In Brief: (Less) Recent Reads

Herewith, Dear Readers, a gathering of books I recommend and have been meaning to write about for months, in no particular order.

photo 2 (1)The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Perfect for: Almost anyone who has experienced or is currently experiencing adolescence.

I wish my high school’s sophomore English class had included this book in the curriculum instead of The Catcher in the Rye, but I suppose there are about ten reason that would never have happened (including the fact that The Perks of Being a Wallflower came out the same year that I started the tenth grade, so not a lot of vetting time there . . .). Charlie is far and away more interesting and less self-centered than Holden Caulfield; he’s a gifted, introverted teenager who befriends some of his high school’s gloriously interesting misfits during his freshman year. Life lessons ensue, as they tend to do in bildungsroman. I loved the book’s emphasis on compassion; it’s the kind of YA novel I’m going to leave on the shelf in the hope that my son will pick it up someday and find it useful. Bonus: It’s an epistolary novel.

photo 3Barracuda*, by Christos Tsiolkas

Perfect for: Anyone who needs to get out of a reading rut.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. It might sound strange, but it’s incredibly refreshing to read a book that’s about rage, which seems to be Danny Kelly’s primary emotion. Danny is an teenage Australian swimmer who dreams of making it to the Olympics; thankfully, there’s no swelling inspirational music in this tightly-plotted, intricately structured novel. Danny is almost totally unlikable, but so utterly fascinating that it doesn’t matter. Rage isn’t a primary emotion; it’s a symptom of the mess of feelings roiling beneath the surface. Mr. Tsiolkas brings those feelings to brilliant life.  I’m not Australian, and the look into modern Australian culture in this novel was a real eye-opener. No koalas, no kangaroos.

photo 1 (1)Em and the Big Hoom**, by Jerry Pinto

Perfect for: Anyone looking for a novel off the beaten path.

Published in the U.S. this year, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom is a moving, raw, funny, and tender portrait of a family in crisis, set in modern Bombay. Mr. Pinto uses dialogue, interviews, stories, and anecdotes to create a collage-like portrait of Em, who suffers from bipolar disorder, her husband the Big Hoom, and their children. Em’s shifting moods and crippling depressions leave the family on edge, and the novel is framed as her son’s attempt to understand his mother’s mind. The dialogue is absolutely brilliant, and I kept marking passages to return to later– at least fifty in a very slim volume. Jerry Pinto isn’t as well known here as he should be, and I hope that changes soon.

photo 4Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, by Margaret Atwood

Perfect for: Anyone.***

Margaret Atwood. Short stories almost entirely about older people. Killer last lines. Need I say more?






*I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, which did not affect the content of my review.

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

*** Okay, not kids.

“A little this side of the snow / And that side of the haze”

It is November, and high time for an Emily Dickinson poem.

Or two. I’m unpredictable.


A precious, mouldering pleasure ’tis
To meet an antique book,
In just the dress his century wore;
A privilege, I think,

His venerable hand to take,
And warming in our own,
A passage back, or two, to make
To times when he was young.

His quaint opinions to inspect,
His knowledge to unfold
On what concerns our mutual mind,
The literature of old;

What interested scholars most,
What competitions ran
When Plato was a certainty.
And Sophocles a man;

When Sappho was a living girl,
And Beatrice wore
The gown that Dante deified.
Facts, centuries before,

He traverses familiar,
As one should come to town
And tell you all your dreams were true;
He lived where dreams were sown.

His presence is enchantment,
You beg him not to go;
Old volumes shake their vellum heads
And tantalize, just so.


Besides the autumn poets sing,
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the haze.

A few incisive mornings,
A few ascetic eyes, —
Gone Mr. Bryant’s golden-rod,
And Mr. Thomson’s sheaves.

Still is the bustle in the brook,
Sealed are the spicy valves;
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many elves.

Perhaps a squirrel may remain,
My sentiments to share.
Grant me, O Lord, a sunny mind,
Thy windy will to bear!

In Brief: Recent Reads

Friends, Romans, countrypersons: if I had my druthers, I’d review every book I read in-depth, but alas, my druthers never seem to be had. Herewith, three recent—and very different—titles in brief.

The High Divide** by Lin Enger

photo (8)Perfect if you’re looking for a Western with big themes.

One day, Ulysses Pope walks away from his home, his wife Gretta, and their two sons, Eli and Danny—without any explanation. Eli and Danny decide to follow him, and Gretta them, and their odyssey (you knew that was coming, right?) becomes both a search for survival in a changing Western environment and a search for forgiveness. Mr. Enger writes women very well, has a knack for the perfect detail, and somehow kept me reading even though child endangerment (in this case, running away on trains) usually scares me off. And I loved the book’s ending. Highly recommended.


Rooms* by Lauren Oliver

photo 1Perfect if you’re still craving spooky after Halloween.

Ms. Oliver is known for her young adult fiction (which I haven’t read); Rooms is her first novel for adults. It’s a ghost story, in a way, but with a nice twist: the house is a ghost, or rather, ghosts. A family (dipsomaniac mother, nymphomaniac daughter, depressed son) returns to their country home after the death of the estranged patriarch. Mysteries—theirs and the ghosts’—ensue. Rooms is a great example of a novel with near-completely unlikable protagonists that is nonetheless compelling. The ghosts are a treat to read, and for a few days the normal sounds of house (creaks, buzzes, sighs) might seem very strange.

The Divorce Papers** by Susan Rieger

photo 2Perfect for the plane (which is where I read it).

The Divorce Papers is amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny. Despite its chick-lit pink cover (detest, detest, detest), the book features some seriously interesting legal writing (Ms. Rieger is a lawyer, and this is her first novel). Sophie is a criminal lawyer in the fictional state of Narragansett who’s pulled into a high-profile divorce case against her better judgment. As the title suggests, The Divorce Papers is an epistolary novel, combining Sophie’s memos, legal briefs, court cases, emails, rage notes between soon-to-be-ex-spouses, and other documents. I liked the (invented) legal cases the best; Sophie’s emails to her boss (both personal and professional) made me cringe — no lawyer I know would ever in million years write in such a fashion to her (or his) boss, but that’s artistic license, I suppose. A subplot about sexism in law firms had great potential, but fell flat. I’d like to see what Ms. Rieger could do with a protagonist who doesn’t whine about being teased for going to Yale Law (seriously?) and a subject other than divorce, especially given the detail and wonderful voices of her case summaries.

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

** I received these books from Library Thing’s Early Reviewers Program, which did not affect the content of my reviews.

“Who now shall refill the cup for me?”

Today is Veterans Day in the United States, and Armistice Day and Remembrance Day in other parts of the world; we honor military veterans on this date because the armistice that ended World War I went into effect in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

I thought I’d mark the day by discussing a poem by one of the war poets; as regular readers know, the literature of the Great War is one of my particular areas of interest, though I’ve been delayed  when it comes to my World War I Reading List post (I should have it in time for the centenary of the end of the war . . . ). However, since I’ve talked about Sassoon, Owen, Graves, Rosenberg, and Blunden already this year, I thought I’d detour (though that’s a misleading word) into the work of one of their contemporaries.

"Tolkien 1916". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Tolkien 1916″. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Typically pictured as a twinkly-eyed, pipe-smoking scholar,  J.R.R. Tolkien is not often remembered as a veteran, though readers of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Hobbit may know that he served during the First World War; he fought in the Battle of the Somme. Most of his comrades were killed after he was sent back to England to recover from an illness; he spent the rest of the war weak and ill, though he served in various garrisons on the home front.

In the preface to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote, contradicting those who supposed the work was an allegory for the Second World War, that the book was not an allegory, and that in any case the war that shaped him first began in 1914: “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” In 1918 Tolkien was twenty-six.

Here’s a link to Tolkien reading “Namárië,” or Galadriel’s Lament, the poem of the week in honor of Tolkien and all other veterans. He reads the poem in Elvish (Quenya, for those keeping score), and you can read the English version below the video.

If you’d like to read more about Tolkien’s experiences during the First World War and their influence on his writing, reliable sources recommend John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth.

Recommended Reading: Texts from Jane Eyre, by Mallory Ortberg

Texts from Jane EyreWhen Mallory Ortberg’s Texts from Jane Eyre* arrived, I tried to put off reading it because I knew I wouldn’t want to stop.

I failed.

In text message vignettes, Mallory Ortberg skewers everything from Medea to The Hunger Games, and everyone from Thoreau to Cormac McCarthy. Imagine Hamlet as a petulant teenager, Mr. Rochester as that guy who texts in all caps, and Ashley fending off sexts from Scarlett O’Hara.  I’ve been trying to find a section to excerpt, but I just can’t because I want you to enjoy this book in its entirety. I will say that I started crying with laughter when I read the words “pocket witch.” I bet you will too.

This book is so, so very funny. It’s so funny I called my parents just to read them excerpts. It’s so funny I woke up my son because I was laughing so hard.

If you spend any of your free time reading book blogs (thank you!), I think you’re going to love it.
If you like Mallory Ortberg’s work on The Toast (which, by the way, just published an amazing essay by Katie, whom I’m proud to call a friend), you probably already know how much fun you’re in for.
If you’re an English teacher, run out and get it. I can’t stop wishing it had been published when I was teaching Shakespeare or drama or Modern lit because it would have been like dessert after every book or play we read.

Okay, to review: This book. Very funny. You should read it if you like laughing.

In Memoriam: Galway Kinnell

Strong Is Your HoldPoet Galway Kinnell died last week, and so this weekend, I took Strong Is Your Hold, his last collection, off the shelf and read through it.

It’s beautiful: direct and yet tender, unflinching in the face of death, and very, very human, encompassing both the ugly and the transcendently lovely. He wrote a musical, welcoming free verse that is incredibly appealing.

If you’ve enjoyed the perennial favorite “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” or “The Bear,” I highly recommend you pick up Strong is Your Hold. Here’s a link to “Why Regret?,” the last poem in the collection, to give you a sense of its tone.

My favorite poems in the book were  the  tender poems about his first wife, Ines, and their children, as well as three elegies for his friends. I was struck by how easily I cried reading them; I love poetry, but it doesn’t often provoke me to tears. The volume also includes “When the Towers Fell,” a long poem about September 11th, which I think is the best poem I’ve read about the tragedy.

The New York Times’s obituary quotes Galway Kinnell on poetry: “To me,” he said, “poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”

The person best suited to write an elegy for Galway Kinnell is, of course, Galway Kinnell, but while we wait for someone else to try her hand, here are the lines from Walt Whitman from which Kinnell took his title:

Tenderly—be not impatient,
(Strong is your hold O mortal flesh
Strong is your hold O love.)

Review: The Woman Who Would Be King, by Kara Cooney

The Woman Who Would Be KingKara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King* is what I would call a speculative biography. The subject of the book, Hatshepsut, Egypt’s second female king, is shrouded in mystery for the very simple fact that she lived a very long time ago and thus very little is known about the details of her reign.

Egyptologist Kara Cooney (you may recognize her name, since she produced a Discovery Channel series on Ancient Egypt) attempts to fill in the gaps with The Woman Who Would Be King. Ms. Cooney is careful to note which of her conclusions are speculative, and which are based in archaeological evidence (the book’s Notes section is extensive), though the book necessarily relies heavily on the former.

Hatshepsut, though she ruled for a period of over twenty years, has been overlooked in history compared to, say, Cleopatra VII, Ms. Cooney argues, because Hatshepsut does not fit patriarchal culture’s paradigm of a powerful woman ruler. Based on the extant evidence, Hatshepsut did not come to power through treachery or force, nor did she make a bad end. Her reign was marked by peace and prosperity for Egypt’s people (though not for Egypt’s southern neighbor, Nubia).

Though I am an ardent feminist, I found this argument less interesting than the history Ms. Cooney presents in The Woman Who Would Be King. In its pages we learn about the elaborate religious rituals Egyptian kings were expected to perform (I’d rather like to see such strenuous feats as a requirement for members of the U.S. Congress), the ways that royal families consolidated and retained power, and why it’s so difficult to understand the psychology of important historical figures like Hatshepsut, her adviser Senenmut, and her co-king Thutmose III.

Hatshepsut’s story, in Ms. Cooney’s telling, is one of political savvy, astute emphasis of her important religious role, and careful cultivation of a changing public gender identity. Were she alive today, I suspect Hatshepsut would be the world’s foremost expert on re-branding.

I think The Woman Who Would Be King will be be of particular interest to readers of historical nonfiction, people with an interest in Ancient Egypt, and anyone who enjoyed Ms. Cooney’s Out of Egypt series. I’d be very interested to read Ms. Cooney’s perspective on a historical figure for whom we have more records and artifacts in the future.

Ms. Cooney explores so many possible ways of thinking about Hatshepsut’s life that I found myself wishing I could read one narrative all the way through to its end. I haven’t read any historical fiction about Hatshepsut, but my friend and fellow blogger Audra at Unabridged Chick, who reads tons of historical fiction, recommends Daughter of the Gods, by Stephanie Thornton.

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