Great American Reads

In reference to the Great American Read event presented by PBS and Meredith Vieira


Like most things in our culture, in everyday life, reading is a highly personal affair. I won’t tell you which book to vote for, which book is the best novel for American readers, but I can shed some light on how and why to choose any work of fiction.

As much as individually we tend to choose to operate by the assumption that quality is subjective, there’s a difference between objective quality in any product and its capacity to meet our personal standards and preferences. Online product reviews use the rating system rather liberally, and people take liberties with the option to select only one or two stars out of five. Most products are never as bad as we perceive and make them out to be, and probably, most are rarely as good. A coffeemaker can usually perform more than adequately, even if it’s not a top competitor.

As consumers in a capitalist economy, we have the luxury of choosing the best possible model on the market for our budget. We take our coffee very seriously, after all. On the flip side, that special pillow you bought may have improved your life, but it’s not likely to be a literal lifesaver. Then again, it’s your sleep, not mine, so who am I to judge?

Entertainment products, such as books and movies, are different. It’s true there are standards according to which reviewers and awards committees hold most works of fiction, for instance, but novels in particular can be difficult to quantify, to categorize, and to size up. Experienced readers and reviewers have a greater claim to knowing the formula, if there is such a thing, that makes a great book. But with entertainment, the subjectivity factor carries more weight in the judgment of a book within society and against all other books; they’re not widgets, coffeemakers or pillows.

Sure, traditionally, their form has been mass produced—they’re made of paper and ink or bits of data—but the product itself moves beyond the assembly line. A work of literature is an experience over time, a thing of variable content in its use of ideas and language, and a journey through a story of imaginary people, places, and things. Its nexus of abstraction sets it well apart from the concrete world of electronic devices and motorized vehicles.

But reading is more than just a mental exercise. Stories take us on emotional and sometimes visceral roller coasters of reaction. Authors of books and makers of film can make people cry, laugh, gasp, shudder, scream, swoon, wretch, and more, simply by their artful, vivid use of words and pictures.

For me, reading is about making connections—between me and the author, me and the characters, my life and the setting and plot, between ideas in one story and ideas in another, between different art forms. I tend to read interactively if I’m not reading on a deadline. It’s about savoring as well as digesting, rather than simply ingesting, the art. I like to taste my food as it’s going down, getting to know its different effects on my palate, its aroma, texture, and consistency, rather than devour words like individual grains or layers of sauce—en masse with the rest of the meal.

I like to read about the author’s life, wondering about connections between the story and the life. I like to talk to the author, or myself, through margin notes, Post-It notes, and by writing about the book elsewhere (like here). I like to think about the book’s relationship to culture, to other books, to film, and even to itself. I read deliberately.

In part, that’s about remembering what I’ve read. Processing the content in multiple forms and ways ensures that I’ll retain more details, assuming those matter. On the other hand, a great book doesn’t require as much hard work. To me, a great book combines high objective quality with readability and complexity. It also takes the reader through the gamut of emotion and ideas, a panoply of interesting characters, in a captivating setting, through an unpredictable plot, with grace and style and wit. A great book provokes thought, touches the soul, and stays with the reader long after the final page is read.

By these standards, I hereby make my top choices for America’s best book, which is a different thing than America’s favorite book. The Great American Read started with a list of the 100 most popular novels in America. Although using it as a springboard for this post, I won’t remain beholden to that list’s rather narrow confines. My choices are based on reading the book, so I make no selections where I have not read. This makes my picks even more personal, as they omit what I’m otherwise sure are some gems of literature. At the same time, I’ll select my least favorite books from the GAR list and try to pinpoint the reasons why.

Drawing from both the Great American Read top 100 and my own Goodreads read books list, my top novels read are the following. They appear in alphabetical order, and some link to this blog’s reviews of each. Later, I’ll narrow it down further, but I don’t really believe in single, all-time favorites of any kind of thing. There’s simply too much out there for me to love.

  1. Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner
  2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
  3. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  6. Chronicles of Narnia, #1: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  8. The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  12. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  13. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  14. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  16. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  17. One True Thing by Anna Quindlen
  18. Outlander (first book only; have yet to read books 5-8) by Diana Gabaldon
  19. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  20. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  21. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  22. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  23. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  24. War and Peace by Leo Tolstooy
  25. Watership Down by Richard Adams

Which books did I find most amazing?

  • War and Peace
  • Outlander
  • In Cold Blood
  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • Brave New World

For whom do the pages turn? They turn for me. Length is no deterrent when the words flow like melted butter. The ideas, the stories, the people, the places—all contribute to the full immersion of experience.

If I have to choose a set to honor, to recommend, to champion, each book in this collection of five can never be a mistake. And they are not the only ones for which it is so. It is not simply about enjoyment or like-mindedness. As I stated earlier, it is a marriage of objective quality in writing ability, storytelling, and transportation to other worlds, as well as interesting ideas, beautiful truths, deep connections between people, and the complexities of life and death.

This is not to say that each book is perfect. Perfection is not the aim. After all this time, I can say that with complete and utter confidence. Love is the aim. Insight. And growth. These books have all opened multiple dimensions to me, helped me grow, made me love, and urged me to shout about it.

So for now, these are my top picks for the Great American Read. Is it taking the easy way out not to choose a final top book? I would say the books that move me most are Outlander and War and Peace. In Cold Blood being a close second. Is it predictable to choose Outlander as my favorite book when it’s so clear from my blog that it’s at least well beloved by me? I love Gulliver’s Travels and Brave New World for similar reasons between them; they’re both science fiction, satire, mirrors up to their readers, and deliciously humorous, disturbing, deep, broad, and complex in proportions. They are classic epics.

All but Outlander delve deeply into social commentary on a broad scale (all but War and Peace done fully indirectly, through the story itself), though Outlander is not without indirect social commentary of a more specific nature. None but Outlander indulges in the pleasure of the human sex act. The novel is the most intimate, most personal, and in some ways, most vivid of these five. Certainly the most relatable.

War and Peace is likewise detailed and relevant to our struggles. In Cold Blood focuses on a crime, a pathology of human nature, on social dynamics and psychological dimensions. They’re all amazingly written, some in distinct writing styles. Outlander has the only female protagonist and first-person narrator, authored by a woman. These things elevate it further in my esteem. They say it’s quite difficult to write first person well, for example.

The humor and beauty, the terror and horror, the allure and fascination, the sheer intelligence and wit, as well as the greatly physical and emotional parameters, plus supernatural, science fiction, historical, mystery, romance, and action adventure aspects combine with all those elements previously mentioned to hoist Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander upon the shoulders of all the others. Its contemporary feel increases its relatability while its rich, exquisitely researched exploration of 18th-century Scotland helps anchor it further as a modern classic.

So, yes, I’m choosing one book, Outlander, for my favorite book, at least so far. I recommend this novel to most adults who have not become so totally ensnared in the cycles of pop fiction as to avoid all greater journeys.

As for the Great American Read, voting ends at midnight on October 19; results will be revealed by PBS on October 23. It’s really almost a moot exercise to pick a single book out of all 100 finalists, though. In a future post, I’ll caution against time wasted on some of what I felt were lesser choices among the 100, but again, I’m not a true expert, having not read all 100 books listed.

Meanwhile, if you don’t quite get to read Outlander before November 4th, the date of the Season 4 premiere for the STARZ TV series based on Gabaldon’s works, you’ll still have plenty in the books to explore. For this and so many other reasons, I recommend Outlander, the first in a soon-to-be-nine book series, by author Diana Gabaldon.

Outlander_cover


If you liked this post or want to learn more about why Outlander‘s the one, see my more comprehensive review at Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This blog also provides 3 Quick Book Reviews of the first three books in the series.

If you’ve read it and love it, I can only hope you’ll #VOTEOutlander on Twitter and Facebook, and select it today–only two more chances left!–online and by phone via the official Great American Read voting page

Grand Showcase coming soon!

Hey, art lovers and writers in northeast Ohio, heads up!

The annual Writing Knights Grand Tournament has been restyled as Grand Showcase and Marketplace 2018!

Grand Showcase 2018

Presented live in Canton, OH ~ July 27-28

Hosted by Writing Knights Press and downtown Canton

I’ll read my poetic “Scenes from a nature film” live @ IKON Images Gallery & Shoppe, July 28 at 1pm

Descriptive nature verse (mostly)–some seasoned pieces, some revised, some made fresh for the show

Located at 221 5th Street, Canton, IKON is just one of several venues where poetry, music, comedy, and stories will be performed over Friday and Saturday, July 27-28.

Check out the full main schedule of performers, including me at 1pm on Saturday, July 28, plus an open mic list. All the action starts Friday night, July 27.

Open mic runs concurrently with the main program on July 28, from 12pm to 6pm. Interested performers for the open mic email writingknights@live.com. Full instructions here.

Below is the general plan. “Love” offerings (cash) will be accepted at each program.

“Friday July 27th from 7pm to 9pm: We will have one show at Makeshift Makerspace.
Saturday July 28th will be the big day. We will have the following shows:
  • 12pm to 2pm show at IKON Art Gallery
  • 3:30pm to 5:30pm show at Makeshift Makerspace
  • 7pm to 9pm the final show of the event at Avenue Arts/Kathleen Howland Theatre.”

Vendors will set up along Court Street, so bring cash for food, souvenirs, etc.

Writing Knights will also be selling copies of the Showcase issue of their literary magazine The Wayward Sword for $15. Four of my poems made it into the litmag.

Full details at Writing Knights Press, see the posts using key word “Grand Showcase 2018.”

Come out to support the arts scene, share your work, get inspired and just have fun!

Poetic Feet to the Fire

I’ve won a poetry contest before, once (granted I’ve entered only about 4 or 5 total), and I entered one recently. For this live performance competition, I collected a group of poems I thought to be of reasonably high quality for the upcoming event (end of July). Before long, I started narrowing down the candidates, returning to that process again after two things changed: The “tournament” became a showcase due to insufficient competitor entries to make the brackets work, and the accompanying call for literary magazine submissions opened up to entries from more writers than just would-be contest winners.

Thus, the pressure was lifted for content on one platform (stage) and transferred to the other (page). The result was to extend the time available for each writer’s decisions on what to submit (deadline moved from June 2 to July 1). With the change in deadline came more detailed guidelines as well. I suppose the crisis of faith that followed for me simply happened sooner than it might have, which is probably good since you don’t want to panic right before going on stage either. Whatever the cause or contributing factors, doubt has crept in.

I had already shuffled the order a few times, relegating poems to alternate status and back again, when I learned the news of the event’s structural changes. Before the tournament became a non-competitive showcase, there was to be a series of time limits for contestants at the mic. However, with a dearth of entries, stage time has expanded for each participant. By contrast, with the new goal for the literary magazine being to include more participants than before, page space per writer has shrunk.

The new submission guidelines for poetry (the event includes storytelling, comedy, and music as well) specify a limit of 30 lines per poem, including lines between stanzas, and this has added difficulty to my decisions. It’s appropriate–only your best work. Of course I would submit only my best! If I could.

My trouble, as I see it, given that I do not write poetry prolifically, is that my shorter poems, the ones eligible for submission, tend not to be as good as those just out of range.

The consequences? My collection has thus begun to dwindle further (not inherently bad); I was forced to revise structures to make a few poems more horizontal and less vertical in appearance (no biggie); and I started to feel the overall quality ebbing away (kind of a biggie). The bubble of my collection of poems seems already to have burst.

For this event, I’ve focused on nature poems, but so does my overall poetry collection. Due to my infrequent verse writing activity (up to a half dozen poems a year), the total collection of possible candidates also spans a period of decades. The oldest poem in the group is 24 years old, the youngest a couple of months. My verse children were born in different personal eras (adolescence, college, working world), geographical places (France, Ohio, and Massachusetts), and moments in my poetic development (confessional, abstract/obscure, nonsensical word play, formalism, free verse with internal rhyme, terse verticality, and so on). A diverse brood. Ironically, the oldest poems tend to be the most underdeveloped–sometimes that’s the nature of literary babies (and some humans).

I have not officially, i.e., formally, published any poetry in my career, if one can even call it a career. So, finding myself on the cusp of large-scale live audience action, if not publication, I’m sitting up a little straighter and feeling the lick of flames under my toes.

In desperation before these emergent, combined realities, I found myself scrounging for additional works to use. One poem I had discarded, or set aside, a few years ago as birth defected and beyond repair has become an object for resuscitation, remodeling, and renewal. You can do that with some writing. I journaled about it, scanned the meter, and color coded my pen marks for the strongest aspects I could isolate and reshape into something new. Now the poem awaits rewriting. Who knows? Maybe it will be the saving grace of the family.

Putting yourself out there is a healthy thing, I must remind myself, even if doubt lingers. It forces you to keep moving forward, find a way to make things work, and start new projects. With the imminence of the showcase, for which I’m officially on the schedule, I gain new motivation to work, to improve, to learn, and to try again. Sometimes, when idea inspiration doesn’t come, when desire to express doesn’t win out, the external pressure of a deadline and an audience can provide the needed incentive.

What is it? Disguised blessing? Healthy challenge?

There are more ways than one to get things done, and opportunity need not be a crisis. So courage, creator! And carry on toward adventure.

Brief Book Review: Howards End

Posted first on Goodreads and Amazon, read entirely on Kindle.

Odd voice & construction, yet so fascinating I highlighted nearly the whole.

I found Howards End by E. M. Forster intriguing start to finish, which was both good and not so good. Sometimes perplexed by dialogue and theories, I also felt unsettled by and distant from characters meant to be the most relatable (Helen, and to some degree, Margaret). Still, I was entertained and moved enough to keep thinking about it all and, most important, to keep reading. Reading Forster’s A Passage to India for book club, and enjoying his style and insight, contributed to my picking up this book soon after.

The novel is both very English and insular in attitude (a bit ironically Imperialistic, perhaps, or was that intentional?) and expansive, universal, even cosmic in symbolism. Complex and at times disjointed in style, especially narrative voice, but also imagery, plot and some characterization, the novel remains endlessly rich with striking ideas. Filled with drama, philosophy, politics, feminism, realism, Industrialist economics, familial intimacy, and, most of all, late Victorian-Edwardian England, Howards End calls for careful reading, if not re-reading. It’s a British social history artifact as much as a novel.cover_Howards-End

Some of my favorite characters now include Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox. So different in levels of class, age, and emotional intelligence, priorities, interests, needs, subcultures, and educations, they are bonded by mutual affection and two different forms of steadiness, but above all, by marital tradition, real estate, and the late Mrs. Wilcox.

At the same time, Margaret, an intellectual of the early 20th century, has anything but a traditional outlook and serves as protagonist. Despite his obtuseness, “unweeded kindness,” and being “criminally muddled,” according to Margaret, Henry’s personality remains rather sympathetic. He is a product of his upbringing, his prior marriage, and his businessman’s world view, but he proves an amiable product. 

I enjoyed comparing the book with the recent TV adaptation starring Hayley Atwell (good though not great as Margaret) and Matthew MacFayden (a more faithful rendering of Henry), and I’m now eager to see the acclaimed 90s film with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. It’s been on my to-watch list for ever since its release.

Writers like Forster are why feminist avoidance of male authors is so misguided. He was ahead of his time and sex and species. With a somewhat bewildering perspective–bestowing Helen Schlegel, among others, with shades of it–in Howards End, E. M. Forster still manages insightful humanistic exploration and largely page-turning fiction. Above all, the author delivers a master stroke in depicting the ironic fatal consequences of one man’s hypocrisy.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Poems for the People

How can we serve poetry–raise its profile in society, give it love from more people, and spread its joy to more people? Poets and poetry lovers have grappled with this question in various ways over the years. From government and cultural leaders, to poet laureates and poets, to professors and teachers, to reviews and periodicals, to students and everyday citizens–everyone stands to benefit from the effort.

Poetry serves us in diverse and unique ways; so, too, can we reciprocate. How do we love it? Let us count the ways.

What is a poet laureate? What is the role of the laureate in the community served?

Originally, poet laureate was a title designated to an esteemed poet in the official service of the British monarch and royal household. Ben Jonson was the first poet laureate in 1616. The poet laureate would entertain the royals and nobility with their work and perform related services. The definition has evolved over centuries and oceans, but governments have tended to remain responsible–for designating a laureate, that is. The poetry is all on the poet. (source: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/poet-laureate?s=t)

Are U. S. poet laureates effective in their efforts? Judge for yourself. For example, among the Past Poet Laureate Projects on file at the U. S. Library of Congress that serve as gateways to and promoters of poetry, I’ve highlighted a few I found interesting.

Poetry 180. A project of former U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins providing a poem a day for the school year in American high schools. See the page listing 180 poems.

Favorite Poem Project. Twenty years ago, 18,000 Americans shared their favorite poems with U. S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and the nation through video recitations, online resources, and this archive of favorite poems. http://www.favoritepoem.org/

La Casa de Colores. Juan Felipe Herrera, U. S. Poet Laureate 2015-2017, established two main projects for what he called “a house for all voices”: a massive crowdsourced poem, La Familia, and a monthly series, El Jardin, of the poet laureate’s experiences interacting with the Library of Congress’ bountiful archives.

Current and reappointed U. S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith brought the poetry conversation and readings to the rural South and continues her work by connecting poetry to small-town America.

But you don’t have to be the top poet in the country to further the cause of poetry. Note the Academy of American Poets’ suggestions for 30 ways to celebrate the poem.

Along with attending local live poetry performances like this and competitive events like this, one of my favorite ways to spread the love is through Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day, coming this Thursday, April 26th. It’s so simple. Share a poem you love in any way imaginable at school, in your community, or at work. Most obvious: Bring printed copies everywhere you go, and hand them out or anonymously deposit them in random or strategic locations where someone will find them and be inspired, dazzled, cheered up, soothed, or intrigued. Check out the Academy’s official 2018 Poem-in-Your-Pocket-Day guide to more ways to share, along with the text of 15 poems ready to distribute from contemporary American poets, 15 from Canadian poets, and 15 from the public domain. 

Another method I like comes from Tweetspeak Poetry: Take Your Poet to School Week. But again, it need not be school; take them anywhere! See their article “Bring in the Cupcakes!” to learn how this works and locate the full list available here, with four new poets for 2018. Although the designated week (first of April) has passed, I’ll soon bring out my favorite poets–so happy to see them included!–to keep me company and assist the Muse. From the link to the full collection of poets, which includes a front and back for each poet’s likeness, I’m starting with Judith Wright, Edgar Allan Poe (especially fun with the raven!), Wislawa Szymborska, Rumi, and Walt Whitman.

Scrap the official, eschew the formal, and free poetry in the spirit of equal access. L. L. Barkat describes in this Huffington Post article how to liberate verse from traditional constraints that keep us from accessing and enjoying it.

How will you celebrate poetry or poets? Serve it up.

More opportunities abound on this blog–my 10 top-viewed posts in poetry:

  1. Adapted Bawdy Lyrics: Outlander TV Series, Episode 114, “The Search”
  2. Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy
  3. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets
  4. Wild Verses, 5 of 10 / Writing 201: Poetry, Day 1 (Haiku, Water, Simile)
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 3: Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Call of the Wild Poetry
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 2: Elizabeth Bishop
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1a: “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  9. On Process: Verse Writing. Introduction and Part I: Motivation (involves writing an elegy for the late, great Leonard Nimoy/Spock)
  10. Writing 201: Poetry, Day 2 (Limerick, Journey, Alliteration)

Haiku Death Match

Poetry events happening this week in northeast Ohio include

The 6th Annual

Haiku Death Match

Saturday, April 21st, at 7pm

Ensemble Theatre in Cleveland Heights

Description of the program, presented by Heights Arts, from the official press release:
“This “fun”raiser for literary arts programming will pit eight of the region’s best and bravest writers of the ancient Japanese 17-syllable form against each other in a fierce competition for audience approval. Pairs of poets read their original Haiku aloud, and the audience votes for the poem they like best. Low-scoring contestants are eliminated, and the last poet standing is declared Haiku Death Match Master.”

Haiku Warrior Team
Michael Ceraolo
Lorraine Cipriano
Christine Donofrio
Cordelia Eddy
Azriel Johnson
Ray McNeice (defending champion)
Pat Robertell-Hudson
Bill Schubert

Ensemble Theatre
2843 Washington Blvd.
Cleveland Heights, OH 44118

Purchase tickets here (so you won’t miss out!).

Doors open at 6:30pm.
Proceeds benefit Heights Arts. Learn more about this community arts organization and its mission at Heightsarts.org