Thursday, April 29, 2010

R. S. Gwynn's "Shakespearean Sonnet "

In honor of Shakespeare's birthday (which is traditionally celebrated on April 23), here is R. S. Gwynn's awesome "Shakespearean Sonnet," which encapsulates the plots of 14 of Shakespeare's plays. It is pure, unadulterated, literary fun, and reading it makes me wish that I was still teaching British literature (how much fun would it be to have students go through the sonnet and try to name the different plays?).

“Shakespearean Sonnet”
R. S. Gwynn

(With a first line taken from the tv listings)

A man is haunted by his father's ghost.
A boy and girl love while their families fight.
A Scottish king is murdered by his host.
Two couples get lost on a summer night.
A hunchback murders all who block his way.
A ruler's rivals plot against his life.
A fat man and a prince make rebels pay.
A noble Moor has doubts about his wife.
An English king decides to conquer France.
A duke learns that his best friend is a she.
A forest sets the scene for this romance.
An old man and his daughters disagree.
A Roman leader makes a big mistake.
A sexy queen is bitten by a snake.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Foodie Friday: A Review of "Cooking for Mr. Latte"

Despite the name of this post, I have a love-hate relationship with foodies. I appreciate their dedication to cooking and fresh food (they are the anti-Sandra Lee) even as I find some of them holier-than-thou and insufferably pretentious. Consequently, it took me a long time to pick up Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte, which is basically a memoir with recipes. In the super-short chapters, Hesser writes about her love of food while also discussing her relationship with Mr. Latte, who gets his pseudonym because he had the audacity to order a latte after dinner (the Italian rule is that milky drinks are for before 11:00 am).

This anecdote, from the very first chapter, almost turned me off of the book, but since I was stuck on a six-hour train ride and my iPhone wasn't getting great reception, I ended up reading the entire book in one sitting. Reflecting on reading it, I must admit that the first chapter is a very accurate indicator of what will come. The following chapters detail Ms. Hesser's obsession with food, her food-related quirks, and her ongoing romance with Mr. Latte, who isn't quite the foodie she is (besides the latte gaffe, she seems genuinely horrified by his use of Equal and his choice in restaurants). She also includes a few recipes at the end of each chapter.

To Ms. Hesser's credit, she does not shy away from including her foibles and shortcomings. She talks about her perfectionist tendencies in the kitchen and her obsessiveness with all things related to food. However, in the end, you get the sense that she sees her food snobbery as completely justified and right. Not only is she genetically predisposed to her strong opinions about food (her mother and grandmother both appear in the book as wonderful and opinionated cooks), but the recipes often lean towards the gourmet (vanilla beans, prosciutto, and veal abound in the ingredients list).

In some cases, she won me over. Her descriptions of what she brings to eat on airplanes had me thinking about what I might do to make my next trip more bearable (the food on Amtrak is many things, but inspired it isn't). I also loved her essay on eating alone, which I had read before in Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. At her best, she reminded me of the joy and pleasure of cooking good food. At her worst (and most snobbish), she made me want to throw the book off of the train and promise myself that I would never, ever chastise anyone for using produce that came from the frozen food section of the local grocery store (she includes a very stern warning about using store-bought, frozen blueberries in one recipe).

Like my views on foodies, my opinion of this book is rather complicated. As I noted above, there are sections of the book that I truly enjoyed. Also, there is something very refreshing and invigorating about reading someone's passionate opinions on food. That said, there was many a times I wanted to shake Hesser, who sometimes comes off as insufferably elitist. Her view of food (and her world) are definitely not those of someone who is on a budget. While I do recommend this book if you are looking for a light read about love and food (and the love of food), you should definitely be aware that, if you aren't a food snob, this book might either make you one or make you want to distance yourself from anything foodie related.

Dorothy Parker's "The Passionate Freudian to His Love"

Once upon a time, I taught British literature to a group of lovely high school students. While I thought that Brit lit was okay (I would take American literature any day of the week), I did enjoy some of the carpe diem poetry (main theme: life is short, so let's live it up!). Among the carpe diem poems in our incredibly heavy textbook was Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love."

Marlowe's poem inspired a number of responses, with the most famous being Sir Walter Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd." However, I wasn't aware that the wonderfully acidic Dorothy Parker had written a witty parody of the poem until I received it as part of the "Poem-a-Day" email from

"The Passionate Freudian to His Love
by Dorothy Parker

Only name the day, and we'll fly away
In the face of old traditions,
To a sheltered spot, by the world forgot,
Where we'll park our inhibitions.
Come and gaze in eyes where the lovelight lies
As it psychoanalyzes,
And when once you glean what your fantasies mean
Life will hold no more surprises.
When you've told your love what you're thinking of
Things will be much more informal;
Through a sunlit land we'll go hand-in-hand,
Drifting gently back to normal.

While the pale moon gleams, we will dream sweet dreams,
And I'll win your admiration,
For it's only fair to admit I'm there
With a mean interpretation.
In the sunrise glow we will whisper low
Of the scenes our dreams have painted,
And when you're advised what they symbolized
We'll begin to feel acquainted.
So we'll gaily float in a slumber boat
Where subconscious waves dash wildly;
In the stars' soft light, we will say good-night—
And "good-night!" will put it mildly.

Our desires shall be from repressions free—
As it's only right to treat them.
To your ego's whims I will sing sweet hymns,
And ad libido repeat them.
With your hand in mine, idly we'll recline
Amid bowers of neuroses,
While the sun seeks rest in the great red west
We will sit and match psychoses.
So come dwell a while on that distant isle
In the brilliant tropic weather;
Where a Freud in need is a Freud indeed,
We'll always be Jung together.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Foodie Fridays: Two Food-Related Poems

Even though I like spring in New England, these two poems have me ready for summer and fresh, local produce that doesn't taste like tennis balls...


by Charles Simic

Green Buddhas
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.

"This is Just to Say"
by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Monday, April 12, 2010

National Library Week

This week is National Library Week, so go support your local library. Not only do they have a wealth of information, but many of them are quite gorgeous (I still dream of the main location of the Nashville Public Library). Since today is D.E.A.R. Day, it's the perfect excuse to drop by your local branch and pick up some new reading material.

On an even lighter note, check out the blog Awful Library Books, which posts hilariously outdated books found in public libraries. For instance, one of my favorites is Born to Run: The O.J. Simpson Story.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

from "Ani Maamin" by Elie Wiesel: A Poem for Yom Hashoah

from Ani Maamin: A Song Lost and Found Again
by Elie Wiesel

I believe, Abraham,
Despite Treblinka.
I believe, Isacc,
Because of Belsen.
I believe, Jacob,
Because and in spite of Majdanek.
Dead in vain,
Dead for naught,
I believe.
Pray men.
Pray to God,
Against God,
For God.
I believe.
Whether the Messiah comes,
I believe.
Or is late in coming,
I believe.
Whether God is silent
Or weeps,
I believe.
I believe for him,
In spite of him.
I believe in you,
Even against your will.
Even if you punish me
For believing in you.
Blessed are the fools
Who shout their faith.
Blessed are the fools
Who go on laughing.
Who mock the man who mocks the Jew,
Who help their brothers
Singing, over and over and over:
I believe.
I believe in the coming of the Messiah,
And though he tarries,
I wait daily for his coming.
I believe.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Hans Ostrom's "Emily Dickinson and Elvis Presley in Heaven"

I really wanted to do a food-related poem today (because I need to get better about this Foodie Friday thing), but my love for this poem won out. There's something wonderfully loopy and touching about the idea that Emily Dickinson and Elvis Presley striking up a friendship in heaven. Although it seems incongruous at first, this poem does a nice job convincing you that this couple makes a great deal of sense...

“Emily Dickinson and Elvis Presley in Heaven”

Hans Ostrom

They call each other E. Elvis picks
wildflowers near the river and brings
them to Emily. She explains half-rhymes to him.

In heaven Emily wears her hair long, sports
Levis and western blouses with rhinestones.
Elvis is lean again, wears baggy trousers

and T-shirts, a letterman's jacket from Tupelo High.
They take long walks and often hold hands.
She prefers they remain just friends. Forever.

Emily's poems now contain naugahyde, Cadillacs,
Electricity, jets, TV, Little Richard and Richard
Nixon. The rock-a-billy rhythm makes her smile.

Elvis likes himself with style. This afternoon
he will play guitar and sing "I Taste a Liquor
Never Brewed" to the tune of "Love Me Tender."

Emily will clap and harmonize. Alone
in their cabins later, they'll listen to the river
and nap. They will not think of Amherst

or Las Vegas. They know why God made them
roommates. It's because America
was their hometown. It's because

God is a thing
without feathers. It's because
God wears blue suede shoes.

There is so much to like about this poem. In addition to its playfulness (Emily only wants to be friends with Elvis) and its allusions to the works of both Emily and Elvis, I love how Ostrom skillfully makes the connection between Emily and Elvis seem not just plausible but natural. Although it might seem like a leap from the Belle of Amherst to the King of Rock and Roll, this poem shows that, besides being skilled artists and icons, they are both undeniably American in their own way. Consequently, God has made these two roommates, and they have forged a true friendship (and perhaps have found the companionship that eluded them on earth).

Besides reading this poem to yourself, be certain to check out the dramatization of it on YouTube, with the author reading the poem. It is beautifully done (sorry for not embedding it in the post - it was a tad too wide to fit).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Because the World Needed Another Reason to Hate Nicholas Sparks

I have read exactly one Nicholas Sparks novel (I read A Walk to Remember during a misguided adolescent phase). That said, I really, really hate this guy.

I wouldn't mind him if he accepted and embraced what he is (a formulaic romance novelist who reaps in boatloads of cash because he writes predictable schlock that people read as a form of escapism). If he did this, I could even overlook the fact that his trite works are turned into trite movies and that he has contributed to the overexposure of Miley Cyrus. However, based on this interview, it sounds like he takes himself way too seriously.

What truly annoys me is that he has the audacity to argue that no other writers do what he does, which is write love stories and not romances. He also tries to make the argument that there is a difference between love stories and romances by noting that:
A romance novel is supposed to make you escape into a fantasy of romance. What is the purpose of what I do? These are love stories. They went from (Greek tragedies), to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, then Jane Austen did it, put a new human twist on it. Hemingway did it with A Farewell to Arms...

(Romances) are all essentially the same story: You've got a woman, she's down on her luck, she meets the handsome stranger who falls desperately in love with her, but he's got these quirks, she must change him, and they have their conflicts, and then they end up happily ever after.
I hate to be the one pierce the haze of Mr. Sparks's delusion, but his novels are essentially the same story. The fact that he is comparing himself to Shakespeare, Austen, and Hemingway is even more maddening (he apparently shares the same form of delusion also enjoyed by Stephanie Meyer). The only thing he has in common with these great authors is that, for some misguided reason, some of his works have also been turned into Cliffs Notes (now that's something to be proud of).

But wait... there's more! In this same article, he says that his favorite coming-of-age novel is A Walk to Remember, and he describes Cormac McCarthy as "pulpy, overwrought, melodramatic." As a former roommate would say, "Pot calling kettle. Come in, kettle, come in!"

I don't typically mind light, fluffy novels, and I am even a closet romance novel reader. What I do mind is Nicholas Sparks's ego. It is on the same level as Thomas Kinkade, Stephanie Meyer, and M. Night Shyamalan. A cultural lover's version of hell would be forced to listen to this quartet talk about how wonderful they are for all of eternity.

P.S. To read a really funny dismembering of Nicholas Sparks's "work" (I usually hate using quotes to signify irony, but for this, I'll make an exception), check out this article on Cracked.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Book Review: "How Lincoln Learned to Read"

I was a pleasantly surprised by Daniel Wolff’s How Lincoln Learned to Read. Although the subtitle, “Twelve Great Americans and the Educations that Made Them,” is an accurate description of what the book is about, this book is much more than just a mini biography of these figures. Through the stories of these 12 individuals, the book also provides an overview of the American education system in general.

Wolff makes some interesting and thoughtful decisions in terms of the individuals he selects and the way that he goes about describing their educations. Some of these choices seemed perplexing at first, but they made a great deal of sense as I continued to read. For instance, the subjects are referred to by their childhood names or nicknames, which helped me focus on the information provided in the book, rather than the history that surrounds the subjects.

Another, more significant, choice that Wolff makes is that he is careful to explore both the formal and informal educations of these individuals. One of my initial fears was that the book would focus just on formal schooling or on the individuals’ education through experiences. To his credit, Wolff does a good job looking at both types of education and discussing their contributions. What's more, he subtly addresses America's sometimes dysfunctional relationship with education. A clear example of this is in the chapter on Lincoln. Wolff shows Lincoln's love of learning and books, but he also describes Lincoln's decision to portray himself as "an unschooled rail-splitter" in order to distance himself from the perceptions of elitism that came with formal education. What is sad is that, in many cases, this distrust of education in American society is still true.

All in all, if you are interested in education or American history (or both), you would enjoy How Lincoln Learned to Read. Not only is it thoroughly researched, but Wolff’s writing is engaging and his treatment of the subject is very thoughtful and provides a fresh perspective on these well-known figures and on education.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book as part of the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing.

Wendy Cope's "The Ted Williams Villanelle"

Tomorrow, Boston gets to celebrate two religious events. Not only is it Easter, but it is also opening day for the Red Sox. While comparing the two might seem sacrilegious, if you know any Red Sox fans, then you are also aware that baseball is like a religion to those people. To add to the general insanity of opening day, the Sox are playing the Yankees, so things are bound to get a little crazy in Fenway tomorrow.

Unfortunately, I don't really like sports; I can tolerate most of them, but baseball and football leave me completely perplexed. When you add in the increased traffic and noise, baseball season is enough to make me wish for the silent chill of winter.

On a brighter note, the start of baseball season did remind me of Wendy Cope's brilliant "The Ted Williams Villanelle." Besides being in one of my favorite poetry styles, the poem offers a wonderful example of extended metaphor (or conceit, for you English majors) that is understandable and relatable.

Although it is about baseball, its ideas apply to most facets of life. In many ways, this poem is a strange but wondrous mix of "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" and Rudyard Kipling's "If-". Even as it urges us to ignore the negative influences around us, it also encourages us to enjoy life while we can.

Enjoy, and "don't let anybody mess with your swing"!

The Ted Williams Villanelle
"Don't let anybody mess with your swing."
- Ted Williams, baseball player

Watch the ball and do your thing.
This is the moment. Here's your chance.
Don't let anybody mess with your swing.

Its time to shine. You're in the ring.
Step forward, adopt a winning stance,
Watch the ball and do your thing,

And while the ball is taking wing,
Run without a backward glance.
Don't let anybody mess with your swing.

Don't let envious bastards bring
You down. Ignore the sneers, the can'ts.
watch the ball and do your thing.

Sing out, if you want to sing.
Jump up, when you long to dance.
Don't let anybody mess with your swing.

Enjoy your talents. Have your fling.
The seasons change. The years advance.
Watch the ball and do your thing,
And don't let anybody mess with your swing.

(C)Wendy Cope (1945-)
(for Ari Badaines)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tom Wayman's "Did I Miss Anything?"

As a teacher, there are several inevitable questions that you come to dread. While these questions usually include "Why are you failing my child?" and "Will this be on the test?" and even "Do we need to write this down?", perhaps the most dreaded question is "Did I miss anything?"

This last question is upsetting on a number of levels. One of the main reasons it annoys me is that it has an obvious answer. If you missed class, of course you missed something. What's more, since most teachers carefully plan their lessons and don't sit around during a given class period reading the newspaper or twiddling their thumbs, chances are you missed something important.

Tom Wayman's poem "Did I Miss Anything?" addresses the responses that some teachers might like to give when students ask that dreaded question. While some might find it overly sarcastic and off-putting, if handled with humor, it is also very fun. I had a teacher who would hand out this poem on the first day of class before discussing his policy for tardiness and absences. Be certain to also check out the FAQ about the poem, where Wayman discusses the rationale behind writing the poem and the poem's meaning.