Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg


“a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon”

Genre: Poetry

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was originally published by City Lights Books in the Fall of 1956. Subsequently seized by U.S. customs and the San Francisco police, it was the subject of a long court trial at which a series of poets and professors persuaded the court that the book was not obscene. Howl and Other Poems is the single most influential poetic work of the post-World War II era, with over 1,000,000 copies now in print.”

Review: My experience with (and exposure to) poetry is fairly limited, as exemplified by the fact that I’ve only reviewed one other book of poetry on this blog and it was A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein. With that in mind, I doubt I was able to fully understand everything Ginsberg wanted to convey in Howl and Other Poems, but I could certainly tell that he was talented. Howl and Other Poems contains eleven poems: “Howl”, “Footnote to Howl”, “A Supermarket in California”, “Transcription of Organ Music”, “Sunflower Sutra”, “America”, “In the Baggage Room at Greyhound”, “An Asphodel”, “Song”, “Wild Orphan”, and “In Back of the Real.” My favorites were “Howl” (of course) and “Transcription of Organ Music.” Part of the reason I find poetry frustrating to read  is that I never feel like I fully “get” what poems are about. In that sense, I chose my favorites from Howl and Other Poems based on my ability to understand what Ginsberg wanted to convey and the overall lyricality of the poem. Within “Howl”, I loved the iconic lines (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”), but I also really appreciated other parts of the poem.

“suffering Eastern sweats and Tangerian bone-grindings and migraines of China under junk-withdrawal in Newark’s bleak furnished room”

“Transcription of Organ Music” was my other favorite largely due to the cadence. I oftentimes find poetry difficult to read because the phrasing feels disjointed in my head, but something about this poem was very readable.

“the closet door opened, because I used it before, it kindly stayed open waiting for me, its owner”

In the end, my three-star rating for Howl and Other Poems largely reflects my lack of exposure to (and, unfortuntely, interest in) poetry. I’ll leave the merit of this one to be debated by the experts!

Reason for Ban/Challenge: As mentioned in the Book Jacket Synopsis, Howl and Other Poems experienced almost immediate backlash after Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, released it to the public in 1956. The book was challenged due to perceived obscenity, given that the poems openly discuss sexuality, drug use, and other “unsavory” topics. A historic court case, in a which a conservative judge determined that Howl and Other Poems was not obscene, likely contributed to the notoriety and immortality the book would go on to gain. Today, Howl and Other Poems faces remarkably little censure compared to other novels on my banned book list.

P.S. While researching the fascinating history of Howl and Other Poems, I came across this great “Howl” animation! It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it before.






BONUS BOOK: Wires and Nerve, Volume 1 by Marissa Meyer and Doug Holgate

“It is a beautiful irony that the greatest queen we’ve ever had is the first to take off her crown.”

Genre: Graphic Novel, Fantasy, Adventure, Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “When rogue packs of wolf-hybrid soldiers threaten the tenuous peace alliance between Earth and Luna, Iko takes it upon herself to hunt down the soldiers’ leader. She is soon working with a handsome royal guard who forces her to question everything she knows about love, loyalty, and her own humanity.”

Review: I really enjoyed Iko as a character in the Lunar Chronicles series because she brought some much needed levity to each of the  novels. For that reason, I was excited to hear that Meyer was creating a graphic novel featuring Iko. There was a lot to like about Wires and Nerve, including the illustrations and storytelling. I loved seeing what each of the characters was up to, especially Cinder and Cress, who were always my favorites. Unfortunately, however, I found it difficult to care about Iko’s storyline. In reading the Lunar Chronicles series, I grew accustomed to Iko being part of the Cinder-Iko team, and now that she is an autonomous character I find it hard to feel as invested. I am fairly confident that I know what Meyer will do in subsequent Wires and Nerve graphic novels, and I just can’t wrap my head around it. Wires and Nerve is a fun read, and I may have felt a bit more positively about it if I’d read it when I was going through Lunar Chronicles withdrawal a year ago. But in my opinion, this novel is not as successful or engaging as the other Lunar Chronicles books.



BONUS BOOK: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

“I can’t blame him for trying to take someone’s arm off. I mean, the man reached into his cage, and that cage was all the bear had in the world.”

Genre: Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Everyone thinks they known Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed ‘America’s Fattest Teen.’ But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Since her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for EVERY POSSIBILITY LIFE HAS TO OFFER. I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything. Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the art of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his own brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone. Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game – which lands them in group counseling – Libby and Jack are both angry, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel. Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.

Review: Based on the book jacket synopsis, Holding Up the Universe sounded… iffy. But I wanted to give this book a try for two reasons:

1) I’ve been fascinated by face blindness (prosopagnosia) since I first learned about it in an undergraduate psychology course seven years ago, and Holding Up the Universe is the first fiction book I’ve found that has a character with prosopagnosia.

2) I’ve read Niven before, and while All the Bright Places had its flaws, it’s the first book that made me cry in a really long time.

Holding Up the Universe alternates between Jack’s and Libby’s perspectives. I expected to like Jack’s chapters more given my interest in prosopagnosia. Unfortunately, I found it very hard to believe that Jack could actually suffer from prosopagnosia without anyone, especially his family, noticing that something was wrong. I was also very frustrated with most of Jack’s subplots, including his girlfriend drama and father’s affair. None of the characters had appropriate reactions to the revelation that Jack’s dad was having an affair with one of Jack’s teachers, making the whole affair subplot feel like an afterthought that was introduced to stir up trouble and make the reader pity Jack. As it turns out, Libby Strout was hands down the best part of Holding Up the Universe. She was funny, strong, and endearing; I was rooting for her from the getgo. I vastly preferred reading her chapters and particularly liked the portrayal of her relationships with her father and friends. Whereas Jack’s subplots did little to make me care about him as a character, Libby’s were well written and actually made me feel what Niven intended.

“In the hospital, I held her hand until my grandmother came in, and my dad, and the rest of my family. All of them sweet and loving and brokenhearted, but none of them like my mom. Not even all together. They didn’t begin to add up to her.”

I actually think Holding Up the Universe would have been better without Jack; his romance with Libby felt very insta-lovey, they had no real chemistry, and he didn’t add much to the novel overall. With that in mind, Holding Up the Universe is a just okay book. But I do think a lot of young women could benefit from reading about Libby Strout.




BONUS BOOK: A Mother’s Reckoning – Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

“Life is full of suffering, and this is mine. I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.”

Genre: Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. In a matter of minutes, they would kill twelve students and a teacher and wound twenty-four others before taking their own lives. For the last sixteen years, Sue Klebold, Dylan’s mother, has lived with the indescribable grief and shame of that day. How could her child, the promising young man she had loved and raised, be responsible for such horrors? And how, as his mother, had she not known something was wrong? Were there subtle signs she had missed? What, if anything, could she have done differently? These are questions that Klebold has grappled with every day since the Columbine tragedy. In A Mother’s Reckoning, she chronicles with unflinching honesty her journey as a mother trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible. In the hope that the insights and understanding she has gained may help other families recognize when a child is in distress, she tells her story in full, drawing up her personal journals, the videos and writings that Dylan left behind, and countless interviews with mental health experts. Filled with hard-won wisdom and compassion, A Mother’s Reckoning is a powerful and haunting book that sheds light on one of the most pressing issues of our time. And with fresh wounds from the recent Newtown, Charleston, and Oregon college shootings, never has the need for understanding been more urgent.”

Review: I don’t remember what I was doing on April 20, 1999. I would have only been 7 years old, after all. In contrast, Sue Klebold remembers exactly what she was doing. She remembers waking up, saying goodbye to her son, Dylan, and going to work. She remembers getting a phone call from her incoherent husband about a shooting at Columbine High School. And she remember waiting in the driveway of her house while police officers and bomb squads searched the premises. For Klebold, and countless others, April 20, 1999 will live on in painful infamy. A Mother’s Reckoning is her attempt to share what she’s learned in the years since Dylan helped carry out one of the deadliest school shootings in American history. Much of the first half of the book is dedicated to describing Dylan’s upbringing as a beloved member of a four-person family. The events of Columbine are presented in full detail about halfway through the book, and the rest of A Mother’s Reckoning is spent trying to understand why Dylan did what he did. If Klebold’s goal is to prove to the reader that her and her husband Tom, while imperfect, were loving, affectionate, and attentive parents, then she succeeds. After reading A Mother’s Reckoning, it is clear that Dylan’s mental health issues and eventual turn to violence were largely shielded from his parents. This, as Klebold points out, is what makes Columbine so terrifying; even if someone is brought up in good circumstances, they can still make terrible choices. While captivating as a whole, I did have a few  issues with A Mother’s Reckoning. Stylistically, I felt like Klebold was quite repetitive at times. She would introduce events or stories early on, and then repeat them with slightly more detail in later chapters. This made the timeline confusing. Much of the book was dedicated to considering the role Dylan’s declining mental health played in the massacre. Given what psychologists and counselors have told Klebold, Dylan was the depressive, suicidal counterpart to Eric’s psychopathic aggression. Without each other, the Columbine massacre might have been avoided. The information on mental health is an absolutely critical component of understanding what happened, but I felt like a piece of the story was missing because Klebold didn’t really discuss how Dylan and Eric got the weapons that they used in the massacre. In my opinion, that is a really important component of what happened, and speaks to the broader gun control issues in the US. These things aside, A Mother’s Reckoning was eye-opening and impossible to put down.


As with A Stolen Life, I find it unnecessary to rate A Mother’s Reckoning. I do believe that many people would benefit from reading this book, as it dispels a lot of myths about the Columbine shooting and also emphasizes how subtle the signs of mental illness can be. This book really made me empathize with the family members of mass shooters. After all, they not only have to grapple with losing a loved one, but also with the devastating actions that that loved one took. It’s an impossible burden.

BONUS BOOK: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

“There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “[Meet] the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind. It changed Rosemary – and it destroyed her family. Now Rosemary’s adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man. And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a far more terrible fate than the family, in their innocence, could ever have imagined.”

Review: I must admit; I am completely beside myself with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. This novel is tremendous. As the cover says, it has one of the best twists I’ve ever read (no spoilers in this review, I promise). A major reason this novel is so successful is the narration. Rosemary is  an unreliable narrator (far better than Rachel from The Girl on the Train) and reveals the secrets of her past in a disjointed, non-chronological order. She starts in the middle of her story, before jumping back, forward, back again. This method of storytelling was fascinating, as reading about each “version” of Rosemary gradually helped me understand what had happened to her family.

“My father was himself a college professor and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day, the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.”

Fowler’s writing is exquisite. She transported me into each moment and was extremely effective at turning Rosemary’s feelings into my own. There’s a particularly beautiful scene where Mrs. Cooke helps her daughters get ready to play in the snow; the elation both girls feel is tangible. When Rosemary was jealous, I felt jealous. When she was sad, I felt sad. It’s no small feat to incorporate a reader into a fictional world, and Fowler excels at it.

“It wasn’t the flashes of anger – he’s been angry for as long as I could remember, a foot-stamping, middle-finger-thrusting, boy-shaped storm. I was used to that. His fury was my nostalgia.”

I can’t go into too much additional detail without running the risk of spoiling We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but I can safely say that this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Beautiful prose, a captivating story, and a flawed but redemptive heroine; what more can a reader ask for?



BONUS BOOK: The Arsonist by Stephanie Oakes

“I am thinking about the first words of another book. It was a pleasure to burn. More than anything, it was a pleasure to live.”

Genre: Mystery, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Molly Mavity is not a normal teenage girl. For one thing, she doesn’t believe that her mother killed herself three years ago. And since her father is about to be executed for his crimes, Molly is convinced that her mother will return to her soon. Finally, the hole in her heart will stop hurting. Pepper Al-Yusef is not your average teenage boy. A Kuwaiti immigrant with serious girl problems and the most embarrassing seizure dog in existence, he has to write a series of essays over the summer… or fail out of school. And Ava Dreyman – the brave and beautiful East German resistance fighter whose death at seventeen led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall – is unlike anyone you’ve met before. When Molly and Pepper are tasked with finding Ava’s murderer, they realize there’s more to her life – and death – than meets the eye. Someone out there is lying to them. And someone out there is guiding them along, desperate for answers.”

Review: The Arsonist is told in a somewhat unconventional form, through letters Molly writes to a comatose Pepper, essays Pepper writes to his counselor in order to graduate high school, and journal entries by the late Ava Dreyman. The plot sounds interesting enough, with two intrepid teenager’s launched into a murder mystery that spans continents and decades. Unfortunately, The Arsonist comes off as incredibly far-fetched. Am I really supposed to believe that two teenagers tracked down the address of a suspected war criminal and began questioning him at his door? Does Oakes really think the reader will believe that the same two teenagers traveled to Germany, broke into a suspect’s house, and were held at gunpoint by said suspect before discovering a missing relic and escaping? These moments, and others like them (particularly Ava’s experiences once she makes it to the U.S.), made me roll my eyes and become increasingly critical of the novel. The plot also felt disjointed; I had a hard time integrating Ava’s perspective into the overall story line, and I still don’t fully understand what happened to Pepper’s mom or the nature of the relationship between Mr. Mavity and Mr. Al-Yusef. There were certainly some nice moments of writing, with Oakes doing a good job of giving both Molly and Pepper independent and unique voices (again, Ava’s perspective was the weakest link for me; she came across as unnaturally proper for someone her age).

“That day, I climbed to the top of the train bridge behind my childhood home on Syracuse Road, the one  I lived in before my family split apart like an orange.”

The Arsonist is a good novel if you’re looking for a story about teenagers with ridiculous lives. But if you prefer more grounded fiction, as I do, then you’ll likely find The Arsonist excessive, unbelievable, and ultimately uninteresting.



BONUS BOOK: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

“We reached for each other, and I thought of how many nights I had lain awake in this room loving him in silence.”

Genre: Adventure, Mythology, Fantasy, Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Achilles, ‘the best of all the Greeks,’ son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful – irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from him homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods’ wrath. They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.”

Review: This is the best adult fiction I’ve read since Euphoria and Room! What a tremendous first novel by Madeline Miller. I’ve always been interested in Greek mythology, but Miller breathes new life into this retelling of the story of Achilles. Given that she spent ten years working on this novel, the craftsmanship and detail should come as no surprise. While I was somewhat unfamiliar with Achilles’ story before reading this book, I knew from the very beginning that things couldn’t end well for the star-crossed lovers. Miller manages to write a novel that is equal parts romance and adventure, all while breathing life into a remarkable cast of characters. Patroclus is the real showstopper of the book, but I also loved reading about Thetis (Achilles’ goddess mother), Agamemnon (ruler of Mycenae and frequent source of conflict with Achilles), and Deidameia (mother of Pyrrhus). I was particularly impressed with Miller’s writing; she manages to be poetic and poignant without preaching or overstepping. I particularly loved how she tied the beginning and ending together with a very simple word: this.

“I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head. My tongue ran away from me, giddy with freedom. This, and this, and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender, or too slow. This and this and this! I taught him how to skip stones, and he taught me how to carve wood. I could feel every nerve in my body, every brush of air against my skin.”

“At first it is strange. I am used to keeping him from her, to hoarding him for myself. But the memories well up like spring-water, faster than I can hold them back. They do not come as words, but like dreams, rising as scent from the rain-wet earth. This, I say. This and this. The way he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this. So many moments of happiness, crowding forward.”

It’s beautiful, clean, emotive writing. I loved the short chapter format of The Song for Achilles, but felt that some of the middle chapters (particularly the ones focused on preparing for the war in Troy and the early years of the war) dragged; I would have preferred more chapters spent on the training Patroclus and Achilles received while living with Chiron, rather than the war. As a whole however, The Song for Achilles is an outstanding book and I can’t wait to read Miller’s second novel, Circe!