Recommended Reading: Katy Simpson Smith’s The Story of Land and Sea

photo (116)Katy Simpson Smith’s luminous debut novel is The Story of Land and Sea*, a careful, spare tale of family in late-eighteenth-century America.

What interested me first in the novel was Paul Yoon’s advance praise; I loved his novel Snow Hunters, which was published last year. (Mr. Yoon teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars, which Ms. Smith attended.) Like Snow Hunters, The Story of Land and Sea often reads like poetry; Ms. Smith’s prose is extraordinarily graceful.

Graceful and powerful, too — at a mere 240 pages, The Story of Land and Sea contains so much material that a lesser novelist might have molded it into a sprawling 500-page book, or even a trilogy. Yet Ms. Smith’s compact style is highly evocative and time and place, and studded with descriptive jewels.  For instance, one character picking roses “prefers the blossoms with petals tightly packed, like women’s skirts” (176-77); another “comes downstairs in bare feet, her head feeling crowded with sharp rocks” (18).

Told in three parts spanning twenty-odd years, the novel orbits around three parent-child pairings in a coastal North Carolina town: John and his daughter Tabitha, Asa and his daughter Helen (later John’s wife and Tabitha’s mother), and Moll and her son Davy.

John is a former pirate. Asa is a respected landowner. Moll is a slave — Helen’s slave.

These three parents love their children with ferocity, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles and losses. All the characters are rendered with compassion and imbued with full emotional ranges. The role faith (and despair) plays in the novel is incredibly nuanced, especially as it intersects with the most terrible of American institutions: slavery.

The Story of Land and Sea is a story of parents and children, but it is also a story of how America came to be, how a nation conceived in the hope of freedom came into the world blighted with the cancer of enslavement. It reveals the terrible price of the loss of empathy, or its fundamental lack.

Moll, who needs freedom most, is the least free of all the characters, so constrained that she cannot bring herself to love the children she bears after Davy:

Two years passed before her second child, and by then she understood that these babies belonged to someone else. Love was weakness. Love was acknowledging the rightness of the world, and this she could not do. The children were beautiful and they deserved affection and she would do her almighty best, but her firstborn son was the last thing she allowed herself to cherish. (167)

The Story of Land and Sea is an unflinching look at the worst and the best of human nature, a beautiful meditation on American origins, and a compelling family saga. Highly recommended reading.

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

“Stay, I said / to the cut flowers”: Jane Hirshfield’s “The Promise” from Come, Thief

Come, ThiefOn vacation earlier this month, Mr. O and I visited the well-appointed Island Books in Middletown, Rhode Island. One of the things I liked best about this little shop was its poetry selection, which included recommended titles handpicked by the bookstore’s staff. Thanks to their recommendation, I picked up Jane Hirshfield’s 2011 book Come, Thief, which I highly recommend.

In this collection, Ms. Hirshfield focuses on small scenes, both natural and domestic, as she reflects on attentiveness, change, and beauty; of special note are several exquisite poems about aging and the inevitable failures of body and mind.

In “The Promise,” which you can read here, the speaker wishes that things both small and beautiful (a cut flower, a spider, a leaf) and large and wondrous (the body, the earth itself) would not change or fade or leave, while acknowledging the inevitability of those kinds of losses. It’s a wistful but lovely poem. drooping flower

Recommended Reading: Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, by Anya Ulinich

photo 1 (21)I’ve read a grand total of three graphic novels (including Maus I and II and Persepolis 1 and 2), but it seems to me that there’s something about the medium that lends itself to personal histories.

Anya Ulinich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel* is no exception. A mordantly funny look at love, online dating, divorce, and growing up, this is tragicomedy at its best. The tone is set on page three: “My sexual awakening was entirely the fault of the U.S. State Department.”

On a book tour in St. Petersburg, Lena reconnects with an old flame, and wonders whether they should try to work things out. Twice divorced, with two children, Lena still isn’t as experienced as she’d like to be in matters of love and sex, and so she decides to try online dating, with hilarious results. The heartbreak comes when she falls for a man offline.

The account of Lena’s dating escapades is peppered with detours into her past, and these were the most interesting segments of the novel, though often far from funny. Lena talks about growing up in the USSR as it teetered on the brink of toppling, and then recounts what it was like to live as a recent immigrant in Arizona in the early 1990s.

Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is a fast read, and refreshing in both its format and its honesty about its heroine’s many foibles and struggles. If you like memoir-like fiction and are looking for a book that stands out from the crowd — and if you like a good Chekhov reference — Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is for you.

What’s your favorite graphic novel? Which one do you think I should try next?

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

Recommended Reading: Augustus, by John Williams

“For Octavius Caesar is Rome; and that, perhaps, is the tragedy of his life.”

photo (115)John Williams’s Augustus* is relentlessly brilliant. It is one of the best books I have ever read.

First published in 1972 to widespread acclaim (it won the National Book Award in 1973), and re-released Tuesday by New York Review Books Classics, Augustus is the third of John Williams’s three novels; the second, Stoner, has been receiving a great deal of critical attention lately. We appear to be in the midst of a Williams renaissance, and I’m all for it.

Augustus is an epistolary novel that chronicles the life of its Gaius Octavius, later Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (or Octavian, or Octavius Caesar), who became the Roman emperor Augustus. Augustus ushered Rome into an era of peace and prosperity after the death of his uncle, Julius Caesar — but not, as this novel makes clear, without great personal cost.

Readers who pick up the novel might want first to brush up a bit on classical Roman history and personages, or watch two of the most entertaining spectacles on Roman history every produced: the star-studded film epic Cleopatra (1963) and the equally star-studded  BBC tv-series I, Claudius (1976), based on the Robert Graves novel of the same name. Cleopatra, which features Elizabeth Taylor in the title role, is simply fabulous (and eminently quotable); Roddy McDowall’s Octavian is cold, calculating, and very young, a sort of icy wunderkind. We are not meant to like him. The Augustus of I, Claudius (played by Brian Blessed), is a jovial, kindly fellow who just wants peace and quiet and a break from his wife’s schemes. (I, Claudius is rather like HBO programming before HBO: sex, violence, top-notch acting, and great source material. It’s Game of Thrones without the dragons. Also, Patrick Stewart with hair: need I say more?)

Augustus‘s portrayal of the man is completely different, because it is only in the book’s brief and final section that we are able to look directly at him, at the way he sees himself. The first two sections are formed by correspondence, diary excerpts, and other documentation from figures who orbit Augustus. The first section chronicles the young Octavius’s rise to power through political acumen, battlefield victories, and strategic marriages; it is a success story, even though its central figure is by no means a saint. The second section delves into the now-emperor’s personal life, with its many missteps and disappointments, chiefly regarding Augustus’s only daughter, Julia.

In both sections, we see Octavius (or Augustus) in profile, as Williams pieces together a collage of the man from portraits by his friends, enemies, and observers. Julius Caesar, Cicero, Marc Antony, Horace, Virgil, Agrippa, Maecenas, Ovid, Cleopatra, Livia, Julia — they’re all in the book, all vivid characters themselves (it’s particularly wonderful to read how seriously Williams takes the female characters). I’ve never seen the epistolary form used to such perfect effect.

Williams’s technical mastery is overwhelmingly good; style, pacing, plotting, and thematic considerations all balanced. His command of the material is unimpeachable (he does acknowledge poetic license with facts and timelines, as necessary).  Each character is identifiable by his or her style of writing, but Williams never caricatures, never attempts to make a person memorable by inflating his or her worst or best characteristics. Livia plots and schemes, to be sure, but she’s not the arch-villainess of I, Claudius; she’s an ambitious and ruthless person, but still a person.

While much historical fiction recreates lost worlds through sumptuous (and enjoyable) description, Williams brings Rome to life through plain but subtle language, evoking the philosophy and outlook of a culture in transition. And since Rome — as a republic and as an empire — was a model for the founders of America, Augustus suggests many parallels and warnings about our own historical moment. (Look for an absolutely killer final line.)

While it is a novel about a poilitcal figure, Augustus is just as interested in the man: the father, brother, and friend who built an empire. In the novel’s last section, an elderly Augustus writes one last letter to an absent friend, reflecting on his life and the choices he made for the good of Rome. In the end, writes Augustus,

I have come to believe that in the life of every man, late or soon, there is a moment when he knows beyond whatever else he might understand, and whether he can articulate the knowledge or not, the terrifying fact that he is alone, and separate, and that he can be no other than the poor thing that is himself. (293)

Augustus is simply not to be missed. Masterful, elegant, erudite, and approachable. A sublime reading experience.

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

“white desire”: William Carlos Williams’s “Queen-Anne’s Lace”

Queen Anne's Lace_CarolynOliverIt’s August, which means the Queen Anne’s lace is out, which means it’s time for one of my favorite poems, William Carlos Williams’s sexy and gorgeous “Queen-Anne’s Lace.”

You can read the poem here.

Bet you want a glass of iced tea now.

In Brief: Essay Edition

The Empathy Exams: Essays*
by Leslie Jamison

photo (111)Unless you’ve been hiding from all forms of media for the last few months, you’ve no doubt heard the overwhelming praise for this collection of essays, winner of Graywolf Press’s Nonfiction Prize. I am pleased to report that The Empathy Exams deserves all the good press.

In these intensely personal meditations, Ms. Jamison turns her sharp wits on herself, examining her experiences, faults, successes, and privilege as she writes about empathy and how we deploy it. Anyone who’s ever had a difficult experience conveying pain in a medical environment will find material of great interest here, but Ms. Jamison reaches beyond the medical in essays about prison, mining, an extreme endurance race, and the history of artificial sweeteners, among other topics. Her essays vary in length and form, expanding the parameters of the genre and allowing the reader the pleasure of wondering what will come next even as the insights from the previous essay are still being digested. The final essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” is a tour de force, and an absolute must-read.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems
by David Rakoff

photo 5 (2)Last year, I reviewed David Rakoff’s 1997 collection, Fraud, which was in some ways responsible for me being forced to sit through a Steven Seagal marathon, and which is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, so funny that it had me choking with laughter.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable (2005) finds Mr. Rakoff in a less jocular mood, skewering American consumerism in its many forms. Don’t get me wrong — a society that produces Hooters Air richly deserves skewering, but in these essays, laced as they are with humor, I felt a sense of bitterness, which simply wasn’t what I was expecting, though maybe I should have been, given the collection’s title. Still, essays on edible foraging in Central Park and the zaniness of fashion week are worth the price of admission.

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

Recommended Reading: Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique

photo 3 (7)Tiphanie Yanique’s debut novel, Land of Love and Drowning*, is one of the most unusual and spellbinding family sagas I’ve ever read. Set over six decades in the Virgin Islands, the narrative revolves around two strikingly beautiful, and strikingly different, sisters.

Anette and Eeona are the children of one Captain Bradshaw and his wife Antoinette, two volatile people who keep secrets from each other, their children, and maybe even themselves. Both have high hopes and expectations when the Virgin Islands trade hands from Danish to American rule in the early 1900s, hopes that are dashed. Their children are left orphaned, and when Anette and Eeona begin to navigate their straitened financial and social circumstances, the story takes flight.

Though they’re both bound to love the wrong kind of man, the sisters are different in terms of temperament, tastes, education, and worldview. Heavily influenced by her mother, Eeona longs to escape from the Virgin Islands (and from the responsibility of raising Anette); she’s aware of her beauty’s perilous power, and takes care to isolate herself in many ways. Given her education and upbringing, it’s no surprise that the sections of the narrative written in Eeona’s voice showcase her careful choice of words and formal style.

Anette, on the other hand, is much more open and frank (with other people) than her sister. Her voice is rendered in dialect; she’s warm and funny and curious, open to all kinds of experiences, even if they land her in trouble. While Eeona is wary of love and male attention, Anette welcomes what comes her way, accepting the devotions of three very different, but good men.

What this review can’t convey adequately is the grace with which Ms. Yanique renders her portrait of the Virgin Islands in a century of upheaval and change (war, tourism, protest movements, and a hurricane all affect the characters), and the deft way in which she weaves magical realism into the narrative to explore characters and emotions.  Land of Love and Drowning is a beautiful, vibrant book, and I hope it brings more attention not only to the talented Ms. Yanique, but also to Caribbean literature.

Coming Soon: An Interview with Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning

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