Last Week’s Reading

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January 8-14: A haunting novel in translation, debut fiction from a poet, a ghost story, a highly acclaimed play, and a poet I wish I’d read years ago.

Human Acts photo by Carolyn OliverSouth Korean writer Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian (which I haven’t read); Human Acts*, which you can find at your local bookstore today, is the next of her novels to be translated into English by Deborah Smith. It is absolutely riveting, though quite hard to read, given the subject matter. The subject is the viciously quelled 1980 Gwanju Uprising, and the lens is the life and death of one boy, Dong-ho. In chapters that shift focus among different people who knew Dong-ho (well or tangentially), the author explores trauma, resilience, memory, witness, and questions of the soul. At what cost do survivors of torture bear witness to their sufferings? How do ordinary people find the strength to resist brutal injustice? How ought we to feel about being human when humans can be despicable creatures—or brave and kind? Human Acts is a devastating, brilliant book.

img_3538After reading Human Acts, I needed something a bit lighter to take the edge off, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, was just the ticket. Eighty-something Lillian Boxfish decides to end 1984 by taking a walk around her beloved New York City, reflecting on a life lived to the very fullest—if not always happily. Lillian has verve, and her recollections of working in the advertising department at Macy’s in the 1930s are wonderful (especially if you’re missing Mad Men); the character is based on Margaret Fishback, the highest paid woman in advertising during her heyday. This novel is light but not fluffy; the emphasis on connection was sensitive rather than mawkish. I generally loved the company of Lillian’s sharp mind (with the exception of several instances of fat-shaming, which, please, dear authors, can we dispense with?).

Less delightful was Gillian Flynn’s The Grown Up. Originally included in a short story anthology, the tale would, I suspect, be better served in that format, rather than as a standalone book (it was included in this month’s Book of the Month mailing). It’s a ghost story with a twist; I found it more grotesque than thrilling, and the ending, alas, didn’t satisfy.

img_3496One of the last books I read in 2016 was John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt; I couldn’t resist the temptation to make the next play I read Proof, David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winner (2001). Sometimes I forget how much I love reading drama (I used to teach it), though I’m happy when plays like these remind me. I suspect I don’t read drama often because it doesn’t get the hype in book-world (where, for good or ill, I spend much of my time) that fiction, nonfiction, and even poetry do. I wonder why that is. Anyway, Proof is about math, mental illness, and family. It’s very, very good.

fullsizerender-13Last week, I finally read Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poems (edited and introduced by Irish poet Eavan Boland). Mew came highly recommended by friend and poet Emily Mohn-Slate, and I am kicking myself, Dear Readers that I (a.) didn’t pick up this book ages ago and (b.) didn’t read it as soon as it arrived as a birthday present. Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) is an utterly tragic figure, but her poems are marvels—lines like none I’ve ever read before: part Victorian, part Georgian, part Modernist, and all deeply moving.  I cried twice reading this slim volume, and friends, I do not cry easily when it comes to poetry.


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

I’m not sure this weekly reading wrap-up is going to be a regular feature, but I’m running with it for now!

Winter Reading

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What I read last week: Roxane Gay’s story collection, debut fiction from Kathleen Arden, poetry by David St. John, and Claire Fuller’s second novel.

The first week of 2017 was a good start to the reading year; I had a bit more time to read than usual, thanks to the holiday, so I managed to zip through four books.

img_2913First up: Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women*, a collection of Ms. Gay’s previously published short stories. The women portrayed in these stories are troubled—by violence, abuse, miscarriage, lost children, lost childhoods—and troubling to those (mostly men) around them, who cannot come to grips with their struggles. Recurring motifs include knives, deer, hunting, mold, and sex, though the stories run the gamut in setting (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Florida) and style (realist to fantastical). The exquisite “North Country” is worth the price of admission, and I loved the title story, which takes on the categories women often find themselves assigned to (“Crazy Women”, “Frigid Women,” “Mothers,” and more). Emotionally difficult but worthwhile reading, which is what I expect from the author of An Untamed State and Bad Feminist.

img_3432Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale* is perfect reading for a snowy weekend. In her debut, Ms. Arden (who has quite an impressive background in Russian studies) brings medieval Russia to life as she chronicles the extraordinary days of Vasilisa, the fearless, adventuresome youngest daughter of a boyar living in a small village at the edge of a wild forest. If that sounds like the setup for a fairytale, that’s because it is: myth and magic are intertwined with the everyday eking out of survival in Vasya’s world, as she and siblings forget their frozen fingers and empty stomachs as they listen to her old nurse’s tales of the frost demon and the smaller spirits of their home. While there were a few loose ends (meant for a sequel, perhaps?) and one subplot that was a bit trite, overall I found The Bear and the Nightingale to be a delicious, exuberant foray into a lost world.

img_3119Long ago, when this blog was young, it was a way to push myself to memorize poems—less than successful, I’m sorry to say. But the poets I read that year have stuck with me, including David St. John, whose poem “In the  High Country” is just lovely. I was happy to find a copy of The Shore (1980) at one of my favorite used bookstores, but while I liked the collection (and a few poems in particular, including “Guitar” and “Until the Sea is Dead”), it’s not destined for my all-time favorites list. I’m still glad to have read it, though.

img_3046I recommended Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller’s debut novel, when it was published in 2015, and her new novel, Swimming Lessons, is another great find (it’s an early pick for the Book of the Month club; look for it in bookstores this February). Like Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons offers twin mysteries: in this case, both revolve around the disappearance of Ingrid Coleman, the wife of a semi-famous English novelist and mother to their two daughters. In the present, Flora, the younger daughter, returns to her childhood home to care for her father (with the help of Nan, her sister) and to investigate her mother’s disappearance. In alternating chapters, we read Ingrid’s letters to Gil (never sent; placed in several of his multitudinous books) that chronicle how she was swept away by their romance—and might explain why she disappeared. If you read and like Swimming Lessons, I recommend Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies.

I hope your first (and second) week of reading went well! 

*I received a copy of these books from the publishers for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my reviews.

Happy New Year!

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Dear Readers,

Happy New Year! I hope 2017 brings you health, happiness, and many delightful books.

Rosemary & Reading Glasses has just entered its fifth year, and some changes are in the offing. In order to pursue some personal projects and goals, I’ll be cutting back on the number of posts; instead of posting twice a week, I might post three to four times a month. I’ll still be reviewing new books, but not quite so many, and I’d like to focus particularly on debut authors, poetry, and small presses. You can also expect to see books reviewed in batches, since I anticipate that reducing the amount of time I spend writing longer reviews will give me more time to, you know, read more books.

As ever, I hope these posts lead you to great books (and more poetry!), and I thank you very much for reading.


A final note:

I’m delighted to have a story in the new issue of Pulp Literature, which Canadian readers might be able to find in local bookshops; the magazine is also available for e-readers.

(Links to other work, as usual, are on carolynoliver.net.)

 

Another Year in Books: Best of 2016

 

best-of-2016Dear Readers,

Thank you so much for another wonderful year in the world of books. I wish you health and happiness in the new year, and a warm, cheery holiday season, however you celebrate.

Now, for the last Rosemary & Reading Glasses post of the year, the traditional last-minute gift guide. It would tax your patience if I were to talk about every book I’ve read this year (97 as of this writing, probably just over 100 by year’s end), so I’ve listed (with two exceptions) 2016 releases in categories constructed by my arbitrary whims. All these books are recommended.

Poetry

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Donika Kelly, Bestiary

W. S. Merwin, Garden Time

Catherine Pierce, The Tornado is the World

Monica Youn, Blackacre

Honorable Mention to Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (2015), which I couldn’t bear to leave off this list.

Short Stories

Ellen Prentiss Campbell, Contents Under Pressure

Helen Oyeyemi, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

Junot Díaz (editor) and Heidi Pitlor (series editor), The Best American Short Stories 2016

Clare Beams, We Show What We Have Learned

Short Novels

Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday

Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton

Idra Novey, Ways to Disappear

Longer Novels

Dominic Smith, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Alexander Chee, The Queen of the Night

Louise Erdrich, LaRose

Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes

Lived Up to the Hype

Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

Brit Bennett, The Mothers

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Jeff Zentner, The Serpent King

Books in Translation

Maylis de Kerangal, The Heart (translated by Sam Taylor)

Dulce María Loynaz, Absolute Solitude (translated by James O’Connor)

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Reputations (translated by Anne McLean)

Nonfiction

Claire Harman, Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures

Depressing (and Very Good)

Katy Simpson Smith, Free Men

Jung Yun, Shelter

Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You

Katie Roiphe, The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End

Delightful (and Very Good)

Shirley Barrett, Rush Oh! 

Lindsay Faye, Jane Steele

Honorable Mention to Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, out in paperback this year

Best for Sleuths

Elliott Chaze, Black Wings Has My Angel

Erica Wright, The Granite Moth

Best for New Parents

Jennifer Stewart Miller, A Fox Appears

Best Shakespeare Adaptation

Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

Best Graphic Novel/Comic

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Saga: Volume 6 (Start with Volume 1, though!)

Best Sui Generis

Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond

 

What Were Your Favorite Poems This Year?

Dear Readers,

This week I’ve read two excellent poetry collections: Yona Harvey’s illuminating, musical Hemming the Water (thanks to a recommendation from poet and friend Emily Mohn-Slate) and Simon Armitage‘s Book of Matches (unsettling turns, brilliant wordplay). I highly recommend them both, and wish I had more time to write about them now.

Though I’m not done reading for the year, I am reflecting on the year’s reading, and it’s been just a stellar year for poetry; more on that next week. In the meantime, I hope you’ll take a moment to tell me about your poetry reading this year. What was your favorite poem or collection? What was the most surprising discovery? How are you finding new poems to read?

Until next week!

A Few Short Things

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Dear Readers,

Next week I plan on sharing some last-minute gift picks—if you’re looking for a specific recommendation, send me an email this week and I’ll do my best to oblige—but for now I hope you won’t mind if I link to a few pieces of mine that have been published recently.

Over at America: a poem, “Iphigenia Leaving Tauris” (and here’s the Wikipedia entry on Iphigenia if it’s been awhile since you picked up your Edith Hamilton).

At Tin House’s Open Bar: a short-short, “Thanksgiving,” that also aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s State of Wonder (so you can hear me read it in my very own voice, which naturally makes me cringe, but oh well).

And in Slush Pile Magazine (the slush pile is lit-mag slang for batches of unsolicited submissions): a story (and not exactly cheery, I must warn), “Drifting, Maybe Caught.”

Coming soon: a poem in Constellations that includes the word “zombies,” which is a first and probably a last for me.

Thanks for reading, friends! Here’s hoping that you didn’t find this post obnoxious, that you’re staying warm, and that you have a chance to curl up with a good book.

Recommended Reading: The Tornado is the World, by Catherine Pierce

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Years ago, my friend A. (who has great taste) sent me a link to a poem by a friend of hers. That poem was Catherine Pierce’s “The Mother Warns the Tornado,” which is very, very good.

The Tornado Is the World photo by Carolyn OliverI’ve never forgotten it (I watched Twister quite a bit in my formative years), and so I was delighted when a copy of The Tornado Is the World*, Ms. Pierce’s new book of poems, appeared in the mailbox. It’s just as excellent as “The Mother Warns the Tornado” promises.

How do we live in a world where disaster might be just around the corner? This is the question The Tornado Is the World explores in its three sections, beginning with the poem “Disaster Work,” which asks: If you truly focused on each and every tragedy unfolding in the same moment,

How could you do the impossible work
of putting your child to bed,
saying goodnight, closing the door
on the darkness?

You couldn’t, of course; we bear the unbearable by setting it aside, considering it only briefly, or when it happens to us (and it will).

That’s why the metaphor of the book’s title works so well: you can’t predict when the world is going to come for you (“Checks / and balances, and I wait for the tally to be evened”), or how bad the damage will be. In these poems (about two dozen out of the collection, including the entire second section) the tornado is a malevolent entity, power personified. “But the tornado cannot stop. Will not. / The world cannot stop turning, and this minute / the tornado is the world,” the poet writes in “The Tornado Visits the Town.” It gathers objects and living things in a terrifying harvest, as in “The Tornado Collects the Animals”:

The tornado will wrap them tight.
It will make sure the poor things
know what it is to be held.

That’s such a powerful image, echoing the repeated image of the mother huddling over her child in a dry bathtub, trying to protect him from a force of nature, becoming a force of nature herself, maybe.

Though rage and anxiety are swift currents running through this collection, so is gratitude. Gratitude for being spared, for the ability to observe and catalogue aftermaths, but also gratitude for the beauties of this terrible, fearsome world: the hawk (“something prehistoric”) hunting in the suburbs, the “crocus-blessed” Southern winter (“an unhinged sweetheart— / all gloss and lilt, until the shift.”), beach towns and bars and dreams.

I loved this collection, and commend it to your reading.

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


If you’re looking for another poetry collection about destructive natural phenomena, I recommend Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler

Recommended Reading: We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams

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Clare Beams’s story collection We Show What We Have Learned* is gleefully good reading—and, as the cover suggests, mighty creepy too. I mean that in the best possible way. Horror isn’t my cup of tea, but suspense is another matter.  You won’t find gore in these nine stories, or monsters, really, except those we carry with us. However, each of Ms. Beams’s nine stories (some historical, some slipstream, some contemporary) offers tension so acute that I often found myself squirming in my chair.

img_2833A boarding school’s promise of “transformational education” isn’t limited to the mind in “Hourglass.” An unnamed landscape architect with a talent for making his clients’ desires to rtakes on the project of a lifetime in “World’s End,” but finds himself bewildered by the orders he’s given. A young woman decides to reclaim childhood happiness and demonstrate her own giving nature by taking her elderly grandmother back to the country cabin where they vacationed long ago, but the excursion does not have the effect on “Granna” that she expected. In the haunting “All the Keys to All the Doors,” an older woman in a small town wonders if she could have done more to prevent a horrific act of violence. In “The Saltwater Cure,” a Depression-era Plymouth health resort is the setting for a young man’s coming of age. Two sisters love the same plague doctor in “Ailments.” A teacher falls apart in “We Show What We Have Learned,” while a new bride becomes more and more concerned about her wedding dress (made from her husband’s wartime parachute) in “The Drop.” Finally, in “The Renaissance Person Tournament” we meet another teacher—this one holding herself together as she coaches a promising student.

All nine stories are affecting and beautifully written, the sentences crafted for maximum impact without calling attention to the writing in a way that would pull a reader out of the world of the story. Take just one example, from the opening of “Hourglass,” which drew me in: “With its damp-streaked stone and clinging pine trees, the school looked ideal for transformations, like a nineteenth-century invalids’ home, a place where a person could go romantically, molderingly mad.”

I love that sentence, which I read with an equal measure of delight and apprehension–exactly what I think you’ll feel once you start reading this fabulous collection, which I highly recommend.

And three cheers for small presses like Lookout, which published this book! What small press books have you loved this year?

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

“Would I love it this way”: W.S. Merwin’s “The Morning”

Merwin's Garden Time photo by Carolyn OliverThis week I’ve been reading W. S. Merwin’s new book, Garden Time. It’s beautiful and calm and melancholy,  just what I needed this week. Mr. Merwin is 89, and losing his eyesight; I read that these poems were dictated to his wife, Paula.

He’s one of this country’s most prolific writers; I think I first read his work when I was in high school (his translation of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) and then again a few years later with his introduction to a volume of selected poems by Thomas Wyatt. Mr. Merwin’s own poem “Berryman” is one of my favorites, one of my writerly touchstones.

Anyway, “The Morning,” the poem that opens Garden Time, is worth the price of admission. I love it, and its phrases have been flitting in my mind for days. I hope you’ll love it too.

What are you reading this week?

5 Reasons to Read: The Guineveres, by Sarah Domet

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IThe Guineveresn Sarah Domet’s debut novel The Guineveres*, four girls, all named Guinevere, find each other at a convent run by the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration. Abandoned by their families for various reasons, the four Guineveres (Gwen, Win, Ginny, and Vere), united by their unusual name, find strength in numbers. When a group of comatose soldiers arrives at the convent for care, the girls plot their escape into their adult lives, with unexpected consequences.

Here are five reasons to read it for yourself:

  1. It’s a bildungsroman about girls: Spare me your Holden Caulfields; give me the complex inner lives of girls, and especially girls in groups, any day.
  2. The convent isn’t Lowood, and the nuns aren’t evil: I was dreading a clichéd take on the Catholic convent school, but my fears were unfounded. Life with the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration is austere, often dull, and strictly bounded, but the nuns care about their charges, and do what they think is best to keep them safe and promote their spiritual development. In fact, I thought the nuns were interesting enough to deserve their own book.
  3. The narrative is pleasingly polyphonic: The book proceeds chronologically, with most sections keyed to events on the liturgical calendar, like feast days and holidays. Though Vere is the book’s narrator, she often slips into the first-person plural, so that the Guineveres speak together. Interspersed with the story of their fateful year are Vere’s retellings of the lives of female saints, and each girl’s account of how she came to live with the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration.
  4. Vere is a winning narrator: The shyest of the Guineveres, Vere is a careful observer of her companions’ habits and inclinations, the faithful chronicler of their lives together and human nature (“The heart is funny in that way: When it keeps on loving, and loving, and loving what isn’t there, it becomes attached to the notion that love is the wait itself, the emptiness of it.”). Personality-wise, think Elinor Dashwood meets Jo March; she also reminded me, a little, of the narrators of Rush Oh! and My Name is Lucy Barton.
  5. The writing is quite good: While I have two critiques (First, “Mass” is not capitalized as it ought to be, and second, I found the refusal to name the time period aggravating—my search for clues kept throwing me out of the world, though I think the intended effect was to render the book timeless), on the whole I found Ms. Domet’s writing smooth and often lovely. Certain images linger, like the nuns’ worn-out shoes repurposed as planters, and the idea that Ginny’s “sensitivity was like an open wound that occasionally scabbed over but never healed completely.”

What are you reading this week?

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