Book List: 50 Nonfiction Books + Some Additions

Lists of books are tricky for all the reasons one might expect: subjectivity, taste, culture, etc. The most common influence I see is time, as in ‘this year’, ‘the 21st century’, ‘the last 10 years’, and so on and so forth.

Today’s option is a list from and focuses on 50 nonfiction books of the past 25 years. I do read nonfiction when I need a break from heavy ficiton, and I’ve read some of these and have some of them saved on goodreads as ‘to-read’. Comments as follows and will link to reviews / book club questions for these as I write them (nb a ‘BC’ after the author means I read it or was meant to read it as part of a book club).

On the list, have read it:

  • Into the Wild by John Krakauer
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers [BC]
  • Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
  • The Night of the Gun by David Carr
  • Dreamland by Sam Quinones [BC]

On the list, have not read it:

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot [BC]
  • How to Survive A Plague by David France

Other nonfiction not on the list, have read and would recommend:

  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
  • Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
  • Junky by William S. Borroughs
  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers [BC]
  • As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee [BC] and Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell [BC]
  • Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
  • Life with Picasso by Francoise Gilot
  • A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
  • Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher and How to Disappear Completely by Kelsey Osgood
  • Into Thin Air by John Krakauer
  • Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp and Blackout by Sarah Hepola
  • It’s Always Something by Gilda Radner
  • Perseopolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • Lucky by Alice Sebold
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  • Educated by Tara Westover [BC]
Posted in Book Club, Lists, Reviews | Comments Off on Book List: 50 Nonfiction Books + Some Additions

Review: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

This could have been so much more than it was. I love the genre of books where the main characters are notorious or famous people, and the narrator of the book is close to them (think Amadeus the play/film for a real person, or The Great Gatsby for a fictional one). This did not hit the mark as a ‘bystander account’, but more of an inner monologue of a person who’s near what’s going on but doesn’t tell us about it.

The main character, Alice, doesn’t seem to know what time or culture she’s in. She says she will prevent her brother from doing all these bad things, but it’s clear that women have no voice to influence anyone in this time or place, so is she just ignoring that fact or delusional? The to-ing and fro-ing of her mother, her mother’s servant, Alice’s husband,  mental illness versus witchcraft, villagers with scores to settle; all of that had the potential to be something that revealed deep character issues and why the culture of the time was what it was. This is set during the English Civil War, and that is only mentioned in passing. Instead of any venture into those topics, we get a superficial view of Manningtree and the Hopkins’ family from Alice’s perspective, and it wasn’t all that interesting. There were so many roads left untaken along with many potential plot twists, but no. Nothing was surprising, other than a lack of anything surprising. It just felt like a dud.

I had hoped there’d be something supernatural or magical in this story, or that it would focus on accusations of witchcraft as a weapon against women, but it did not. We had no insight into the Witchfinder’s thoughts, what he was truly after. Did he just hate women? Did he hate his mother? Was he mad that women found him distasteful? Was a power-hungry sadist? Was it a fetish? There was no interchange between him and anyone else long enough to learn anything useful about him. The accusations and details of the tests for witchcraft are also left out, but with the explanation that sharing those methods encourages others to use them. I am fine with that, but at least tell me more about the people who were caught up, the victims, the accusers. Why did they do all this? The Crucible this is not.

Posted in Book Club, Reviews | Comments Off on Review: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Books I’m Reading

Amazon knows how to hook you and keep you hooked. One day I noticed that it charged my credit card for Kindle Unlimited. I must have signed up for a trial or something, but I didn’t remember doing that as I’d not used it. I couldn’t figure out how to cancel it online (well played Amazon), so I decided to download some books and see if it would be worth it. I had some international travel this month and had time to read a couple of books on long flights. I still have to read my book club book for May, but I’ve got a short trip coming up that should allow me to cover that.

Books for this month:

  1. And Yet… by Christopher Hitchens: I have read two other books by the inimitable Mr Hitchens (god is not great and Hitch-22), both of which are hard going but enjoyable for someone who loves writing and language. And Yet… is a collection of his essays and book reviews, all true to Hitchens’ style. I liked this one a lot as it switched from subject to subject, had some comedy moments, and as always prompted me to continue reading his back catalogue.
  2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: This book had kept popping up on my radar and is a perpetual book club suggestion but had never been a winner. How wrong we all were. I started and finished this book in 48 hours (with a flight in there somewhere), and I recommend it very highly. Sometimes it’s a tough read, but the determination and resilience these characters show is something that gave me some hope and direction for my own life.
  3. You Think You Know Me by Ryan Green: The first of my Kindle Unlimited choices, I decided to find some tabloid content to get me through a very long hair appointment. This wasn’t really a good book, as it wasn’t the Ann Rule style of deep investigation into a serial killer. Don’t bother with this one unless you’ve read all the greatest hits of the 1970s serial killers (Manson Family, Ted Bundy, Boston Strangler, etc).
  4. Without a Doubt by Marcia Clark: I just started this one, and already I’m intrigued by how this plays out. We know the ending of the story (in my opinion the biggest miscarriage of justice in a 20th century criminal case), but Marcia Clark writes from her point of view. I’ve refreshed my memory of the case on Wikipedia and I’ll keep at this one till I get to the end.
  5. Dreaming the Eagle by Manda Scott: I’m 3/4 of the way through this one, and as I have it as a bulky paperback it’s not a travelling book. I’ll finish it, as it’s the fictionalization of Boudicea’s origins in the UK. It’s inspired me to look into this history and I might visit a few of the sites it discusses out of interest.

The next book club book is The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown. One of my trusted members has said she didn’t like it, but I’m keen on making a judgement for myself. We might do The Glass Castle for June, but also to be determined.

Posted in Book Club, Lists, Now Reading, Reviews | Comments Off on Books I’m Reading

Things No One Wants to Hear Me Go On About Any More

  1. Religion, atheism, how I can’t stand religion, we should end religion, tax the churches, religious people are hypocrites, there is no god, everything that is bad is religion
  2. Kids are not my thing, I don’t like kids, can you please keep your kids away from me, kids are noisy, kids do dumb things, I’m glad you like your kids, I’m so glad I didn’t have kids, you’re an idiot for having kids, everything that is bad is kids
  3. Conservatives and Republicans are the evil that walks amongst us, they are power-seeking nihilists, they aren’t conserving anything except their own money, they are trying to kill the planet and all the poor people, their greed is the cause of poverty in the world, everything that is bad is conservatives and republicans
  4. Plastic is polluting everything, no one cares about anything, the earth is dying, climate change is a man-made disaster, plastic trash will kill us all, yes I have a reusable coffee cup where is yours you cretin, we’re all going to die in a ball of fire and smog, everything that is bad is plastic
  5. My love of nice handbags
Posted in Ideas, Lists | Comments Off on Things No One Wants to Hear Me Go On About Any More

Review: Into the Void by Joe Simpson

Ah, the joy of finishing a book after a streak of not finishing anything! It’s been January since I finished a book, and I was getting very discouraged and feeling like reading was a burden instead of a pleasure. Thankfully this book came along to help break me out of that funk.

The idea of the short, finish-able endeavour is not only my experience of reading this book, but it was the premise under which the protagonists  of this true story, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, decided one summer day to climb up an obscure peak in Peru. How hard could it be they thought? Little did they know what was in store for them.

Why did I choose this book? I had a paper copy of this that a friend gave my ex-husband, and it looked interesting so I kept it when I threw all of his other stuff out. I was drawn to it because years previously I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and I absolutely loved it. I saw the IMAX film a few years after that and was astonished that the whole thing had been filmed in much greater detail than I had assumed from references in the book.  It instilled in me a fascination with all things mountain-climber ever since. I’ve seen a few documentaries on the Eiger (this BBC one is very good), the Clint Eastwood film The Eiger Sanction (spoiler: it’s rubbish!), and a documentary on the  race to the south pole where Amundsen pips Scott to the pole in a triumph of indigenous methods over Victorian industrialisation (a good book of that is also here).

Touching the Void tells the story of Joe Simpson’s survival after a broken leg and a fall down a crevasse during a mountain climb in Peru. The story starts building from the point where Joe breaks his leg, and then follows how he got down on his own. Simpson includes the point of view of his climbing partner Simon Yates, who he was tied to via a safety rope during the climb. Because Simpson gets tangled in the rope during his fall, Yates was forced to make a choice that mountaineers dread: cut the rope, killing my partner but saving myself, or don’t cut the rope and we both die. In all of these documentaries and books, much has been made of this choice and the what we believe it says the person that chooses cut versus stay together. The book highlights a couple of other tragic endings for mountaineers, framing them in a way to either show how dangerous this all is, how courageous they can be, how foolish they can be, or maybe all three at the same time.

The will-I-or-won’t-I-cut-the-rope is one of those games that some people who love a hypothetical consequence-free-argument-slash-discussion like to have. We sit around with our wines and beers and ask do you know what you would do? Answers don’t really matter as much as the opportunity to question morals, blame society, probe character and quote philosophy. My answer is no, I don’t know what I would have done, and since there were not a lot of mountain climbers at our book club discussion we were left to speculate outcomes on our own. I don’t think any of these types of conversations are worth having if none of us have been there, much less by readers around the table over sauvignon blanc and bitter ale.

Where we disagreed during our discussion was over whether these stories are interesting or not. Is it a worthy human struggle to put yourself in serious danger, and then write about how you got yourself out of said danger, and then have some people cast you as a hero? What’s heroic about climbing up a mountain, getting stuck, and then needing a rescue team to come after you and put themselves in danger too? We see a lot of this with unprepared hikers, lost skiers, sailors who forgot to check the weather, and on and on and on. If you choose to do something dangerous, what is society’s responsibility towards your health and welfare? Do we decide not to come and get you if you didn’t take a map into the wilderness? How would we know you did or you didn’t? Who decides who is and who isn’t worth saving? The common approach used for much of human history seems to be that everyone was worth helping, either because they were needed by the human tribe or people were compelled to help because of an ideology or religion. Should this still be the case? I can’t tell where helping is ‘taking advantage’, so maybe we need a more nuanced discussion around rescue for sport. I don’t know who would decide this so maybe don’t change the original ‘save everybody’ policy? It seems to be working.

What propels people to climb up dangerous things? Mount Everest has a Death Zone above 28,000 feet that you need oxygen for (yes, it’s really called that!). Why would you do it? Yes, it’s beautiful and yes, it’s a challenge and yes, it’s sacred to some cultures but why? I keep reading climbing stories and watching mountaineering films for the answers and I struggle to find them. I don’t think I’ve come any closer to a reason. Some say it’s the thrill, some say they need to explore, some say other things. There are all types of reasons, as many as there are people, and it seems fitting that there is no one answer to why.

Joe Simpson has another book I will try to read, The Beckoning Silence, as I will probably need another mountaineering fix soon. Also I recommend this book be read in paper format, because you will probably keep flipping back to the maps and the pictures as you go through the story.

Posted in Book Club, Reviews | Comments Off on Review: Into the Void by Joe Simpson

Confession: I read more than one book at a time

I am not always good at focusing. I do best when I have a deadline, preferably one where someone is waiting for me to do something for them. I’ve always loved reading and although its a solitary pastime it’s something I’ve been able to sustain for the majority of my life. As for starting and finishing books (instead of just buying them and hoarding them), being the facilitator of a book club has been helpful because it’s hard to conduct a conversation when you don’t know what the book is about.

When I am talking to someone about book club, they almost always ask me what book I am reading. My answer is to tell them what the book club choice is, but that isn’t always what I’m reading. Sometimes I’m not reading anything, but more often than not I’ve started multiple books and finished none of them. How can you read more than one book at a time you ask? Well ladies and gentlemen, the answer is that you can’t (or at least I can’t). There is no meaningful way that you can comprehend and maintain the story the way you could when you focus on just one book at a time.

Before the dawn of the ebook, I usually had just one book with me and that would be ‘my book’, the book I’m reading. Sometimes I would find myself somewhere with no book, and I’d start one or find a magazine or something, as being caught without reading material is a slow torture I must avoid. (Aside: I was at a crap college party once and was hanging out in one of the bedrooms waiting for my friend to stop flirting with this guy so we could leave. I found a copy of Silence of the Lambs and read the first chapter. After a while the guy rejected her, we left and I had to leave the book behind. Upon reflection, should have taken the book and left her behind as she proved to be a self-centred cow later on in life. Anyway…) Now with the ebook/Kindle, I think my bad habit has worsened. Not only do I have multiple books on my devices that I’ve started and not finished, sometimes they stay that way for months and months (years?) and I never come back to them. Should I be doing this? Should I force myself to finish one book before I read another?

I’ve read a couple of online articles (this one is good, as is this one) about how to read more books (stay off social media, make sure you have your books on your device at all times, give up on a book that doesn’t grab you, etc) and I still am a bit fractured. I’ve done some thinking about why this might be.

  1. The requirement to read a book club choice every month (as I have done for over 10 years now) can be a drag, especially if I’m not in the mood to read it. Because I know the group will need me to lead the conversation my failure to finish a book club book weighs on me greatly. Sometimes I just want to read some crappy throw away book that I won’t have to discuss with anyone and I try to use that as an incentive to read the book club book first. It doesn’t always work and I feel guilty for having read neither the book club choice nor my choice.
  2. A lot of the books I’m interested in can never be book club choices. I don’t think I could get a group of people to read Alan Ginsburg’s poetry or The White Goddess or a book about machine learning. If I followed the steps on how to read more books I could manage both book club books and my choices, and I am getting better but there is still room for improvement.
  3. I do spend too much time on Instagram and the internet. I gave up on Twitter and Facebook as I was just a lurker anyway and didn’t really have anything to say. I did tweet a series of haikus which I should publish here somewhere as I thought they were good (Aside: I resigned from my last job via haiku, which I thought was a stroke of genius. I was so bored at that job that I had time to write seven haikus about how I was leaving; what does that tell you?)
  4. When I’m feeling low, I don’t always want to read. Reading takes time and focus and when I feel dragged down by work, family, relationships, etc I just can’t find the presence of mind to read (this is where the Instagram comes in).
  5. I don’t always formally ‘give up’ on a book when my interest flags. This leaves a lot of half-finished books on my devices. I created a shelf on goodreads called ‘gave_up‘ and I have moved some books there, although I do feel guilty doing it for some of them. Sometimes I set the books I’m struggling with back to ‘want to read’ and move them back onto the general shelf. Maybe I’ll read them, maybe I won’t (optimism reigns supreme).

So what to do about this non-problem? As I write this I have finished only 35% of my book club book which I’m meant to discuss in seven hours (spoiler: I’ll have to fake it). Do I really want to read more books and get further inside my head when really I need a break from me? I’ve been somewhat isolated at work for over a year, both in my old job and my new one. I do see my friends and my relationship is good but I’m not so great. Would reading help? Or should I shelve the thing that’s got me through so many years, the books that have been my friends to fall back on? It feels like being more solitary is a bad idea, especially now when I need more connections to get out of my work rut.

I think the first step is to reduce the multiple concurrent reads. I will supplement the reading with something else that’s not a solitary pursuit and see if that balances things out. Stay tuned for progress updates.

Posted in Book Club, Journal | Comments Off on Confession: I read more than one book at a time

Review: My Struggle Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgard

I don’t remember why I bought this book and left it on my kindle for six months. I think it was listed in several different reviews saying it was brilliant and it was an unusually candid memoir, so maybe that’s why I decided to try it. It was too long for book club so I had to read it on my own. I’m travelling more these days so I had some time and I decided why not give it a go?

When I looked for the background of this book, I found that there was some controversy regarding it’s name in Norwegian, which is Min Kamp 1, and the same name as book you may have already heard of written my a Mr. A Hitler. For that reason the series of books has alternate names in countries where a title that translates to Mein Kampf is not allowed.

The subtitle of this book is A Death in the Family, although the part about the death is only the second half. Most of it is stories about the author’s family as he grew up, his teenage years and what happened to his family as he reached adulthood. It is written with a cringing familiarity of how it must feel to be a teenage boy (I wouldn’t know, but I cringed as it was accurate about being a teenager regardless of gender).

Interwoven with his past is his present, he writes about his feelings towards his own children and this is the part I think brought the controversy. He doesn’t tell us that they are wondrous beings of light that can do amazing things right out of the womb, but that they can be annoying kids and he gets tired of having them around.  He describes them as if they are people unto themselves, as if observing them from a distance. I remember reading reviews where people thought wow, a man who owns up to the fact that he doesn’t always like his children. Why is this surprising? Have these reviewers ever met any children? Aren’t parents allowed to say they don’t love it all the time? I wonder if this book would have been as successful if a woman had said that. I seriously doubt it, or at least it wouldn’t have been the first of a series of six (six!) books (all of them 400 printed pages or more).

This is an interesting story, not because of the children thing but because it’s a life that I never lived and will never live, and that in itself was worth reading for me. I don’t remember many memoirs written by Scandinavian authors, and the culture that this author comes from isn’t front and centre but is there nonetheless. It is the backdrop against which his family history plays out, and is new and unknown to someone like me who’s read mostly American or British memoirs.

The story is richly detailed in many parts: his teenage loves, his relationship with his father, his relationship with his brother and his feelings about dying and the end of life. There were huge areas where I wanted more information and I kept reading to see if he would divulge juicy details and he both does and doesn’t. He is an unusual person, this author, as he expresses emotions in an unexpected fashion, or in ways that seem contradictory to the circumstances he finds himself in. He explains why he feels what he feels, but reading his feelings and reactions just reinforces the point that each person’s experiences are different, and none of us should presume we know how anyone else feels about anything.

Will I keep reading more from the series? Maybe, but I would like to find a memoir by a female author that has the same depth. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking seems like it would be along the same lines but I haven’t read that yet. I might try that first before I get stuck into Min Kamp 2 through 6.

Posted in Reviews | Comments Off on Review: My Struggle Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgard

Novels in the Time of Dystopia

There are some news stories circulating that say Orwell’s 1984 is trending on Amazon and that publishers are having to print more books to keep up with demand (one story is here). Whilst 1984 is one of my favourite books, I view it as a companion to  Huxley’s Brave New World, kind of like two ends of a spectrum. I started reading Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman which contrasts the two, but alas it fell victim to my unfocused reading habits in 2016 and I have yet to pick it up again.

The Guardian has published a story today on dystopian novels that compare more accurately to the Trump era instead of 1984. If you don’t want to read the article, in short the suggestions are:

Dystopia is an unusual genre, and while it can be depressing it always felt like it was a fiction that could never happen. That feeling seems to be changing from ‘what if’ to ‘what now?’ In addition to The Guardian’s choices, I would include a few additional books that conform to the dystopia, militarism and xenophobia genres:

I can’t say that I’ll be reading much dystopia in the near future as it’s too close to current events. Is that a mistake given that we must fight against totalitarianism in all its forms? Should I keep close to it so I can fight against it? I’ll keep this in mind as 2017 marches on and see if I should change my thinking.

Posted in Ideas, Now Reading, Reviews | Comments Off on Novels in the Time of Dystopia

The 100 Page Rule

In book club we are often faced with reading books we would not normally choose to read as they are not our normal taste in books. We do vote for book choices, but sometimes your choice isn’t the winner (even if you’re the organiser). I always ask at the beginning of a book club meeting to see a show of hands of how many people finished the book. There are always a few who didn’t finish, and maybe one or two who didn’t bother to read it (yes, also true even if you’re the organiser).

Over my reading life I’ve struggled with either giving up on a book I don’t like or persevering to the end. Readers at book club drift between two camps: those who absolutely must finish any book they’ve started, and those who are perfectly happy to abandon a crap story for something else. Some people are firmly ensconced in the extreme of either camp, and some say it depends on how much they hate or don’t hate the book (and if they’ve got something else to read or not).  Others vary by author or genre where they’ll always finish a type of book or one author’s book, even if it’s not so great.

Perhaps the wider question involves how to balance precious time against the mountain of books out there that one would like to read. I’ve noticed that I do spend a lot of time reading pointless drivel on the internet. Well, OK it’s not all drivel – there is good stuff out there that I do get value from reading and am glad I have read. But as we move into an era that does not value facts or truth and everything is evaluated on its entertainment value, I wonder if I am spending a disproportionate time on meaningless things. Let’s say a conservative estimate of time spent between ‘meaningful reading’ vs ‘junk food reading’ is 50/50. That feels like too much time on junk. I need to get it to at least 75/25, 80/20 if possible. Am I counting things that I read as part of normal stuff I need to do for personal admin or work? No, this is just how I spend free time reading both books and the internet from any and all devices.

I always want to give a book a chance, even if on the first page it’s not looking good. I find that I can keep going if I choose a page limit, say 100 pages (50 if it’s a shorter book) and just plow ahead till I get there.  Recently I had to finish a book I didn’t particularly like for book club. We read The Peripheral by William Gibson and it did not get off to a good start at all.  I forced myself to get through the first 50 pages or so and yes, it did get better and I was able to finish the book on the day of book club. Upon reflection I would say the choice to hang in there till it got interesting (can’t say that for every book) and switching from my kindle device to kindle on my iPhone were both helpful. Importantly reading on my phone meant that instead of scrolling through news sites I read a book. I don’t know why I resisted doing that for so long but finally I’ve given in. As for the book itself, it wasn’t super popular at book club. If you’re interested, my very brief review is here (no spoilers).

There are books that I just could not finish, even though I did get through 100 pages. There are three that stand out in recent memory as particularly annoying and wastes of time.

  1. The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith: I was excited to read this book because Zadie Smith had received so many awards for her first book, White Teeth, and I wanted to see what was so good about her as an author. I should have read White Teeth, because this novel was such a dud I couldn’t struggle through it. Why choose to write in the voice of a Chinese-Jewish man who collects autographs? I mean really? It felt like the author was saying ‘I can totally write in different voices, watch this’.  I found absolutely nothing relatable about this story and neither did book club members. I hit the 100 page mark and promptly moved on with my life and never felt worse for having skipped this terrible story.
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: This was a suggestion by my former book club co-organiser, and it looked like a good story. This was the one book written by the author and it remained unpublished when he committed suicide in 1969. His mother finally got it published and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. I’d much rather read a story about that then this pile of nonsense. I don’t have any idea why it was prize-winning as it’s a rant that goes on and on and on. Many of the guys in book club liked it, but few if any of the women did. Maybe you need a Y-chromosome to enjoy it? Not my cup of tea.
  3. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller: A classic of 20th century literature and lauded my millions as a masterpiece and a must-read, but I hated this book. Couldn’t understand what the hell was going on and when I did figure it out I didn’t care. I wanted to like it as so many people (mostly men though, hmmmm) were telling me I’d love it. I did not. It did not prompt me to want to see the movie either. When I tried to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest last week I was reminded of this book. Both seem to be 1970s classics that men keep telling me to read or watch and I do not find them entertaining whatsoever.  If we’re going for strange timelines and absurdity, I much prefer Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut or JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.  Both are male voices but I really got into these stories as the voices were part of the plot, not the sole reason for its existence.

There are a few more: Martin Amis’ MoneyThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (I wanted to like it for its title alone) and Flash Boys by Michael Lewis (I loved The Big Short but this just bored me). I even tried to listen to Melville’s Moby Dick as an audio book but it didn’t grab me. My ‘gave_up’ shelf on GoodReads has 15 books on it, although one of them I will probably go back to (Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise; I started it and shelved it to read a book club book).

I have decided that life is too short to finish a book I don’t like so I expect the ‘gave_up’ list to grow, but let’s hope it does slowly.

Posted in Book Club, Ideas, Reviews | Comments Off on The 100 Page Rule

The Polarising Power of Poetry

The name of this article struck me and forced me to read it: Why Do Some People Hate Poetry?

Why the hatred of poetry? What has it done to you? Ok, maybe it tortured you in your early school years with memorisation and meaningless recitation. In my school days we had to recite the tiresome Shakespearean sonnet 18 of comparing thee to a summer’s day, yawn.  Starting with poetry written in an unrecognisable dialect (even if it is your mother tongue) is never a good idea. 20th century poetry written in english is a much better place to start. The first poem that really struck me was The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell. It’s very short but it will punch you in the guts:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State, 

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. 

Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. 

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.  

It’s published in 1969, and I read it in the mid 1980’s, when American’s nostalgia for the 1960s-70s war in Vietnam was at it’s height. Given the political climate in 2017 I doubt I would have been able to read this in a literature class as a teenager, but lucky me no one was paying attention at that time. For me this poem is the horror of war encapsulated in 5 lines.  If you read it on the context of Americans fighting in Vietnam, you remember that soldiers at this time were drafted (conscripted sounds more appropriate), and many of them died in heavy fighting over ideology in a country that didn’t want them there in the first place. The speaker is part of a larger machine and he is ultimately expendable. When I read this I hear Pink Floyd’s ‘Welcome to the Machine’ playing in my head (nb – lyrics, lyrical poetry, get it?).


Poetry is art in word form, lyrics ready to be set to music, thoughts and feelings on the page. Instead of a picture expressing something (feelings, emotions), poems are words doing the same thing. A word picture, if you will.

It is my carefully considered opinion that one cannot appreciate poetry if one isn’t in possession of a good imagination and visualisation skills.  If you can’t see or feel what the poet is expressing, I get the idea that poems sound like a lot of nonsense words mixed together.  Poems don’t tell a story or convey an idea in a step by step manner.  They draw a sketch and you fill in the blanks. You can colour a poem any way you want to, or take it as it is. It’s up to you. I think certain personality types are more comfortable having things spelled out for them, and those types will not appreciate having to do some work on their own to get meaning out of a poem. That’s fine – TV will always be there for them.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I decided that poetry would be a focal point for realigning my thoughts and experiences away from pointless, destructive infotainment. In addition to my favourite book of poetry, I have gathered a few others that I am attempting to read. Some of them are :

In these poems, I’m looking for something to memorise, something that I can go back to when I need a moment of quiet meditation. I have not found what I’m looking for yet. I have read two of these books in entirety (Tonks, Ginsberg) and have made headway into Parker and Neruda. Basho is hard to get into because they’re all haikus, and Basho is notable for being a famous haiku-ist who doesn’t follow traditional haiku rules (why he’s till considered a haiku poet I don’t know).  There is a debate in the poetry community regarding translated poems – are they as good as the original and can we still call them poems by the original poet given that the translator has chose different words? I’ll cover that in a different post.

Lots can be done with these poems – memorisation, illustration, contemplation – and no, I haven’t done any of that yet. I have some other random books of poetry, most strangely the complete poems of George Orwell which I have read and am confused by (nb stick to essays and novels my good man).

Best get started on it. Things can only get better from here.

Posted in Ideas, Now Reading, Poetry Blog, Reviews | Comments Off on The Polarising Power of Poetry