Tag Archives: Poetry

Stretch Goals: Nobody’s Jackknife

Poetry is a lot like yoga: it asks you to stretch out of your comfort zone, and the level of difficulty varies from situation to situation. Nobody’s Jackknife, the first full-length collection from Pittsburgh’s own Ellen McGrath Smith, functions as a master class for advanced readers and a challenge to motivated beginners. Like the best classes, it is by turns gentle and fierce, and by the time you get to the end of it, you should be glowing and panting a little bit; if not, you might be reading it wrong … or, at least, not wholeheartedly.

The yoga metaphor fits because Smith used it first: an entire section of Nobody’s Jacknife is made up of poems that bear the name of specific poses. These pieces explore the nature of the pose and its relationship to the world in which one poses, as explained in “Downward Facing Dog (adho mukha svanasana)”:

Each posture some kind of creature. Each minute
some kind of creature. Each creature is some sort
of time but not waiting (67).

In this particular poem the nature and performance of downward dog are juxtaposed with the damage done by Hurricane Katrina; like a good teacher, Smith urges the reader to explore the relationship:

…Or is the dog the stretch itself
and not the body that could bark and growl if only

it could see a city under water,
under a lid that the leaders don’t lift
until it’s too late. In the beginning,
keep the eyes open. Then you will know
what you are doing and where you go wrong–(ibid).

As readers move through the sequence of poem-poses they’re asked to consider their internal and external worlds, how they’re held in tension, how to reconcile them through awareness and effort. It’s fine if you’re wobbly because you don’t have to get it right the first time; in fact, it’s better if you don’t: as you read and reread each poem, new levels of connection and meaning rise to the surface, just as continued yoga practice will, inevitably, change you.

Though they work well on their own, the yoga poems take on greater depth and resonance when read in context. Each of the three previous sections of Nobody’s Jackknife is an invitation to experience life as Smith does: full-throttle, no apologies, level-headed and clear-sighted. Her emotional range is wide and honest, as if she not only would not, but could not lie to the reader.

“The Locust: A Foundational Narrative,” for example, which stands alone as part one, will knock the breath right out of your chest. It’s pretty clear just why the poem won a 2012 Orlando Award from A Room of One’s Own Foundation, but you’ll need to read it six more times to fully absorb its impact (and really appreciate the rest of the volume). Part two  revolves around drinking, with most of the poems named after beverages (“Absinthe,” “Port,” “Rolling Rock Beer,” etc.). In this sequence, booze consumes you, but the final poem in the series, “First Communion,” with its shift towards sacramental consumption ends the section on a hopeful note:

Every tongue awaits the body.

Every body is a word.

Every word a possibility (37).

Section three has a gentler, more introspective tone and a somewhat experimental style; the imagery glides by like waves, lapping over the reader and lulling her into reflection. When linear narrative returns near the end of the sequence, it’s no surprise that it manifests in a few yoga poems, preludes to the deeper exploration in section four:

...now I was nothing
     but a body--good or bad--
          and it was something
               they could draw--
          it had mass; it was not
filthy 

("Camel Pose (Ustasana) 48).

I never feel like I’m doing the poets I review quite enough justice, but this time I’m telling you straight up: I am not doing this volume justice. Perhaps it’s not fair to you to review a work that cannot be neatly encapsulated in a few sound bites or fully appreciated on one reading. Then again, if you’ve made it this far into the essay without running away screaming, a stretch reading goal might be just what you’re after.

If I’ve guessed correctly, you can reserve your own library copy of Nobody’s Jackknife here. Are you in the mood to challenge yourself these days? Or do your summer reading plans err on the side of calm and chill? Leave us a comment and let us know where your comfort zone is.

–Leigh Anne

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Read the Manual

The main appeal of religion, philosophy and self-help is that, as disciplines, they promise to lay out a framework for how to live a good and meaningful life. The fact that there’s no consensus between–or even within–fields as to what “good” and “meaningful” actually are is mostly delightful, and occasionally frustrating. As you pursue each path, though, a funny thing happens: searching for the answer becomes more important than finding the answer, and before you know it, boom! A life well-lived.

Sharon Dolin’s Manual for Living holds a triple boom between its covers, three sets of poems inspired by philosophy, art and religion. Each set imposes meaning on life using a different set of standards and poetic techniques, offering the reader a choose-your-own-adventure series of poems to compare, contrast, mull over and memorize.

Cross-section of the cover of Manual for Living. Spotted at University of Pittsburgh Press. Click through for source page.

Cross-section of the cover of Manual for Living. Spotted at University of Pittsburgh Press. Click through for source page.

The first section, “Manual for Living,” especially lends itself to memorization and reading aloud; it’s musically clever, with consonance and assonance for days, as in “Desire Demands its Own Attachment”:

Daunted by disastrous consequences?
Don’t be. Everyone–even you–
delights in devil-scape. Do you
rue more than revel? (11).

The poems’ titles are direct quotes from the stoic philosopher Epictetus, one of the original “suck it up and deal” guys, whose main piece of advice, in contemporary terms, best translates to “Dude, chill.” Dolin has a lot of fun restating the original epigrams in clever, musical phrases designed to stick in your memory:

Great that he gamed you. Grand
she’s gone gloomy, gorged on hemlock.
Colossal you’ve got no guy, no gig, no granita.

Greet each gravity with gratitude like a cavity

(“Everything Happens for a Good Reason”, 11).

Dolin’s framework for section two, “Black Paintings,” is a series of artworks created by Francisco Goya near the end of his life. If you’re not familiar with the works, it can be useful to click back and forth between the poems and the paintings as you read, to get the full effect. Even if you are familiar with the paintings, though, you’ll benefit from consulting them together, as the somber, introspective tone Dolin uses in this set of works mirrors the darker colors and themes Goya explores.

Calling them meditations on death is, and is not, an oversimplification. Consider “Atropos, or The Three Fates”:

O you in the back with your mantic
mirror, how do you know

how long to spill my skein–
black blood of me when I shall

no longer be? (48).

There’s a big difference between accepting fate and questioning it; the chirpy stoicism of section one has been replaced by a moody, almost resentful, challenge to the powers that be.

This challenge is resolved in section three, “Of Hours,” which is modeled after a popular form of medieval prayer book. As the name suggests, there’s a prayer-poem for each hour of the day, and each poem addresses a specific spiritual concern expressed through the beauty of the natural world observed at the given time. The speaker’s day begins at dark-thirty with a request for guidance:

…I am thrumming

your praises as the only way to hear
with the soul’s inner ear.

Tell me what you desire of me
(“Psalm of the Flying Shell (4:30 a.m.)”, 53).

As the day progresses, the style becomes more and more experimental, mirroring how a day can begin in order and gradually succumb to chaos. The prayers are what keep the speaker–and the reader–anchored to the world. Consider the dreamy images and style of “Moon Lilies (5:30 p.m.)”:

In the suffering hour >>
                        sky
                              oozing blood
                        orange

pages gone dark
             Sabbath will be starlit

(Help me find you in time) (83).

Just as there is no one answer in life, there’s no one “right” way to craft poems in Dolin’s work. It’s obvious she takes great pleasure in playing with sounds and forms, not so much concerned with truth as with the search for it, and the many ways one can search. If you consider yourself a spirited or philosophical person, or if you like playful explorations of thought and language, you really should read the Manual.

You can do that quite easily by clicking here to make a reservation in the catalog, and having these poetic devotions sent to the library location of your choice. How do you make sense of everyday living? What forms of consolation, poetic or otherwise, have helped you grapple with the many challenges of adulting? Leave us a comment and share your wisdom.

–Leigh Anne

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Failed Passes With Flying Colors

If you’ve never heard of the Paterson Silk Strike (1913), you’re not alone. The strikers died mostly forgotten, overshadowed by other actions from the eight-hour workday movement (most notably the Haymarket Affair). Martin Espada’s new poetry collection kicks off with a sonnet cycle that brings this tiny moment in labor history back to life, praising the men and women who put their lives on the line for workers’ rights.Vivas to Those Who Have Failed–the title of both the cycle and the book–is taken from Whitman‘s Song of Myself. Like their namesake, the sonnets ask that we praise the unsung heroes and common people who, though not widely remembered, and perhaps loved by only a few, did their best to make the world a better place.

One example:

Hannah left the courthouse to picket the mill. She chased
a strikebreaker down the street, yelling in Yiddish the word
for shame. Back in court she hissed at the judge’s sentence
of another striker. Hannah got twenty days in jail for hissing.
She sang all the way to jail (“IV: The Little Agitator,” 22).

Espada could have stopped there and this would have been a great chapbook. We’re very fortunate, however, that he continued on in the same thematic vein and delivered a full collection. The other poems also tell tales of everyday heroism, and most of the people honored are Espada’s family, friends, and professional colleagues. A great deal of the work is dedicated to his father, Frank, who died in 2014. Reading about Frank’s life and adventures will make you envy Espada more than a little for having such an outrageous, courageous dad:

He spat obscenities like sunflower seeds at the driver
who told him to sit at the back of the bus in Mississippi, then
slipped his cap over his eyes and fell asleep. He spent a week in jail,
called it the best week of his life, strode through the jailhouse door
and sat behind the driver of the bus on the way out of town,
his Air Force uniform all that kept the noose from his neck (“El Morivivi,” 85).

Martin Espada, during a visit to Pittsburgh's City of Asylum in 2015. Click through for source page and interview with Sampsonia Way.

Martin Espada, during a visit to Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum in 2015. Click through for source page and interview with Sampsonia Way.

Reading about Frank Espada is like sitting around the kitchen table listening to the grownups tell “back in the day” stories. Bold and yet at the same time restrained, Espada’s tone conveys the true nature of paternal loss: a virus that ebbs and flows through various emotions, restrained by the codes of manhood. The overall mood is somber, but defiant.

Other standouts in Vivas include “Hard-Handed Men of Athens” (wryly funny), “On the Hovering of Souls and Balloon Animals” (not funny, but true), and “Chalkboard on the Wall of a Diner in Providence, Rhode Island the Morning After George Zimmerman Was Acquitted in the Shooting Death of Trayvon Martin, an Unarmed Black Teenager” (which makes its point like an arrow hitting the bullseye). Vivas to Those Who Have Failed is a solid poetry collection that will resonate most strongly with anyone who has grieved a loved one, but will also strike a chord with readers who like their poetry socially conscious and defiant.

Click here to reserve a copy of Espada’s book. Who are your unsung heroes? What brave deeds should everybody know about? Tell us all in the comments below.

–Leigh Anne

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The Wright Stuff

I poetry. I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it. … Sometimes I weary of it. I could not live without it. Not in this world. Not in my lifetime.

C.D. Wright in Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil, qtd. in The New York Times.

Photograph of C.D. Wright by Blue Flower Arts - all rights reserved to same. Click through for source page.

Photograph of C.D. Wright by Blue Flower Arts – all rights reserved to same. Click through for source page.

She didn’t have to. When Wright passed away unexpectedly in January, she left behind one final, magnificent collection of poems with a title Fiona Apple would envy: The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All. Even that mouthful—to which I’m going to refer as The Poet for clarity’s sake—doesn’t do justice to the scope of the work, which resembles the Doctor’s TARDIS:  it’s much, much bigger on the inside.

One blog post can’t do justice to all the goodness in this volume, but there are recurring themes a reader can latch on to and explore. One of these is Wright’s joy in words, which circles back around again and again in a series of poems called “In a Word, a World” which appear at intervals throughout The Poet. We know this sequence is important because Wright uses its first poem to kick off the volume:

I love them all.

I love that a handful, a mouthful, gets you by, a satcheful can land you a job, a well-chosen clutch of them could get you laid, and that a solitary word can initiate a stampede… (3).

This intimate sense of relationship mirrors John 1:1: “In the beginning was the word,” and infuses The Poet with a joyful sense of the sacred right off the bat. Subsequent poems in this cycle make similar confessions about Wright’s close relationship to words in language this is often passionate, but never merely sentimental:

I love the nouns of a time in a place, where a sack once was a poke and native skag was junk glass not junk and junk was just junk not smack and smack entailed eating with your mouth open… (72).

Other sequences include “Hold Still, Lion,” in which Wright reminisces about Robert Creeley; “Jean Valentine, Abridged,” which examines her fellow poet’s aesthetics and body of work; “Spring and All,” a close reading of William Carlos Williams’s first foray into poetry; and “Purgatorio,” a study of the first volume of Chilean poet Raúl Zurita’s epic trilogy. That these sequences don’t appear in order, but are instead wound in and around each other, encourages the reader to make connections between these—and other—poetic sets, and to the stand-alone poems that separate them. It’s all good, Wright seems to be saying. It’s all connected. Check it out.

The value of poetry in our contemporary world is something else Wright muses on at length in The Poet. Musings like “A Plague of Poets,” “The not knowing whether what you’ve set down is any good,” and “If one were to try to describe the heed that poetry requires” interrogate the writer, the writing process, the reader, and the world that creates the reader (even as the reader her/himself creates the world). The best of these is “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal Than the World’s Biggest Retailer,” a long piece that begs to be read out loud and contains wry observations like, “…what if this is just middle capitalism?” (32). Dry humor aside, however, the author has some definite goals that poems should achieve if poets want to stay relevant:

That they enlarge the circle.

That they awaken the dreamer. That they awaken the schemer.

That they rectify the names.

That they draw not conclusions but further qualify doubt.

That they avail themselves of the shrapnel of everything: the disappearance of cork trees and coral, the destroyed center of Ramadi, the shape of buildings to come, the pearness of pears.

That they clear the air (39).

The Poet is knocking me out with its obvious deep joy, its loving acknowledgment of the long, global poetic tradition in which it’s situated, and the touches of snark that surface here and there like the fish at Pymatuming hustling for tourist breadcrumbs. If it sounds a bit too much like a book for seasoned poetry veterans only, I’ve done my job wrong; The Poet is more like a block party to which everybody’s invited, whether you’ve lived in the neighborhood forever or just moved in yesterday. My only regret is that I came to the party so late, after the hostess had quietly slipped away.

Click here to get to know The Poet, and let us know in the comments section whether you’re a poetry lifer, a curious bystander or something else altogether. All voices are welcome, and needed, for the party to be a success.

–Leigh Anne

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Listening to Citizen

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Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

It’s been nearly a year since I read Claudia Rankine’s award winning book, Citizen: An American Lyric. Up until now, I’ve resisted every opportunity to review this book or even participate in a discussion about it with others — yet when we Eleventh Stackians were self-selecting our topics for Black History Month, offering my thoughts on Citizen was the first topic that came to my mind.

It’s a book that’s difficult to talk about, yet one that has the potential to serve as the gateway to some of our most important conversations. For just as Claudia Rankine isn’t defined as simply a poet, a playwright, an artist or an essayist, Citizen is a book that defies being boxed in by a single genre.  Is it a poem?  An essay?  A meditation or prayer?

I think it’s all of these things, and it feels fitting that this book doesn’t conform to a singular label. In some ways, that lends itself well to the immediacy of emotions that makes reading Citizen an experience.

CitizenAt times, that immediacy can be an uncomfortable one — and maybe that discomfort stems from my being a white, middle class, raised-in-Suburbia person in today’s America. Sometimes it is hard to know how to talk about issues of race (Am I going to offend her? Is he going to get upset? Do I sound ignorant? Privileged? Something else? Maybe I should just stay quiet, pretend I didn’t see, didn’t hear, was distracted).  After all, how can we ever really know or understand someone else’s reality?  My reality is not yours and vice versa. Claudia Rankine’s point in Citizen is that the unshared experience doesn’t excuse us for not seeing and acknowledging the experience of others.

Understanding and acknowledging the hard truths of our lives begins with listening and by paying attention to others’ experience. By directing her reader’s attention to the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) instances of racism that occur in American society, Claudia Rankine brings her experience and hurt and pain to the page where we see it in all its rawness and honesty.

Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lung. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this yourself? Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.

The poetry (the American lyric) of Citizen forces us to slow down, to listen, as Claudia Rankine writes eloquently of real-life instances of racism that we know from the headlines — the cover illustration is of a hoodie, symbolizing the killing of Trayvon Martin — as well as the more subtle, yet personally searing moments that too often get glossed over and dismissed altogether.

Two examples that have stayed with me:

Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible — I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.

and

The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so, sorry.

~ Melissa F.

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The Sting of Mercurochrome

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Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

Wanda Coleman (1946-2013) was a politically active, socially aware poet who took great joy in pushing the limits of what poetic forms and language could do. She’s also somewhat infamous for her extremely negative review of Maya Angelou’s A Song Flung Up to Heaven, which earned her a lot of grief from the Black literary community. Her response to the controversy, which was published in The Nation in 2002, contains a lot of strong—and possibly unpopular—opinions about writing excellence in the context of the history of the African American literary tradition. And she honestly didn’t care whether you agreed with her or not. She was too busy promoting, and creating, her own version of excellence.

The poems presented in Mercurochrome (2001) reflect that excellence in a deep, passionate engagement with both language and culture. As readers, we know exactly what we’re getting ourselves into because Coleman tells us flat-out in the lead-off poem, “The Language Beneath the Language”:

thus you hold me
frozen in your doubtful vision
in your study of my brownness. believe
my curious fingers. trust my
daring fingers
as they probe your opened wound… (15).

mercurochromeIn other words, reader, the book you hold in your hands is not meant to be comfortable. Coleman is out to engage you, and the engagement will not always be pleasurable. If you are willing to be uncomfortable, however, your mind will get blown wide open. And that’s never a bad thing, in the long run.

Divided into six sections, Mercurochrome explores the Black American experience by subverting conventional poetic forms. In Section III, for example, “American Sonnets,” Coleman takes a style many contemporary readers find tedious and manipulates it into something a lot more interesting:

widely widely i open to love. my country
impregnates with seed of hate. conjecture?
no. this mad fornication i endure, jealous
contrary to reason, foolish in my fantasy
that i too am cherished…(95).

By using the classic poetry of love to indicate where love is lacking is more than just clever. It’s a direct criticism of what America has promised, but not provided.

The volume’s title is made clear to the reader in “Letter to My Older Sister (5)”:

…love
as i live it seems more like Mercurochrome
     than anything else
i can conjure up. it looks so pretty and red,
     and smells of a balmy
coolness when you uncap the little applicator.
     but swab it on an
open sore and you nearly die under the stabbing
     burn (70).

And there are a lot of open sores that need healing, including the commodification of Black culture (“Paper Riot”), police brutality (“South Central Los Angeles Deathtrip 1982”), and even the banal quality of most contemporary poetry (“Essay on Language (6)”). For all that it stings, however, Coleman’s lyrics also advocate standing one’s ground:

i am blackness waking
my mother’s face on my father’s gift
i am the utter meaning
immesurable, sensual and stark
i am the jetflow of subterranean events
my father’s gentleness on my mother’s savagery
i am blackness. the awakening (24).

Although it may often sting like a poison, Mercurochrome is Coleman’s lyrical attempt at a cure. If you’d like a bigger dose of her medicine, click on over to the Library catalog and reserve a copy, or try another one of Coleman’s collections on for size.

–Leigh Anne

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On Reading 100 Books, Part II

Another year over, and once again I failed miserably at reading 100 books.

eyes-1030439_960_720

But I did succeed in garnering the silent judgement of cats everywhere.
Source

All right, maybe “failed” is a strong word. I ended up reading 70 books and that’s nothing to scoff at, right? Scornful sideways glances from feral felines aside, I decided to highlight five of my favorite books and three of my least favorite books of 2015. If it tickles your fancy, you can look at the whole list on the next page.

The Five I Liked the Most:

loveLove is a Dog from Hell: Poems, 1974-1977 by Charles Bukowski
I learned about this book of poetry by way of The Limousines’ song of the same name. This was my first foray into the writings of Bukowski and it didn’t disappoint. With lines like “I have gotten so used to melancholia / that / I greet it like an old / friend.” and “I am going / to die alone / just the way I live,” this certainly isn’t Lord Byron or John Keats.  This is the kind of stuff you read after a breakup, right before rushing out to do it all over again. These are a few of my favorite lines from the poem Chopin Bukowski:

people need me. I fill
them. if they can’t see me
for a while they get desperate, they get
sick.

but if I see them too often
I get sick. it’s hard to feed
without getting fed.

youYou by Caroline Kepnes
Stephen King—of whom I officially became a fan in 2015 thanks to It and Four Past Midnight—called this book “hypnotic and scary.” What more of an endorsement do you need? You illustrates how easy it is to stalk a person in the digital age. It’s an eerie, well-written page-turner that’s left me eagerly awaiting the sequel, Hidden Bodies, due out in February.

mosquitoMosquitoland by David Arnold
It’s very seldom that a book bring me to tears (in a good way), but this YA debut did just that. The premise—a teenager has to return to her home town via Greyhound when she learns her mother is unwell—was what interested me in this book. Whether in real life or in fiction, I love a good road trip. Just like the tumultuous teenage years, Mosquitoland is equal parts happy and sad. It’s now one of my favorite YA novels of all time.

treesSea of Trees by Robert James Russell
I came across Aokigahara—a dense forest at the bottom of Mt Fuji and a popular place where people go to commit suicide—while reading one of my favorite websites. Doing a simple Google search for more information on the location led me to this novella. It’s a quick, creepy mystery about a couple searching Aokigahara for the woman’s lost sister. What’s even creepier is that two movies have been made about this forest, one starring Matthew McConaughey released in 2015 and one starring Natalie Dormer that came out just last week. The creepiest bit, though, is that this is a real place. Check out this great documentary short put out by Vice for more on the Suicide Forest.

linesPoorly Drawn Lines: Good Ideas and Amazing Stories by Reza Farazmand
This book actually came in for someone else, but I saw it and ordered it for myself. It’s hilarious, nonsensical and was a welcome break from the previous book I’d read, The Price of Salt, which was neither hilarious nor nonsensical. Visit the website of the same name for more giggles.

The Three I Liked the Least:

watchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
I went into this book with almost zero expectations. I’ve experienced first-hand how disappointing a decades-later followup can be (I’m looking at you, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Part of the charm of To Kill a Mockingbird was the way that Lee wrote Scout. Everything that happens is seen through a rose-colored, knee-high lens of childhood. That’s not the case with Watchman. Scout is twenty-six and has returned to Maycomb to visit Atticus. Events transpire that make her question the truths she clung to during childhood. The readers question these truths right along with her and I normally love a good existential rumination, but it’s handled in such a bland and forgettable way here. And that’s not even mentioning how certain characters are almost unrecognizable (ethically speaking) from their Mockingbird counterparts or how the death of a beloved character from Lee’s first novel is only eluded to rather than shown. How this ended up on Goodreads’ Best of 2015 list is baffling, especially when almost every patron I talked with about it also didn’t like it. I don’t want to waste anymore digital ink complaining about it, so I’ll just echo Philip Hensher‘s comments:  it’s “a pretty bad novel.”

starwarsStar Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
Unlike Go Set a Watchman, I had at least one expectation for this book–that it would prepare me for the galactic landscape after the fall of the Empire. Sadly, this book did little to elucidate the mystery of what happens between the end of Return of the Jedi and the beginning of The Force Awakens. The plot takes its time getting started and by the time it does, I wasn’t nearly as invested in the characters as I should have been. These weren’t familiar characters like Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, so I didn’t particularly care what happened to them. Not to mention the new characters all came across as annoyingly self-assured. Because of this, I felt like there were no real stakes in book at all. But maybe that’s on me; it’s been a long time since I’ve read supplemental Star Wars material. There is one scene of Han Solo and Chewbacca aboard the Millennium Falcon, but as a whole, the book skews toward poorly-written fanfiction. In the plus column, I’ve got to give credit to Wendig for introducing the first gay hero in the form of ex-Imperial soldier Sinjir Rath Velus as well as a lesbian couple. In a universe where there are literally hundreds of different alien species, Star Wars has never been that concerned about diversity … but that’s a blog post for another day.

americanAmerican Pastoral by Philip Roth
This is up there (or down there) with The Train from Pittsburgh as one of my least favorite, most hated, severely unenjoyable reads of 2015. The actual plot of this book–an all-American family is torn apart after their daughter blows up a convenience store at the height of the Vietnam War, with musings of the rise and fall of the American Dream sprinkled in–could be boiled down to probably fifty pages. The other 350 pages of Roth’s novel are made up of tangential ramblings including, but not limited to, the history of Newark, the minutiae of Miss America contests and more information on glove-making than any human ever needs to know. It was frustrating for me to read through these prolonged chapters filled with walls of text and just when I thought that there was no point to be made–that maybe I’d picked up a New Jersey history book by mistake–and I was about to give up, Roth would wrap up his tangent and continue with the narrative. In It, Stephen King was similarly long-winded while detailing of the history of the fictional town of Derry, but King held my interest far more than Roth did in describing a place that’s only a six -hour drive away. Again, I have no one to blame but myself–I only read this because first-time director Ewan McGregor filmed the adaptation here, but getting through this book was such an ordeal that I’m now in no hurry to see the movie, despite my well-documented love for Pittsburgh on film.

Did you set or reach any reading goals in 2015? Do you have any reading goals for 2016 or any tips on how I can finally get to 100? Sound off in the comments below!

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