Friday, April 29, 2011

The Sunset Limited, by Cormac McCarthy

I've always wanted to read McCarthy's "The Road," but never felt emotionally ready to immerse myself in "bleak." On a recent stroll through Carmel's library, though, I spotted another McCarthy title: The Sunset Limited. And this one on audiotape!

In "The Sunset Limited" McCarthy pares the world down to the bare minimum -- two men, one room. That's it. The premise is simple enough: one of the men has just saved the other from throwing himself in front of the Sunset Limited train. The men, one white and one black, go by the names "White" and "Black." (Can't get more pared down than that!) The men are opposites in every way -- education, means and outlook on life. McCarthy gives his characters the perfect setup, a room that forcing these two men, embodiments of two diametrically opposed ideologies, to interact.

Just so we're clear here: "The Sunset Limited" really is a book in which two men sit in a room and discuss the meaning of life. How bleak is that? But don't sell it short, on those two slim discs, the story kept me intrigued until the very end. McCarthy wrote sparkling, compelling dialog that kept me riveted throughout, and left me pondering long after, and the actors displayed incredible skill at bringing the characters to life.

"The Sunset Limited" is the perfect "listen" for a two-hour road trip. Unfortunately, it's too nihilistic for the kids, so don't pop it in our CD player unless you're road tripping with adults.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Taylor Mali

"I didn't come here to entertain you, I came to read a poem." Mali's bon mot summed up the controversy around his visit to Butler last month. Some in the English Department bristled at the notion behind this remark. "Poets ARE entertaining," they said. Knowing nothing about poetry, I've made a concerted effort to attend Butler's poetry readings. I have to admit that, for someone like me, with no understanding of the form, they're a mixed bag. Judging from the laughter Mali's remark engendered, I'd venture to say I'm not the only one who thinks that.

Mali delighted the crowd with performances of some of his most famous poems like "The The Impotence of Proofreading," "What Teachers Make," and "Like Lilly Like Wilson," along with lesser known works such as "Naked Gardener" and "Benediction." Mali also read "Lanyard," a poem by one of his favorite poets, Billy Collins. He relayed that Collins said his best poems come from giving himself permission to tell what he never thought he'd tell.

Mali began as a teacher and now is a slam poet. His poetry is fun and accessible. I imagine he's had people question whether or not his work actually qualifies as poetry. The moment from the reading that stayed with me was when he spoke to this unvoiced question. Mali said that poetry evolves, and that poems from one time period differ from those written in another. In fact, the definition of what poetry is is always changing.

When you pull out the thin silver bar on the side of Mali's souvenir pen a banner unfurls. One of Mali's poems is printed on one side of the banner. On the other side, around the jumbo letters that spell "SHUT UP," is an array of Scrabble-ready, two-letter words. Are poets boring? There may never be a consensus, but there's no argument that Taylor Mali's visit was unique and entertaining.

Check out Mali's hysterical poem on the youtube link below.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, by Patton Oswald

Patton Oswald, stand-up comic and King of Queens sidekick, put out a book and, who would have guessed, it's smart, and really funny. The title is a based on Oswald's observation that people's mindsets generally fall into one of three nerdy teenage categories: Zombie; Spaceship, or Wasteland. Appropriately, Patton voices the audiobook version. Here he mentions that there are illustrated sections on one of the discs, and that these can be accessed via computer (have I revealed my pathetic lack of tech savvy?). Even if I could have figured out how to access these I wouldn't have wanted to disrupt the flow of his delivery. I wanted to listen, and stay in that experience. A few of the chapters (bits?) fell short of the mark, but not enough to ruin the fun. Oswald is smart, funny and opinionated, and Zombie, Spaceship, Wasteland is the perfect disc to slip in your CD player for your next road trip. Given the ribald nature of Oswald's material, though, save it for the drive WITHOUT the kids!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How Starbucks Saved My Life, by Michael Gill, and Poser, by Clare Dederer

I'm a Starbucks junkie. My need for a regular latte fix reminds me of the way my mom needed her Marlboros -- as a pick me up, a stress releaser, a way to channel nervous energy by giving hands something to hold, and a way to indulge. (And now, even though I've gone decaf, I continue to glory in Starbucks' warm, milky creations.) In the way that our patterns and addictive habits help us deal with life's vicissitudes, one might make the argument that, in small ways, Starbucks saves my life every day. So I was eager to read Michael Gill's account of how Starbucks saved his life! Alas, this memoir was so bad it was almost offensive. "How Starbucks Saved My Life" is really nothing but an empty, vapid telling of Gill's story. Gill, a 60-plus-year-old victim of downsizing, could have written a book about his late-in-life stint as barista, and the insights this dramatic change in employment brought him. Instead he wrote a paean to the corporate giant that is Starbucks. Gill's account of his new life in retail lacks verisimilitude. Certainly, dealing with the public can be rewarding, but there's no denying that large slices of the multitudes are cranky and difficult. Gill's experience on the retail front lines is nothing like my memories of working with the public, where my demanding customers occasionally left me in tears! In "How Starbucks Saved My Life" all the customers are understanding, helpful and supportive, Gill's boss is the ideal mentor and his coworkers, with one minor exception, are all openhearted, top performers, without personal agendas and attitudes. Message to Howard Schultz: is Gill's book one of your marketing ploys?

Yoga and the mind-body connection fascinate me, are topics ripe for exploration. "Poser" was recently reviewed by Dani Shapiro for the New York Times, and it caught my eye. I love Shapiro. She writes earth shaking, heart-and-soul memoir and it was because she wrote up Dederer's book that I was eager to read "Poser." I wanted to see what Dederer learned about herself through the practice of yoga. The title led me to believe "Poser" would consist of separate accounts, each one focused on a single yoga pose -- like pigeon, downward facing dog, or tree pose -- and then take us to the insights Dederer found by practicing this pose. This was the book I wanted to read, but it's not the book Dederer wrote. The book I wanted to read would have given Dederer's account of how she suffered from perfectionism and the need to fit into the mothering culture in Seattle, (where co-sleeping, organic. locally-grown food, cloth diapers, breast-feeding for a minimum of a full year and coop nursery schools are de rigueur), and how her practice of certain yoga poses eased this anguish. Although Dederer writes about specific yoga poses, she doesn't necessarily link them in an easy to follow, I've done a pose,"point A" and this brought me to a different place in my life, "point B," fashion. Instead, "Poser" is a jumbled assemblage -- part memoir and part lesson on the history of yoga. For my taste, the memoirish part rambled, often not digging deep enough to touch me. And as for the history lessons, well, I just didn't care.

Til the next book,