“only by the wildflower meadow”: David Mason’s “In the Mushroom Summer”

A view from Rocky Mountain National Park

A view from Rocky Mountain National Park

Last week, we visited family and friends in Colorado, which was just delightful (I hope to write a book-themed post about the trip, but you know my track record on posts I plan to write). The scenery is gorgeous, of course, and we were treated to quite an array of weather, starting with heavy snow and including rain, mist, thunderstorms, and brilliant sunshine.

I just came across this little poem by David Mason, called “In the Mushroom Summer,” that gives a good sense of what the mountain landscape looks like in the rain. I love the way the speaker knows how high he’s climbed only by the sight of the flowers in an alpine meadow.

Do tell: Do you have a favorite poem about a place you’ve traveled?

Recommended Reading: War of the Encyclopaedists, by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite

photo (43)War of the Encyclopaedists* is a novel by two authors, Gavin Kovite and Christopher Robinson, about war and self-knowledge, romance and proto-hispters, and somehow it works.

[Full disclosure: One of the authors, Christopher Robinson, and I were in a class (on Joyce, if you’re interested) in graduate school together, and we have a friend or two in common.]

Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy (yes, you’re hearing the Holden Caulfield in that one) are Seattle college graduates who, as “the Encyclopaedists” host huge house parties with arch themes (“monocularity” and “pupa,” for example). On the night of what turns out to be their last party, Montauk is preparing to tell his best friend that they won’t be in Boston for grad school together that fall—Montauk will be deploying to Iraq with his National Guard unit instead—and Hal in turn is trying to figure out how to distance himself from his unpredictable girlfriend, an artist named Mani.

Over the next year, we watch as Montauk, Corderoy, and Mani each struggle to adapt to new environments and new ways of seeing each other. Corderoy finds himself lost and unhappy in his classes and with his brilliant and driven roommate Tricia. After an accident, Mani searches for a way to make art again. And most urgently, Montauk tries to stay alive—and keep his men alive—in a Baghdad that is crumbling around them.

The four characters cross paths in sometimes-contrived ways, but their tangled relationships give War of the Encyclopaedists the wide-angle lens that makes it so interesting. Novels about war often point to the daily absurdities of military life, but when juxtaposed with the absurdities of South End art openings, they appear in a whole new light. Still, the novel’s interest is in both the serious and the shallow, with what happens when the best of intentions come up against human frailties.

Montauk and Corderoy keep in touch not through letter-writing or e-mailing, but by editing a Wikipedia page they’ve made about themselves (the book is set in 2004, when Wikipedia was in its early stages). It’s very meta, but the use of the conceit is limited, which means that it packs a punch when it appears.

War of the Encyclopaedists moves quickly, shifting perspectives among the characters. In general, the writing styles of the two authors blend together seamlessly, though occasionally it does feel as if one is reading one author rather than the other. The novel’s style tends more toward the experimental as the book goes on, which I think is promising for the duo’s future efforts; I’m very interested to see where their model of collaborative authorship takes Mr. Robinson and Mr. Kovite when their subject matter isn’t autobiographically inflected.

Boston Readers: Christopher Robinson & Gavin Kovite will hold a reading and signing at Harvard Bookstore on June 5 at 7:00 p.m.

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

“the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope”: Gregory Pardlo’s “Double Dutch”

photo (41)This year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry is Gregory Pardlo, who is the author of two books of poetry (Totem and Digest) and the recipient of many awards. In its citation, the Pulitzer committee called the collection “clear-voiced poems that bring readers the news from 21st Century America, rich with thought, ideas and histories public and private.”

Now, as is often the case, I find myself not well enough acquainted with this poet, but I’m going to be on the lookout for his books, especially after reading “Double Dutch,” which is gorgeous, and I’m quite sure the best poem about jump-roping ever written. Like the ropes crossing over each other as the girls turn them, each line of the poem crosses another. What Mr. Pardlo does with light in this poem is stupendous; a painter could make a series out of the images without ever seeing the subjects of the poem in the flesh.

[Note to the Dear Readers: I’m trying an experiment this week wherein the weekly poetry post appears on Thursday and the usual book review/recommendation appears on Tuesday. I’m pretty confident that this will affect absolutely nobody’s life, but if you hate or love the new arrangement, please let me know.]

Recommended Reading: A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

photo (42)Kate Atkinson’s 2013 highly inventive novel Life After Life was one of my favorites of the year, and I’ve been eagerly anticipating the publication of A God in Ruins*, which is not a sequel, exactly (I doubt such a thing is possible, given the peculiar structure of Life after Life), but what the author calls a “companion piece.”

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the first half of the twentieth century over and over again, with particular focus on her experience during the London Blitz. A God In Ruins is the story of her brother Teddy, who doesn’t share his sister’s reincarnation quirk. Instead, we’re witness to Teddy’s one life, from its Arcadian beginnings at the family home, Fox Run, to his experience as an RAF bomber pilot during the war, and on to his marriage and relationships with his daughter and grandchildren. The story is told non-chronologically, all the pieces slowly falling into place and weaving together the stuff of one good man’s life.

For Teddy is a good man, a person who does his best under the terrible circumstances of war and the unexpectedly difficult circumstances of post-war family life. It’s a book about the loss of innocence, but it reaches deeper than the bildungsroman it certainly could have been to pull us into a the long decades of life. Teddy is sometimes mystified by what life has shown him, in particular by the behavior of his daughter Viola; she’s a delectably unlikeable character, but one who is shown compassion by her father, and ultimately, the author.

I loved this book; despite its unusual chronological structure, it had the feel of an old-fashioned novel, if that makes sense. Distinct motifs, wry humor, and affecting imagery run through the text, which made for an enjoyable, engaging reading experience, even when the subject matter is difficult.

And on another note, I loved the book for personal reasons. As I mentioned above, Teddy is the pilot of a Halifax bomber, and the descriptions of the terrifying flights to Germany (and other targets) are visceral, clearly informed by research and first-person interviews (Ms. Atkinson provides a helpful bibliography). My grandfather, who is 94, younger than Teddy would be (were he a real person) was the navigator on a B-17 during the war, and this book reinforced for me his bravery and sacrifice, and his modesty.

A God in Ruins is one of several excellent, recent books about the Second World War, books like All the Light We Cannot See, The Evening Chorus, and Ms. Atkinson’s own Life After Life. I hope to see this constellation of historical fiction grow.

If you know a veteran of World War II, you might consider helping to preserve history by participating in one of these oral history projects:

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

[Note to the Dear Readers: I’m trying an experiment this week wherein the weekly poetry post appears on Thursday and the usual book review/recommendation appears on Tuesday. I’m pretty confident that this will affect absolutely nobody’s life, but if you hate or love the new arrangement, please let me know.]

A Qualified Recommendation: A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

photo (39)I wrote “qualified” above because if you heed trigger warnings, A Little Life* is not the book for you. It is not a happy book, and in all likelihood you will feel gutted when you read it; I’m aware that not all readers are looking for that kind of experience. If you read Hanya Yanagihara’s brilliant and stomach-turning debut, The People in the Trees, you have an inkling of what you’re in for here.

The People in the Trees took more than a decade to write, and the result was a tightly-controlled novel in which every word worked, the pages so tightly wound with lush language they seemed ready to explode. A Little Life was composed in about 18 months, and it’s a sprawling book, its paragraphs sometimes the length of a page, its repetitions numerous and emotionally exhausting (though necessary in the world of the novel). It’s brilliant, ambitious, and flawed, and difficult though it was, I’m glad I read it.

Though A Little Life is billed as a novel about four friends, the eponymous life belongs to Jude, who meets Willem, Malcolm, and JB in college. The book opens when the foursome has re-formed in New York in their mid- to late-20s, mostly broke, all trying to make it in their chosen professions: JB in art, Malcolm in architecture, Willem in acting, and Jude in law.

The novel follows the friends and their careers for over three decades, while simultaneously slowly revealing Jude’s harrowing history. Though he has as much artistic potential as his friends—he’s a gifted singer, cook, and mathematician, among other things—Jude chose law as one of the building blocks of his adult life because he hopes it will keep him safe. Jude’s childhood is an acreage of horrific, though sadly not unbelievable abuse, from which he has never recovered, either physically or emotionally. If Dickens were alive and unfettered by nineteenth-century mores, Jude’s is the kind of childhood he might have created.

As the novel marches toward its inevitable end, two of the four friends recede into the background of the story, which is a problem, I think. True, their position reflects their lessening influence in Jude’s life, but when they’re so carefully drawn initially, the exclusion feels wrong. In a novel that comes in at over 700 pages; why not add another hundred-odd to flesh out these men?

I suspect the answer has something to do with the novel’s tendency to regard its characters as good or evil; the good are very good, the bad despicably evil. Malcolm and JB are good, but they are more complicated men than Willem, for instance. Willem’s defining characteristic is his devotion to Jude; the same is true for Andy, Jude’s friend and doctor, and Harold, Jude’s law school professor and father figure. These characters have personalities, of course, but whether or not they will make the right choice in how they behave toward Jude or how they conduct their own lives is never in question. Malcolm, however, tends to vacillate, and JB can be selfish and callous; they are more interesting, in the end, than Willem and Harold and Andy.

As I was reading it, A Little Life reminded me of a fairy tale, not only in the clear delineation between good and evil characters, but also  in its extremes. The magnitude of the horror of Jude’s childhood is matched only by the magnitude of his fortune once he escapes from it. He enters a world where people go out of their way, repeatedly, to care for him, like fairy godmothers. His brilliant mind and steadfast effort (he works punishing hours, even for an attorney) put him on track to become a litigator at a top New York law firm, earning enough to buy almost any material thing he could want. His friends are artists and intellectuals who draw him into their orbit. He travels to faraway lands. He is loved.

In a Disney fairytale, that would be the end of it, all neatly wrapped up in a bow: the hero suffers but is compensated for his suffering, and all live happily ever after. But of course that is not how it goes, no matter how much we want to believe in hope and redemption. Jude, despite his talents, his money, his resources, his unrelenting devotion to work and to his friends, and the persistent evidence of their love and care for him, cannot overcome his own self-abhorrence. His mind and his body are badly scarred, and Ms. Yanagihara’s great triumph in this novel is making us see how it is possible for a person to have what looks like everything, and still feel like nothing, like worse than nothing. It is an extraordinary act of eliciting empathy.

The novel’s other great strength lies in its searing observations about friendship, and parenthood, and love, which often left me in tears. Reading A Little Life is an experience; when you’re not reading it, you’ll be thinking about it, and seeing echoes of the writing in little things around you (check out the Instagram account for the book, curated by Ms. Yanagihara and Leonor Mamanna, for examples). A Little Life made me watch Friends: I was so distraught after reading certain sections (multiple sections) of the novel that the only help for it was a massive dose of cheerful 90s vapidity.

For all its emotional power, the novel is not without flaws. One I’ve already mentioned (the sloughing off of Malcolm and JB). Another is the persistent feeling that for all its moments of specificity, the book doesn’t take place in time; there’s no sense of the larger world’s events and upheavals. And everyone in Jude’s post-college life becomes successful, wealthy by almost any standard, happy (with one notable detour by a major character). Named minor characters filter in and out of the action, but we don’t see enough of their relationships with Jude to justify these comings and goings. Now, the argument could be made that the form of the novel is following its function: we see other characters in proportion to how much they matter to Jude. Still, I would have suggested expanding their roles slightly (what’s another 80 pages?) or winnowing down by at least a hundred pages (but I wouldn’t want that red pen in my hand).

Because of these issues, the world of the novel sometimes felt like a fantasy-land (apparently, I later learned from an interview, this “untethered” effect was intentional), and when that crashed into the specificity of the manifestations of Jude’s anguish, the effect was jarring for me, in a way that detracted from the experience.

Still, the novel is incredibly affecting, raw and bold and fearless. If you are prepared for the challenges, the reward is in the reading.

Ms. Yanagihara said in the same interview I mentioned above that she’s not sure she’ll write another novel, and I do hope that’s not the case. By now you’ve probably noticed that the characters I mentioned are all men, and that’s because almost all the major and supporting characters in the book are men (the same is true for The People in the Trees). I’d love to see what she’d make of a female protagonist.

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

A Bookish Weekend, with Sonnets

I hope you are enjoying very fine weather, Dear Readers, as we are here in Boston. This past weekend was just gorgeous, and full of bookish delights. First, on Friday night, my friend A. came over and we had this exchange (paraphrased from memory):

Me: I’d like to see that new Thomas Hardy movie that’s coming out.

A: Aren’t there something like three Tom Hardy movies coming out this summer?

Me: ???

A: You know, the actor who was in the Batman movie?

Me: I meant the nineteenth-century novelist.

A: Oh . . .

And then I fell into a paroxysm of laughter as I imagined the kind of world in which three Thomas Hardy movies would come out in one summer. It was amazing. (A has a PhD in English literature, by the way.)

Then there was Independent Bookstore Day, which we celebrated over at Harvard Bookstore:

photo (37)

I was telling my grandpa about the bookstore and he pointed out that when my siblings and I were kids (lo these many years ago), he used to pick out books for us at the very same one (“It’s come full circle” were his words).

I read the Roxane Gay book Saturday night (mini review to come at some point in the next month or so) and flipped through my new poetry books on Sunday, when I also squeezed in a bit of Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, which I’m hoping to finish this week.

photo (38)As you can see from the picture above, one of the books I picked up at Harvard Bookstore was this vintage (that cover!) Harper Perennial pocket edition of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Collected Sonnets (chosen by the poet herself, apparently). I love the look and the weight of the volume.

Millay was one of the first poets I discovered for myself; on a whim, I picked up a copy of her Selected Poems at Half Price Books when I was in high school, and that book has been with me ever since. She was a brilliant poet (though at times uneven), both earnest and jaunty, heartbroken and carefree. She was straightforward and often very funny, and her biography reads like a novel, which for me made her poems all the more enticing.

There’s plenty to choose from when it comes to her sonnets. The one that begins, “What lips my lips have kissed” is one of the few poems I have memorized that’s always “stuck” (I don’t need to re-memorize it from time to time), and of course it’s very famous. For a bit of a wider range, head over to The Poetry Foundation, which here gives a group of four sonnets from 1922. 

Recommended Reading: Re Jane by Patricia Park

Couldn't resist getting a picture of the book with this forsythia.

Couldn’t resist getting a picture of the book with this forsythia.

I love Jane Eyre with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. It was one of my favorite books growing up—my mother read it aloud to me when I was nine or ten—and I’ve read it every few years ever since. I love it for the reasons everyone else does: Jane’s fiery temper and cool intellect, her passionate emotions and unfailing sense of what is right and wrong. I love how much she craves justice. The world is flooded with bildungsroman about boys and men, but Jane Eyre is in my book the best of the genre.

Patricia Park’s Re Jane* (coming May 5, but I just couldn’t resist writing about it now) is a modern reimagining of Jane Eyre that pays homage to its predecessor while carving its own path, one that shines with wit.

[Full disclosure: Patricia Park is the friend of a friend, and we have met once or twice (once at a book swap party, actually, come to think of it), and we’re friendly acquaintances in the world of social media, which is why I’ve been excited about this book for years.]

It’s 2000. Jane Re lives in Queens with her uncle, aunt, and cousins, working in her uncle’s store after a job offer in finance fell through. Adrift, and bereft of her best friend, who’s going off to work at Google (and who needs her own book–she’s delightful), she decides to accept an unconventional offer: to work as a nanny for the Mazer-Farley family in (pre-hipster) Brooklyn.

Jane is smart, organized, hardworking, and flailing under the weight the differences that separate her from her family: she is an orphan, and she is half Korean, half American, treated coldly, if not cruelly, by her traditional-minded Korean uncle.

With the Mazer-Farley’s Jane feels the weight of nunchi (a principle of deference to one’s elders out of obligation that results in a great deal of non-verbal etiquette to follow) lifting, but finds other problems: struggling through the feminist readings assigned by the well-meaning but oblivious Beth Mazer; helping her very bright pupil (adopted from China, she has all of Adele’s mischief with none of her preciousness) negotiate the social complexities of school; and falling for Ed Farley, a gruff but thoughtful English teacher with a knack for midnight snacking.

The novel follows Jane from Flushing to Brooklyn to Seoul and back to Queens again as she charts a difficult course to discovering who she is and what she wants, not only in terms of love and family, but identity and career as well.

Readers who love Jane Eyre will appreciate all the touches that recall the original novel, from names to recurring phrases (and the title of a certain scholarly work that pulled from Jane Eyre itself), and will recognize the structure of the plot. However, Ms. Park does not adhere to strictly to its outcomes and characters do not follow a 1:1 correspondence (though her rendering of St. John Rivers is particularly strong ), which was a wise choice. I couldn’t stop turning pages, wondering what Jane would do or think next.

While the novel is particularly attentive to issues of ethnicity and class, it never takes itself too seriously. I delighted in the wit on display—the book includes a wonderful send-up of academia and, shall we say, the wheatgrass-and-tote-bag type–and references to geek culture that pepper the novel.

And  I loved the fascinating look at Korean culture that Ms. Park provides, which made me want to visit Seoul (she traveled to Korea on a Fulbright some years ago, and her blog about the experience was wonderful, though I don’t think it’s online anymore). If you’d like a brief non-fiction sampling of some cultural differences she encountered, you can read this essay in Brevity.

Re Jane is a compassionate and thoughtful (and feminist!) retelling of a beloved classic that deserves to be read for its own numerous merits. I can’t wait for Patricia Park’s next book.

Boston readers: Patricia Park will be at Harvard Bookstore on May 11 at 7pm, in conversation with Margot Livesey. Get there!

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