Recommended Reading: Euphoria, by Lily King

photo (124)Thanks to the beneficent offices of my husband, who kept our small son occupied for several hours, I devoured Lily King’s gorgeous novel Euphoria* in one sitting,

Ms. King has taken some of the elements of Margaret Mead‘s biography and transformed them into a lushly atmospheric novel that is keenly evocative of time and place. Euphoria asks, How can we study and attempt to understand another culture, when we do not even know ourselves?

Anthropologist Andrew Bankson is despondent and suicidal when he runs across Nell Stone, a famous American anthropologist (modeled on Mead) and her volatile Australian husband Fen at a Christmas party in New Guinea. Both are ill and unhappy with their work researching a tribe prone to infanticide; Bankson convinces them to study a different tribe, the Tam, whose territory is just a few miles from where he works.

Grief-stricken over the untimely deaths of his brothers and hounded by his high-strung mother, Bankson falls for Nell immediately. He’s entranced by her quick mind, her openness, her unusual but effective methods for collecting data. In his loneliness, he also falls for the idea of Nell and Fen, for their very geographical closeness.

Bankson is the novel’s narrator, a world-weary voice reconstructing the past. He reminded me of Charles Ryder, the narrator of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; his sorrowful, sometimes wry tone and sharp eye for detail is perfect for a reminiscence in which we know things will end badly.

And end badly they do, but along the way Ms. King brings us a beautifully sensitive portrayal of not only Fen, Nell, and Bankson and the kind of anthropology they practice, but also the Tam and their particular part of New Guinea. The impulse to learn, to record, to understand may be noble, but it can have disastrous consequences.

I highly recommend Euphoria; definitely rush to pick it up if you loved Brideshead Revisited or Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees or stunningly beautiful book covers.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Entries, by Wendell Berry

EntriesI find myself rushed this week, Dear Readers, so this post will not be as long as it ought to be given its subject: Wendell Berry.

Mr. Berry is a noted essayist, novelist, poet, and environmentalist; he is particularly concerned with the loss of small farms in America. He practices what he preaches, living and working on his own farm in Kentucky.

Entries is the first book of his that I’ve ever picked up; I wish I’d come across it sooner, because the poems in it are wonderful. They are human and humble, agile and grounded. Though I admired all the poems, and the poet’s fine sense of our relationship to nature, I particularly loved a poem called “The Wild Rose,” which is a tribute to his wife, and In Extremis, a series of poems about his father’s illness and death. If you’d like to get a sense of Mr. Berry’s style, the Poetry Foundation has links to quite a few poems on this page.

I highly recommend Entries; I’ll be on the lookout for more books by Wendell Berry. If you have a favorite book or poem, please let me know what it is!

Recommended Reading: Neverhome, by Laird Hunt

“there was a conflagration to come; I wanted to lend it my spark.” 

NeverhomeFrom its very first sentence—“I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic”—it is clear that Laird Hunt’s Neverhome* is a masterful addition to writing about the Civil War.

Like Katy Simpson Smith’s The Story of Land and Sea, Neverhome is a slim volume. It manages to tell an epic story of war, deception, madness, and even, sometimes, very great beauty, in less than 250 pages, which is just a stunning feat. Mr. Hunt’s command of language is incredibly good; his swift portraits of his heroine’s world are quietly stunning, each one more impressive than the last. “Impressionistic” is an adjective that comes to mind.  If I could choose a director to turn Neverhome into a film (and good lord, someone should!) I’d choose Terrence Malick and it would be a perfect match.

Constance Thompson, who renames herself Ash when she decides to leave for war, is a singular woman, canny and strong and very brave. As she recounts her war experiences, she doles out pieces of her past, leaving out just enough that the reader is left desperately wishing for more ways to understand who she is and what made her.

As Ash joins the Union Army, sees action, and begins a circuitous route home, we are introduced not only to the fighting men and less savory characters you’d expect to find in a war novel, but also to other unusual women. Some, like Ash, are disguised as men. Some are waiting out the war the best they can at home, and others are on the run. All of them are fascinating, and it’s glorious to find a war novel in which half the characters are women.

Ash is plainspoken and careful, clearheaded and well-intentioned, but still unprepared for what exactly war will be like. When Ash is issued her rifle, accurate enough to “that you could use it kill a quarter mile away,” she thinks,

That was something to think about, How you could rifle a man down was looking at you and you at him but never see his face. I hadn’t figured it that way when I had thought on it back home. I had figured it would be fine big faces firing back and forth at each other, not threads of color off the horizon. A dance of men and not just their musket balls. (5)

Ash proves to be an excellent shot, and draws the attention of the men in her regiment, more attention than she’d like, given what she’s hiding. She finds calm and benevolent interest in the form of the regiment’s colonel, who keeps an eye out for her, so far as that goes; after all, Ash says, “death was the underclothing we all wore.”

An injury leads Ash not to death, but to her own particular version of hell. I won’t go into the specifics, since I hope you’ll discover Neverhome for yourself, but suffice to say that the second half of the novel is especially harrowing. Mr. Hunt’s pacing is impeccable, and keeps us wondering to the very end if Ash’s odyssey will ever end in homecoming.

Neverhome is a gorgeous, spellbinding book. Highly recommended.

Boston: Laird Hunt will be reading at Porter Square Books on Sunday, September 21.

And a special shout-out to Cleveland: Laird Hunt will be at the Beachwood Library on Tuesday, September 23. 

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Prelude to Bruise, by Saeed Jones

Prelude to BruisePrelude to Bruise*, the first full-length collection by Saeed Jones, is unflinching and intimate, fierce and achingly vulnerable. It’s a remarkable collection, perhaps the most highly anticipated book of poems to appear this year, and it is not to be missed.

These poems in Prelude to Bruise are firmly grounded in the body, and in one body in particular. The collection traces, with some digressions, the life of “Boy,” who is young, black, queer, and growing up in the South. These poems are often autobiographical, both political and personal in their evocation of the lived experience they shape and are shaped by. They are mesmerizing and dramatic.

Mr. Jones’s skill and versatility are impressive. Here you’ll find poems of varying forms, meters, and lengths. In some poems, like “Prelude to Bruise,” which lends its title to the collection, Mr. Jones explores the emotive possibilities of just a few key words (black, back, body, burning, broken); in others, metaphors and imagery take center stage (one of my favorites lines is “The dress is an oil slick”).

Prelude to Bruise is divided into six sections, and while the autobiographically inclined poems make up a large portion of the collection, poems in which Mr. Jones enters other lives (and deaths) appear throughout. Here, in poems like “Daedalus, after Icarus,” “Jasper 1998,” and “Lower Ninth,” we find a poetic voice attuned to detail and perspective, alive with empathy.

Take, for example, “Isaac, after Mount Moriah,” which you can read here thanks to the fine people at Linebreak. The calm image of a boy so deeply asleep that rain pools “in the dips of his collarbone” is shattered when we realize, in the the next line, that the speaker is his father, Abraham, who was ready to kill Isaac on Mount Moriah. Seeing his son’s fear, even in sleep, Abraham wonders, “What kind of father does he make me this boy / I find tangled in the hair of willows, curled fetal / in the grove?” It both is and is not the right question to ask; we’re ask to hold in our minds both the image of the father giving his son a blanket without disturbing him and the image of the vulnerable boy (“curled fetal”) that father raised his hand against. It’s a complicated, engaging poem, gracefully rendered.

Mr. Jones writes beautifully and powerfully about specific experiences tied to universal concerns –life, death, danger, desire, family. Prelude to Bruise is highly recommended.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of this review. 

Recommended Reading: The Furies, by Natalie Haynes

photo (120)When I picked up The Furies*, Natalie Haynes’s debut novel, I think I was expecting to read something akin to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, given the ingredients the two novels share: Greek drama, a school setting, and a newcomer drawn into the lives of a pre-existing group.

Like The Secret History, The Furies is a gripping book with expertly paced psychological drama, but it’s very much its own story (and an excellent one at that), a tale of obsession and grief.

Successful up-and-coming theatre director Alex Morris leaves London for strikingly gloomy Edinburgh after the untimely death of her fiancé. Attempting to flee from her memories and her grief, Alex takes an old friend up on an offer: to teach drama to students enrolled in The Unit, a school for “troubled” students who have been removed from their regular schools.

The students are angry, anxious, bored, and difficult, but not hopeless; even in her dank basement classroom, Alex finds herself making headway with all her classes, except for one.

This group of five teenagers resists, in one way or another, her attempts to connect with them, until they start reading Greek tragedy together. Carly, Luke, Mel, Annika, and Jono take to the tales of rage and pain with gusto, helped in part by Alex’s willingness to meet them where they are and to allow them to twine together their own interests with their reading.

Progress is slow, and Alex often finds herself overwhelmed by the five students’ struggles outside the classroom, which she picks up in bits and pieces. And slowly we see that at least one of her students shows more than the normal fascination about a teacher’s personal life when it comes to Alex — much more. And that fascination could force Alex to confront her own fury.

Describing her future students to Alex about her future students, her friend says,

‘We take the ones who didn’t function well elsewhere, for whatever reason: they’ve been bullied, or they are bullies, or they don’t fit in, or whatever. The ones for whom we might actually be able to make a difference. But our aim is to get these children back into mainstream schools, if we possible can. [. . . ] We also lose some because they can’t function here any more successfully than they did at other schools. Even safety nets have holes in them, you know.’ (8-9)

One senses that he has the same plan in mind for Alex; he thinks that the school might make a difference for her. Though the plot hinges on her students, whether Alex herself will fall through a hole in the safety net is the novel’s crucial dramatic question.

The Furies is not, mercifully, an inspirational teacher-swoops-in-to-save-underprivileged-kids story, or a bereaved-adult-learns-to-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life story. Ms. Haynes resists stereotypes and easy answers in favor of what I’d call empathetic realism. Though mostly told from Alex’s perspective, the novel also includes diary entries by one of the students that flesh out events and help readers piece together the unfolding drama; Ms. Haynes is very adept at writing teenagers. As a former teenager, teacher (of students much less surly than Alex’s, to be fair), and person lost the depths of grief, I can attest to just how much this novel gets right.

The Furies is a suspenseful and moving novel—quite an achievement—and highly recommended.

*I received a copy of this book for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

The MiniaturistJessie Burton’s The Miniaturist* begins with the well-attended funeral of a person with no friends, and that’s just the beginning of its many mysteries.

Months before this funeral, Petronella Oortman steps up, alone, to the door of her new husband’s house. Johannes Brandt is not home — a state of affairs that’s nearly normal, as she comes to learn — and she faces the household servants and her new sister-in-law on her own. Like the second Mrs. DeWinter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Nella is young, inexperienced, and unaccustomed to great wealth. And like Mrs. Danvers, Nella’s sister-in-law Marin knows weakness when she sees it.

It is 1686.

Amsterdam is prosperous, pious, and deeply committed to maintaining the appearance of both. Johannes is a highly successful merchant, but success has its perils, of course. He keeps Nella at a distance, though she does manage to glean a little information about his professional life. It’s when he gives her a wedding gift — a cabinet intricately designed as a replica of their house — that the narrative takes off. It is an unusual and expensive gift on its own, but Johannes also gives Nella carte blanche to “furnish” the house as she likes.

She contacts a miniaturist, and soon she finds that the miniaturists productions are eerily perfect. They’re beautifully crafted, but the level of detail suggests that the miniaturist knows more about the household than a stranger should.

As Nella settles into her new life, she attempts to unravel the secrets all around her — the miniaturist’s, her husband’s, Marin’s — and finds some unraveled for her without any trying. And not one of those secrets is safe.

Ms. Burton’s painterly writing brings late-seventeenth-century Amsterdam to blooming life. The sensory detail of the novel is remarkable (a dog “moves like spilled liquid, masterless, a chess piece rolling out of place” [115]), almost calculated to outshine the still-lifes we know from museums that hang in the Brandts’ home.

The pace of revelation is excellent, the characters are interesting (I do love fascinating, unlikeable women like Marin). I liked the novel’s unflinching gaze at its own unpleasant events, too. My quibble is with the ending; part of it was too neatly tied off, and part of it felt withheld, in an unsatisfying way. Given the whole of the book, however, this a minor critique, and shouldn’t stop you from picking up The Miniaturist.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“I passed through, I should have paused”: “In the Corridor” from Saksia Hamilton’s Corridor

CorridorSaskia Hamilton’s Corridor* was one of this year’s more challenging reads for me. Ms. Hamilton’s poems carefully shaped and almost spare in style, but their content is so dense that I’d often read a poem three or four times before I felt I was beginning to understand it. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily; I read poetry in part because I like to be asked to use the mental flexibility and creativity at my disposal. Ms. Hamilton’s poems require quite a bit of both.

Corridor‘s poems are observant, almost painterly. Ms. Hamilton offers us carefully-described scenes in nature and in rooms, but the effect of her lines is to make us feel as if we’re definitely in a place, but not of it; we are passing through. This emphasis on transience applies not only to places, but also to objects and books (there’s a wonderful poem that refers to Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost). Throughout the collection, I found the interplay of intimacy and dispassionate interest fascinating.

If you’d like to sample one of Ms. Hamilton’s poems, you can read “In the Corridor” here. Corridor is a collection that rewards the effort required to read it, and I’m pleased to recommend it.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.