Friday, October 2, 2015


Greetings! I’m the Books Editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. As part of my job, I get to unpack and stack hundreds of books a week on shelves. Not only does this invest enormous, foolishly placed power in me, but also it gives me an advance look at what’s coming up. After each session of ripping and sorting and stacking, I always have a lot of things I want to tell people – and nobody to tell. So this humble blog is a way to tell people. If you like to read, and if you’re always wondering what’s good, and what’s coming up, maybe you’ll find some good recommendations here. And, of course, I would love to hear your recommendations for books, new or old.

First Things First: Here's our Books Page for Sunday, October 4, right now!:

Recommended: Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 176 pp., $24) by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Lacerating, poetic, and frank, Coates, who just was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, offers a searing look at the predicament of anyone with a black body in the physical and social universe of the present-day United States. I’ll have a Q&A with him in the Oct. 11 Inquirer.

Poet, essayist, critic, and novelist Al Alvarez surprises with his memoir Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal (Bloomsbury, 272 pp., $17). Now in his 80s, Al’s been swimming for years in the beautiful (but to me, always very cold-looking) ponds in London’s Hampstead Heath. This book will make you shiver, smile, think, and … shiver. Still, it leaves you refreshed, breathing deep, and glad to be alive.

Perused with Profit: All That You’ve Seen Here Is God, by Bryan Doerries (Vintage, 480 pp., $16.95) and The Theater of War, by Bryan Doerries (Knopf, 306 pp., $26.95). Doerries is a translator and theater guy who, in a project called Theater of War, presents performances of Greek tragedies to soldiers, veterans, and their families to spur conversations about war and its personal and community impact. Doerries heads a second group, Outside the Wire, with a wider aim, performing drama to explore pressing public issues. In All That You’ve Seen Here Is God, he offers versions of three Sophocles plays (Ajax, Philoctetes, and The Women of Trachis) and one by Aeschylus (Prometheus Bound). They’re versions (powerful ones) rather than translations, written with our moment, our wars, our soldiers, our issues, in mind. Some folks resist the notion of applying ancient works to modern problems, as if this were a form of “popularization” or “topicalization.” But while some may sniff at his suggestion, for example, that PTSD is involved in Ajax, I don’t think it minimizes the play. In Theater of War, Doerries makes a detailed case for the important connections people involved in war can find in these plays, and how finding those connections can help heal. He’s knowledgeable about both the plays and our contemporary issues, and persuasive about the many, crucial uses these ancient wonder-works have in 2015 to help men and women wounded in the world’s most dangerous, and alas, probably oldest (sorry, sex workers) profession. The two books should be read together. It’s a worthy undertaking.
Blogs and Podcasts: Come on, these are kinds of reading, so … there.
First, get on Twitter and follow Herdwick Shepherd at @herdyshepherd1    !!!

Here’s some lovely blogs.

First, Books, Inq – The Epilogue, my sister blog by my brother Frank Wilson, former Books Editor here at The Inquirer. His blog is much better than mine.
In the Yale blog Post42, Katherine Hill, who has the excellent taste to review for me, has posted this gorgeous meditation on the writing of Elena Ferrante, to which I am a recent, wildly enthusiastic convert.

And my friend and fellow freelancer Jackie Syrop posts this blog titled, “Why Does It Take a Lifetime?”
If you like poetry, why aren’t you reading Dianne Lockwood’s Poetry Newsletter?

As for podcasts, there are so many good ones I tremble to begin a list. As with everything, from sex to sex, all depends on what you like. Here are a few I like.

Can anyone not yet have traversed the agonized, addicting corridors of Serial?
If not, listen and see. The folks at This American Life are said to be mulling a second season. Wonder what the case will be this time.

Everybody's getting into the act. The CBS show 48 Hours  just released  a five-part investigative  podcast on the Heather Graham murder.
A cognate podcast is Criminal, about criminals, criminality, people who work, live with, or think about such things. Begin with this kooky, delightful episode involving the fate of noir writer Raymond Chandler. Or this one, based in Philly.
I also like Speaking of Mysteries.
And the Thomas Jefferson Hour by Jeffersonian Clay Jenkinson is marvelous listening. I have a whole graveyard of bones to pick with Jefferson. He is an inspiring figure, one (along with Ben Franklin) of the this country’s first great writers, an architect of the way we live. And he’s also an impecunious patrician, sexual chauvinist, and oddball racist who got quackier with age. (No, I don’t belong to the Cato Institute.) But Clay Jenkinson is a monumentally informed guide and great conversationalist. I’d start with the two episodes on Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a brief life of Jefferson. In episodes one and two, Jenkinson and interlocutor David Swenson comb through Hitchens’ book and give us a short course on Jefferson’s life and thought.
Time out for nepotism!! Literally. I am not a Star Wars expert, although I think the six films include at least two classics (Episode IV: A New Hope, and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back). Star Trek I regard as the glorious triumph of the gimcrack. But my multiwondrous nephew Justin Timpane, who makes movies such as Ninjas Vs. Zombies, also for years has done a podcast titled Trek Off, an extremely foul-mouthed (thanks largely to his sidekick, Alexia Poe) discussion of matters Star Trek and other pop things. Trek Off has become so popular that Justin and company are turning it into a movie. They also do a geek culture podcast named Pop Off . Try their episode on Empire.
Finally, poetry.
David Orr and Robert Frost. It’s the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and that has made all the difference. This American cultural monument prominently displayed on many a wall and refrigerator, a portable patrimony in many minds and hearts here and worldwide. If you can’t throw a yearlong birthday party for “The Road Not Taken,” what can you celebrate?

So stop reading, some Frost, and read him aloud.
If you want to feel how Frost’s original audience first received him, read this very perceptive letter by Willa Cather to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant:

Isn’t “North of Boston” a real thriller? Such individual verse, and all made out of the cold twilight-zone stuff that one has always thought pale matter for poetry. (I don’t, of course, mean the avowed subject matter but the unavowed — Mr. Frost’s own mental reactions.) The book is so important and so devoid of splendor. Out of this shabby, ungrammatical new bunch it’s so amazing to find some one who can write verse, and such real, tight, tough verse as it is! Individual syncopation, individual intervals, queer swell in the middle of the line, and then a dreary flattening out of words to off-set it. The atmosphere (the mental atmosphere, I mean, not New England) is a little like Tchekoff, don’t you think? Awfully damp, marshy mind, with June bugs. Lots of cheerfuller things, too. But he’s a really, truly poet, with something fresh to say, and it’s fine that he has come along.

 The news is that poet and critic David Orr has published not only The Road Not Taken and Other Poems (Penguin: 166 pp., $15), a compendium of many of Frost’s absolute best; but also The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong (Penguin: 192 pp.,$25.95), in which Orr analyzes attitudes toward this most American of poems, and applies what he believes the poem is doing to what America is or might be.

I’m going to enthuse in creamy paroxysms of ecstasy over the first volume – and then politely semi-slam the second, while praising it sufficiently.

Do you realize how many individual great poems Robert Frost wrote? Orr’s collection culls from Frost’s first three books. From A Boy’s Will, a collection I read cover to cover every couple of years, there are at least a dozen great ones, including “A Late Walk,” “Storm Fear,” “Mowing,” and “The Tuft of Flowers.” From North of Boston, you get the first great dramatic poems, including “Death of the Hired Man” and the shattering “Home Burial” (which at times strikes me as his very best, although I don’t care to think that way generally about poetry), plus “Mending Wall,” “After Apple-Picking,” and more. And from Mountain Interval, what a book, you have “The Road Not Taken,” “Birches,” “ ‘Out, Out – ,’ ” and so many others it’s dizzying. Orr’s introduction is knowledgeable, sure, and eloquent. Where “Road Not Taken” is concerned, he gives us much the same argument as in the full-length Road Not Taken book. Basically this: Everyone thinks this poem is a clarion hymn to self-determination, American self-making, and self-reliance, when, actually, it’s pretty ambiguous. We never learn exactly what was “the difference” taking that road made in the life of the speaker, who speaks of it later with an unexplained “sigh” (pleasure? regret? dyspepsia? boredom? Who knows?).

Which is much the way I was always taught about the poem, in three or four separate and independent classes about poetry. (How about you? What were you taught?) Even before I went in, as a reader of 16 or so, I noticed the poem’s lack of closure. It made me feel insecure. So … the book says something a lot of readers and teachers have understood for a century.
Yes, people keep this poem around to buck themselves up, to invigorate their own resolve and pride in their own decisions … and that is their right. It’s one of the readings the poem allows. After all, if a poem is ambiguous, the only way to get it wrong is to claim only one meaning. “Road” harbors the potential of many meanings. For me, though, the poem concerns the risk of making choices, even the chilling chance that you’ll never know if your choice was the right one, or at least better or worse than another choice. You took that road, and what happened happened.

But – acknowledging that maybe it was not Orr but an editor or publicist who made up that insulting subtitle – this book declares that most folks get the poem wrong. They tape it on their mirrors and refridges believing it belongs in a class of poems such as “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley (“I am the captain of my soul”), frankly inspirational poems with a clear, encouraging moral. Orr dislikes this, and he’s going to show how, as per that icky subtitle, “The Road Not Taken” is a poem “Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong.”
Here’s where I am going to load up every rift with defenseless Orr. How, exactly, does he know “almost everyone” gets this poem wrong? Sure, some people read this poem on the simple “Invictus” level. But remember my four poetry classes, taught by an old nun, a new nun, a young ex-Marine, and a ridiculously, blindingly beautiful English graduate student. All of them started from the assumption that we can’t tell what the consequence of the choice is.

I find something irritating, perhaps a trifle dishonest, and certainly rhetorically objectionable, in Orr’s critical method. As his opening move, he too often (in my view) posits some widespread belief about poetry, attributed to large, unnamed numbers of people down through many years, and then proceeds to dismantle this purported belief. Seldom does he work hard enough to establish that these invoked beliefs really do exist, or were ever widespread, or so widespread it’s worthwhile to puncture them. Clearly, his main energy goes toward the puncturing. That’s what he really wants to do: knock down mistaken ideas. Who holds or ever held these ideas, their identities or numbers, or the true impact of these ideas – none of these vital questions gets much of a look.
Which leaves the way open for Orr to swing wide his scythe. It’s a rather frayed method, impugning the tastes of a nameless and naïve class of readers, and showing how the artwork at hand is far more complex than these fictive shades dream. I identify this method (although it did not start) with Ezra Pound, a son of the middle class who took out his middle-class anxieties on the class from which he knew only too well he was in flight. Y’know, Guide to Kulchur?

In Road Not Taken, Orr starts with a car commercial from New Zealand, which uses “Road” in just the way that sits up nicest for Orr’s method. Orr does not work hard enough to establish how representative the kiwi jalopy ad is of “all readers of Frost,” or even “most people” or “almost everyone.” And now I’m finished.
You should still read the book. Once Orr is done with his tiresome straw man riding a stalking horse, he offers a splendid anatomy of the poem. He is a master at gardening ambiguities. And I do like the way he connects its open-endedness – its sense that we can really know neither the consequences of our choices on our self-formation, or the self we have created – with the American self-image, the true story of this dynamic, open-ended country, where we live one kind of life (chaotic, contingent, unsure) yet say we live another (defined, directed, resolute). The poem is as unstable and dark as this country (after you drill past the chosen delusion) really is. Orr, after a start that let’s all do without, really gets some good places. This is a good book and did not need that Kay Kyser that’s-right-you’re-wrong (or is it the Firesign Theater “Everything You Know Is Wrong”) shtick.

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