HoCoPoLitSo and Wilde Lake Community Association present Of Stars and Hurricanes: Two Columbia Novelists Return. Former Columbia residents Carrie Brown and John Gregory Brown will read from their work at a celebration of literature’s history in this planned city. HoCoPoLitSo will also honor two of Columbia’s own forces of nature, Padraic and Ellen Kennedy, for their work creating a literary life in Howard County during this special event on June 4, 2017. A reception will follow.
Of Stars and Hurricanes will be held on June 4, 2017, beginning at 4 p.m.at Slayton House Theatre, 10400 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia, MD 21044. Admission tickets are $20 each available on-line at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2725249 or by sending a self-addressed envelope and check payable to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044.
Ellen Conroy Kennedy, a National Book Award finalist and the founder and director emeritus of HoCoPoLitSo, and Padraic Kennedy, the “unofficial mayor” of Columbia for 25 years, as the Columbia Association president from 1972 to1997, are long term Wilde Lake residents. Their support for the literary arts as Columbia developed through the years will be honored during this special celebration.
The Browns met while working for the Columbia Flier, married at Oakland Manor and lived in Wilde Lake for more than ten years. Both Browns live in Virginia and teach at Sweet Briar College. John, the author of four novels, has honors including a Lyndhurst Prize, the Lillian Smith Award, the John Steinbeck Award, and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year Award. Carrie, the author of seven novels, has received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award, and, twice, the Library of Virginia Award.
Carrie Brown’s most recent novel is The Stargazer’s Sister, historical fiction about the nineteenth-century astronomer Caroline Herschel, sister of the more famous astronomer William Herschel. The Washington Post listed The Stargazer’s Sister as one of the best 50 books of 2016. Carolyn Leavitt of the Boston Globe noted, “Brown’s writing is as luminous as the skies her characters contemplate.”
John Gregory Brown’s newest novel, A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, follows the path of a Hurricane Katrina survivor seeking redemption. The New York Times Book Review noted it was “ … a deeply humane look at the vulnerability of black lives, the changing contours of the New South and the restorative potential of literature in the aftermath of catastrophe.”
For more than 40 years, HoCoPoLitSo has nurtured a love and respect for the diversity of contemporary literary arts in Howard County. The society sponsors literary readings and writers-in-residence outreach programs, produces The Writing Life (a writer-to-writer talk show), and collaborates with other cultural arts organizations to support the arts in Howard County, Maryland. For more information, visit www.hocopolitso.org.
HoCoPoLitSo receives funding from the Maryland State Arts Council, an agency funded by the state of Maryland and the National Endowment for the Arts; Howard County Arts Council through a grant from Howard County government; The Columbia Film Society; Community Foundation of Howard County; the Jim and Patty Rouse Charitable Foundation; and individual contributors.
Posted by Laura Yoo
This Christmas season, give the gift of reading! Here’s my shopping list for the grownups and the little people on my list.
The links will take you to Amazon. Don’t forget to shop Amazon Smile and choose Howard County Poetry and Literary Society for your charity!
For the Little People
The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak $10.99 – This one is my kids’ absolute favorite. They think it’s so hilarious and love making the parents read it – but they also enjoy reading it themselves to say the funny words, especially “butt”.
Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz $12.80 – This one is actually one of my favorites. I love retelling of fairy tales and I love this little ninja girl version of Red Riding Hood.
Encyclopedia Brown set of 4 books – $12.19 – I loved reading these books when I was a kid – time to get the next generation hooked!
Curious George Around Town – $8.29 – Curious George is probably my favorite series in little, little people books.
For the Grownups
The Vegetarian by Han Kang $8.92
“Celebrated by critics around the world, The Vegetarian is a darkly allegorical, Kafka-esque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her.” – Amazon
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead $16.17
“The National Book Award Winner and #1 New York Times bestseller from Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South” – Amazon
Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon (translated by Jung Yewon) $10.13 –
“A tragicomic odyssey told through free association scrubs the depths of the human psyche to achieve a higher level of consciousness equal to Zen meditation. The story opens when our sleepless narrator thwarts a would-be thief outside his moonlit window, then delves into his subconscious imagination to explore a variety of geographical and mental locations—real, unreal, surreal—to explore the very nature of reality.”- Amazon
“A true essay is ‘something hazarded, not definitive, not authoritative; something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience and subjectivity,’ writes guest editor Jonathan Franzen in his introduction. However, his main criterion for selecting The Best American Essays 2016 was, in a word, risk.”- Amazon
“This graphic adaptation by Jackson’s grandson Miles Hyman allows readers to experience “The Lottery” as never before, or to discover it anew. He has crafted an eerie vision of the hamlet where the tale unfolds and the unforgettable ritual its inhabitants set into motion. Hyman’s full-color, meticulously detailed panels create a noirish atmosphere that adds a new dimension of dread to the original story.” – Amazon
Happy gifting! And don’t forget to select Howard County Poetry and Literary Society on Amazon Smile!
HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for its annual Irish Evening on February 10, 2017 is the award-winning writer and playwright Belinda McKeon. McKeon’s reading will be followed by Narrowbacks Eileen Korn Estes, Jesse Winch, Terence Winch, Linda Hickman, and Michael Winch in a concert of traditional Irish music, with stepdancers from the Culkin School. The Narrowbacks will be performing music from their newly released This Day Too: Music from Irish America with Terence Winch, Michael Winch, & Jesse Winch. This is the first album featuring new material from Terence Winch-composer of many of the original Celtic Thunder’s best-known songs- in almost ten years. Irish beverages and snacks will be available.
Belinda McKeon’s debut novel, Solace, won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted Irish Book of the Year, as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Her second novel, Tender, was shortlisted for the Eason Book Club Novel of the Year at the 2015 Irish Book Awards. The Irish Book Awards website noted “Brave, moving and powerfully told, Tender confirms Belinda McKeon’s status as one of the most exciting contemporary voices in Irish fiction.” About her second novel, Kirkus (starred review) said “Exquisite…Captures something essential about vulnerability, love and longing.” A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance, edited by McKeon, was published in 2015. Her essays and journalism have appeared in the Irish Times, the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Guardian, A Public Space and elsewhere. As a playwright, she has had work produced in Dublin and New York. Fiona Wilson, The Times (U.K.), noted “McKeon is a superb and sophisticated writer, who captures the barely articulable feelings between young people on the brink of adulthood.”
McKeon joins a long list of luminary Irish authors HoCoPoLitSo has brought to Howard County audiences, including Frank McCourt, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Colum McCann, and Emma Donoghue. For 39 years, HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening has celebrated the substantial impact of Irish-born writers on the world of contemporary literature.
The evening begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College. General admission tickets are $35 each; available on-line at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2716229 or by sending a check and self-addressed envelope to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044. Each ticket purchased by January 15th includes a complimentary adult drink.
HoCoPoLitSo works to cultivate appreciation for contemporary poetry and literature and celebrate culturally diverse literary heritages. The society sponsors literary readings and writers-in-residence outreach programs, produces The Writing Life (a thirty-minute writer-to-writer talk show), and partners with the public schools and cultural organizations to support the arts in Howard County, Maryland. For more information, visit www.hocopolitso.org.
Recently, I reached for something hopeful to read. I wanted to get out of the funky funk current affairs has had me in. I wanted a bigger picture, something that might observe, teach, and inspire. Basically, a tonic for these blues I have been dwelling in. I reached for Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us.
Open your imagination to how we began – as semi-upright apes which spent some of their time in trees; next as ragtag bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers; then as purposeful custodians of favorite grains, chosen with mind-bending slowness, over thousands of years; and in time as intrepid farmers and clearers of forests with fixed roofs over our heads and a more reliable food supply; afterward as builders of villages and towns dwarfed by furrowed, well-tilled farmlands; then as makers, fed by such inventions as the steam engine (a lavish power source unlike horses, oxen, or water power, and not subject to health or weather, not limited by location); later as industry’s operators, drudges and tycoons who moved closer to the factories that arose in honey-combed cities beside endless fields of staple crops (like corn, wheat, and rice) and giant herds of key species (mainly cows, sheep, or pigs); and finally as builders of big buzzing metropolises, ringed by suburbs on whose fringes lay shrinking farms and forests; and then, as if magnetized by a fierce urge to coalesce, fleeing en mass into these mountainous hope-scented cities.
That’s about as big picture as you can get, the 150 thousand or so years of Homo sapiens developing like a Polaroid right in front of your eyes. It is the kind of scope that shares what a grand thing life is and what we on the now end of existence should consider as we take on the seemingly insurmountable troubles of our own day. The tribe can survive, adapt, invent.
The book doesn’t pose a pretty picture — our current environmental concerns weigh heavy within it. But it doesn’t look at just the real, rough edges of how we live on Earth and how we treat our home. It also looks at ways we are currently taking on our challenges through imagination, ingenuity, persistence, care, action, and number – the world’s problems are not to be taken on individually, though that is often where engagement starts, but with a growing collective effort and resource. Some lead by expertise and example, others take it from there. In that light, it is inspiring. One reads as an individual, but as the pages turn, one realizes that they describe the efforts of your kin and kind hard at work to do the right thing and mind this wonderful home for all of us, making better today so that our story will carry on into the future.
Ackerman’s sentences are beautiful, full of words that touch up to each other perfectly as they flow into informative paragraphs and chapter-length essays. She has a wonderful sense of observation and detail. The way she names species specifically like the pearls they are, or identifies the detail of cultures or individuals she is describing are testament to her expertise on what she is writing about. It deepens one’s understanding of the world. It is clear and full of insight, compassion, and, yes, hope. I don’t know if it was an odd choice or not to reach for on a whim, but I am loving it and it is mending me.
Board Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo
It was my first time. I was nervous. I was excited. I felt better that a friend was going to be there with me the whole time, a friend who had done it before.
My first Dodge Poetry Festival.
I had two goals and I had 24 hours (if I didn’t sleep) to achieve them. First, hear Claudia Rankine, my new literary hero whose formidable poetic and intellectual power show us what a real-life super hero looks like. Move over, Captain America! Second, discover one new poet – someone I’ve never read or heard
The first event I attended was called “American Poetries” with Brenda Hillman, Khaled Mattawa, Claudia Rankine, and Anne Waldman – all Chancellors of Academy of American Poets. While I would have loved to hear these poets read from their own impressive repertoire of works, it was also wonderful to hear the poems they’re reading and who they recommend for us to discover.
Khaled Mattawa read a poem by Hayan Charara called “Animals,” a haunting story about the violence we commit against each other. The poem, Mattawa reminded us, exposes the horrors that we’re not allowed to speak of. I immediately ordered a copy of Charara’s book, Something Sinister.
Claudia Rankine told us about a poet named Mark Nowak and his book, Shut Up Shut Down. In referring to Nowak, Rankine brought to the foreground a voice that is sometimes ignored in our discussions about race – the working white class. This voice is essential to Rankine’s new project of studying whiteness.
Much of this forum’s discussion on “America’s Poetries” highlighted the diversity of voices, experiences, and perspectives. The takeaway for me was that poets feel a deep sense of responsibility in their roles not only as artists but also as people who speak for, about, and on behalf of American lives. Their poetry gives us language with which we can speak of our world in ways that are creative and enlightening.
That evening, I experienced one of the most special poetry performances I’ve ever attended at “Poetry like Bread – Poems of Social and Political Consciousness.” The lineup included Marilyn Chin, Robert Hass, Martín Espada, Juan Felipe Herrera, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Rankine, Vijay Seshadri, and Gary Snyder. I know, right? Yes, let that list sink in.
I rediscovered Robert Hass. Though I had read his works and studied them in school, experiencing his poetry live on stage sparked a new interest. His reading of what can only be called an epic poem titled “Dancing” – about human history of violence and weapons – brought people to a standing ovation.
That same evening, I discovered Marilyn Chin. I don’t know many poets who look like me – an Asian American woman. And there is something powerful about seeing someone who looks like you speaking of an experience, a perspective, a history, a family, or a value that you are personally familiar with. She is a cool performer with a bit of an attitude and spunk. I like that.
So within hours of arriving at the festival, I met both of my goals.
But it’s not just the poets and the poetry that made this overnight trip to Newark deeply moving. Conversations with my friend about language, education, art, race, politics – those conversations had me doing mental gymnastics. My ideas were both validated and challenged. My mind stretched.
I learned that the community of poets and poetry is a thing of beauty and power. Dodge got me hooked. I can’t wait to go back in two years.
When poetry lovers attended a Carolyn Forché reading Oct. 30, they probably expected gorgeous wordplay. But beyond the language, the world’s troubles — even those we didn’t know about — were laid bare.
Should we expect any less from the writer who coined the phrase “poetry of witness”?
At HoCoPoLitSo’s most recent event in the annual fall Lucille Clifton Reading Series, Forché gave HoCoPoLitSo audiences an exclusive — a reading from her yet-unpublished manuscript, In the Lateness of the World.
The whole world crept into the theater on the coattails of her words: the refugees fleeing Syria in flimsy rubber boats and her grandmother’s crossing of the Atlantic to reach Ellis Island, the siege of Sarajevo and the resistance of the Russian poet Pushkin.
Despite being thick into recovery from pneumonia, Forché delivered a forceful reading of her work, and answered questions for half an hour after the reading with the audience about how she helps translate poetry from Vietnamese, Bulgarian and Arabic, the tradition of oral poetry and human rights around the world. Even in the questions from the audience, in which one poetry lover talked about the thousands of annual deaths along the Rio Grande, the world’s woes were evident.
Author of two collections of poetry of witness, including the seminal Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993) and the more recent Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500 to 2001 (2014), Forché has always been both a human rights advocate and a poet.
During the afternoon’s taping of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, a thirty-minute writer-to-writer talk show hosted by Grace Cavalieri (also the host of the Library of Congress’ The Poet and the Poem: https://www.loc.gov/poetry/media/poetpoem.html), Forché talked about her beginnings, and about “my poet’s responsibility.”
She talked with Cavalieri about winning a Guggenheim, meeting someone in California who talked with her about El Salvador, and about voyaging to Central America to find out what was happening. Turns out, it was death squads, the military dictatorship’s brutality and an impending revolution. She began writing to Amnesty International, and putting poems on paper. Those experiences gave rise to her book The Country between Us (1981), which became that rarest of birds, a poetry bestseller.
At the tail end of the question session after her reading, a student asked, “What would you tell young poets of witness?”
“Stay open, stay awake,” Forché said, and don’t think you have to travel the world to find trouble. There’s plenty here at home. “Enlarge your capacity for empathy.”
“Poetry,” she told Cavalieri during The Writing Life taping, is “the natural prayer of the human soul,” and can work to heal the world.
— Susan Thornton Hobby,
On October 30th at 4 pm, HoCoPoLitSo hosts Carolyn Forche for the Annual Lucille Clifton Reading.
Here is a reflection by Sama Bellomo who is a rehabilitation technologist who writes accessible curricula to help individuals with disabilities gain employable skills on their way into the workforce. Sama has previously contributed to this blog with a letter to HoCoPoLitSo after attending the 2014 Lucille Clifton Reading event with Michael Glaser.
When it is not possible to stop the suffering of others the decent thing to do is listen and bear witness. When we validate someone by hearing and retelling their story we help them carry the heaviest bricks of the human condition to a new space where their suffering can be built into something meaningful.
By devoting years of her life to the protection of human dignity in war-torn places Carolyn Forché gives people’s pain a way to connect, to rest. First she collects the writings of devastated people. She listens, empathizes, and surely cries. Next, she connects the works with those of others who endure similar horrors, breaking their isolation by organizing and cataloguing their grief. Perhaps she reunites neighbours, lovers, or siblings among the pages. Maybe the loneliest are finally in good company. Wars ruin lives – but poets like Forche give that tremendous sense of loss a new purpose, a community, a voice.
I’ve been revisiting my studies of Carolyn Forché, whose book, “Against Forgetting,” has a permanent spot in my living room. I keep it in plain sight so that it’s a ready tool when I need to share an example of ordinary people who do extraordinary things on the worst and last days of their lives. The book is so thick and yet it was pared down from thousands of poems for whose inclusion Forché fought individually. Forché wrote an introduction to every single author, giving their poetry context, finding what the poem needed to say and clearing space for it in the reader’s mind. I flip through it to remind myself to keep ownership of my responsibility to improve the human condition where I can. I use the dog-eared pages to empower budding self-advocates. I harvest the hope and earnestness that Forché writes into each author’s leading biography to play my part in suicide prevention, which I spend a great deal of time doing, with no regrets, and with great thanks to http://www.IMAlive.org for training me to do without fear.
I gratefully tip my hat to Professor Jean Sonntag at Howard Community College who had a profound impact on the way I view myself and the world around me, through the lens of others’ written voices. She supported my investigation into the Japanese Internment further by giving me an Incomplete grade at the end of the semester which gave me time to catch up on the coursework I’d set aside. She was teaching me that I could and should make time to grow as a decent human being when there was something I really needed to understand. Because she taught me that making time was possible I got my first good look at how delicate we are, at how quickly we will treat each other poorly if we are not careful. The work I did to assimilate E.O. 9066 into my prior knowledge of “Great Man History” changed my sense of what it means to be proud of American History. But even then, the most gruesome inhumanities had yet to hit me because there are so few first-hand accounts and even fewer images from the Japanese Internment Camps. First-hand accounts have a unique way of haunting a reader’s conscience about what cruel acts people can commit against each other in deeply evil times, when just yesterday they had been neighbours.
Also at Howard Community College, Professor Lee Hartman first introduced me to Carolyn Forché. In a Creative Writing class Professor Hartman played a video where Forché spoke with HoCoPoLitSo. Forché told me in that recording what it was going to take for me to become a force to ease human suffering: I would have to listen, and it was going to hurt.
Of course I’d known what the Holocaust was, and of course I was sorry about it – for as sorry as a then-twenty-something could be about what public high school had said about it. Forché told me through her talk that I knew too little and could not be sorry if I did not truly know how the Holocaust had undone an entire people.
Fanni Radnoti published “The Borscht Notebook,” a posthumous final volume of her late husband, the Hungarian poet and writer Miklos Radnoti. To get the book she had sifted through a mass grave, through more than twenty bodies’ worth of human remains. Hoping and dreading that one of those bodies belonged to her beloved, whom she had not seen in more than two years since they had been separated by the Nazis, she found him. The book was in his pocket. Forché dutifully told these details to my Creative Writing class through her video recording session with HoCoPoLitSo and I was no longer just sorry. Sorry was no longer enough, and it never will be again.
My two neighbours at the time had been Holocaust survivors from Poland, who had been devoting their lives to recovering artifacts and human remains for proper burial, remains that had been turned into decorations such as tattooed skin lampshades and shrunken, sand-packed heads. After I saw Forché speak in that video I knocked on my neighbours’ door and asked them humbly about their experiences. They spent the next six hours showing me what they had recovered, articles and letters they had written, denials they had gotten from museums and private collections for items that had no hallowed ground.
It puts a strain on their marriage. They lose sleep. Their basement is a fully devoted workshop of recovery. They write home. They live modestly. They carry themselves happily despite the torture that continues in their histories, in their daily life. I was able to provide some technical support, a modest kindness to help their heroic efforts. We have lost touch but not a day passes that they are not in my heart, a part of who I am now, determined to help with activism, closure, and rehabilitation, using any skills I have.
As a member of the LGBTQ. community I am still trying to assimilate the confusing and overwhelming truth that I myself would not have survived the Holocaust, nor would much of my community, had I lived in Eastern Europe, where part of my family is from the former Yugoslavia. Forché’s works brought up the question in me: what do I have yet to learn about LGBTQ history, what should I be against forgetting? I have grown to raise awareness of genocide and to resist cultural eliminativism, be the acts overt or covert.
Knowing better leaves no excuse for not doing better, and then-twenty-something me was learning that in my college years. Somewhere in the world starvation, murder, and torture have happened today. They happened yesterday. They have happened since time immemorial. They have never happened to me, and they likely never will. That means I am in a position to do something about it. Knowing better leaves no excuse for not doing better: what can I do for my part to move the world forward?
Forché is featured in “Voices in Wartime,” another anthology volume that portrays exactly what one would imagine it does. A video documentary bearing the same title accompanies the book on my shelf and bears witness to the fact that Forché is not alone in her work. There are others concerned with trying to put words on the unspeakable, to educate, an appeal for peace, a chorus of humanitarian voices.
Regretfully, I’ve read comparatively little of Forché’s own poetry. Am I worried about what else she is going to teach me? Am I afraid my own conscience will become too heavy a boulder, that I won’t have the strength or won’t summon the will, to push it up the mountain? Am I afraid she will have a lighter side, and I’ll then have to find my own ways to lighten up?
Forché is so big a force in my life that it is not possible to count all the places in which her efforts have propped me up when I have stood up for myself or others, and my legs wobbled. Lest we forget, Carolyn Forché chronicles what we need to know about human suffering if we truly wish to end it.
To reserve your ticket for the Lucille Clifton Reading to hear Carolyn Forche and her Poetry of Witness at Monteabaro Hall at Howard Community College, please visit: http://brownpapertickets.com/event/2568971
This is a story of a prodigal daughter.
At the beginning of the summer, I made big plans. A long list of books I wanted to read. Big goals. Ambitious. I would read, read, and read some more. I had books to read. And I had the time to read them.
Instead, all through July and August, I watched TV. A lot of it. Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, Master Chef, and endless episodes of Chopped. And all these hours that were committed to watching means I haven’t been reading. There is the still-not-finished Fates and Furies on my night stand. I’m about 50 pages into Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman. Though Pride and Prejudice and Zombies intrigued me at the bookstore, I haven’t even opened it yet. Though I made good progress on Claudia Rankin’s Citizen: An American Lyric, it is not finished. (Though, you might argue, one simply does not plow through a work like Citizen.)
This summer, the room we call the “reading room” in my house was used to get away from the children to watch stuff on Netflix on my tablet with earphones shoved into my ears.
I am ashamed. Fail. Major fail.
So, clearly, I needed help.
And help came on September 13th in the form of a very wild Wilde Reading. Organized by Laura Shovan, Ann Bracken, and LindaJoy Burke, Wilde Readings launched its first open mic night with featured readers Jen Grow and Le Hinton. An audience of about 30 gathered in one of the art studio spaces at the Columbia Art Center, the same space where my son had art summer camp. It was comfortable, friendly, and intimate.
As Laura told us, though there are many wonderful literary organizations, publications, and events in Howard County, a place for writers to come together and share freely and informally had been lacking for many years. And Wilde Reading’s inaugural event demonstrated the very reason such gatherings are needed: it created a collage of unique, diverse literary voices. Each time a reader went up to the podium, you just didn’t know what you were gonna get.
Jen Grow’s short story about a daughter and her dying mother just about killed me. Before she read, Jen promised to go for the jugular – her words – and she didn’t miss. I was relieved and astonished at the same time when Jen ended by reassuring us that her mother is still living, that the story is indeed fictional. I thought, how can one create a story like that – so moving, so real, and so visceral – without actually having lived it? Even if one had experienced it, telling it in such a powerful way would be a difficult task. I suppose that’s why poets are artists, creators.
Le Hinton’s reading was enhanced by a tactile experience he created for the audience. He passed around cotton blooms for us to feel between our fingers while he read his poems on the motif of cotton. When he read an autobiographical poem about doing math lessons with his father, he passed around Tootsie Rolls for us to enjoy. The taste of chocolate in our mouths transported us to that room with that little boy, his father, math lessons, and Tootsie Rolls for reward.
The open mic readers included Jan Bowman and Michael Ratcliffe, two writers who will be featured in future Wilde Reading events. The open mic evening ended with a powerful performance by Analysis the Poet.
While the voices of the evening were divergent and their subject matter so varied, together these writer-performers created a one-of-kind literary sound. And that sound, that experience can never be recreated again. I feel lucky to have been there to witness it.
This Wilde Reading invited me back to the written word. It pushed me around a bit – from one emotion to another and yet another – and left me wanting more. And more I shall get – on October 4th with Jan Bowman and Derrick Weston Brown as featured readers at the second Wilde Reading.
Inspired by this Wilde Reading, I did something different today. During my son’s 45-minute swim practice, instead of browsing my Facebook page or taking quizzes on Buzzfeed, I opened a book: Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist. And I’m in love with the written word again.
Thank you, Wilde, for welcoming back this prodigal daughter.
During my last visit to Antique Depot in Old Ellicott City (if you’ve been reading this blog, you know I LOVE this place), I picked up several paperback copies of Agatha Christie’s mysteries.
My memories of reading Agatha Christie are also memories of growing up. On my parents’ bookshelves, I found Korean novels, histories, and poetry. But also there were the classics like Dostoevsky and Don Quixote as well as detective novels by Agatha Christie and thrillers by Sidney Sheldon. All in Korean. In middle school, I read my first Christie, And Then There Were None, in Korean.
So it was with a bit of nostalgia that I began reading The Secret of Chimneys, one of my finds at Antique Depot. Right away I noticed in her writing something dramatically different from the mystery novels of today. Novels like Girl on the Train and Gone Girl which were wildly popular recently (and made into movies) have character development (some better than others) and complicated plot twists, a mix of whodunit and exploration of various themes. Compared to these, Christie’s mystery seemed rather… plain. Instead of sex, drugs, infidelity, violence, and blood, we find witty dialogue and a slow building of a puzzle.
This re-introduction to Christie made me want to learn more about the mystery genre, so I turned to my friend Jean Sonntag with some questions. Jean is an adjunct instructor of English at Howard Community College as well as a mystery enthusiast. Here’s what she had to say about Christie and the development of the mystery genre.
Laura: How would you describe Christie’s kind of mystery-telling and our contemporary mystery-telling?
Jean: There is a huge difference. The key thing is the emphasis in Christie on solving a puzzle to the subordination of characterization, psychological analysis, or any larger themes. Christie was part of a group called The Detection Club who had a quite elaborate set of rules for writers of detective stories in the 30’s. In short, everything should be there so the reader could solve the puzzle. Writers, of course, violated these rules at times. The tradition of ratiocination (Poe’s word) and very often an eccentric detective were part of the development of this 30’s Golden Age and Christie fits this tradition, particularly with Hercule Poirot.
Today’s detective story leaves room for more in-depth characterization and is minus the formulaic considerations of the detective stories of Christie’s era. Thus, someone like Elizabeth George’s Inspector Thomas Lynley and P.D. James’ Adam Dalgleish have a history that unfolds throughout the works while they are solving crimes committed by complex characters in complex situations. The modern detective story tends to be longer, more in depth, with more sophisticated style in many cases. And some have themes; P.D. James has pointed out that she sets out to write a detective story as any one would a novel, where the plot is a natural outgrowth of plot and setting.
Laura: Beyond the experience of thrill or curiosity, what do you think draws people to mysteries like Christie’s?
Jean: Reading Christie is a thinking (not feeling) exercise. Her works are not exceptionally long and her style is relatively simple, with pretty good dialogue. Those attracted to puzzle solving or who are reading strictly for entertainment love her. All of us have times we’d like to read like that – consider that layover in an airport or the need for pure escape. Interestingly enough, many of my friends who are Christie fans cut their teeth on her as middle or high schoolers. I came to Christie late, so the meatier mystery appeals more to me unless I need that strictly lighter entertainment option.
In addition, Christie and the other Golden Age writers got their start between the two world wars. I think this really supported their popularity as it was a time when readers badly needed stories where everything was tied up neatly at the end. Even today, one school of thought says we read mysteries because we like to have that sense of closure. More modern detective or crime novels sometimes leave us with more modern senses of ambiguity or disquiet, but I still think the solving of the crime still meets that need today.
Laura: What are your thoughts on Agatha Christie? How would you describe her influence in the mystery genre?
Jean: Although Christie is part of that rational puzzle approach to the mystery, she has had incredible success for a variety of reasons. One is the sheer number of works she produced – over 80 detective (or thriller) novels, and over 90 novels total over a 50-year career. The second is the fact that she escapes a bit of the label of formula fiction because of the variety of her detectives, the ingeniousness of her puzzles and the variety in settings. The relative simplicity of her style also made it easier to translate her works into other languages. At one point, she was second to the Bible in the number of languages in which her books have appeared.
Laura: Is there a writer writing now (or recently) that you’d compare to Christie?
Jean: Someone more expert than I might have a candidate for this comparison. I don’t think there is anyone who compares because the nature of the detective story has changed so much, and because I doubt anyone will come close to her huge output.
I do see influences, however. One is what we now call the “cozy mystery” – a set of writers who minimize the goriness of the crime and focus more heavily on solving the mystery but also provide more character development. Someone once said that in Agatha Christie, the representation of the crime itself is nothing more than a bloodstain left on the floor, so the cozies are in this tradition.
The other influence is the tradition brought to perfection in Miss Marple, a detective whom no one suspects of being involved and therefore one who can pick up clues where others couldn’t. This sort of detective, always an amateur, is also usually a feature of the cozy mystery. One of my favorites that fits this bill is Alan Bradley’s series (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first one) with a precocious child detective Flavia de Luce. No one suspects her as she solves crimes.
Jean calls herself an enthusiast rather than an expert, but certainly I learned a great deal from this crash course in mystery. I think my reading of Christie and other detective novels, crime novels, mysteries, and thrillers will be a bit richer for it. Jean is hoping to teach a continuing education course on the topic sometime in the near future, and I bet the mystery enthusiasts of Howard County will thoroughly enjoy it.
Books aren’t for just reading. They’re for taking off the shelf, stacking, rearranging, and creating. (Click on the photo for a clearer and prettier view.)
back when we were grown ups
we stood on such a full sea
to count the waves
blessing the boats
and we journeyed to the center of the universe
to find a room of one’s own
under the tuscan sun
or where the sidewalk ends
under the unbearable lightness of being
things fall apart
for everything that rises must converge
but the spirit catches you and you fall down
with your crooked little heart
the things they carried
under the warmth of other suns:
the secret history
of fates and furies –
and so now you know when the men are gone
Now, your turn.