nielsen.  Fairytales have always been one of my favorite genres, and his illustrations perfectly capture how beautiful and disturbing the stories are.  The stories in East of the Sun and West of the Moon are more adult than you might imagine, full of violence and even (implied) sex.  Unlike many other fairy tales I’ve read, in which the princess waits for the prince to rescue her, several of these stories feature strong heroines who need to go to great lengths to rescue their handsome princes (or themselves).  In one of my favorites, The White Bear, the heroine is constantly reaffirming her bravery and strength.  This repeated refrain perfectly illustrates what I love about this character:

“Are you afraid?,” said the North Wind.
No, she wasn’t.

Melissa F.

David Levithan‘s newest young adult novel, Two Boys Kissing, is groundbreaking on a level rarely seen. It speaks to the very truth about what it means to be human, to be vulnerable, to be your own true self.  As one of my favorite books of 2013, it’s an incredibly affecting (and very important) read for teens and adults alike.

The first sentence of the truth is always the hardest. Each of us had a first sentence, and most of us found the strength to say it out loud to someone who deserved to hear it. What we hoped, and what we found, was that the second sentence of the truth is always easier than the first, and the third sentence is even easier than that. Suddenly you are speaking the truth in paragraphs, in pages. The fear, the nervousness, is still there, but it is joined by a new confidence. All along, you’ve used the first sentence as a lock. But now you find that it’s the key.

May your 2014 be full of confident first sentences.

spotted at Someecards.com

spotted at someecards.com

Tara

I’ve been a bit of a hermit these past few years, so I found inspiration in 2013 from artist and writer Miranda July to go outside on occasion and take a look around. In her book/art project It Chooses You she writes:

Most of life is offline, and I think it always will be; eating and aching and sleeping and loving happen in the body. But it’s not impossible to imagine losing my appetite for those things; they aren’t always easy, and they take so much time. In twenty years I’d be interviewing air and water and heat just to remember they mattered.

Also, when life gets either too heavy or too dull, a little absurdist British humor never hurts:

“What problems? We’re on the pig’s back, charging through a velvet field.” — Bernard Black, from the BBC television show Black Books

Eric

The following  is the first line of Chapter 3 of  Robert Kaplan’s book Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History. This chapter is about Macedonia. This line encapsulates a lot of how Kaplan looks at the world he navigates in this book. Maybe we can take a tip from him, and not just look at the world around us, but read the world around us. Happy New Year!

The landscape here needs to be read, not just looked at.

Abbey

I read a lot of young adult books and I have loved many of them. However, I find it rare for many other readers to love young adult books. This quote and this book though have stuck with me for a long time, and the book has been enjoyed by many other readers I know, adult fiction and young adult fiction lovers in general.

“That’s the thing about pain,” Augustus said, and then glanced back at me. “It demands to be felt.”

From The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

Maria

My new favorite quote this year relates to all the big changes in my life the last few years, something I instinctively struggle against, preferring the calm waters of routine. As soon as I read it, I instantly felt better.

The only thing constant in life is change. — François de La Rochefoucald, Maxims

Amy

I offer this bit of wisdom from Professor Farnsworth (of Futurama fame) as the perfect antidote for taking-yourself-too-seriously.

There’s no scientific consensus that life is important.

From Into the Wild Green Yonder by, erm, some TV dudes.

Happy New Year!

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Stacking ‘Em Up: Our Favorite Reads From 2013

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a library blog in possession of a good staff must be in want of a best books post. Library workers are frequently their own best customers, passing titles back and forth with reckless abandon, buttonholing colleagues in stairwells to insist they check out the book that kept us up late swooning (or shivering). Nothing brings us more joy, however, than turning those efforts outward and sharing our favorites with you.

The Eleventh Stack team consumed a mountain of reading this year (probably taller than Richard, and he’s pretty tall). Here are some of the ones we enjoyed most.

Maria:

turncoatThe Turncoat by Donna Thorland

Though labeled historical fiction, this book has a passionate and sizzling romance at its heart, so I would call it historical romance as well. The first book in the Renegades of the Revolution series, I loved this dangerous romance set amid the intrigues of Revolutionary War Philadelphia. Quaker country-girl-turned-rebel-spy Kate Grey falls for British officer Peter Tremayne despite their opposing allegiances. I especially enjoyed its life meets fiction aspect as George Washington, John Andre, General Howe, and Peggy Shippen all make appearances here. I look forward to reading more in the series from this debut author. Thorland, who is also a filmmaker, made a fascinating book trailer; I think it would make a great movie.

detroit

Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

My poor hometown. Native metro-Detroiter and award-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff writes a raw and thoroughly readable portrait of the Motor City’s state of emergency, from its abandoned neighborhoods, horrible city services, double-digit unemployment rates, and rampant crime to the die-hard residents who refuse to give up. A moving and frightening account of the decline of a great American city.

Melissa F.

I spent most of 2013 hanging out with some questionable, unreliable, but incredibly memorable characters from the Gilded Age.  You don’t get much more eyebrow-raising than Odalie from The Other Typist, Suzanne Rindell’s debut that has been described as “part Hitchcock, part Patricia Highsmith, and part Gatsby.” It’s a phenomenal, can’t-put-down read that I’ve been recommending all year long.  Also of note is The Virgin Cure , Ami McKay’s historical fiction story of a twelve year old orphan in 1870s New York that is based on the true story of one of her relatives.  

The OrchardistAnd then there was benevolent Talmadge from The Orchardist. I adored Amanda Coplin’s luminous debut novel with its grand, overlapping themes of morality and religion, of being one with the earth and the eternal struggle of good versus evil. It’s been compared to The Grapes of Wrath (this one is way better). Like Steinbeck, Amanda Coplin joins the list of authors who have given us a true American classic.

(Other highly recommended books in case the Gilded Age isn’t your thing: Tenth of December and In Persuasion Nation, both by George Saunders; Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan; Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys, The Bird Saviors, by William J. Cobb, When It Happens to You, by Molly Ringwald (yes, THAT Molly Ringwald!), Still Life with Oysters and Lemon and Dog Years by Mark Doty (listen to the audio version); Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon, and Songdogs, by Colum McCann.)

What can I say? In the words of Sinatra, it was a very good year.

JessBurial Rites, Hannah Kent

If you’ve had good experiences with Alice Hoffman and Geraldine Brooks (Kent even gives a shout out to Brooks as a mentor in her acknowledgements), then this is for you.

In rural Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnusdottir has been tried and accused of murder – and now must await execution in her home district. No prison means she’s forced upon a family who obviously wants nothing to do with her. Over the next months, Agnes is put to work on the farm. She slowly begins to open up about her messy past to a young priest, chosen for a long ago kindness, and to the wife of the household, who begins to see a Agnes as woman who has been worn down by a harsh life. Based on true story of one of the last two executions in Iceland, Kent deftly blends some amazing research with strong prose to weave a story about woman who was truly a victim of her circumstances.

SuzyTraveling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker. Suzy really enjoyed this book a lot, but is not here to tell us about it because she is off riding her bike someplace not currently buried under several feet of snow. We are extremely jealous of very happy for Suzy, and hope she comes home soon to tell us more about the book.

Leigh Anne

Much to my surprise, the two books I’ve enjoyed most this year were both set during World War II. I’ve never been much of a war buff, but that’s a testament to how the power of good fiction can make you more interested in history. In this case, the novels were Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity.

Life After Life –the tale of an Englishwoman who keeps reincarnating as herself and trying to kill lifeafterlifeHitler–has cropped up on a number of best/notable lists this year, including the New York Times, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, and I’ve already reviewed it earlier this year, so let me just say this: what an ending. When I read the last few sentences, and the light bulb over my head finally went on, I was amazed at how cleverly Atkinson had made her point: no matter how hard we strive as individuals, we can never act out of context. We always need other people to help us achieve our objectives, even if we are strong and clever.

verityCode Name Verity takes us behind enemy lines as Verity the spy and Maddie the pilot tell their stories in alternating sections. The crux of this novel–which I also reviewed earlier this year–is truth: who’s telling it, who’s hiding it, and how flexible it can be depending on how high the stakes are. For Maddie and Verity, the stakes are very high, indeed, and I loved that the book, while intended for a teen audience, didn’t shy away from the horrors of war…or deliver a tidy happy ending. If you want a great portrait of what it must have been like to be a teenager during WWII, pick up this novel….but be prepared to have All Of The Feelings. If you adore Wein as much as I do after you’re done, you’ll want to move on to her 2013 release, Rose Under Fire, in which pilot Rose Justice is captured and sent to the concentration camp Ravensbruck.

It was really hard to pick my favorites from what turned out to be an amazing run of excellent reading this year. Some other books I devoured include Letters From Skye (historical romance), Longbourn (historical fiction), and The Son (epic southwestern family saga). And now I must stop, before I blog your ear off…

bookcover Joelle 

I do love fantasy books! My favorites for this year were The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. Both of these books have already achieved positive critical acclaim, but I will add mine:

The Golem is created by a mysterious and mischievous Rabbi as a bride for a young man who is set to travel to New York from Poland. The Jinni had been trapped for centuries in a lamp which also made its way to New York City. They both try to fit in to society with their separate supernatural talents, but recognize each other as different right away. It is interesting to see these magical beings from two different cultures coming together. The author creates characters with unusual and distinctive personalities.

ocean Neil Gaiman is the master of creating fantasy worlds that do not follow any specific cultural tradition, yet are somehow universal. A man journeys back to his old home town, and is drawn to a place only half remembered. The reader is transported to the mind of a seven year old, a time in a person’s life when one is very vulnerable, and when one can accept magic as a matter of fact.
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http://vufindplus2.einetwork.net/bookcover.php?id=.b29858586&isn=9780820329673&size=large&upc=&oclc=551718356&category=&format=

Holly
Nestled behind the International Poetry Room on CLP-Main’s second floor, you’ll find one of my favorite places in the Library.  The Oversize Book Room is home to volume upon volume of giant, gorgeous books. These are books that are graphic-heavy, photo-heavy, and often really heavy in weight, and therefore they do not fit on our regular book shelves/make great impromptu weapons.  Fashion, art, landscape photography, crafts and home repair are some of the subjects that you can find here.   One day while helping a patron find another book in this section, I stumbled upon the splendid  Jack London, Photographer. This is my favorite book of 2013 because it exemplifies what I love most about the Library and the serendipity that lives here.  I had no idea that Jack London was a photographer, and a talented one at that!  This gem contains somewhat disparate, at least in terms of location, photo collections.  They are a fascinating  look at early 20th century history through the eyes of a classic author.  Chapters have titles like ” The People of the Abyss,”  which is a stark look at impoverished Londoners in 1902. Battlefields are a subject as well, such as  those of  the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 and the Mexican Revolution of 1914.  I loved this book because it was a rejuvenating break from my usual reading of text-heavy new fiction and new nonfiction.

Don

For me this was an unusual year, and my reading reflected all the strangeness. I found myself reading old (Kim by Rudyard Kipling), new (A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki), rereads (The Final Solution by Michael Chabon and The Fall by Albert Camus), pastiche (The Mandela of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu), Buddhist fiction (Buddha Da by Anne Donovan), science fiction (Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone by Ian MacDonald), and the truly, wonderfully bizarre (Duplex by Kathryn Davis).

Part of the unusual nature of all this is the fact that, thematically, there is a great deal these books have in common. There are all kinds of connections between them, come to think of it. And really, there is not a book listed above that you can go wrong with, but, since we are picking favorites, here we go…

My favorite book of the year turns out to be a tie between the first two listed: A Tale for the Time Being, and that hoary old chestnut, Kim. Both of these books surprised, in different ways. I was frankly stunned by how good Kim (and Rudyard Kipling) is. I’d always thought of Kipling as just another dead old white guy, with a penchant for British colonialism and simplistic stories, who might easily be ignored for, oh, 50-plus years or so. And was, by me.

It really is delightful to wake up every day and realize how very, very wrong you can be.

timebeing

Ozeki’s book is difficult to describe, so I’ll let the author speak for herself (from her website):

A Tale for the Time Being is a powerful story about the ways in which reading and writing connect two people who will never meet. Spanning the planet from Tokyo’s Electric Town to Desolation Sound, British Columbia, and connected by the great Pacific gyres, A Tale for the Time Being tells the story of a diary, washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, and the profound effect it has on the woman who discovers it.

Kim is part quest–for self and for meaning–, part old-fashioned adventure via the time-honored motif of the journey, and, consistently, a fine, penetrating story on what it means to be human.

Yes indeed, how very good it is to wake up each and every day.

Melissa M.

5In5Of course my favorite book this year was a cookbook, specifically Michael Symon’s 5 in 5: 5 Fresh Ingredients + 5 Minutes = 120 Fantastic Dinners. I’ve watched this man on television so many times now that as I was reading the recipes I could hear them, inside my head, being read to me in his voice. Now, Michael does cheat the five ingredients rule a little because he uses items from his pantry that are not part of that total number. The first section of the book, after the introduction, is a list of what items should be in your pantry at all times. These include things like extra virgin olive oil, a variety of vinegars, pasta, canned beans, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, and other spices. You probably already have most of those in your kitchen cupboards, so no worries there. The recipes are not complicated; most have only 3-4 steps. This is food you could cook on a weeknight and would want to eat. Plus, who wouldn’t love a cookbook with a chapter called “On a Stick”? Foods on a stick rule!

There you have it! Your turn. What were your favorite reads of 2013, whether new finds or old favorites?

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Behold: Our Bêtes Noires

bête noire. Noun. Something that is particularly disliked. A person or thing that one particularly dislikes or dreads.  

Collins English Dictionary

Admit it: somewhere out there, there’s a book you tried to read and just…couldn’t. Even people who force themselves to finish every book they pick up meet their Waterloo somewhere. Thankfully, you’re not alone. One of our regular readers, Valerie, had this to say about her experience of reading Proust:

It started out as a noble effort. I was trying to be cultured and well-read: I was going to read In Search of Lost Time and I was going to read the whole thing. I was so confident that I didn’t even consider aiming just to read Swann’s Way. I ordered the entire set–seven volumes of Proust, in all his glory, 4,211 pages of beautiful, enchanting, intellect-affirming prose. Boy, was I going to feel good about myself when I was done. After all, Edmund White called In Search of Lost Time “the most respected novel of the twentieth century.” Harold Bloom agreed with him. For heaven’s sake, Michael Chabon said it was his favorite book, and he’s a cool dude.

As it turns out, Edmund, Harold, and Michael are all crazy. The main character starts off a sniveling, whiny little brat who won’t stop bugging his mother about coming to kiss him goodnight. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s about the experience of love and memory and anxiety, but still, I wanted to kick that kid. And he really doesn’t get less annoying from there. Then there’s that thing where he goes on and on about the cookie, and again, yes, I know: this is a beautiful, iconic scene. But the fact of the matter is that it’s a little sponge cake. It isn’t even warm and gooey and full of chocolate chips, so really, who cares?

Proust may not be your bugbear, but many of us on the Eleventh Stack team have felt Valerie’s pain via one book or another. We’re guessing you have, too. In today’s post, our team members reveal the books they simply couldn’t bring themselves to finish (though some are still open to trying again).

Behold: our bêtes noires.

*****

Aisha- It’s Not Me, It’s You

Best book ever? I will never know.

Best book ever? I will never know.

I didn’t start reading Janet Evanovich‘s Stephanie Plum novels until 2006 so I was late to the party. And it was a party. I loved them. They were amusing and a quick read. I read them rapidly until I was caught up, then waited for the new ones to come out. And then something happened: I stopped enjoying them. I still read them, but it felt like an obligation. I had read 14 of them, 15 of them, 16 of them; I had to keep going, right? When Notorious Nineteen came out, I started to read it and then realized I didn’t want or have to finish it. What was the point? It seemed to be the same story over and over. Stephanie accidentally shoots her gun. Grandma Mazur goes to the funeral home. Lula wears brightly colored spandex and eats a lot. Stephanie thinks about Morelli. Stephanie thinks about Ranger. A car blows up. And? It felt like breaking up with someone I’d been with a long time. Maybe Notorious Nineteen was the best of the series, but I’ll never know. When it’s over, it’s over. And it’s over, Janet.

Don

There was a time, when I was younger, that I finished every book I picked up. Part of the reason was, I remembered reading To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Up to about page 100, I thought it was one of the worst things I ever read. At page 100 it took off, and, amazingly, it is, to this day, one of my favorite novels. So, there’s the cautionary tale of giving up too soon.

I wish I could say the same thing about Salman Rushdie‘s Midnight’s Children, a book that, three quarters of the way through, I literally threw across the room with a resounding thump on the bungalow wall. Why? Well, the man’s ego was so large that he, in my estimation, had literally crowded the remaining 200 or so pages of the book, so I was done anyway.

Amy

Middlemarch, by George EliotMiddlemarch. Oh, how I hate you, Middlemarch. This weighty and terrible tome was forced upon me when I was a freshman in college. That very same year, one week into my first semester of college, I was in a rather nasty car accident. I was GRATEFUL for that car accident because it gave me an excuse to drop that particular English class and cast aside the epic preachy tediousness of this book.

Alas, I was forced back into its pages as a junior, but even then I still never managed to get more than two-thirds of the way through the damn thing. I just could not feel any sympathy for that chick (Dorothea something?) when she married the old preacher dude (cause she thought she was being all noble and shit) and then fell for his hot cousin (the only interesting person in the book). HEY LADY, YOU MADE YOUR CHOICE. YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO MARRY THE OLD DUDE. DEAL WITH IT.

P.S. I also hate Charles Dickens. Sorry, Don.

Holly

My history of unfinished books is long and sordid.  It is an occupational hazard.  A book that seems so promising when it arrives at the library is left behind, mid-page,  for a new, shiny book, and soon forgotten. A recent title that has been returned to the library, swearing that I would one day pick back up, is New Jersey NoirThis series covers all kinds of cities and places, from Pittsburgh to Kingston.  I love the idea of this noir series!  And how perfectly campy is a New Jersey collection?!?!  Sadly, I had to stop reading it after the story of a murder in Hoboken gave me nightmares.  Horror stories tend to do that to me. I promised myself one day I’ll go back and finish the other stories, but that was books and books ago…

Leigh Anne

Dear David Foster Wallace, wherever you are:

I wish you were still with us here, and still writing. From what I’ve read about you thus far, you were a genius, the kind of person who makes some people uncomfortable and gives others hope. But I hope that, wherever you are, you can forgive me for just not being smart enough to understand what you were trying to do in Infinite Jest. The joke is clearly on me, because I just don’t get it. At all. There’s a movie that cracks people up, quite literally, and tennis, and addiction, and satire, and and and. It’s just all too much. Mind you, I’ve read Finnegans Wake cover to cover, on purpose, so it’s not like I can’t handle a good mental workout. Still. Everybody’s brain has a limit.

You’ll have to forgive me. I really appreciate your genius, from a distance. But nobody likes to feel stupid. So I’m just going to acknowledge that you were smarter than I will ever be, and walk away slowly…

Jess

Like Leigh Anne, I put the tiniest of dents in Infinite Jest before wanting to hurl the book across the room. But that book is heavy (1079 pages!), so I just set it down gently and gave it the stink-eye… I’m really here to talk about World War Z, though. I get why this book works for some folks, but the things that didn’t work for me – non-linear plot told through vignettes, no true central character to provide an emotional core – were enough that I couldn’t finish it. The lack of connection and jumping around so much you feel worn out very much serve a purpose, however I almost wish Brooks had focused on just a few locations and spent longer chapters exploring how they were affected.

Joelle

Great GatsbyI am so ashamed to admit that I cannot bring myself to read The Great Gatsby. I have picked it up three or four times in the past 30 years, the latest being right before the Leonardo DiCaprio movie came out. I read just a little beyond the first chapter every time. It is on quite a few lists of books that people read more than once. I already know the whole plot, and I grew up on Long Island so I know the area that the story is set. Maybe knowing too much about it is the very reason I just can’t bring myself to stick with it. My expectation is too high and I’m not enthralled at the outset. I will watch the movie anyway.

Maria:

englishpatient

When I was in my twenties, I tried to read all the widely reviewed books that appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list. But now, twenty years later, I’m somewhat ruthless when it comes to giving books a chance. I usually aim for one chapter but I can usually tell if a book is for me just from reading a few paragraphs. The one book that comes to mind that I just could not finish is an older book that was a huge bestseller (and was also made into a movie): The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. I tried so hard to get into this book but it  didn’t work for me as the author’s voice just didn’t speak to me. And, while I understand that there are different books for different times for different people, I still have no desire to try this one again.

Melissa

(who fancies herself to be the little red-haired girl, when she’s actually probably more of a Marcie!)

peanutsSchulz and Peanuts: A Biography, David Michaelis. I love biographies. I love Peanuts. This book’s cover looked like Charlie Brown’s shirt, which I also love. What I didn’t love was this book. 566 pages of biography + 6 pages of acknowledgements + 58 pages of source notes + a 22 page index = a comprehensive tome about this iconic cartoonist. But as we all know, quantity does not always equal quality.

But maybe it is a high-quality work. Anyone looking for background information on Charles Schulz, minutiae even, will find this a fabulous read, I’m sure. If you’ve ever wanted to know why Charlie Brown could never seem to get ahead in the game of life, knowing Schulz’s history will help you figure out exactly where he was coming from. But when I got to page 200 and and the Peanuts gang had not yet made an appearance, I got fed up with Schulz’s self-centered, self-deprecating (and not in the endearing way), dopey personality and gave up!

As I skim through the book now, I think that if I had made it just a little bit further–closer to page 260–I would have seen the Peanuts characters come to life and even found out who the inspirations were for each one. I did appreciate the family photographs and comic strips scattered throughout. They were a welcome break from all that text!

Richard

Damascus Countdown / Joel C. Rosenberg

damascus

Synopsis: Israel has launched a first strike on Iran, taking out all of their nuclear sites and six of their nuclear warheads. The Twelfth Imam has ordered a full-scale retaliation. CIA operative David Shirazi has infiltrated the Iranian regime and intercepted information indicating that two Iranian nuclear warheads survived and have been moved to a secure and undisclosed location. David and his team are in a race against time to find the remaining nuclear warheads before disaster strikes.

Rosenberg does a credible job with the raw material he has – it’s today, it’s the headlines and it’s ripe for a Tom Clancy like techno-thriller follow through, which is what I thought this was.  It is to a good degree, but like the TV huckster says “but wait, there’s more.”  I had no inkling that this Rosenberg writes Christian fiction, which I didn’t discover until I started reading.  Not my cup-o-tea to begin with, but this isn’t just inspirational, this is in-your-face Messianic Fiction.  Where Rosenberg lost me, to the point I stopped reading, are the overt Messianic references and placement.  As good as the rest of the story components are, the messianic references are so unsubtle and out of place / out of character, they failed to hold the story together for me; especially the wishfully thought-out Iranian Shiite converts who seamlessly can include the Gospels in their principal conversations about reactors and radiation levels.

The Decameron / Giovanni Boccaccio

decameron

Synopsis: In the early summer of 1348, as a terrible plague ravages the city, ten charming young Florentines take refuge in country villa to tell each other stories—a hundred stories of love, adventure and surprising twists of fortune. Boccaccio has little time for chastity, pokes fun at crafty, hypocritical clerics and celebrates the power of passion to overcome obstacles and social divisions.

Maybe I’m just not enamored of pre-Renaissance literature, but I couldn’t make it past the first chapter. It felt contrived and forced.  The story concept is fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s forward.  It think my problem is I don’t feel comfortable around translations; I already know that nuances and intent get lost from the original language so I’m already leery.  As easily as I can visualize Napoleon, Alexander or Hannibal in their milieus, I have as hard a time visualizing and believing the 14th Century setting – puffy sleeves and leggings. I can’t say I read enough of this work it to criticize the writing, but Boccaccio and Nichols (the translator) didn’t make it interesting enough to keep me reading on.  

Scott

Why I failed to love Glen Cook’s Black Company novels, and why I will try to love them again:

Glen Cook’s expertly written fantasy fiction should’ve been right up my alley. He adroitly blends powerful magic and other fantastic elements with gritty military themes to tell the story of the eponymous Black Company a mercenary unit with a 500 year history of war and conquest. While others have compared Cook’s style to the spartan prose of Elmore Leonard, I find that some of his descriptions–or lack thereof–act as barriers to my understanding of the action.

While I like flawed characters as much as the next post-modern reader, I also found it hard to settle on a character to focus on and root for. Cook’s employment of an odd, first-person present tense narrative perspective also presents a challenge to someone more comfortable with third person omniscient perspective. While I don’t mind first person stories, the strange immediacy of Cook’s narrator just feels weird to me. Read this excerpt from his publisher’s website to better see what I am trying to explain here.

All of my misgivings and bad experiences aside, there remains gold in those hills. I fully plan to return to The Black Company saga for a second go-round. It took me two tries to fully love Frank Herbert’s Dune and now I re-read that every two years or so, so I will not hesitate to climb back into the saddle with the grizzled vets of Cook’s Black Company.

Suzy

DickensClassic I can’t and won’t finish: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I had to read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens for my 9th grade English class. Keep in mind, I have always been an avid reader and I usually read whatever was assigned to me. However, due to my general dislike of overdramatic behavior (even as a teenager), I hated every single character in Great Expectations from the door. I read the first two “Stages of Pip’s Expectations.” I never started the third. In fact, to this day over twenty years later, I have no idea how it ends. Never bothered to find out, don’t care; even for this post I still haven’t looked it up, still don’t care.

I thought Pip was an idealistic dipstick with unrealistic expectations. Then he got money and acted like a jerk. I was completely unsympathetic to his plight because he should have known better. Done with Pip. Then there is the cruel Estella, with her whole “I don’t have a heart” thing. Hyperbole much? Give a rest, lady. But it was Miss Havisham that really rubbed the 14-year-old me the wrong way. Is there anyone in the history of literature more self-indulgent and frankly, hysterical than that old bat? You got jilted at the alter so your entire life stopped and you never took off the wedding dress? That is too ridiculous for words and also totally unhygienic. (Seriously. Gross.) There is no man on earth worth that nonsense. Then, crazypants, you raise an orphan to exact vengeance? No. Just no. And if you see me, don’t tell me the ending. I like a little mystery in my life.

FranzenContemporary Novel I can’t and won’t finish: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I think this was book club book, but I can’t remember because of the PTSD the first two hundred pages of this book caused me. Freedom actually made me dislike Jonathan Franzen. (I later saw him speak at the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures Monday night lecture series and he was fantastic; engaging, funny, and not at all the intellectual snob I was expecting.) As with Great Expectations, I hated all the characters and also found them and the entire story completely unbelievable. (And I completely swallowed whole books like A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. So I can suspend my disbelief.)

Tedium abounds in Freedom. I found the dialogue artificial and even odd. I can’t imagine anyone in a relationship talking like Walt and Patty. And Patty’s autobiography, ugh. (If you want to see how an autobiography/diary can be worked into a novel well, read I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb.) As to the plot: Really, uber-liberal couple, you’d let your teenage son move in with a bunch of hardcore Republicans? Or a talented athlete snowed by a weird fan? With its shallow and unlikeable characters and tiresome plot; I believe I can live a full and happy life without finishing this novel.

*****

For more abandoned books, and why they were put down, see The Paris Review and Barnes and Noble blogs.  We’re truly sorry if we’ve carved up one of your sacred cows, but we’re also curious about you: which books have you broken up with, flung across the room in anger, shunned, or simply just couldn’t finish?

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