Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Summer Reading Bliss: A Retrospective

 "There is a temperate zone in the mind, between luxurious indolence and exacting work;    and it is to this region, just between laziness and labor, that summer reading belongs."  
~ Henry Ward Beecher 

Now that summer is drawing to a close I realise I am really going to miss my reading time.

There is nothing more definitive of summer for me than lying in the garden with the sun spotlighting the pages of a book (or indeed, as the case was most of the time this year - indoors at a window brailled with rain...) Summer may be the best time ever for reading. All that light. All that time outdoors. All that sense of escapism - of time unfolding in front of you as a wide golden berth, an endless horizon to fill with all kinds of dreaming and imagining, books the perfect propellers to imagination's engine.  Whole days to read, late nights and lazy mornings, and as such, the ability to immerse yourself completely in different worlds, uninterrupted. Bliss, in a word.

'One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by.' ~ Jeanette Walls

This summer I have been gluttonous in my reading, navigating narratives on rainy days, sunny days, early mornings and late nights. There is always though, one defining book for me each summer, one that the whole summer seems to hang upon and reverberate from. A book that I can tell you exactly every nuance of what weather was doing while I was reading it; a book that led to more books of its kinds and countless imaginings; a book that dragged me hook, line and sinker into its world and still has not let go. That book for me, this year has to have been the recent Pulitzer prize-winning 'All the Light We Cannot See' by  Anthony Doerr. 


“The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”  
This book is, as the title declares, a story full of light. Light in its most essential essence - revealing every little detail so as to illuminate this particular period in time, this particular story of life. The story is set during WWII in France and Germany, following the fates of two characters whose lives are intertwined -  Marie-Laure, a young blind girl who flees to St-Malo with her father when the Germans invade Paris and a young German boy, Werner, as he leaves the orphanage of his younger years to join the Hitler Youth and from there, the war. It is a story of war, but also of fate and character, of beauty and light. The writing, as I've come to expect from Doerr, is crystalline, rich in metaphor and image, sparkling with a poetic delight. The characters are all so memorable, so well-drawn that it was hard to close the page on them and leave them behind. It's a big novel, 500+ pages, but I sped through it, riveted by the dual narrative, the simultaneous plotting, the suspense, the beautiful language, the stories within stories.

I ended up then searching out other WWII novels (Suite Francaise, The English Patient, The Book Thief) so enthralled was I in that time.  But the story that Doerr tells is so unique and original, so unusual, that my search I know will be in vain. His shimmers like a fairytale but is also underpinned with a psychology that is so precise, and told in a voice that is so full of poetry and faith and hope.  It's the kind of book that immerses you in its story so much, especially its setting of St-Malo, the sea-swept walled town in Brittany, you will have not left it entirely when the story is over. (I can still smell the salt and see the narrow streets, the snail-lined hideaway, the shell-like house...) Anyway, you can read my Goodreads review of it: here. I highly, heartily, recommend it. You will learn new and surprising things about a time that is well-documented and what is most vital in a piece of fiction, be transported completely and irrevocably to the world of the novel. 

My guilty escapist summer reads (don't you just love those?) included nearly all of American author Sarah Addison Allen's novels. The experience akin to the succulent sweetness of a summer evening, the smell of sugar on the air and thrill of pink in the sky.  Sarah Addison Allen's novels fall under the genre of magic realism, but added to that should be romantic magic realism and whimsy. Her stories are light whimsical concoctions where conflicts dissolve and romances blossom with the help of a few magical stimuli (think floral food spells, eccentric family traits and characters, moon lore, fairy godmother ghosts, animate books and animals, and emotions manifesting in transformative ways.) All set in the lovely surrounds of North Carolina with quaint little towns and endearing characters. The author has often been compared to Alice Hoffman, but I'd say much more sugar-coated and whimsy-orientated. (Garden Spells, is, a bit like Practical Magic, but sweeter and more gorgeously decorative with food recipes and the like.) For me, they are also reminiscent of Nicholas Sparks films, but definitely with more quirky than cutesy elements and more original set pieces than predictable story-lines. Whimsical, wonderful, sensuous, feel-good feasts. 


They are also girly without being chick-lit - i.e. entirely consumed with love-life conundrums. They are whimsical, foody, dreamy and emotional without smacking of sentimentality, light quest narratives of becoming true to oneself. In a word they're lovely, with all its soothing connotations: cushy, cosy, charming and warm-hearted. Delightful reads that will transport you to worlds ruled by the heart. They are books to enjoy lying in daisy-spotted grass, the sun glinting gold lattice light on the pages, books to script daydreams by, all tinged with that rose-tint happy horizon glow of dreams coming true, if you just follow your heart (definitely a selling-point for summer evenings, when the light is long and lovely and softens any hard reality into a malleable dream-able one.)

Sound like the ideal summer fodder to you? Yep, if you need a break from serious literature and are a lovers of all things whimsical, these are my recommended choice.  

Other highlights of my summer reads included the sci-fi thriller (and soon-to-be-movie-release) 'The Martian' by Andy Weir; wallowing in the gorgeous language and light of Hardy's 'Far From the Madding Crowd'; the brutally stunning debut 'The Enchanted' by Rene Denfield; and the lilting and lovely weather-appropriate 'History of the Rain' by Irish author Niall Williams.

They say a great book is like an event and well if that's the case,  a variety of great summer reads makes for an eventful time. Every book I read in summer seems to stay with me more. Maybe it hearkens back to days of school holidays with an open, endless parade of reading time and the freedom of self-chosen material. Days at the beach round-reading with friends or early mornings in the garden trying to unreel the knotted words of classics  into a language that brimmed with gold, in hours that seemed gleefully stolen from life's frantic advancing pace. Reading is perfect for summer as it slows time down, even freeze-frames certain instances. You can press a moment between the pages of a book as well and delicately as you can a flower; there are in every book I've read from summers past, fragments of that time's goings-on preserved in their pages. Each book is a marker and a map of a particular summer's best-kept moments. That's why I savour summer reading. And now that it is coming to an end, there is always a certain melancholy. With it too, all those sunlit moments of endless basking, daydreaming, whimsy, freedom, spontaneity, possibility and panache, that are the hallmarks of summer's narrative. But while it lasted, sheer unadulterated reading/living bliss. 


So what have been your favourite summer reads? What stories have coloured your carefree days with narratives of worlds foreign and afar? Transported you on their magic carpet rides against a backdrop of pink-frilled skies and silken soft hours? What have  been the makings of your storied summer? Here's to holding its stories dear, both read and written, both imagined and real.

~ Siobhán

Monday, 10 August 2015

Blue Moon Postlude

I am aware that I have countless posts on this blog about the moon. But what's one more eh? Especially since we have just experienced a blue moon last week.  That's right, a rare blue moon. It must be its bright pendulum that is still swaying my thoughts at the moment to all things lunar.   

The moon of course is a poet's most beloved muse. Muse and mentor. Metaphor-maker and talisman. A currency. A lightbulb of inspiration.  An occupational heart-ed object. A slice of sky on which all hopes and dreams get pinned, poetic preambulations plotted. The moon pulls the words in us like it does the tides: back and forth, to and fro, skimming and flooding the blank page of the mind. Our luminous patroness. 

The moon, as I've mentioned in other blogs (you can access them by clicking on the 'moon' label below this post') is something special to poets. We, supposedly, write by the light of the moon. This may not be true literally, but it holds metaphorically. Its luminescence is our light by which we 'see' things, its steady orbit of earth our mind in its forever watchful pose. 

If you are a poet, it's a surefire bet you've written one or two poems about the moon, if not a truckload. I know I have. The moon in all its manifestations: new moon, half moon, full moon, dark of the moon, harvest moon, pink moon, blue moon. And indeed, by the light of the moon - of which I mean at night, bathed in the glow of its unobtrusive light. 

The moon offers countless imaginings to poets: it can be a female deity (this is especially true for many female poets' poems - Carol Ann Duffy's 'Woman in the Moon' is a highlight as is Anne Sexton's 'Moon Song, Moon Woman'; Alice Oswald also has a few great feminine odes to the moon), a disco ball, a disembodied person, a source of romance, of mysticism, of inspiration, of myth vs reality, of ever-constant guardian or silent witness. There are poems in which the moon speaks or in which the poet addresses the moon like an old friend, a romantic overseer. I particularly love Carl Sandburg's 'Backyard' poem in this respect, it's so jubilant and full of the notion of romantic celebration/transformation.  And Billy Collins' 'The Man in the Moon' has such an endearing quality to it. It describes so nonchalantly the moon's ever-there presence in a poet's life, moving through extremes of emotion for that grand ending which also expresses the poet's own unbridled joy at the sight of the moon.

Poems in which the moon is mused upon from a scientific perspective (Archibald Mac Leish's 'Voyage to the Moon' was an imaginative inquisitve response to the 1969 landings; May Swenson  also does a great one on this topic, of which I've posted here before in a previous blog so won't again), a romantic enchantment, or most often a luminously inspired state, even, a lonely solitary one.  Loneliness and the moon are so often intertwined, the moon has come to stand as a symbol of the state, a talisman, a globed sigh hung in the night sky. But it also seems to represent beauty through solitude - a lonely, but beautiful presence. Sara Teasdale's short poem on this 'Morning Song' is gorgeous and offsets loneliness and sadness so beautifully with the idea of solitude, of independent freedom of mind and body, it is one of my favourites for sure. Or the last poem I've posted here, a concrete poem on the moon, pokes fun at all the descriptions heaped on the moon, but then ends on a simple, short almost whispered confession of one truth - the loneliness of the moon.

For some, the moon is light, proof of life beyond our earth, and to others it is the light of the mind, the illumination within when inspiration strikes. I adore Mark Strand's musing on it, 'Open the book of evening to the page/where the moon, always the moon appears...'  Or Kojiju's ode proposing that even to know that the moon exists is to be certain of light not only in night, but in the uncertainty of our universe, in the darkest mysteries of life and what lies beyond.

The moon as it appears in poetry can be magic, can be balm,  or just mystery. A constant companion or an aloof indifferent onlooker, sometimes an advocate for lunacy.  Always though, it is a charm, which exerts an undeniable and sometimes inexplicable power on the poet and the reader.  I cannot get enough of moon poetry - writing and reading it. I search out poems on the moon with something of an explorer's gleeful momentum. Every time I find a new one, it is like the moon has been rediscovered - it is new and gleaming once again. Moon poems shine with a light that comes from awed observance and perceptive finely-tuned poetic antennae.

It seems every poet has written at least one ode to it. Some seem truly smitten, the likes of: Carl Sandburg, Emily Dickinson, Billy Collins, Mark Strand, Alice Oswald, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, WH Auden.  I want to post a few of those poems here today, a few of my my favourites, poems that I have not already posted here.  I hope you will enjoy them and feel moved to suggest some of your favourite moon poems? 

Happy Blue Moon Musing, 


*Most of these poems are taken from this wonderful anthology: 

On the Spirit of the Heart as Moon-Disk - Kojiju

Merely to know
The Flawless Moon dwells pure
In the human heart
Is to find the Darkness of the night
Vanished under clearing skies.

The Man in the Moon - Billy Collins

He used to frighten me in the nights
of childhood,
the wide adult face, enormous, stern, aloft
I could not imagine such loneliness, such coldness
But tonight as I drive home over
these hilly roads
I see him sinking behind stands of winter trees
And rising again to show his familiar face
And when he comes into full view
over open fields
he looks like a young man who has fallen in love
with the dark earth
a pale bachelor, well-groomed and
full of melancholy
his round mouth open
as if he had just broken into song.


Moon - Mark Strand

Open the book of evening to the page
where the moon, always the moon appears
between two clouds, moving so slowly that hours
will seem to have passed before you reach the next page

where the moon, now brighter, lowers a path
to lead you away from what you have known

into those places where what you had wished for happens,
its lone syllable like a sentence poised

at the edge of sense, waiting for you to say its name
once more as you lift your eyes from the page

close the book, still feeling what it was like
to dwell in that light, that sudden paradise of sound.



Moon Compasses - Robert Frost

I stole forth dimly in the dripping pause
Between two downpours to see what there was.
And a masked moon had spread down compass rays
To a cone mountian in the midnight haze, 
As if the final estimate were hers;
And as it measured in her calipers, 
The mountain stood exalted in its place.
So love will take between the hands a face... 


The Well - Denise Levertov

At sixteen I believed the moonlight
could change me if it would.
          I moved my head
on the pillow, even moved my bed
as the moon slowly
crossed the open lattice.

I wanted beauty, a dangerous
gleam of steel, my body thinner,
my pale face paler.
          I moonbathed
diligently, as others sunbathe.
But the moon's unsmiling stare
kept me awake. Mornings,
I was flushed and cross.

It was on dark nights of deep sleep
that I dreamed the most, sunk in the well,
and woke rested, and if not beautiful,
filled with some other power. 


Moon Song, Woman Song - Anne Sexton

I am alive at night.
I am dead in the morning,
an old vessel who used up her oil,
bleak and pale boned.
No miracle. No dazzle.
I’m out of repair
but you are tall in your battle dress
and I must arrange for your journey.
I was always a virgin,
old and pitted.
Before the world was, I was.
I have been oranging and fat,
carrot colored, gaped at,
allowed my cracked o’s to drop on the sea
near Venice and Mombasa.
Over Maine I have rested.
I have fallen like a jet into the Pacific.
I have committed perjury over Japan.
I have dangled my pendulum,
my fat bag, gold, gold,
blinkedly light
over you all.
So if you must inquire, do so.
After all I am not artificial.
I looked long upon you,
love-bellied and empty,
flipping my endless display
for you, you my cold, cold
coverall man.
You need only request
and I will grant it.
It is virtually guaranteed
that you will walk into me like a barracks.
So come cruising, come cruising,
you of the blast off,
you of the bastion,
you of the scheme.
I will shut my fat eye down,
headquarters of an area,
house of a dream.

Voyage to the Moon - Archibald MacLeish 

Presence among us.                                      

                   Wanderer in our skies,

dazzle of silver in our leaves and on our
waters silver,
Silver evasion in our farthest thought –
“the visiting moon” . . . “the glimpses of the moon”...
and we have touched you!
                                           From the first of time,
before the first of time, before the
first men tasted time, we thought of you.
You were a wonder to us, unattainable,
a longing past the reach of longing,
a light beyond our light, our lives – perhaps
a meaning to us . . .
our hands have touched you in your depth of night.
Three days and three nights we journeyed,
steered by farthest stars, climbed outward,
crossed the invisible tide-rip where the floating dust
falls one way or the other in the void between,
followed that other down, encountered
cold, faced death – unfathomable emptiness . . .
Then, the fourth day evening, we descended,
made fast, set foot at dawn upon your beaches,
sifted between our fingers your cold sand.
We stand here in the dusk, the cold, the silence . . .
and here, as at the first of time, we lift our heads.
Over us, more beautiful than the moon, a
moon, a wonder to us, unattainable,
a longing past the reach of longing,
a light beyond our light, our lives – perhaps
a meaning to us . . .
                     O, a meaning!
over us on these silent beaches the bright

          presence among us.


Morning Song - Sara Teasdale

A diamond of a morning 
Waked me an hour too soon;
Dawn had taken in the stars 
And left the faint white moon. 

O white moon, you are lonely, 
It is the same with me,
But we have the world to roam over, 
Only the lonely are free. 

Backyard - Carl Sandburg

Shine on, O moon of summer.
Shine to the leaves of grass, catalpa and oak,
All silver under your rain to-night.

An Italian boy is sending songs to you to-night from an accordion.
A Polish boy is out with his best girl; they marry next month; to-night they are throwing you kisses.

An old man next door is dreaming over a sheen that sits in a cherry tree in his back yard.

The clocks say I must go—I stay here sitting on the back porch drinking white thoughts you rain down.

Shine on, O moon,
Shake out more and more silver changes.

'The Moon Speaks' - James Carter


How much it must bear on its back,
a great ball of blue shadow,
yet somehow it shines, keeps up
an appearance. For hours tonight,
I walk beneath it, learning.
I want to be better at carrying sorrow.
If my face is a mask, formed over
the shadows that fill me,
may I smile on the world like the moon.
- See more at: http://blog.sevenponds.com/the-next-chapter/dealing-with-grief#sthash.YYPw94l7.dpu
How much it must bear on its back,
a great ball of blue shadow,
yet somehow it shines, keeps up
an appearance. For hours tonight,
I walk beneath it, learning.
I want to be better at carrying sorrow.
If my face is a mask, formed over
the shadows that fill me,
may I smile on the world like the moon.
- See more at: http://blog.sevenponds.com/the-next-chapter/dealing-with-grief#sthash.YYPw94l7.dpuf