Archive for October, 2012

Poet Jeffrey Skinner has written a sort of insider’s guide to the “PoBiz,” The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets: a Self-Help Memoir. He identifies the 6.5 practices of the title, quotes many excellent poets, pokes fun at certain self-important aspects of the poetry world, and attempts to encourage those who are inclined to throw up their hands in despair. While much of book is mostly of interest to writers, I’d recommend the memoir sections for anyone who enjoys personal essays.

Some of Skinner’s advice will be familiar to anyone who has read writing books or attended workshops. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. The final essay of the book, “The Family Guy,” is a thoughtful take on popular culture (yes, the title refers to the animated television show) and the place of poetry in it. He suggests poetry is not limited to the literary form, but can be “an immediate, intuitive grasp of meaning. . . confirmation that some measure of grace extends beyond the visible.”

Skinner challenges readers to “get right-sized about the place of poetry, the stuff we read and write, and to consider it as one particularly rich and complex example of wider poetry.” In other words, we shouldn’t “assume it is the only cathedral in the pines.” He exhorts readers to empathize with this wider poetry, not only in service to our own literary betterment but because “non-poets surround and vastly outnumber us.” (emphasis mine)

True. Maybe more people would read poetry if it was more widely understood in relation to poetry as Skinner defines it above. The same could be said for any art existing in tension with its commercial alter ego. Discuss.

Check out Skinner’s Periodic Table of Poetic Elements  (the section in the back of the book, The Noble Gases, is even better). Or, as he suggests, go bowling. Whatever you do, check out this book, which is one of the most original writing guides I’ve ever picked up.

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Next Sunday (October 14) in the Concord Monitor the Mindful Reader column will include reviews of

Crash: a Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude by Carolyn Roy-Bornstein
Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family by Ruth Nemzoff
The Words I Chose: a Memoir of Family and Poetry  by Wes McNair

and a new section called “also noted” where I point out other notable new releases including

Cover-up: One Man’s Pursuit of the Truth Amid the Government’s Failure to End a Ponzi Scheme by Mark Connolly
Sermons In Stone: the Stone Walls of New England and New York by Susan Allport
When America First Met China: an Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail by Eric Jay Dolin.

I’ll post a link when it’s up online.

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A couple of weeks ago I tried a library book on the Kindle app. I wanted to be better equipped to answer questions at the reference desk about downloading books to Kindles. I’ve just finished reading my second Kindle book, Thrift (The Misadventures of an Inadequate Teacher) by Phil Church.

Church is a fellow blogger and I noticed he was offering his book free for a short time. I have read few self-published books, because most I’ve tried have been riddled with typos or grammatical errors. But Church writes well on his blog, so I decided to try it.

I enjoyed Thrift as I recognized a good deal from our family’s recent adventures in England. But I also found it really funny. It’s a farce, and reminded me a bit of James Hamilton-Paterson’s Gerald Samper trilogy.

Thrift is about an English teacher, Marvin, at The Radley Hill School. His mother is a world traveler who loves him but is never around, and his wealthy and successful father and brother think he’s an idiot. His roommate, Malcolm, is a grown-up version of his students — fairly inept, slow but loyal, just trying to get by. Malcolm works at the local pub, which is populated by amusing regulars, like Rab, a Scot who thinks teachers are overpaid elitists and modern education is a travesty, and The Commander, a doddering retiree whose only companion is a cat.

Church is an English teacher himself, and the scenes in which Marvin tries to explain literature to his shiftless students are sad but quite funny. Marvin spends as much time as possible slacking off, dreaming up ways to get rich, eating biscuits and drinking, but he occasionally cares about being a good teacher — mostly when it might keep him out of trouble or help him get a promotion. When the feeling passes he goes back to surfing the internet during class. When he’s tasked with directing the school play he leaves a boy whose father is known to be tough in charge, and he also forgets to attend rehearsals.

Church’s send-up of school administrators is very entertaining as well. The sycophantic and clueless Deputy Headmaster thinks Hamlet is a comedy with fairies, and when Marvin suggests holding auditions, says “Brilliant. That’s exactly the kind of thinking that will get you places in this school.” The Headmaster is far more interested in good press coverage and keeping the Board of Governors happy than he is in the quality of the school. Both smile vacuously, have loads of confidence and are incompetent.

Beneath the hilarity, Church’s black humor is rife with social commentary. He rips on many aspects of contemporary culture, but I got the impression that he does so with fondness. Even though their play turns out to be a hip-hop extravaganza with vague Hamlet references in badly mangled English only remotely related to Shakespeare, it’s clear the teens’ initiative is impressive, and I could sense Church’s admiration for kids who face low expectations.

Marvin is not the most sympathetic of heroes, but by the end of Thrift I was rooting for him anyway. I’ll look forward to his further adventures, as Church is writing a sequel.


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