Mini Reading Reviews

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I’ve been reading, as per usual, but not with the usual abandon, I’m afraid. My injured eye is *still* bothering me, and I’ve been ending the day resting it more than usual. It’s really been rather a bane to my existence, but in the big scheme of things, it’s manageable in the end. Plus – my doc and I are making progress, so I’m hopeful that this is temporary.

Anyway, so life has been moving a bit slowly, but the vision issue combined with the lassitude of late summer makes for not many blog entries about books read. For the two that I have recently finished up, they were good reads, but not astonishingly fascinating enough to write book reviews. To wit, here are two mini reading reviews. As always, these tiny review-lettes don’t necessarily mean that the titles were bad. Sometimes, you can have a good read and still end up with not much to say, so they fall into that category.

Mrs_ MiniverMrs. Miniver – Jan Struthers (1939)

This was a reread to get another title into the ongoing Century of Books and was quite fun. It’s a collection of newspaper columns written by Struthers and describing life for her and her family during the outbreak of World War II in England. Fairly lightweight covering topics such as buying a diary and going to dinner parties, this was more a palate cleanser than anything. If you have a Monkey Mind and need something to read that you can pick up and put down with ease, this would fit the bill. This was a good read, despite the gamble of rereading, and did remind me of how hard life would have been at that time and how easy life is nowadays. Plus – epistolary. Swoon.

Here’s a paragraph from Mrs. Miniver which mirrors my own attitude towards learning:

The structure of our life — based as it is on the ever-present contingency of war — is lamentably wrong: but its texture, oddly enough, is pleasant. There is a freshness about, a kind of rejuvenation: and this is largely because almost everybody you meet is busy learning something. Whereas in ordinary times the majority of grown-up people never try to acquire any new skill at all, either mental or physical: which is why they are apt to seem, and feel, so old.

Moving on…

still-life-with-breadcrumbs-tpStill Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen

A domestic novel that’s fairly straightforward in its narrative arc, this was a fun non-challenging read. (Plus – off the TBR.) It’s about a female fine art photographer who leaves NYC to live in a rural village, rents a slightly tumble-down shack, meets village residents, and a bloke, and it all runs smoothly from there. Nothing too strenuous, but just a nice fairly easy (I might say even cosy in a way) read.

I’m also in the middle of some pretty funny essays collected together in a book called “I See You Made an Effort” by comedian Annabelle Gurwitch. Gathered around the theme of aging and reaching the milestone birthday of 50, it’s an entertaining E-Z read that has some sly wit in it every now and again.

Another reread gamble, but this one paid off, for the most part. Good if you like your humor sly and quick-witted, and you’ll be able to relate to her essays if you’re now a woman of a certain age. 🙂 (I do recommend that you read this in bits and pieces, as opposed to solid front-to-back. It can get a little same-y after a while if you do it solidly. Still fun, but just not as good a reading experience.)

So nothing too mind-blowing. More of just pottering around, really. Life is good… I hope yours is as well.

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Catch Up Time…

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So I’ve been doing some reading and thought I’d do a quick catch up post of mini-reviews for you. Nothing wrong with these books at all – just perhaps don’t have that much to say about them, really. Don’t let that stop you from reading them (except for the Bradbury – I can save you some time there. :-))

A Child in the Forest – Winifred Foley (1974)

A delightful memoir of a childhood growing up in the Forest of Dean with a family close to the poverty line – perhaps poor of money, but rich in other ways (but that’s not much good if you’re cold and hungry though….) Anyhoo, this was a really sweet and poignant collection of autobiographical memories for Winifred Foley, and almost made me cry. Along the lines of Cider with Rosie (pre-blog) but a bit tougher of a childhood, I think. The author has a very sly sense of humor which frequently made me smile.

Farewell Summer – Ray Bradbury (2006)

Having been delighted with Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine , I came across this sequel only to find out (post-read) that it’s actually Book 3 in a trilogy. (Dandelion Wine is number one.) No worries. This still works out of order. It’s a fictional take on a small town group of boys who are coming of age as the summer months come to an end, and there are some really good descriptions here of the long summer days and an ongoing half-serious half-humorous battle between the old men and the young gang. Both groups are aching to stop time (but for different reasons), and it’s this theme that runs through the novel. I adore Dandelion Wine, and consider it to be one of the best autumn books to read at that time of year. I think that this title would also be good to read when the leaves turn. However, no leaves turning here and as I’d also been reading another childhood memoir (but NF), I think that this title suffered in comparison. (Plus there was a very unexpected last chapter which was totally out of the character with the rest of the book. Bit weird.) A very quick read, and one I’ll have to pick up again in a few months. It might be fun to read the whole Green Town Trilogy (as it’s called)…

And by golly, I’m determined to finish Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns this week. It’s been a few weeks on this one, and I just need to devote some solid reading time to it. Also about growing up in a small town up in the Potteries in England (but this is set later on in childhood, really). I’m enjoying it, but just piddling around with this read. More to come.

How’s your reading life coming along?

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Black Women of the Old West – William Loren Katz (1995)

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A literary friend of mine lent me this rather fascinating coffee table book featuring the role of black (African American) pioneers in the old cowboy Wild West. As I’m really interested in learning more about the African American experience, this book ticked most of the boxes that I look for in a good read.

As it’s more of a coffee table book, it’s concentrated mostly on photographs of the sometimes anonymous women who were living the pioneer life at the time. Generally speaking, I don’t see much focus from many people on the life of African Americans during the late nineteenth century as America traveled west across its new territories, but they were there just as much as The Little House on the Prairie family were.

Afam_pioneer_familyA number of the women who were featured in this collection went west as domestic help to pioneering families, but quite a few of these folk were also determined to be successful independent farmers, ranchers and other professional workers (e.g. teachers, accountants etc.). (Check out my review of another fascinating read of the Exodusters who flowed into Kansas for the ranching opportunities.)

A number of young AfAm women came west as mail order brides for men who were in mining camps and doing other types of work. The men who signed up for the service bought a one-way ticket for the young woman in question, and then, sight-unseen, the two would contractually get married to live in the west. (How very brave were these mail order brides! For some, this invitation to the west was just what they needed to escape terrible home situations so it seems that it benefited both parties for the most part.)

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(Above) – Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) was the first AfAm postal carrier in the county.

Many freed slaves had little experience apart from working on the land or helping in a domestic role, and it was really interesting to me to learn that once freed, African-Americans (as a group) were intent on getting an education, both for themselves and especially for their children. Literacy was the key to freedom and success, and these families were typically much more educated than the other groups out on the frontier (whites, Hispanics etc.) and their school attendance was at a notably higher level. Former slaves knew and understood the important of knowledge, and so were determined that their families were going to be schooled.

I went ahead and made a few random notes from this read:

  • An African American woman used to own all the real estate in the area now called Beverly Hills in LA
  • In OK and other states, the newly freed slaves joined up with local Native American tribes (although initially the Native Americans embraced slavery as much as the white people had), and in the late 1800’s, 18% of Cherokees were AfAm, and 14% of Choctaws were AfAm.
  • The Native Americans had been introduced to the slavery concept by white people who wanted to make sure that the tribes would not harbor runaway slaves. Most tribes ended up embracing slavery, except for the Seminoles who had a fascinating overlap with the Buffalo Soldiers.
  • One of the earliest settlements of AfAms was in Mercer County, OH, in 1832.
  • Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) (photo above right) was the first AfAm mail carrier in the US, and drove a horse and wagon (not a stagecoach) on her route in the wilds of Montana. She wasn’t an employee of the US Postal Service, but had bid and won a contract to deliver mail as she was the fastest person who would drive a team of six horses. She never missed a day of work, and if there was deep snow, she would put on snowshoes and deliver the mail sacks on her back.

What I found to be most interesting to read was the common thread of how AfAms thrived in spite of the awful conditions and in spite of how challenging life was. Families had few resources, but they still came west. I wonder just how much more successful AfAms would have been if there’d be a stronger support system for them. There was the Freedman’s Bureau, but it was decades before the idea of ending slavery became common place and widely accepted. The sheer doggedness and determination of these AfAm pioneers is astonishing to me, and I wish their stories were told more often.

(If you haven’t already read this article on reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, it’s a powerful and provocative piece.)

So, really enjoyed looking at the photos in this book. (The writing itself was pretty dreadful, so the pics made the book really.)

Other reads on similar topics and reviewed by JOMP are:

Let’s do some catch-up…

catch_upSo I’ve been reading, but there seem to have been one or two titles which are good but not quite enough to warrant an individual blog post. Honestly, I don’t think it’s the books’ fault so much as it is the reader’s in each case, so don’t think these books are less worthy or anything. It’s mostly a time thing at the moment.

A Long Way Home – Saroo Brierley (2015).

This is an autobiography written by a young man who grew up very poor in an Indian city and who, one day when he was only five years old, was playing on the train tracks with his older brother when he accidentally got locked into a railway carriage and was whisked away across the country to Mumbai, where he was put into an orphanage and then adopted by an overseas couple. This tale is how, by overcoming all the odds, he found his way home again. (This is the book that the movie Lion is based upon, btw.) It’s a fantastic story – that’s true – but I think the read would have been better if he’d used a professional ghostwriter (or editor) to up his writing game a bit. It was well written (in that there were few grammar errors etc.), but the level of writing was rather fundamental and rather clunky at times. Still a good story though. It might be better to watch the film than read the book.

Trifles – Susan Gaspell (1916)

I had recently been playing around with my Century of Reading (COB) project, and wanted to find a title that would help fill in some of the remaining blanks (not many really). So I searched for “books published in 1916”, and wanting a more esoteric title and something that wasn’t 500 pages long, picked out a play which seemed to fit the bill.

Just to be clear, despite the play being called Trifles, the play is not about that wonderful English confection of jelly/jello, whipped cream and other fine tasty tidbits. It’s used, in this case, in the sense of “seemingly unimportant things usually linked with women and said by men”… :-}

This play (which I’d not heard of before but I’m not a dramatic expert by any means) was interesting and is actually one of those stories that stick in your head for ages after you’ve finished it as you mull over the various interpretations of how it could be read (or played).

Set out in the country of somewhere like the Midwest, the narrative revolves around the death of Mr. Wright, a farmer who lived in a remote house along with his wife (obvs. called Mrs. Wright). The local sheriff and a deputy are searching the home for any clues after learning that Mr. Wright had died by strangulation. Was it a murder, and if so, who did it?

At the same time as the police officials are searching for clues, there are two women from the nearby community also accompanying the two men in a tag-along sort of way. The small community is far from other towns so any news is big news to the local folk. (It’s really interesting, btw, to see how these guys treat the crime scene vs. now how the crime scene is treated i.e. stomping around everywhere… 🙂 )

They are all unsure how to explain the crime until the women find a dead canary….

It’s a pretty good play to read, but I was more happy, TBH, that it filled out a year in the COB project. 🙂

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Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987)

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Chosen off the TBR for being a classic, Beloved was a good read although quite challenging in some ways. The beginning of a trilogy* set by Toni Morrison, the book is based on the history of an African American slave, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856, although I’m not sure how much creative license has been taken by anyone. I haven’t read any of Morrison’s work before, so had little idea of what to expect but loved it in the end. It’s not the easiest work to read and you have to concentrate on the plot and the characters (or at least I did), but the effort is so worth it at the end of the day. Just be prepared for quite a ride, reading-wise.

So – to the story. It revolves around Sethe, an African-American woman born into slavery and who has now escaped that life. However, eighteen years later, she is still not free from the ramifications of her prior slavery life at a plantation called Sweet Home, an idyllic name for a ghastly place and one that still maintains a tenuous hold on Sethe, despite her best efforts at unshackling herself and her family. The book plot delves into her life so readers can better understand the choice that she makes, and how that choice impacts her days for the remainder of her life. (I can’t really tell you any more about the plot without giving spoilers, and it’s the plot that makes this book such a good read. Well, the writing too, but the plot definitely plays a role.)

There is a dreamy gauzy quality to this narrative, and it’s not a logical or chronological retelling, mainly because the events that occur are of the most terrible kind and hurt where it hurts the most – the heart. There is a lot of poetry in this novel in terms of how it’s been written and how it flows, but once I gave up trying to impose order on it, it was a much better read. You will need to let go of the typical structural expectations, but if you do, what was once surreal and puzzling becomes more understandable and predictable. (Well, I’m not sure about predictable, but at least one can see some rationale for why the characters behave as they do.)

It’s a good read, and all the more powerful for not being written or structured in a straight-forward narrative style as that fits the story being told: unreliable narrators, this dream-like quality, the nightmarish events, the resilience of the human spirit…

It’s a super book (obvs since it’s won loads of accolades including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), but it plays with reality and with dreams, it plays with time and space, and it can all get a tad confusing if you’re not paying close attention. (This was my situation. I was picking up and putting down this book all over the place, and in retrospect, I think the book is best read in huge long chunks of time for immersion into the narrative and characters. I bonded with the story much better when I could dedicate some time to it.)

This is one of those books where the reader may need to work a bit at the story, but in this case, it’s so worth it. If I was going to compare it, I would pair it with “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I loved this on its own rights though, and I think you will as well.

  • I had no idea that Beloved was part of a trilogy. In case you’re wondering, # 2 is Jazz (1992) and #3 is Paradise (1997).

Fridays are more fun with this…

http://robandleo.com/the-ones-that-got-away/

I saw some geese flying over head yesterday as they traveled on their journey down south to warmer climes. I was immediately reminded of this, one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems, and then today, I saw it posted by one of my friends on FB:

“You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves. / Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on. / Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain / are moving across the landscapes, / over the prairies and the deep trees, / the mountains and the rivers. / Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, / are heading home again. / Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.”

“Wild Geese” – Mary Oliver.

 

All Involved – Ryan Gattis (2015)

book387All Involved is a far-ranging novel that explores the aftermath of the 1992 LA riots that occurred right after the end of the trial for the police officers who were involved in the beating of Rodney King. In 1992, I’d just finished graduate school and was very busy working my little heart out at an all-consuming job, so I remember this but not in very great detail. However, I do remember the six days of rioting in LA when the streets in South Central were in a state of chaos day and night with law enforcement struggling to regain control. Additionally, with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, this seems pretty recent and relevant history even though it was actually 24 years ago. (Huh. Most college students weren’t even born then so it must seem pretty Olden Days to them.)

Anyway, this novel weaves and interweaves (and then weaves again) the many disparate characters whose lives were impacted by the riots in some way. There are representatives from both sides of the law – the lawless and the enforcers – and each chapter sees the events through the PoV of that character. You have to keep your wits about you, and it’s ambitious, but if you don’t daydream (a la me) you’ll probably be fine. (I might suggest a diagram at the back of the book for reference as it can get a mite confusing at times. The glossary was a good tool though.)

So as the story progresses, the reader sees the events play out through the eyes of various gang members, through a firefighter, through a nurse (receiving the injured at the ER), and through the friends and other contacts of these characters. It’s well done, and I found it drew me in and had me reacting in the immediate present as the riots built up to a crescendo and then wore out. It’s quite the ride, and I enjoyed it.

The only thing that niggled me was that Gattis is a white guy, but he wrote through the eyes of several people of color (POC), and I’m just not comfortable with that. How can a white privileged guy know what it’s like (really like) to be a socio-economically disadvantaged gang member in East LA? To the author’s credit, he does acknowledge having talked to numerous sources to get their experiences, but really, at the end of the day, I think it’s a tad awkward for someone in his position to pretend to “know” what life is like for someone from a very different background. And it’s not just one character, either. It’s character after character, which just seemed to be a large assumption on his part. However, is this the perspective of a similarly privileged white woman who might be over-sensitive about the issue? It just seems that it’s presumptive to write through the eyes of someone of a different race when the whole incident around which the plot revolves is a racial issue (which the Rodney King riots all boiled to in the end).

But then again, it is classified as fiction and I’m not grumping about anyone writing as a vampire when they clearly haven’t ever lived their life as a vampire. I’m not sure. I just think it’s a little insensitive (for a white man) to co-opt Latin@ and African American characters at a time when race is such the hot-button issue that it is right now. What would you think?

But – good read all the same. Various reviewers on Goodreads have compared it to the TV series The Wire, but I think that that was a much stronger end product than this.

Carol – Patricia Highsmith (1952)

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I was pondering what to read next when I remembered that I had seen the movie, “Carol”, when it was released earlier in the year and loved that so therefore was interested in reading the book itself. I wasn’t disappointed as it was a very good read.

It’s the story of a young shop girl in 1950’s New York City who meets an older richer woman and how their relationship develops. It’s pegged as an early lesbian book, but after reading it, I would argue that the story covers human relationships more than a lesbian one. However, as it was written in 1952 when same-sex issues were extremely undercover (out of necessity) and seen as morally wrong, there’s no denying that the two women have to have a more complicated relationship than would otherwise be seen in those times. (Ahhh. Those judgy 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s….)

Anyhow, the two women are attracted to each other, but is it authentic? Or is one more authentic than the other? And then who’s to say, anyway?

patricia highsmithThere are other issues involved as well: One of the women is older, more experienced, and very rich (the other the opposite in those ways). One of the women is married with a child (and the other is not), and so there is a lot at stake here if the relationship went public (e.g. probable loss of parental rights, loss of money/support etc.) It’s the 1950’s when women still were seen as property (culturally speaking) – women didn’t tend to work (so no $$), property was probably in husband’s name (so women had few assets) and all that jazz. Divorce is frowned upon and if you add in a same-sex relationship, you end up with an explosive mix.

Plus – who is in love with whom? Is the relationship equal in terms of how one feels for the other or there other reasons involved? And there’s the power issues…

It’s a complex novel (as you can tell), but it reads very quickly. It’s one of those books where you read it and then do most of your thinking about it after you’ve finished it. I loved it.

It’s interesting that I think the novel’s complexity also reflects the author’s own complexity as, according to several people, she could be a rude and misanthropic person who preferred animals (particularly snails*) to people. There were also addiction issues, and her personal life was a bit rocky, relationship-wise. (She had an unsettling childhood life as well which probably played a role.) Add to this the fact that she refused to let people put her into any categories of any kind (at a time when *everyone* was put into a category of one sort or another), and you have one very interesting person.

Regardless of how you pin this novel genre-wise, it’s well regarded and Highsmith described it as one of the first same-sex relationship novels where the protagonist and the lover had not killed themselves by the end due to being gay in a homophobic culture. (The two women in this novel are not happy per se in this story, but at least they are alive and breathing at the end. Baby steps, people.)

Anyway, this was a fascinating read for both the narrative and the cultural meaning that surrounded it at the time so I do recommend it. It’s a passionate love story but then it’s also so much more. I really enjoyed it (especially in combination with the film of the same name) and I think you’d like it.

(Highsmith is well known for her other novels including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on the Train (neither of which I’ve read yet). Has anyone else read anything by her? What did you think?)

Extra for you: An interesting article from The Guardian (05/13/15) about more background behind the book and film.

* Highsmith once took a handbag full of 100 snails and some lettuce to a dinner party. I’m not sure what to say about that, apart from perhaps it reflects her view of being true to herself. Go her. If you want to bring a  bag o’ snails to a dinner party, then you bring them. More power to you.

Six American Plays for Today – Bennet Cerf (1961)

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When I was at the library the other day (shocking, I know), I was searching for a copy of Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun.” I’m still trying to read classics every now and then, and (at the same time) fill in some holes in my ongoing Century of Books project (which now has its own page, btw), and so thought this would do the trick in several ways.

Additionally, I’ve been dying to go to a live community play here in town, but the choices have been slim pickings lately…

So, having difficulty finding a copy of the Hansberry play on the shelves, I got to taking down copies of other similar books that might have had the play contained inside, and thus, this rather old edition of “Six American Plays for Today” (when “today” was 50 years ago) leaped into my hands.

plays_index_revI don’t really have a really deep background in drama or plays, and so it’s almost guaranteed that almost any play that I pick up is going to be one with which I am unfamiliar (apart from the usual school syllabus ones). So, I opened this book and bingo, it had an unadulterated copy of the Hansberry play along with five other plays, none of which I’d ever heard about. Undaunted, I checked it out.

This was an interesting read in several ways, one of which was that a number of these plays are a product of their time (unsurprisingly). When this edition was released, “A Raisin in the Sun” had recently been published in 1959 at the height of the U. S. Civil Rights movement and the script has a very much “in the present moment” feel of it as it covers housing discrimination, racial relations, and other hard-hitting topics. (See review of “A Raisin in the Sun” here.)

The other plays were ones with which I was not familiar. I had heard of Tennessee Williams and his “A Streetcar Named Desire” but had not read any of his work (or this one, Camino Real), but the other playwrights were new to me. So, I just worked my way forward through the book, and had a fine time, really.

However, I have to say that in retrospect that these plays aren’t really that memorable apart from Dore Shary’s Sunrise at Campobello (about the life of FDR) and Lillian Helman’s Toys in the Attic (although upon reflection, I have no idea why it’s called that title…) Perhaps it would be a different experience to see these plays live in a stage setting. (I bet it would.)

Despite that rather pallid review, this made a nice change in pace…

A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

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Wow. What a powerful play this was to read. I can only imagine what it’s like to experience as live theater.

A Raisin in the Sun* is a play (and then film) published in 1959 which sees the lives of an African-American family in Southside Chicago as they try and decide which of several potential directions their family could take in the near future.

I’d heard of this play and the film, but never seen either of them, and, in the mood for a play-reading of some description, this came to the surface. Read in the twenty-first century, this was an intense read (especially towards the end of the final act), so I can only imagine how powerful this message was when it was presented on stage. It certainly took my breath away, let me tell you.

A_Raisin_in_the_Sun_1959Hansberry was awarded the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the Year for this work, which was notable for a boatload of reasons: she was the youngest playwright to receive this award, the first black writer, the fifth woman, and although it’s a hard-hitting play, it was met with really good critical acclaim (apart from that award) and Hansberry was recognized for being one of the first American playwrights to realistically portray the African-American experience on stage.

Set in the 1950’s, the play focuses on the Younger family, a working class family who are just about to receive a large check from the life insurance of one of the family’s patriarchs. As money easily can do, the idea of the large financial check has each family member thinking about s/he would like to spend it leading, naturally, to conflict that reflects American life and values during the 1950’s. Does the family sort out this situation? You’ll have to read it to find out.

And it’s this conflict, which arises in the very first scene, that threads throughout the play spanning a wide range of topics from housing, discrimination, employment, addiction to hope, optimism, and being true to yourself. I’m wondering if this is a literary work that’s read in a lot of high schools and if so, do the students really appreciate the strength of the narrative arc?

Very curious about seeing the film with Sydney Poitier (1961)  now…

* The title of the play comes from poem by Langston Hughes (“A Dream Deferred”):

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over –

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?