Last Month’s Reading: July 2017

August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts: I read this play about a hyper-dysfunctional, secret-keeping-and-spilling Oklahoma family with a semi-permanent cringing expression. It’s black comedy and melodrama with huge spikes of outrageous behavior; though I haven’t seen the film version, I can imagine Meryl Streep eating her role (as Violet, the vicious matriarch) for breakfast. However, I found the role of Johnna, the only Native American character, problematic, though perhaps that’s a misreading on my part (see Kimberly Guerrero’s piece on the play here).

Prairie Fever, by Mary Biddinger: Last month, I lucked into finding this collection at Loganberry Books (and if you’re in Cleveland, I highly recommend the bookstore for felicitous finds). Ms. Biddinger’s sharp focus on Midwest settings almost de-familiarizes them, making the ordinary new (I loved these lines from “Dirndl in a Tree”: “Yard flecked with trillium / like private school collars / spread open on green / and ochre.”) Some favorites from this collection: “Coyote,” “Velvet Season,” “The Flyers” (in which a tow truck’s “tail lights / are cherries pickled in gin and salt”), and “Red Sea.” Packed with gritty characters, hot days, bars and basements, and unexpected animals, it’s a dangerous-feeling collection. Recommended.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay: A haunting memoir about trauma, its aftermath, and what it means to live in a body that contemporary American society has deemed unacceptable. Ms. Gay writes about her body—the kind of body that in person is usually read too quickly, without nuance, or even ignored—with directness and powerful vulnerability. This book is a gift.

How to Be a Tudor, by Ruth Goodman: Ruth Goodman is not only a social historian, but also a re-enactor who spends long stretches learning first-hand what it was like to live in another era (she was a consultant on Wolf Hall—so cool). That practical and professional experience is abundantly evident in How to Be a Tudor, in which she uses the structure of the Tudor day to show how people—commoners and aristocrats—lived five hundred years ago. It’s a treasure trove of detailed information (I often wished for diagrams) about everything from food (how to grow it and how to eat it) to ribbon-making to tooth-brushing (she prefers soot, of the available options). If you, like me, are a Tudor-era history/lit nerd, don’t miss this one.

Miracle Fruit, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Last year I read and mightily enjoyed the short book Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens, a correspondence in poems between Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay.  Miracle Fruit, Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s 2003 collection, is simply glorious, a feast of language and exquisitely described scents and tastes. Some of my favorites: “In the Potatoes,” “Wrap” (the speaker’s grandmother wraps her sari, “coughs it up over her shoulder”), “The Woman Who Turned Down a Date with a Cherry Farmer,” “Speak,” and “My Name.” Highly recommended.

Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout: I loved last year’s My Name is Lucy Barton, and this set of interlinked stories is a companion piece to that novel, focusing on some of the characters Lucy and her mother recall. In these quiet, often grim, slow-building stories, Ms. Strout treats desperate, lonely, and overlooked characters with compassion and respect.

June Fourth Elegies, by Liu Xiaobo, translated by Jeffrey Yang: Chinese dissident, human rights activists, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died earlier this month, still under guard by the Chinese government, which announced his illness only after it was essentially incurable.  His wife, artist and writer Liu Xia, is still under house arrest. June Fourth Elegies collects his yearly poems written as offerings for the victims of the Tiananmen Square protests, as well as a handful of poems written for his wife. His introduction is searing in its condemnation of the Chinese state. I found these elegies moving in their appearance as a group, witness of their author’s unstinting sorrow for the dead and decades-long struggle for justice.

The Night Ocean, by Paul La Farge: Horror isn’t my thing and I’ve never been particularly interested in H. P. Lovecraft, but Paul La Farge’s novel about a modern couple attempting to suss out some of the truth about the writer’s life and afterlife drew me in after the cover first hooked me; I found the book hard to put down. It’s about yarn -spinning and the stories we tell ourselves, unreliable narrators and texts, the slipperiness of perspective and multiplicity. To say more would, I think, ruin its many surprises.

James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl (not pictured): I’m pretty sure my mother read this to us when we were kids; it was delightful to be the one reading it aloud this time. Peals of laughter, over and over.

All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned, by Erica Wright: As you might guess from the title, in this collection you’re in the hands of a gifted storyteller (Ms. Wright is also the author of two crime novels, including The Granite Moth). Many of these poems are eerie (“Spontaneous Human Combustion” or “Abandoned Doll Factory,” for example), darkly funny, suggestive of lurking longer stories. Some of my favorite poems in this collection were “American Highways in Billboard Country” (“What if the exit we choose / isn’t the one we wanted?”), “Our Wilderness Period,” “Select. Start.” (It’s hard to love men who played video games / as boys. It’s hard when you can’t picture them / skinning their knees on gravel [. . . ]”), “American Ghosts,” and “Trespassing.”  Highly recommended.

Recommended Reading: Lena, by Cassie Pruyn

Lena, Cassie Pruyn’s debut collection, is a tender and fierce evocation of love and painful loss.

Lena was the poet’s first love; after their relationship ended, Lena was diagnosed with cancer and later died. In these poems, Ms. Pruyn offers readers both an unabashedly sensual portrait of first love and an elegy for Lena. The book is non-linear, threading together the poet’s complicated, overlapping emotions regarding Lena: affection, desire, frustration that their relationship couldn’t be lived openly, relief when it ended, grief in the face of her illness and death.

I admired this collection’s craftsmanship (particularly Ms. Pruyn’s facility with rhymes and stanza breaks), but even more so its wrenching honesty, from the innocent eroticism of “Lena’s Summer House in Rockport” (“and Lena      all skin / among scattered pillows”) to the yearning in “The House on Tator Hill” (“I didn’t belong in that house, or in any of its portraits / but we tried to make a home of its four-poster bed”), the guilt in “Dive,” and the incredulity in “Self-Interrogation.” In this poem, “Where is her body?” is repeated, a haunting refrain, in the poem’s first section, which imagines the body after death, and in the second, in which the speaker recalls the beloved’s body in life.

“Lena, No One Knew,” “Elegy for a Room,” and “Twenty Minutes at the Clam Shack,” and “In the Vineyard” (“she slants against the wind in her peacoat”) are some other favorites from this beautiful book, which I’m happy to recommend.

Last Month’s Reading: June 2017

June was a busy month for our family,  with meetings, farewells, travels, and celebrations, and thus a light month for reading. I did manage to squeeze in these books:

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson (not pictured; library e-book): I actually did read this one in a hurry, finishing it just a half an hour before it was automatically returned (no overdue finds for e-books, I guess). In these short essays, many revised from previous publication, Neil deGrasse Tyson covers a wide range of topics in astronomy and astrophysics (think dark energy or the Big Bang) for the layperson. It’s a cosmological amuse-bouche, if you will.

House of Names, by Colm Tóibín (not pictured; returned to library): House of Names is an unsettling take on the miseries of the mythological House of Atreus, presenting the perspectives of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra to suggest how everything went terribly wrong. Mythology gives readers a wide sweep, archetype and theme; Mr. Tóibín offers grim detail, whispers in the dark. Read this—the first line is “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.”—and you’ll never again look at your copy of Edith Hamilton without a shudder.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, by Scaachi Koul:  I remember reading, in Buzzfeed a couple years ago, “Hunting Season,” Ms. Koul’s essay about the dynamics of men watching women while they drink. It was so smart, so spot-on, so scary. You’ll find it in this collection of essays that’s undergirded by Ms. Koul’s experience as a woman of color in Canada (her parents moved to Canada from India before she was born). Despite its bleak title and serious themes, this collection is often hilarious—her boyfriend is called Hamhock—since Ms. Koul uses humiliating-yet-funny experiences (a dressing room incident in which a skirt refuses to budge, for example, or feeling absolutely terrified about flying) from her own life to illuminate larger questions about identity and culture. A winner.

Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann: Bite-size pieces of advice to beginning writers, with a focus on empathy and perseverance. Excellent epigraphs. Chances are you’ve heard versions of this advice if you’ve read around in the genre, but still, this is a warm and welcoming read.

Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give*, by Ada Calhoun: I don’t think I’ve ever read a non-fiction book about marriage before, but such is the power of a purple cover and Ms. Calhoun’s funny introduction. These toasts are essays on the pleasures and problems of staying married (when she asks her mother for advice on the subject, her mother replies, “You don’t get divorced.”). While not everything in the book spoke to me—there’s quite a bit about infidelity, and I would have liked more LGBTQ-inclusive examples and language—I laughed often and appreciated its realistic attitude, neither “the institution of marriage is doomed” nor “marriage is the happily ever after.”
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

Duende, by Tracy K. Smith: I cheered out loud when I saw that Tracy K. Smith had been named the new poet laureate, and to celebrate I bought this 2007 collection. It’s beautiful and technically accomplished, of course, and I was so impressed by the way Ms. Smith brings histories of violence to life and into the realm of the particular body. She’s an absolutely phenomenal poet.

Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney: The last of the Irish writers I read this month (an unintentional grouping). There’s nothing quite like reading Seamus Heaney to deflate one’s pride; in Human Chain I found a poem about a pen (“The Conway Stewart”) that’s better than anything I’ve ever written or will ever write. And in “The Door Was Open and the House Was Dark” I found the poem I would have read at my dear grandpa‘s memorial service. A beautiful, moving collection.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by Lynn Nottage: I loved this play by Ms. Nottage, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1930s Los Angeles, Vera Stark is an aspiring actress who works as a maid for a difficult screen star (with whom she shares a secret common history). This comedy-drama is witty, fast-paced, and incisive as it considers racism in Hollywood and how modern critics and theorists analyze it. Brilliant, and highly recommended. (P. S. If you’ve read this, can we talk about the Imitation of Life and All About Eve references?)

Last Week’s Reading: May 28 -June 3

Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg: As usual, I am late to the CanLit party, but let me be the umpteenth person to tell you that Birdie is very, very good. Birdie, a Cree woman, has traveled to British Columbia from her home (that’s simplifying things, I admit) in Alberta, working in a bakery and hoping, maybe, to meet Pat John, an actor from The Beachcombers (had to look that one up). Birdie goes into a dream state in which she processes her memories of abuse; soon, her Aunt Val and cousin Skinny Freda arrive to watch over her. The novel is unabashedly non-linear, and Ms. Lindberg weaves Cree language and stories through the narrative, making this one of the more unusual, affecting reading experiences I’ve had lately. For a better review from a Canadian perspective, check out Laura’s post. Highly recommended.

Sycamore, by Kathy Fagan: I admire Kathy Fagan’s poetry so much, and Sycamore is no exception. In it, Ms. Fagan considers the sycamore tree as a physical object and as a metaphor (for growth, for change, among other things) in poems about the end of a long marriage. Sycamore is the kind of book that I’ll return to again and again, though its complexities and delights make it difficult to express how much I enjoyed it in this brief overview. For a better sense of the collection, please have a look at The Cloudy House Q & A with Kathy Fagan.

Mr. Rochester, by Sarah Shoemaker: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea will always be the Jane Eyre-inspired novel against which all others are measured, though  Mr. Rochester is a fine addition to the category. If it didn’t, to my ear, quite capture the voice of the elusive and angry Rochester, it nonetheless is a noble effort, and Ms. Shoemaker plausibly fills in the gaps of his history. Subtly, the author shows us that Rochester is not so self-aware as Jane; nor is he particularly invested in righting the many wrongs he encounters in his travels. Recommended for Brontë fans looking for more of the gloomy Mr. R.

Lena, by Cassie Pruyn: This is a beautiful debut collection about the sweet-bitter nature of first love–longer review to come (sooner rather than later, I hope).

Last Week’s Reading: May 21-27

The Purple Swamp Hen, by Penelope Lively: I enjoyed this collection of short stories from one of the grande dames of English writers; I feel remiss that I haven’t sought out Penelope Lively’s work before. The Purple Swamp Hen includes fifteen stories, many of which are about the challenges (and indeed, failures) of marriage and domestic life. Sly wit and a keen eye are hallmarks of the collection, which I found, with only one exception, quite engrossing. Highlights (for me, anyway) include “Mrs. Bennet,” which imagines what that nervous character would be like in the  mid-twentieth century; “License to Kill,” about an aging spy and her young companion, off to the grocery store; and “A Biography,” which tells the story of a woman’s life through interviews—always incomplete—with her friends and family.

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey: Sarah Gailey is one of my favorite Twitter personalities, and I’ve been looking forward to her debut novella for months. River of Teeth is rollicking good fun, a marvelously spun tale of mercenary hippo wranglers pitted against a ruthless riverboat casino magnate and his feral hippopotami. Really. It’s a fierce, funny, alternative history adventure (featuring a delightfully diverse cast of characters) that will have you wondering how you’ve gone so long without man-eating hippos in your life.

Last Week’s Reading, Irish Edition: May 14-20

Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry: I’m not sure what I was expecting when I heard that noted Irish author Sebastian Barry’s new book was set in the American West, but it wasn’t Days Without End. The narrator, a member of Mr. Barry’s McNulty family, is Thomas, who escapes the brutal famine of Sligo only to find more violence and pain as a soldier, first fighting the Sioux in the West and then other Irish boys (but in gray) in the South. Though not immune to the toll of the carnage, Thomas tends to accept it as the way of the world. So too he accepts his love for John Cole, whom he met when they were half-starved boys. Together they care for Winona, a Sioux girl kidnapped after an army raid, trying to keep their small family afloat against terrible odds. Thomas’s narration is dreamlike and yet precise, ungrammatical and yet boasting an astounding vocabulary (“Empurpled rapturous hills I guess and the long day by brushstroke enfeebling into darkness and then the fires blooming on the pitch plains.”).  It’s not perfect, but Days Without End is a bold, fearsome beauty of a book. Highly recommended.

Ballyturk, by Enda Walsh: I’ve had this play on my shelf for awhile, and I figured a dip out of my comfort zone would do me good. Ballyturk, which is about two men confined in a room and the worlds and rituals they construct for themselves, is one of those plays that I suspect is more dynamic in performance than in print. It’s quite odd in the beginning, though things (mostly) start to make sense near the end. One character has a long, lovely speech that made me wish the whole play had been written in that mode, rather than tending toward the absurdist—or maybe I wished I were reading a novel in that key. Anyway, I know I’m being rather vague here but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who might see it in performance. Beckett fans, this might be of interest.

Recommended Reading: Afterland, by Mai Der Vang

In Afterland*, her first collection, Hmong-American poet Mai Der Vang summons the specters of the Secret War in Laos and the resulting exodus of Hmong refugees (including members of her family). Afterland is a beautiful and painful memorial to the trauma of war and exile.

In many of these poems, short lines offer a sense of fracture and fragmentation, compelling the reader forward into often horrifying imagery, as in “Tilting Our Tears on a Pendulum of Salt” (apologies for the formatting that doesn’t transfer here):

Let us make
Our separate ways,

Until we meet
Our body’s dusty gallery,
Hollow-eyed, until we’ve

Passed the troops
Who have set our forest table
With tracheas.

I was also particularly struck by poems about language, like “Original Bones” and “Mother of People without Script” (Paj is not pam is not pab. / Blossom is not blanket is not help. — you can listen to the poem here), and by the way Ms. Vang uses language about writing in other poems (“I have heard the flames / hunting inside your glossary”).

Ms. Vang describes with terrible exactness the visceral horror of war and the despair of defeat and abandonment (“The leftovers ever still waking / Inside the smoke of a hole”), but just as impressive is her tender elegy “Your Mountain Lies Down With You”:

Here, rest not by the lotus of your old country but with
carpenterias and fiddlenecks of spring.

These woodlands may be unfamiliar, their sequoias thicker
than bamboo, and the rains unable to assemble monsoons.

Still, look out to the distance from where you lie.

You will see Mt. Whitney is as beautiful as Phou Bia.

The moon is sharp enough to cut your ear as the one from your village.

Afterland is an impressive collection, a luminous portrayal of loss and survival, and filled to the brim with blistering imagery. Highly recommended.

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

Last Week’s Reading: May 7-13

Each Leaf Shines Separate, by Rosanna Warren: This is Rosanna Warren’s first collection, and it’s lovely. Quite a few ekphrastic poems here, and they’re excellent. I also particularly liked the poems about snow (“I had not yet / entered that white.”), and those about motherhood, near the end of the book. If you like lyric poetry, there’s much to enjoy here.

The Ink Dark Moon, by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, translated by Jane Hirshfeld with Mariko Aratani : These are beautiful, spare poems by poets who lived a thousand years ago in the Heian court of imperial Japan. The poems, infused with the sense of life’s ephemeral nature, are both private and public; some intimate, some focused on deeply personal spirituality. Grief and love are amply represented. I appreciated the introduction and notes to the poems, and I’m so grateful for translators like Ms. Hirshfeld and Ms. Aratani! This is a compelling collection, and highly recommended.

The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard: My uncle and aunt visited us last week, which was delightful, and my uncle brought three books on writing with him, which was very kind. Of course, reading Annie Dillard–the fiery prose, the crisp, surprising sentences, the assured pronouncements–made me feel that my own writing is a hopeless mess, but it gives me something to strive for. Ms. Dillard’s writing life is (alas? fortunately?) not my own writing life, but I’m so glad to have been immersed in it for a little while.

Last Fortnight’s Reading: April 23-May 6

Looking for the Gulf Motel, by Richard Blanco: I read most of these poems out loud, in the car with my family on the way to my grandfather’s funeral, and was surprised to find myself tearing up a bit. Mr. Blanco (the 2013 inaugural poet) grew up in the Cuban exile community in Miami, and the poems in Looking for the Gulf Motel speak movingly of his family and childhood memories. If you’re looking for a smooth-reading collection with a strong sense of place, I highly recommend it.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill: This very short, almost pointillist novel anatomizes a disintegrating marriage, and it’s particularly sharp on motherhood. Recommended.

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill: This 1988 collection, Ms. Gaitskill’s first, could have been written yesterday; its themes of discontent, isolation, and desire still resonate. I’m not sure there’s a single likable character in the book, which makes it simultaneously fearless and disquieting. The writing is very, very good, but I can’t say I’ll come back to this one.

Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe: One of the best collections I’ve read this year (and I’ve read some great ones). I loved Ms. Howe’s use of form, her facility with language, the sheer variety in Loop of Jade. Ms. Howe was born in Hong Kong and lives in the UK (her father is British, her mother Chinese), and Loop of Jade explores her heritage through narrative and lyric poems. Exquisite, and highly recommended.

Trajectory, by Richard Russo: After last year’s disappointing Everybody’s Fool, I was wary about this collection of four stories/novellas (three can be found elsewhere; one is brand new). However, Mr. Russo is back to form here. Particularly affecting are “Horseman” (a college professor confronts a cheating student and her own past) and “Milton and Marcus,” which features thinly-veiled portraits of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Recommended.

Last Week’s Reading: April 16-22

A light week, Dear Readers, for the best of reasons: a delightful post-Easter visit from family. Hope you’re all enjoying spring (or autumn, for you Southern Hemisphere folks).

Afterland, by Mai Der Vang: A haunting debut poetry collection; full review to come.

Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar: Like Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, Spaceman of Bohemia is literary sci-fi that explores questions of surveillance, ambition, and love, but it’s quite a bit weirder and much less invested in realism. In 2018, Czech scientist Jakub becomes his country’s first astronaut, sent into space (in a ship whose components are named after various sponsoring companies) to study a cloud of cosmic dust near Venus. The mission takes Jakub from his beloved wife Lenka, but offers him the opportunity to rise beyond the taint of his Communist informant father’s past. However, lonely days in space  start to feel less like heroism and more like insanity; soon Jakub is conversing with a Nutella-loving giant space spider (Imaginary? Maybe, maybe not) and sharing, almost re-living, his childhood memories of the rural village where his grandparents tried to protect him from the consequences of his father’s sins. Spaceman of Bohemia is an odd and touching debut novel, and I recommend it.

Float, by Anne Carson: I bought Float last fall as a birthday present to myself, but after paging through it, decided to wait for a quiet day to take it all in. That day was Saturday, but I think I’ll need quite a few more before I process the whole thing. Float is a collection of 22 chapbooks that can be read in any order. Poetry, essays, lectures, performances, hybrid forms—they’re all here, in that inimitable Anne Carson style. It was the prose that drew me most this time, especially a gorgeous essay on translation (“Variations on the Right to Remain Silent”) and “Uncle Falling: A Pair of Lyric Lectures with a Shared Chorus.” If you’re an Anne Carson fan, Float is a must-read.