Last Stanza: Poetry and Prose | What We’re Reading

It’s the last Monday of National Poetry Month, and LJ/School Library Journal staffers have more poems to share—and some cracking-good prose too.

Going ClearIan Chant, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
I just finished Lawrence Wright’s excellent Going Clear (Random). Born out of a New Yorker profile of director and former scientologist Paul Haggis, Wright offers an amazingly thorough and compelling history of the notoriously private Church of Scientology and its founder, sf author–turned–prophet L. Ron Hubbard. Crafted from church documents, transcripts from court cases, and hundreds of hours of interviews with current and former church members, Going Clear traces the church’s origins from self-help seminars following the publication of Dianetics to its turbulent formative years when Hubbard and his adherents took to the sea to the organization’s complex relationship with Hollywood today. The result is a gripping portrait of how a new religion takes shape and what it takes to sustain a young faith, all while asking the bigger question of just what makes a religion and plumbing the nature of faith.

Be My BabyMahnaz Dar, Associate Editor, Reviews, SLJ
This week, I’m reading up on my idols. I just finished rereading Sixties girl group singer Ronnie Spector’s biography, Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness (Onyx). The Wall of Sound chanteuse relates countless creepy examples of just how insane her life was with her producer, Phil Spector, whom she later married—from Phil exploding with rage at Ronnie when she stepped out of the studio to pick up takeout for Sonny Bono (then a gofer for Phil) to Ronnie stumbling across Phil’s postmortem photographs of his friend comedian Lenny Bruce.
I’m also reading Eric Lax’s On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy (Charterhouse). I just learned an interesting tidbit about one of Allen’s best comedy bits:

“I don’t know if you can see this, but it’s a very handsome watch….My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold me this watch.” If the audience believed for a moment that he really did have to check the time, they know now they’ve been had. What they don’t know is that the line gives him a chance to see how he really is doing against time. He is supposed to do forty-eight minutes; that joke should come at about twenty-eight minutes into the act. If it comes before that, he’ll have to stretch the rest of the material as much as he can while protecting the laughs.

LandlineLiz French, Senior Editor, Reviews, LJ
After learning that best-selling author Rainbow Rowell is going to be a participant at LJ’s pre–Book Expo America (BEA) event, Day of Dialog (which is already sold out!), I decided it was time to see what all the fuss is about. I’m always the latecomer: my colleague Kate sang Rowell’s praises here and here; LJ’s Stephanie Klose selected Rowell’s newest novel, Landline, as an editor’s pick (here); SLJ’s Shelley Diaz is also a very enthusiastic fan.
LJ Prepub Alert Editor Barbara Hoffert loaned me her advance copy of Landline, due out in July from St. Martin’s, and I’m now part of the Rainbow tribe. The characters and situations in this novel about possible second chances and millennials in love and marriage are bursting with realness. The heroine, TV writer Georgie McCool, is just the right amount of messed up to be endearing without annoying the heck out of you. Her interactions with her comic coworkers and funky family, including two kids (who are also cute but not treacly-cute, thank heavens), rang true. Even when Rowell introduces a magical realism note into the story—using her mother’s rotary phone landline, Georgie is suddenly able to talk to her husband, Neal, in 1998, right before he proposed to her—it’s believable. Now that I’ve gotten my wake-up call, I can’t wait to read Rowell’s other books.

The Continual ConditionGuy LeCharles Gonzalez, Director, Content Strategy & Audience Development, LJS
Since my colleagues all put me to shame last week, offering up individual poems for Poem in Your Pocket Day rather than an excuse and a very loosely related book, I’m taking advantage of this second chance to get it right. Charles Bukowski has been one of my go-to poets for a long time, and one of the very few who should have more than a couple of books dedicated to his own work. (Seriously, though; minimum page counts for print are responsible for more awful poetry seeing the light of day than the next three culprits combined. Anthologies, publishers! Anthologies.) Here’s one from Bukowski (via

this kind of fire

sometimes I think the gods
deliberately keep pushing me
into the fire
just to hear me
a few good

they just aren’t going to
let me retire
silk scarf about neck
giving lectures at

the gods need me to
entertain them.

they must be terribly
bored with all
the others

and I am too.

and now my cigarette lighter
has gone dry.
I sit here
flicking it.

this kind of fire
they can’t give

That one is from The Continual Condition: Poems (Ecco: HarperCollins), but my favorite is Septuagenarian Stew (Ecco: HarperCollins) which was my first full Bukowski and includes one of his best poems, “the Rape of the Holy Mother,” a superb takedown of academia and the “Inbred Dead.” Put that one in your pocket for special occasions beyond April!

Daryl Grabarek, Contributing Editor, SLJ
Here’s a poem I love from a student at the school where I work in the library. She wrote it in conjunction with a program sponsored by Poets House in lower Manhattan. The school is one block from the water and Poets House faces New York Harbor, so it’s no wonder the Statue of Liberty was on this child’s mind.

Dear Statue of Liberty,
Do you like the stairs
in your

What are you
reading in that book
of yours?

By Shayna, P.S. 89, Third Grade

The Bone SeasonMeredith Schwartz, Senior Editor, News & Features, LJ
I am reading The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury). It’s absolutely engrossing, with some genuinely original worldbuilding (set in an alternate London, then Oxford in a world where clairvoyance not only exists, it has been criminalized, for motives that are less arbitrarily moralistic and more ulterior than they at first appear. The plot is fast paced, but not at the expense of relationship development, and friendship is just as important as blood or romance. The heroine can be stubborn in her blind spots, but not past the point of plausibility, and the dilemmas of being made complicit by trying to survive in a punitive system are believable. Personally I’d like a little more exploration of that system but this is only the first book of the series. I have some fear of a possible impending romantic subplot that could mess up the taut tension of the current dynamic, but so far the only thing I don’t like is the cover, a bland pink-and-purple abstract design that, while referenced in the text, does not evoke anything like the grit or complexity of the experience of reading it. It looks like a sequel to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander; it reads more like Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, with a supernatural bent.

Selected Poems of Anne SextonKurt Yalcin, Bookroom Assistant, LJ
If not for a friend (and her MFA), I doubt I would have given poetry a fighting chance. To coax me into the turbid waters of confessional poetry, my pal gave me the Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (Mariner) for my birthday. And as she intended, I was astounded by Sexton’s lyric grace and her capacity to remain relevant 50 years after her debut. She is dark, ravishing, and too close for comfort. As I waded deeper and deeper into the collection, I learned that, like the best friendships, poetry gets under the skin and stays with you no matter what. Anne herself would agree: her astonishing poem “The Witch’s Life” reveals her twisted but tender view of friendship:

I think of her sometimes now
and wonder if I am becoming her.
My shoes turn up like a jester’s.
Clumps of my hair, as I write this,
curl up individually like toes.

I am shoveling the children out,
scoop after scoop.

Only my books anoint me,
and a few friends,
those who reach into my veins.

Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email:, Twitter: @lizefrench