Book Review: History of the Rain

Author: Niall Williams

Year of First Publication: 2014

Number of Pages: 358

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Contemporary fiction


A while back, a friend of mine, after finding out that I love Irish literature, recommended this book to me. I’m terribly glad that he did. The one-sentence review he gave of it on his blog sums it up pretty nicely: “This is a thing of beauty.” Just the same, I’d like to add a few words to that.

On its surface, History of the Rain is the story of the Swain family as told by one of its last surviving members, nineteen-year-old Ruth Swain. Having been confined to bed by a mysterious illness, Ruth begins writing her family’s history in order to “find” her late father, a poet named Virgil Swain. Really, though, this book is about a lot of things.

The River Shannon is also really important in this book. Here’s a shot of it from County Clare, where History of the Rain is set. (Although the weather for most of this story is not nearly this nice.) // Image by Liam Moloney, CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s about perfection and the impossibility of attaining it. For instance, one recurring theme in the Swains’ history involves sons who fail to live up to their own and their fathers’ expectations for them. Beginning with Ruth’s great-grandfather, a zealous English minister determined to make a difference in the world, each generation of Swain men tries to live up to the impossible goals he sets for himself, fails, and then tries instead to find his ultimate fulfillment in making his son all he hoped he would be himself. The tradition of remaking the son in the father’s image, fortunately, stops with Virgil Swain. Nevertheless, Virgil is still haunted till his dying day by a desire to find or create perfection and sublimity in everything he meets. “My father bore a burden of impossible ambition,” Ruth tells us on the first page. “He wanted all things to be better than they were, beginning with himself and ending with this world.” Again and again, the book returns to the idea of longing for something out of this world, of missing something that was never ours in the first place. In a way, it reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s memoir Surprised by Joy, in which he describes his experience of an insatiable longing for something that he had never yet found, calling this longing either “Joy” or sehnsucht. But where Surprised by Joy was concerned mostly with how Lewis found a consolation for that longing through his faith, History of the Rain is more concerned with the longing itself: how and when it appears and the futility of trying to satisfy it with earthly things. The book gives no answers but asks a lot of questions, enough to put you into that mindset of longing and wishing and hoping as well.

This is also a book about books. For both Ruth—trapped in her room with nowhere else to go—and her father—dogged by that sense of sehnsucht I mentioned a minute ago—books are an escape. They remind them that there’s a bigger, better, and more beautiful world out there than anything they could imagine. Books also become the link between them after Virgil dies. He owned 3,985 books at the time of his death and Ruth says she’s going to read them all. That’s another way in which she intends to “find” him. So between the narrator’s passion for reading and her frequent references to great books and authors, you might say that History of the Rain is a kind of love letter to literature and to the people who create it.

Speaking of writers, the writing in this book, for me, was one of its real high points. Williams’s style is intensely lyrical and imaginative throughout, with just a touch of stream of consciousness. The idea is that Ruth is a writer-in-training with a flair for the dramatic, so you end up with passages like this one, in which she describes her grandfather Abraham practicing pole-vaulting as a teenager:

And here he is, Abraham in lift-off, his soul bubbling as he climbs, entering the upper air with perfect propulsion and ascension both. An instant and he no longer needs the pile. Hands it off. It falls to ground, a distant double-bounce off the solid world below. The blackbirds take fright, rise and glide to the goalmouth. Amazement blues my grandfather’s eyes. He’s at the apex of a triangle, a pale angular man-bird. His legs air-walk, his everything unearthed as he crosses the bar above us all. There is a giddy gulp of the Impossible and he sort of rolls over in the sky, pressed up against the iron clouds where God must be watching. His mind whites out. His body believes it is winged, has vaulted into some other way of being. Abraham Swain is Up There and Away, paddling the air above the ordinary and just for a moment praying: let me never fall to earth. (Pg. 8)

I for one love this kind of writing, but I know that it’s not for all tastes. So if you’re not so terribly fond of ornate prose, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There are a few rough spots here and there. The symbolism, while very beautiful and poignant sometimes, could be a little heavy-handed at other times. And then there’s Ruth’s twin brother Aengus, known as Aeney to the family. Aeney gets talked about a lot in this story, but we never really get to see him do or say anything memorable. Really, most of what we know about him are the things that Ruth explicitly told us. We know that Aeney was kind because Ruth said he was kind, we know that he was the apple of his father’s eye because Ruth said he was the apple of his father’s eye. In other words, Aeney never really gets to speak or act on his own behalf. Personally, I would have appreciated if his character had been fleshed out a bit more.

Even so, my friend’s verdict still stands: this is a beautiful novel, full of the lyricism and wonder and the nerdy literature references that I love. Glad I could end Reading Ireland Month on a high note!

Book Review: Reading in the Dark

Author: Seamus Deane

Year of First Publication: 1996

Year of Publication for This Edition: 1997

Number of Pages: 246

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Historical fiction, Bildungsroman


Reading in the Dark follows its young, unnamed narrator throughout his life in the Northern Irish city of Derry just before the Troubles. As the son of a working-class Catholic family, he already faces challenges that most boys his age would not usually meet. Soon, though, his life takes a much darker turn when his dying grandfather confesses to a crime committed decades earlier. Little by little, this boy begins to piece together the history that his family has tried for so long to keep hidden.

First of all, this book is beautifully written. Though he’s best-known in the States for his prose, Seamus Deane is also a prolific poet, and it shows in his fiction.

Fire was what I loved to hear of and to see. It transformed the grey air and streets, excited and exciting. When, in mid-August, to commemorate the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven, the bonfires were lit at the foot of the sloping, parallel streets, against the stone wall above the Park, the night sky reddened around the rising furls of black tyre-smoke that exploded every so often in high soprano bursts of paraffined flame.

Chapter 2, pg. 31-32

The book is full of passage like this, where not even the small details of color or smell or sound are overlooked. It does its best to put you in the story’s time and place and immerse you in the narrator’s experience.

Second, this style of storytelling intrigues me. Rather than gives us one continuous narrative from beginning to end, Deane instead tells the story in brief vignettes from the narrator’s daily life. At first, you’re a little unsure of how all these pieces match up, but as the story goes on, the connections between one episode and the others become clearer. Our hero faces a similar task, having to piece together a family history that he’s only heard about in rumors, whispers, and last-minute deathbed confessions, so the almost fragmentary narrative pairs well with the story itself.

As for the plot, I’m afraid I wasn’t quite as wild about it as most other readers seem to be. At a point, the book consists mostly of the narrator’s own internal monologue as he tries to get straight in his head who knew what and when, and this sort of story just didn’t grab me. I know that puts me in a very small minority, and maybe someone in the comments could point out what I’m missing. I enjoyed the book, but it’s not necessarily something I’ll feel compelled to reread any time soon.

That’s not to say, though, that I’m not impressed by Deane’s talent as an author. I mentioned earlier how the book’s imagery reminds you of the fact that Deane is a poet; another way in which I think Reading in the Dark imitates poetry is the way in which every component of the narrative serves to reinforce the others. In a way, it’s hard to focus just on one particular aspect of the story—setting, atmosphere, characters, or what have you—because each is so closely related to the other. And then at the same time that all of these separate threads reinforce each other, they also all bring you back to the main idea that the book is trying to get across. I love how the whole novel hangs together so gracefully.

So, even though this book may not have been my ideal, it’s still a beautiful novel and one that I’m glad to have read. Stick around for next week’s post, when we wrap up Reading Ireland Month with one last book review.

On Yeats’s “Mongan Thinks of His Past Greatness”

While I’m devoting an entire month to Irish literature, I thought I’d talk about one of my favorite Irish poems, W. B. Yeats’s “Mongan Thinks of His Past Greatness.” It’s not a very popular poem, for reasons which will become clear in a minute. Nevertheless, it was one of the first Yeats poems I ever heard, so it stuck with me.

The Original Poem

The 1899 edition of The Wind among the Reeds. Pretty, isn’t it? // Image by Camboxer and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The poem first appeared in 1898 in a London literary magazine called The Dome, where it was titled “The Song of Mongan.” The following year, it was printed again in Yeats’s 1899 collection The Wind among the Reeds. Here’s the poem as it appeared in that book:

“Mongan Thinks of His Past Greatness”

I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young
And weep because I know all things now:
I have been a hazel tree and they hung
The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough
Among my leaves in times out of mind:
I became a rush that horses tread:
I became a man, a hater of the wind,
Knowing one, out of all things, alone, that his head
Would not lie on the breast or his lips on the hair
Of the woman that he loves, until he dies;
Although the rushes and the fowl of the air
Cry of his love with their pitiful cries.

In 1899, Yeats was still deeply involved in the Celtic Revival movement, as well as harboring a more personal interest in magic and mysticism. This was the period of poems like “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and “The Stolen Child” that teem with mythological allusions and obscure occult symbols. “Mongan Thinks” fits in with these poems perfectly.

“The Bard” by John Martin (1817). Image via Wikiart.

In this poem, the speaker is Mongan, a mythical Irish king and the half-human son of the sea god Manannán mac Lir. When Mongan was a baby, his father brought him to Tír na nÓg, the dwelling place of the gods, where he was trained as a master poet and magician. In Irish folklore, though, the downside of learning magic and keeping such close contact with the gods is that you lose the ability to participate in normal, everyday life (See Yeats’s footnotes to the 1899 edition of Reeds). It’s an idea that Yeats had explored before, such as in his 1894 verse drama The Land of Heart’s Desire, in which a young bride follows a faery girl into the woods, thus separating herself forever from her husband and family. Assuming Yeats had this legend in mind when he wrote about Mongan too, then Mongan’s separation from his beloved is not only a physical separation but also an inability to experience life as she does or with her.

Further on, the poem delves into even more obscure imagery. Mongan, for instance, talks of becoming a hazel tree: the hazel tree, according to Yeats’s notes, was a symbol of both the Biblical Tree of Life and of the Tree of Knowledge. So for Mongan to compare himself to a hazel is to say that he is not only immortal, but also that he has been at the center of all wisdom. The hazel was also associated with the constellation Ursa Major—the “Great Bear”—which is made up in part of the “Pilot star” (the North star to us Yanks) and the “Crooked Plough” (the Big Dipper). This is why Mongan talks about stars being hung “among my leaves.”

The Changes

Eventually, it occurred to Yeats that these mythological references and layers of occult symbolism were not necessarily going to improve the reading public’s opinion of him. So, he revised this and other early poems, leaving much of their original imagery intact, but recasting the poems in such a way as downplayed their arcane roots. In the later editions of The Wind among the Reeds, this poem, now with the unwieldy title–“He Thinks of His Past Greatness When a Part of the Constellations of Heaven”–comes at the end of a string of poems whose speaker is identified only as “The Poet.” The idea now (if my interpretation is correct) is that this is a human poet whose gifts are so great that he was immortalized by the gods in a constellation, yet, even though he has everything else he could want, he still mourns for his lost love. Yeats also changed the final two lines of the poem, so that the sentence begun in line 1 now ends with line 10 and lines 11 and 12 make up their own sentence:

O beast of the wilderness, bird of the air,
Must I endure your amorous cries?

About those two lines . . .

Obviously, William Butler Yeats knows better than I do what should go into his poems. Even so, I’ve always preferred “Mongan Thinks of His Past Greatness” over “He Thinks….” Admittedly, familiarity may have something to do with it: I first heard of this poem while I was browsing through the archives at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room website, and more specifically, through their 1953 recordings of Dylan Thomas. If you listen to Thomas’s recording, you’ll notice that he uses the new title for the poem, but recites the old lines. Since this was the first version of the poem I ever heard, it sticks in my head a little easier than the newer lines do.

Yeats in 1920. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

There are a few others things that make the old lines stand out to me too: First, the use of the words “rushes,” “cry,” and “cries.” All of them, I think, with their hard “c”s and their noisy “r”s help to establish the poem’s main sound effects. Our image of the speaker places him alone in a forest with the wind whipping about him: naturally, the word “rushes”—both the word itself and its sound—would tend to bring to mind the sound of rushing wind. Though it’s a more subtle effect, I think the words “cry” and “cries” in the final line also help to give a sense of what the speaker is hearing: those hard “c” and “r” sounds remind me, at least, of tree branches waving and hitting each other in the wind.

The placement of these words within the poem is important too. You’ll notice that the last line of the original poem nearly begins and ends with the same word: “Cry of his love with their pitiful cries.” Having those sounds repeated so closely together, I think, reminds a reader not only of wind but of a relentless wind, one that won’t let up, that forces you to hear the same mournful noises over and over and over. And then to put those two words capping a line seems to me to create a feeling of claustrophobia within the poem. If you look at the poem printed out on a page, you’ll notice that it’s sort of small and box-shaped. Having almost the same word to begin and end a line, I think, further boxes the poem in, giving an idea of how trapped the speaker feels. Thinking back on it, the image that this poem created in my mind, from the very first time I heard it, was of a man standing all alone in a forest so dense that he couldn’t find his way out of it if he wanted to. I think it’s amazing that Yeats can use the sounds of words to create a feeling of physical space in a poem.

And with that, I conclude my rant on Yeats and this little-known poem of his. Do let me know in the comments what you think of Yeats, of this poem, and chime in with whatever other interpretations you may have of it.

Book Review: Death of a Naturalist

Author: Seamus Heaney

Year of First Publication: 1966

Year of Publication for This Edition: 1988

Number of Pages: 40

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Genre: Poetry

Sub-Genres: Modern Poetry


Welcome to the second week of Reading Ireland Month! You can learn more about the event at 746 Books, and be sure to check out the rest of the Reading Ireland posts here.

A while back, I bought a copy of Poems: 1965-1975, a collection containing all of the poems from Seamus Heaney’s first four books. Or, so I thought. Once I got it home, I noticed this little note on the copyright page:

Seven poems that appeared in the original edition of Death of a Naturalist are not included in this volume.

I assumed that this must be the work of some nosy editor at FSG, but then I happened to come across this excerpt from one of Dennis O’Driscoll’s interviews with Heaney:

O’Driscoll: When you reopen Death of a Naturalist now, are you tempted to rewrite or revise or excise—or is it too late to think in those terms?

Heaney: As a matter of fact, I have done a bit of excising already. After Farrar, Straus, and Giroux published Field Work in America, they put out the four earlier books in a single volume, and if you look in the Death of a Naturalist part of that collection—Poems 1965-75—you’ll see I dropped seven of the poems. The Naturalist had been out for fourteen years at that stage and I felt free to exercise my judgment.

Well, if Seamus Heaney himself says these poems are no longer worth reading, I guess I won’t worry about it then.

So this will be a review of the revised edition of Death of a Naturalist.

* * * *

Lately, I’ve tended to gravitate more toward Heaney’s middle and later work: books like Field Work and Human Chain, for instance. But, reading this book for the first time, I was reminded of why I fell in love with Heaney’s poetry in the first place. His keen ear for rhythm and rhyme, his stunning imagery, his way of taking some simple object or memory and transforming it into something amazing: all of that was present from his very first book. There are the poems I already knew and loved, like “Blackberry-Picking,” “Mid-Term Break,” and “Personal Helicon,” but then there are also ones like, for instance, “Churning Day,” about a young Heaney and his siblings helping their mother make butter. I’ll admit that when I first read the title, I didn’t expect the poem itself to be terribly interesting. And yet, there’s something oddly mesmerizing about this poem. It works you into a sort of rhythm that keeps you going till the end. Naturally, being his first full-length collection, not every poem in this book is going to hit it out of the park. Even so, there are moments where the genius Heaney would become still comes through.

Another thing that I found really interesting in this book is the way in which Heaney’s language mimics a Northern Irish accent. Northern Irish accents, of course, are known for their emphasis on vowels and their deep, guttural sound. So, Heaney uses words that already contain deep vowel sounds in order to give a sense of the way people speak where he comes from. For example, in the poem “Digging,” words like “snug,” “gun,” “down,” “ground,” “sod,” and “bog” force the reader to speak in a lower tone of voice than he might usually use. It’s less distracting and contrived than eye dialect and works twice as well. Because while eye dialect can sometimes be effective, I prefer things like this, where you actually speak the sounds without even realizing what you’re doing at first. It makes it feel more natural, more like this poem and this kind of language are already a part of you.

Naturalist is also an ideal place to start for a person who’s new to Heaney’s work. For one thing, these poems tend to be more accessible than some of his later stuff, both in terms of style and content. Whereas some of Heaney’s poems can lean heavily on historical or cultural references that a lot of non-Irish people will not immediately recognize, the poems in Naturalist can be understood a little more readily. Of course, Heaney is more than worth whatever amount of time and effort it takes to understand him, but if you want to get an idea of what his style and voice are like before diving into his more ornate work, this is a good book to start with.

That’s all for me. Who else has read Death of a Naturalist? Which were your favorite poems in it? Let me know in the comments.

Book Review: Pygmalion

Author: George Bernard Shaw

Year of First Publication: 1912

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2009

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: Project Gutenberg

Genre: Drama, Comedy


We kick off this year’s Reading Ireland Month with one of the great classics of Irish drama. First performed in 1913, Pygmalion is the story of Professor Henry Higgins, an arrogant (though occasionally amusing) phonetician who bets a colleague that he can teach Eliza Doolittle, the so-called “draggletailed guttersnipe” who sells flowers for a living, to speak so well that she can pass for a duchess.

“The divine gift of articulate speech”

Of course, this play is wonderful for anyone who loves language because the entire thing is about language. And not just language in itself, but language as a force for good in people’s lives. Here’s a girl who learns how to communicate well, and once she does that, her world opens up in more ways than one. Sure, she can fool people into thinking she’s a duchess, but she can also stand her ground when Professor Higgins starts trying to run her life. She has the confidence to go out and start the business she always wanted. She realizes, I think, that with language comes power: because she had the power to persuade and to be understood, she gained a self-assurance she might not have had otherwise. As a person for whom language is one of the most important things in the world, I like stories like this that remind me of how wonderful it is.

Epilogues, Romance, and Shaw

Who else but Shaw can call his readers idiots and get away with it?

Who else but Shaw can call his readers idiots and get away with it?

Because I was too impatient to go out and buy the thing, I read Project Gutenberg’s ebook of it, a digitized form of an edition from 1916. I don’t know how other editions of the play are formatted, but in this one, Shaw begins with a long dedication to the grammarians and phoneticians whose work influenced Pygmalion, then ends with an even longer note (he calls it a “Sequel”) explaining what happened to all of the characters after the play ended. I found that interesting, since I’m one of those people who likes to know what happened on the other side of Happily Ever After. However, Shaw makes it clear that his reason for writing this epilogue is not merely to satisfy his readers’ curiosity, but to explain all of the reasons why Eliza and Professor Higgins couldn’t have ended up a couple. Almost since the play premiered, directors, actors, and audiences have insisted, despite Shaw’s protests, that Eliza must marry Professor Higgins. Hoping at last to put all of that speculation to rest, Shaw added this piece to the printed play in 1916. Not only does he explain how the rest of the story plays out in his head, he also gets in a dig at his audience, whom he accuses of maintaining a “lazy dependence on the ready-makes and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of ‘happy endings’ to misfit all stories.” Nice.

Shaw’s imperiousness aside, I appreciated his depiction of friendships like the ones Eliza had with Colonel Pickering and Professor Higgins. Last year when I reviewed James Joyce’s Dubliners, I made the comment that Joyce’s work stands out to me because he refuses to believe that all stories need fast-paced action and lots of plot twists: in a similar way, Pygmalion stands out, in part, because Shaw refuses to believe that women in fiction exist solely to furnish the hero with a love interest. He also refuses to buy into what’s become one of the main tenets of modern-day storytelling, that a story is only as good as its romantic subplot. (Not that I don’t love a good romantic ending too, but who says a story needs romance to be entertaining?)

So, that’s one “Begorrathon” book down. Stay tuned next week for a review of the debut book of my current favorite Irish author.

Bookish Links — February 2017

Image by Thomas Kelley.

Image by Thomas Kelley.

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You: Reading Ireland Month 2017

reading-ireland-month-17

Greetings, readers! A quick programming note: starting next week, I’ll be participating in Reading Ireland Month, also known as Begorrathon. What is Reading Ireland Month, you ask? It’s a yearly blog event hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall from The Fluff Is Raging. Basically, it’s a whole month of people blogging about Irish books, movies, music, food, and anything else they can think of. I happen to love Irish literature, which is why for the entire month of March, I’ll be blogging only about books by Irish authors.

I’m planning to stick mostly to twentieth century literature this year. A few of the books I plan to review:

  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney
  • Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane

And I might have a few other articles in store too. Feel free to join in! All of the details are up at Cathy’s blog.

Birthday Books

I had a birthday recently. I don’t like to name the exact date online because identity theft, but what I can tell you is that it has passed and I got some books as a result of it. Here’s the list:

1: Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems by Christian Wiman

Wiman is one of those authors who I kept hearing about but never bothered to read. I hope I can someday be absolved of this grave literary sin, because Wiman, it turns out, is brilliant. In a lecture of his that I once listened to, he stressed the sense of wonder that he believes poetry should embody, as well as the musicality with which that wonder should be expressed. If the poems I’ve read so far are any indication, he certainly practices what he preaches.

2: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I pretty much grew up with the Greek and Roman myths. I never cared as much for the Norse myths. But, Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers, and he certainly has a knack for mythical writing, so if anyone can change my mind, he can.

3: Selected Poems: 1968-2014 by Paul Muldoon

Once again, here’s an author about whom I’ve heard much but from whom I’ve read little. Personally, I’ve always been a little intimidated by Muldoon’s work—so much of it seemed so obscure and opaque to me—but I’ve been looking to step a bit out of my comfort zone where poetry is concerned, so we’ll see where this takes me.

4: The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

This is a collection of some of Gaiman’s nonfiction writing: essays, book introductions, speeches (including the famous “Make Good Art” speech), and even the liner notes from a few rock albums. Having read some of these pieces where they were originally published (such as the hilarious title essay, about Gaiman attending the Oscars in 2010 and being banished to, well, the cheap seats), I already suspect this book is going to be brilliant.

That’s all for now. Anyone here read any of these? Let me know what you thought in the comments.

Poems for Valentine’s Day

Image by Joanna Kosinska.

Image by Joanna Kosinska.

Around this time last year, I published a list of 10 of my favorite love poems. That post got such a good response from you guys that I decided I’d do another list this year. Without my really planning it that way, last year’s list skewed a little more heavily toward older poetry, whereas this one skews a little more toward modern poetry. Hopefully, they’ll make good complements to each other.

1: “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti

A classic of classics: short, sweet, and beautiful as only Christina Rossetti can do.

2: “I am in love, hence free to live” by Vera Pavlova

My metaphorical hat is off to Suzannah Rowntree for introducing me to this poet and this poem. In case you’ve never heard of her, Vera Pavlova is a contemporary Russian poet and one of the bestselling authors in Russia. Her poems tend to follow a pattern similar to this one: brief but passionate, and often dealing with love or relationships.

3: “To Hold” by Li-Young Lee

Lee is another of my favorite contemporary poets. Here, he does what all the good poets do: takes something very ordinary and mundane—in this case, the ritual of making a bed—and lets us see it in a new and beautiful way.

4: “The Good Morrow” by John Donne

And speaking of looking at things in a new way, Donne—in true Metaphysical fashion—here appeals to the worlds of history, science, and global exploration to communicate the depths of his love.

5: “The Underground” by Seamus Heaney

Inspired by a honeymoon trip, a Greek myth, and his wife’s ruined coat, this has quickly become one of my favorite poems from my favorite poet.

6: “Variation on the Word Sleep” by Margaret Atwood

Christopher Adamson mentioned this one in the comments of my last Valentine’s Day post and I’m so glad he did. I think it pairs especially well with the Heaney poem because, while it doesn’t reference any specific myth, it does take on the atmosphere of a mythical underworld, similar to “The Underground.”

7: “Poetry” by Don Paterson

As the (largely) self-taught owner of a middling book blog, I’m usually not inclined to make dogmatic statements about literature. But I will be dogmatic and say that Don Paterson is one of the greatest living poets in the world. This sonnet—a love poem about writing love poetry—helps prove it, I think.

8: “Adam’s Curse” by W. B. Yeats

I tried to keep the tone of this list relatively light, but it’s actually quite difficult to find love poems that aren’t sad. This one, for instance, has a mournful attitude, but Yeats wears it so well I thought I’d include this poem anyway.

9: “Near the Wall of a House” by Yehuda Amichai

One of the reasons why I love Amichai’s work is because much of it is so beautiful and profound while using simple, unadorned language. “Near the Wall of a House” is one of those poems, talking about love and transcendence while still giving us a grounding in what’s familiar.

10: “Marriage of Many Years” by Dana Gioia

Another poet who knows how to make words count is Dana Gioia. Here, he writes about how love progresses past the limits of language.

That’s all for now. Let me know what you think of any or all of these in the comments and feel free to chime in with your favorite love poems.

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Author: Neil Gaiman

Year of First Publication: 2013

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2014

Number of Pages: 178

Publisher: William Morrow

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Fantasy, magical realism

Find it on Amazon.


This is one of those books that I bought and then stuck in my bedroom somewhere, never to be seen again until several months later when I finally decided to read it. I have no idea what took me so long. I mean, I had read Gaiman’s short stories before, so I knew him to be more than capable of creating mind-bending fantasy worlds, or a real-world story teeming with dread, or a very simple story that nevertheless breaks your heart. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when he did all three at once.

It’s difficult to summarize The Ocean at the End of the Lane without giving away too much, but I’ll try: a man goes back to his hometown in Sussex, England for a funeral (whose funeral we never learn, nor do we ever hear the man’s name). While he’s there, he visits his old neighborhood and begins to reminisce about the things that happened there the year he turned seven. He recalls Lettie Hempstock, a little girl who lived up the lane from him with her mother and grandmother and whose backyard, she claimed, had an ocean in it. Following a sudden death on the lane, this nameless little boy’s once-peaceful home is invaded by monsters that only Lettie and her family know how to tame.

To put it bluntly, this book is beautiful. Strange and unsettling too, as all the good fantasies are, but beautiful nonetheless. I think my friend got it right when he said that Gaiman has written neither a children’s story nor an adult’s story, but rather a myth: something that can be enjoyed on many different levels and by anyone.

There are, you might say, a lot of gaps in this book. A lot of unknowns. We know that there’s something different about Lettie and the rest of the Hempstock women, but we’re never really told what it is. We know that the creatures that Lettie calls to or chases away have to come from someplace, but we never find out where. Heck, we don’t even find out what most of these characters’ names are. On the one hand, this can be a little disorienting: most of us are used to stories where everything is wrapped up neatly by the end. On the other hand, though, I think the unknowns are part of what give this book its appeal. They keep you curious. They keep you grasping to learn more. You become, like the protagonist, the wonder-struck child trying to make sense of things that are new and strange. That’s what this book gives you: a taste of the wonder that so many of us, unfortunately, leave behind in childhood.

In my quest to conquer the “To-Be-Read” list, I don’t often reread books. For this one, though, I’ll have to make an exception. It’s a beautiful book, a wise book, and above all, a true book. It took me much too long to get here, but I’m glad I finally did.

How about you all? What did you think of The Ocean at the End of the Lane? Which of Gaiman’s books should I read next? Let me know in the comments.

Bookish Links — January 2017

Image by Clem Onojeghuo.

Image by Clem Onojeghuo.

And last but not least, Tom Hillman from Alas, Not Me found this awesome video of John Hurt (may he rest in peace) reciting Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” for Charlie Rose.

Christmas Books

It occurred to me some time around the beginning of the month that I really should have written a post listing all of the books I got last Christmas. I thought January might be too late to post something Christmas-related, but a quick look around the blogosphere confirmed that there are still plenty of people posting their Christmas lists late. So without further ado, here’s mine.

1: The Complete English Poems by John Donne

Ah, John. The world would be such a boring place without him. Donne is one of my favorite poets, if not my favorite, for which reason this book has rarely left my side since December. I love it.

2: The Complete Poems by Christina Rossetti

I’ve been taking an interest lately in both the Rossetti family and the Pre-Raphaelite movement, so it’s nice to have all of Rossetti’s poems in one volume, instead of the anthologies and the Project Gutenberg ebooks I’m used to reading her out of. This book definitely makes it easier to appreciate what a prolific author she was too: 880 pages before footnotes!

3: Collected Poems by Ruth Pitter

Today, Ruth Pitter is probably best known as one of C. S. Lewis’s more frequent pen pals. In her own day, though, she was one of the most popular poets in England. In the little bit of her work that I’ve read so far, she almost reminds me of Rossetti, with her straightforward language and her strict meters. Like her friend Lewis, she also captures a sense of longing or “Joy” that few are capable of expressing. Books of her poetry are pretty rare on this side of the Atlantic, so I consider myself lucky to have gotten one.

4: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers

Sayers is another writer on the periphery of the Inklings that I’ve been interested to know more about. She’s most famous for her mystery novels and her work as a translator, but she was also an essayist, writing on everything from language and education to feminism and theology. This particular book contains a series of essays on art and how human creativity reflects and interacts with the Divine. It comes highly recommended by a friend, so it should be a fantastic read.

That’s all for now. Tell me, what books did you get for Christmas? Have you read any of these? Let me know in the comments.