Friday, February 27, 2009

Bardic Voices I: The Lark and the Wren by Mercedes Lackey

I have several books on the go, in an attempt to confuse and frustrate myself, I think. I usually try to finish one first, but I keep seeing books I want to read. I've got a half-formed review of Patrick Lima's The Organic Home Garden in my head, and I'm through the first chapter of Liz Primeau's deeply personal and beautifully real memoir, My Natural History. But did I read either of those today? No, I picked up Mercedes Lackey's Bardic Voices I: The Lark and the Wren. And proceeded to skim/half-read my way through it.

Lackey used to be one of my favourite authors, starting with her Mage Winds trilogy and extending to several of her other books, stand-alone and series, the Valdemar books, her urban fantasies, and whatever else by her I could get my hands on. She's extremely prolific, and her books are often quite long, so it wasn't hard to stay occupied when I was on one of my many Lackey kicks.

I therefore hold her and her books in special esteem. I have, unfortunately, also tried re-reading them over the years and not found them as readable as I once did, and The Lark and the Wren was no different. I don't know what it is -- her plots tend to be exciting, her characters solid and entertaining, there's always humour and adventure and romance. I think the problem is that I don't find them as inventive as I once did, and the language doesn't have that special sheen that grabs me now; as I get older, I prefer my prose economical (like Hemingway) and poetic (like McKillip or Ondaatje). And with Lackey, I just don't get that.

One of the problems I have noticed with her books, and particularly with this one, is that she tends to pack a lot of plot in where half the plot might have sufficed. The reason I picked up The Lark and the Wren again was the first major tale of the book, where Rune (our heroine) plays her fiddle for the Skull Hill Ghost for the duration of one night, on a dare. This part of the story is particularly well-written. It launches Rune off on a journey that will take her from her backwater town to the cities, and introduce her to kind, generous, intelligent people; as well as a number of nasty, greedy, nefarious, and ignorant people as well. All of this is well and good. The problem comes with the fact that there are a series of events, each of which could have made for the climax of the novel. This goes on for some time. Then, when we finally get to the last climax of the novel, it's not really any more exciting than the rest of them and the book kind of flatlines out.

Another issue I have is the introduction of seemingly spurious characters, and then the introduction of a somewhat major character in the last several chapters. You know what this reminds me of? It feels like a collection of stories that Lackey had, all about these characters, and she's attempted to string them all together in a coherent, novel-sized narrative. And then, halfway through the book we start perspective-switching in ways that we didn't through the first half, and we go from Rune's perspective (third person limited) to several other characters, and then back to Rune, and from then on the perspective-switching continues although not quite as severely. Mostly we stick with Rune with an occasional slip back to Talaysen, her mentor.

My final issue with the book is that it is occasionally quite unnecessarily preachy, and I suspect this is precisely what attracted me to it lo those many years ago. Lackey and I agree on many points: the necessity of taxation, the unfairness of the class system, the equality of each and every human being (and non-human being), the deep injustice of a religious system that does nothing for the people it purports to want to save, the importance of kindness, and so on. I agree with all these things, and I think they're important. But Lackey has a tendency, which was particularly transparent in this novel, to use her heroes and heroines as mouthpieces for these points. That works for many people, and I know it used to work for me. But reading this book again reminds me of how unsubtle she can be when she's trying to prove a point.

What I do still like about it is the characters themselves. Rune in particular is a great character, if not particularly original; she's brought up in a rather rough environment, and is the local loner except for a few kind souls around her. She somehow manages to stay sane, kind, and talented, and strikes off on her own to make her fortune. She's funny, wise, hard-working and talented, and it's a pleasure to hang out with her. Which is part of what makes the perspective-switching so irritating, because I want to spend time with Rune.

The characterization throughout the novel is fun, even though it does often draw on familiar fantasy tropes, and the world is well-built, solidly described, and believable. And I really do like the various plots -- I just wish that Lackey had picked and chosen, rather than included them all. Or created them as a group of short stories, as opposed to mashing them all up into one long novel. The Skull Hill Ghost plot is especially excellent, as is Rune's time spent in Nolton. The book loses some momentum after she heads for the Midsummer Faire and never quite gets it back, although there are certainly some enjoyable aspects after that as well.

I think, overall, I might just stop trying to read Mercedes Lackey again, because I did love those books and I don't want them to lose that status in my mind. That said, I'm going to try the Diana Tregarde mystery Children of the Night one more time, and maybe Lackey's re-telling of the story of the swan princess, Black Swan. If those don't work, I think I'll probably stop reading her entirely, to preserve the fond feelings.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

the hero factory

Jeez, and I wonder how I don't get anything done around the house. But this is just too awesome to pass up on posting, because it combines my love of superheroes with my love of myself as a superhero.


You can do it too!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks

Before we went to Cuba, I had been intending to read Oliver Sacks' Oaxaca Journal. I had it sitting on my desk for an unreasonably long amount of time. I brought it with me with the vague idea that I might read it, and it turned out to be an excellent choice. It's not very long and it is, like anything I have ever read by Sacks, a very engaging read. The man is brilliant at both observation and at making his observations accessible to the masses in writing.

On the third page, this stuck out for me, as I was enjoying the rarefied atmosphere of an all-inclusive, five-star resort:

How crucial it is to see other cultures, to see how special, how local they are, how un-universal one's own is.

We stayed at a resort, but the last time I was in Cuba I didn't. And this time we did get out to see a [surprisingly] large portion of the countryside for a day. I always have this uncomfortable feeling about traveling as a tourist anywhere. Especially Cuba, because I frankly adore the ideal of the place (there is food, shelter, education and medical care for every single Cuban, and what a necessary thing) but I also recognize that there are significant major problems with the way the system actually works. I dislike what the American government has done to Cuba, but I'm not sure that as a Canadian tourist I'm all that much better, coming to gawk at the wonderful old buildings and romanticize Castro's Revolution. I don't know how to feel about a place where everyone has the basics for a good life but they don't have the freedom to travel the way I do, or read the way I do, or express their own views the way I do. I don't know the answers, and it does trouble me. Especially because I do love Cuba so much, and the time I spent there this time didn't lessen that (I have an acute case of wanting to be in Cuba all the time now). It adds tension to what would otherwise be a really lovely, relaxing vacation. But I'm glad I have that tension.

All of that said, Cuban culture is completely, completely different from Canadian culture and there's a lot to be said for it, and how is it my place to condemn a way of life that I have very limited understanding of? And that is what the quote above reminded me to be aware of, that obnoxious colonial tendency to try to evaluate and "fix" cultures that are different from our own.

Mexico has different problems, the main being the massive amounts of poverty and governmental corruption. Sacks doesn't dwell on this but he does give it a mention. And it's nice to see the same sort of ambiguity I have about traveling to places as a relatively wealthy tourist, just expressed from a different angle and much more eloquently than I could. It was somewhat comforting to read, not because it resolved any of my thoughts but because it did clarify them somewhat, and made me relax a little knowing that I'm not alone.

All right, that's probably enough angst. On to the book itself:

The things Sacks has to say about Oaxaca are fascinating, and now I would very much like to go to that area myself (tourist-guilt aside). We get glimpses of his travel companions, and the novelty of traveling with a group of naturalists. Make no mistake -- it's a novelty. I really enjoy it, myself. There is something great about being able to shout excitement about a bird to a bus full of people and have them scramble all over eachother to get to the windows to see for themselves. In any other case, your fellow passengers would stare at their books or their shoes in embarrassment for you and hope for your sake that you keep quiet next time. But Sacks captures the thrilled naturalist-tourists quite well.

The journal is, as I suppose I should have expected, even more personal than his memoir. There were points where I was occasionally even a little uncomfortable with how personal it was, because I don't like to pry into other living people's thoughts (despite what some of my readers might think). It's not that he says anything specifically -- it's just that put all together, and probably because I have also recently read Uncle Tungsten, one gets a much fuller picture of Sacks than I was expecting, and sometimes it make me wonder if he realized quite how much of himself he was exposing.

Overall, a highly recommended book, for anyone at all because it's so quick and easy to read. But especially for anyone who is traveling to Mexico or Latin America, or anyone interested in ferns, nature or culture. I'm curious now to see about some of the others in the National Geographic's literary writers on travel series, of which Oaxaca Journal is part.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Scott Pilgrim Vols. 1 and 2 by Bryan Lee O'Malley

A couple of weeks ago I happened across an article on tor.com about the release of a new Scott Pilgrim volume. Scott Pilgrim has been on my radar for a while now, but only vaguely. So I decided to see what the excitement was about, and borrowed the first two volumes from my local library. I mean, how could I resist what Steven Padnick at Tor calls a "video game-inspired action-comedy-romance"?

It turns out I couldn't. It is some awesome.

The basic premise is that Scott Pilgrim is a 23-year-old slacker who lives in a basement bachelor apartment with his boy-crazy gay roommate, and at the beginning of the first volume, Scott is dating a seventeen-year-old named Knives Chau. He's in a crappy band, doesn't have a job, and is having dreams about an awesome delivery chick on rollerblades.

Up until now, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is any old hipster story set among the Toronto 20-somethings, and so on. But it turns into something stranger, and better. The delivery chick is none other than Ramona Flowers, who takes a subspace highway through Scott Pilgrim's head. We have ninjas, battle scenes, video games, Canadian indie music scene, and love stories. It is something of a perfect storm.

The dialogue is funny and even occasionally punny (which I find tremendously charming because it's not overdone). The art is simple, attractive, and easy to follow. It's set in Toronto and spends a surprising amount of time in recognizable Toronto libraries, so I would love it for that alone. But the story and the characters don't need any help. They've got me hooked.

It's not a difficult read (I read both volumes in a morning during which I was distracted by things like sun, sand, pool, and pina coladas). It's silly, fun, and clever, and highly recommended for anyone who likes video games, ninja delivery girls, Toronto Public Library, sarcasm, and/or comedic love triangles. Also good art and crappy bands.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Lost Duke of Wyndham by Julia Quinn; and, what I apparently like to read on vacation

I am a little concerned that Twilight has forever ruined me for young adult urban vampire (or other supernatural creature) adventure-with-a-smattering-of-coming-of-age-romance stories. I started, and then dropped, Cassandra Clare's City of Bones on vacation because one of the main characters (the main male hero) plays piano. Why must they all play piano?! What is so hot about that? Seriously? Stupid Edward. Also Jace is secretly tortured beneath his suave, capable, hero exterior. And also, he and his "family" live in secret amongst the unsuspecting humans. The writing is so much better than Twilight but that book has apparently embedded itself in my brain and it is ruining me. I didn't dislike Twilight as much as it maybe sounds, but I am damn sick of it by now.

The problem is, I actually really liked City of Bones. And I'm hoping I can bring myself to pick it up again in a bit. It was also a little intense for holiday beach reading, so maybe that was the other problem. Timing again.

So, after dropping the book I had intended to pick up and read, I went for the much lighter and more beach-suitable The Lost Duke of Wyndham by Julia Quinn. Hallelujah, I found the perfect beach read; and it was so good I kept it. I had sort of planned to purchase and then leave it for the resort library. But I will read this one again, and I'm very likely to pick up Quinn's other novels as well.

As might be expected, Lost Duke is a regency period romance. It's also incredibly solidly written, with hugely engaging characters, a believable-enough setting, humour, and some of my favourite plot points and characters. We have the dashing highwayman-turned-improbable-duke with various unsavoury and painful secrets; the highly intelligent, somewhat impoverished heroine in a rather untenable situation; and the attending tensions that go along with the strict social mores of the time period.

Jack Audley is our highwayman, who robs the grandmother he never knew (she is referred to as "the dowager" throughout the book; more on her in a moment), and finds himself increasingly and dangerously attracted to the woman who is his grandmother's lady companion, Grace Everleigh. Through a whole series of entertaining and somewhat shocking escapades, their relationship unfolds, as does Jack's relationship with his grandmother, his cousin (the duke he is deposing by his newfound existence) and the various people surrounding the Cavendish family.

The plot moves along at a good clip, the characters are fascinating, and they don't stay the same. One of the wonderful things about this romance is that one never wonders whether or not Grace and Jack can get along. They do, and the question is more whether or not they're going to be able to make it work in society. The only small problem I had with the book is that some of the tensions surrounding the social taboos and so forth seemed contrived -- but that was because I knew there was going to be a happy ending, and that the social taboos would either vanish or be broken without any serious repercussions. So that's not so much a problem with the writing as with the whole genre. That said, the dowager is one seriously nasty piece of work, and there is no question that she can make life hell for all concerned; and therein lies the major problem for Grace and Jack, not society at large.

The dowager embodies everything that was/is wrong with class societies with strict rules. She is completely awful. And she makes a brilliant "villain" for the book because she's not completely unsympathetic. She's a product of her time, breeding and station in life, and she is also a very lonely old woman who has lost everyone dear to her. In some ways, her loneliness is her own fault, but in other ways she has been dealt some fairly cruel blows by life too. She doesn't complain of them, either. Not the big ones. And that makes me just a little more sympathetic to her.

The characters in the book, as I mentioned above, are not static, nor are they inconsistent, both of which can be problems with romance novels. Each character behaves in a completely internally consistent way; any surprises are only surprises to us, not to the characters themselves. And the surprises were set up believably without being broadcast, which, as we have discovered in this blogging exercise of mine, is a pet peeve.

Of course, I knew there would be a happy ending. That doesn't have to be broadcast, it's a foregone conclusion even before I buy the book. The pleasure is more in seeing how the ending is brought off. Quinn doesn't fail here, either. The ending is suitably happy without being stupid, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Quinn has written a second book about this group of characters, this time from Thomas' (the deposed duke) perspective: Mr. Cavendish, I Presume. I'll be picking that one up when I am next near a bookstore that carries Quinn.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Just a quick housekeeping note before I get into the meat of things. I have removed all the title tags, because I was realizing (fifteen posts in) that if I kept that up, I'd have a really useless, unmanageable list of tags. Author's name, to me, is enough to point to a specific entry or entries, at least for now.

So. I finished The Colour of Magic today. I like these days off I have; I don't spend all of it doing things I should be doing, I suppose, but reading is a hugely important thing for me, and I wanted to finish that book. So I did. Incidentally, Pratchett is from England, and I am from Canada, so I am spelling "colour" that way. The edition I have my hands on spells it "color" because it's American. I might just mix the two up, but I prefer the "u" because that just looks right to me.

I am, of course, necessarily comparing this book to The Wee Free Men. I can't help myself. But though I didn't find The Colour of Magic as elegant, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. It's solid and entertaining between the occasional flashes of brilliance. I agree with a comment Nymeth made, that Colour is much more straight parody. A taste:

"I meant, well, I just meant that -- I dunno, I just can't think of the right words. I just think the world ought to be more sort of organized."

"That's just fantasy," said Twoflower.

"I know. That's the trouble," Rincewind sighed again. It was all very well going on about pure logic and how the universe was ruled by logic and the harmony of numbers, but the plan fact of the matter was that the Disc was manifestly traversing space on the back of a giant turtle and the gods had a habit of going around to athiests' houses and smashing their windows.

That just about sums it up.

This book reminded me strongly of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in irreverent tone and sense of humour. Like Adams, Pratchett lampoons everything and anything, including his own story. He clearly had an incredible amount of fun writing this tale and inventing the Discworld in general. Or letting it invent itself. The fact that the reader has just as much fun is a byproduct.

It is perhaps telling that one of my favourite characters in this book was the Luggage, and anytime it appeared I grinned. I always looked forward to its next appearance. As in The Wee Free Men, Pratchett never lets his inhuman characters get too human, but we like them anyways. Twoflower grew on me, but it did take a while. I felt much like Rincewind at first; a little annoyed, a little exasperated, and wondering how long it was going to take for Twoflower to get himself killed. But he grew on me, like he grew on Rincewind. Rincewind himself is a fantastic not-wizard caricature, a caricature capable of carrying his own story arc, which one doesn't see very often. It's actually probably not fair to call him a caricature, because he really does grow beyond that.

Interestingly, there are a few loose ends; what happens to the picture box? I don't know if this gets resolved, ever. One of the things I like is that Pratchett does tend to carry on stories of incidental characters rather further than most authors (for example, the fortune teller in Ankh-Morpork, who exists in the book for less than a paragraph; or the lengthman Terton, whose house is destroyed by the Luggage -- we know what happens to them). So I wonder if the picture box was an oversight. It really is very minor, although the picture box itself does play a rather important role in a number of ways.

And then we have the Discworld, which we spend a fair bit of time discovering in this book. This is a good thing, because I intend to spend a lot more time there. I've already ordered in The Light Fantastic and I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Turtle Valley by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

I have been wanting to read Turtle Valley for a while now. Since I knew it existed, anyway. Years ago, while still in high school, I read Anderson-Dargatz's The Cure for Death By Lightning and loved it. So I've been wanting to get my hands on other books by her, but it's been one of those things that has been in the back of my mind rather than actually on my to-read pile.

Anyway, I was able to grab Turtle Valley off the shelf for myself while picking something else up for a patron, because I felt like it was a good time to read it.

It's dark. It's very dark. It's suspenseful and foreboding. We start the book with a supernatural threat, the threat of fire, and the impending death of Katrine's father. Death constantly hangs over this novel like a haze. The fire threatening Turtle Valley seems like a rather heavy-handed metaphor, but Anderson-Dargatz doesn't beat us over the heads with it. It just adds to the atmosphere of oppression. There is a ghost story, a couple of love triangles, the aftermath of brain injury, and the inevitable unveiling of some really painful family secrets.

Now, those of you who know my reading tastes might suspect that I really didn't like this novel, especially given that when I was over halfway through I was 95% sure that a happy ending wasn't in the cards, and I do love my happy endings. Not so. I really enjoyed it. It was both beautiful and harsh, very like its setting. I loved the strength of the characters -- the strength with which they appear on the page (Anderson-Dargatz really loves each of them, you can tell) and the interior strength each of them has to keep going. I don't feel frustrated with them for making stupid decisions, because each character is flawed in a perfectly believable way -- they are flawed, but they aren't stupid.

What was really interesting about reading this book was that I read it on the heels of Range of Motion, and both contain the stories of women looking after a partner who has suffered a traumatic brain injury. Now, the main obvious difference is that Lainey does not have to deal with Jay being awake and changed, but instead he is completely unresponsive; Katrine deals with the aftermath of Ezra's stroke while he is awake and functioning, but dramatically changed from the man she married. And in Katrine's case, things are really not going well. Her relationship with Ezra is crumbling, partially because of the changes in him, but largely because Katrine finds the weight of being a caretaker saps her energy and ability to feel like anything but a caretaker. I have no idea what that role must be like, and I hope I never have to face the choices she faces.

Now, this book is labeled magic realism. I'm not sure I know exactly what it means, although I've used that label for a number of things I've read. The elements of the supernatural are woven throughout the story without seeming strange, and I guess that's what I would call magic realism -- the story isn't about the magic itself, it's just present. Really, when it comes down to it, this is a good old-fashioned ghost story, complete with horror and beauty and oppressive suspense. The suspense actually lead to me putting the book down for a couple of days about three chapters from the end, because I suspected that things were about to get extremely effed up. In essence, I was putting my hands over my ears during the campfire story. I am a chicken.

But in the end, it didn't get quite as effed up as I apparently hoped it would. This is maybe a statement on me, because I don't think it's necessarily a statement on Anderson-Dargatz's writing. The ending followed from everything that came before, and was definitely congruent. It's hard to say exactly what disappointed me without giving anything away. My problem with tragic endings wasn't the problem here. The ending wasn't particularly happy, or unhappy -- it just was, which is exactly as it should be. I think what happened is that I maybe built myself up for something different, bigger, scarier -- and that was a mistake, because the book itself wasn't necessarily doing that. I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has read this book, and what they thought of the ending.

Overall, I think parts of the book were masterful. The suspense in particular, and the characters, and the setting were all just fantastic. I don't know that it's as strong as I remember The Cure for Death by Lightning being, but that might be the passage of time elevating one over the other. The thing is, Anderson-Dargatz doesn't shy from portraying either cruelty or pain, of the common sort that humans regularly inflict upon one another. And while I am glad I read the book, I don't think I could convince myself to read it again.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Range of Motion by Elizabeth Berg

I was worried that I might find this book lessened, somehow, with the years. I haven't actually read it for a long time. Maybe since high school, maybe shortly after. I can't remember. Which turned out to be a good thing.

I was wrong to worry. I still love it, and it is still as luminous, joyous and sweet as I remember.

The story, nominally, follows Lainey (Elaine Berman) as she works her way through a life irrevocably changed by the fact that her husband is in a coma. She has two young daughters, and a best friend next door. Lainey's world revolves around her children, her husband and her neighbour, and we get to know them intimately through her eyes. And then there are the incidental characters, the nurses and the other patients, the other patients' families. Berg colours each of them in language so economical that it is incredible how very real they seem, even the least of them. And there is the setting -- Lainey's house being the location that takes on character-like qualities itself.

This is, first and foremost, a love story. And it's a story about ordinary people trying to make things happen and make life work. It is one of the most wonderful stories about human beings I have ever read.

I want to be Lainey. I am not as good as Lainey, or as optimistic, or as observant. She makes a brilliant, familiar, engaging narrator for us to enter her story. Lainey isn't perfect, but she is amazing. I love her voice and it amazes me how quickly her voice becomes mine, in my head. It's astonishing how quickly I can take Lainey in and make her a part of me. I do have a tendency to adopt a book's style of narration, or speech. With this book it takes a paragraph only for Lainey to be in my mind, speaking my thoughts to me. I don't mind at all. Here's a sample:

The woman I work with in the front, Dolly, is in love with him. She's full-time, she's worked with Frank for twenty-three years, and I don't think that he knows how she feels. He's married, happily; Dolly's shy and careful. She wears, with no sense of irony, pearl-decorated glasses chains and cardigan sweaters buttoned at the top. She's so happy when Frank's on the phone and can't get his own coffee. She carries it in to him as though it's her heart on a silver platter, which of course it is.


Lainey then has an extended fantasy about what her own life would be as a truck driver, brought on by reminiscing about how she likes paying the trucking invoices. The whole book is like this; simple and gentle, with Lainey as our filter for experiencing the world. She is kind and optimistic, and she notices everything. These are wonderful things in a first-person narrator.

There are a few instances where the book slips from sweet to saccharine and then further to cliché, but these are relatively few and far between. It is the kind of book set in a world and populated by people that the reader feels are probably too good to be true, but she can hope. And some of it is so honest and familiar that the reader knows that the pieces that matter are real.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

never drink orange juice after brushing your teeth

I think one has to be a bit careful about the order in which books are read. There are two components to this. The first is timing; timing is important. I think I loved The Frozen Thames so much partially because it is an ice book, and it is an icy time of year. The other is order in which books are read; like toothpaste and orange juice, some just don't go properly one after the other, when they might be perfectly fine on their own.

I started to read Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen right after finishing The Wee Free Men. It's a book about gardens and magic, and I badly want to like it, and it just fell really flat. Painfully, disappointingly so. I started reading it, and thought, "I have to stop. I don't want to dislike this book." It had two counts against it: winter is a rotten time for reading books about wonderful gardens (because I can't quite remember what a garden feels like when there's two feet of snow on the ground); and Terry Pratchett is so brilliant and incisive and careful with his words. Reading Addison Allen immediately after Pratchett didn't show Addison Allen in the best light.

It's not that I thought it was bad. It just didn't quite grab my attention in the way I had hoped, and I don't blame the author. I think it was just bad planning on my part.

Instead of Garden Spells, I moved on to an old favourite: Elizabeth Berg's Range of Motion. This is a comfort book for me, and I was needing some comfort after having to put down a book I was really looking forward to. Review is coming up.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Oda a las cosas by Pablo Neruda

As I mentioned earlier, I've decided I need to read more poetry. I like poetry, or I think I do. Some of my best writing has been poetry, or at least I think so. I was starting to wonder if I like the thought of reading and writing poetry more than the actual stuff itself.

We actually own a fair bit of poetry for a pair of people who don't really read it. So I have lots of material to choose from. I chose to start with a volume of poetry by Pablo Neruda, a translation done by Ken Krabbenhoft that brings together many of Neruda's odes, called Odes to Common Things. I have loved Neruda's poetry, and the idea of Pablo Neruda, for years and years. Both of us have. My brother read Neruda, in both Spanish and English, for us at my wedding.

Of course, I am immediately confronted by a difficult situation. I know rather more Spanish than I think I do, but not enough to read through a poem in its entirety and understand it. Poetry seems to require a deeper understanding of the language it is written in than a lot of prose (this, of course, is not universally true, but with Neruda I think it is). When I am reading a poem in Spanish, I have to whisper along to get a feel for the sounds and the tempo, and my lack of skill at the language makes this difficult. It's a challenge I enjoy, but I wonder what I am missing.

When poetry is translated, what are we translating? Words, sentiments, feelings? I am not at all an English major, and I have very little experience with literary criticism or thoughtful interpretation. I know what I like, though sometimes not why I like it. I know how my favourite poems make me feel, and what they make me see (or hear, or smell). I know when words seem, somehow, to fit together so perfectly that they launch themselves off the page and into my brain. I have tried not to let my ignorance of the mechanics of poetry limit my enjoyment of it, and mostly it doesn't. I am not easily intimidated by cultural critics. Also, it's possible I might be a wee bit guilty of that superstitious fear of knowledge: "if I dissect it, I no longer love it."

Anyway, that is all the long way to saying that I have no idea what goes into poetry translation, what makes it work, which poem in which language is the "real" one, and who, then, is the poet? I know that of the three poems I have read through thus far in Odes to Common Things, only one of the English translations works for me, and the other two seem to change the meat of the Spanish poem to an extent that ruins the English translation for me. In a couple of them the translator was playing not only with meaning, but also with punctuation in a way that makes no sense to me. Maybe I am just horribly naive, but my thought is that in poetry, punctuation is sacred. The poet puts commas instead of periods, and colons instead of commas, for a reason. That way when there is a period in a certain place, it has a certain level of impact...

I think of the three of them, "Oda a las cosas" ("Ode to things") comes by far closest, and it is also my favourite of the three. It is Neruda's love-letter to the artifacts of human activity.

Even then, having read both versions several times (the book includes them side-by-side), I think I am able to understand the Spanish version well enough that the following lines evoke in me a complete understanding of what Neruda was getting at. I read them and have a visceral, physical reaction to the flash of insight I get.

Amo
todas
las cosas,
no porque sean
ardientes
o fragrantes,
sino porque
no sé,
porque
este océano es el tuyo,
es el mío;


Those lines in particular work in Spanish when they seem almost haphazard and amateur in English. Those lines are the feeling I get when I walk into a room full of antique bottles, bells, metal signs, ancient typewriters -- I can see the sunlight and dust and I know exactly how that feels.