Last Week’s Reading: February 26 – March 4


Pearl, translated by Simon Armitage: One rainy day, three or four years ago, our son had mercifully decided to nap and we, exhaustion-stunned, took to our computers and came across a documentary that featured Simon Armitage talking about walking through England and his verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was so calming and interesting that I’ve never forgotten it (though, alas, I’ve never gotten around to reading the poem, either). This medieval poem is believed to be by the same anonymous author of Sir Gawain, and Mr. Armitage was asked to make a new translation, an exceedingly complicated task given the structure of the original poem (which appears side-by-side with the translation, I was happy to find). Pearl is a parent’s lament for a lost child and also an extended religious dream-vision, and I found it quite moving. Mr. Armitage’s explanatory note that precedes the poem is a model of brevity and regard for readers, too. (If you’d like a longer review, I recommend this one.)

Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton: Somewhere I read the pitch that this novel is like Sense and Sensibility with dragons, but that’s not quite right. To be sure, all the characters in this unusual novel are dragons, but the plot owes more to Dickens and Trollope (the latter mentioned in Ms. Walton’s acknowledgments) than Austen. A family gathers around a dying patriarch, prepared to split his fortune—and his corpse, perhaps even more valuable. Conflicts, confessions, and proposals ensue in this grotesque and cruel society that is not so very different from its nineteenth-century English model. For its twisty-turny plot and confident and playful imagining of a draconian society, recommended.

Praise Song for the Day, by Elizabeth Alexander: This handsome chapbook from Graywolf Press is a bound copy of Ms. Alexander’s 2008 inaugural poem. Occasional poetry always seems like such a tall order, and “Praise Song for the Day” takes on the challenge with finesse. A lovely poem, and a reminder of happier times. You can read it here.

Nabokov’s Butterfly, by Rick Gekoski: This book, titled Tolkien’s Gown (much more appealing, I have to say) in the UK, is a collection of essays and radio talks-turned essays about rare books, the specialty of its author (Mr. Gekoski is also the author of a new novel, Darke; it was Rebecca’s review that led me to this book—thanks, Rebecca!). Nabokov’s Butterfly is amusing and pleasantly inclined toward gossip and name-dropping—I don’t know about you, but I love juicy tidbits about famous authors who’ve departed this realm and as such can’t be said to mind—with plenty of interesting details about particular copies of important and unusual books. I can’t say that I loved every chapter or agreed with every one of Mr. Gekoski’s literary judgments, but I’d recommend this for bibliophiles for a bit of light fun.

And speaking of light fun, and not pictured because I read it in e-book form:

Do You Want to Start a Scandal, by Tessa Dare: Those of you who are long-time readers may remember that I took part in a readalong of a paranormal romance novel in 2013 ( Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3). It did not go well; my exact words at the end were, “I can tell you with assurance, dear readers, that it will be many a year before I read another romance novel.” “Many” in this case seems to be four-ish years, since on Jenny’s recommendation, I have indeed read another romance novel, this time featuring standard humans, bodice ripping, and English country house parties. And it was delightful. Frothy, funny (intentionally funny—like with jokes, not bad writing), feminist in the sense that consent is sought (and enthusiastically granted): just the thing if you need a break from heavy reading and/or the news.

11 thoughts on “Last Week’s Reading: February 26 – March 4

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed Gekoski, and impressed that your library had a copy of one of his more obscure books. I haven’t been able to find that one yet.

    Jo Walton is a name I keep hearing, especially via a Bookmarks magazine feature a couple years ago, but I haven’t been sure (I’m such a reluctant sci fi/fantasy reader). Given how much I liked Connie Willis earlier this year, though, I think it would be worth taking a chance on this one.

    I would highly recommend Armitage’s two books about walking in England (Walking Home and, especially, Walking Away). I haven’t read much of his poetry, but found these travel books delightful.

    Ditto for Elizabeth Alexander, really: I’ve only read the poems included in her exquisite memoir, The Light of the World. She still seems to be best known for the inauguration poem.

    • I had to request the book through the county-wide system (there was only one copy).

      I’ve heard nothing but good things about The Light of the World, but I’m still steering clear of grief memoirs, generally, after my own experience.

      • Ah, interesting. I think people can go either way: compulsively read books that echo their own experience, or avoid them entirely. My sister read pretty much nothing but bereavement memoirs for months after her husband died, but luckily they were like a gateway drug for her and she’s now a big fiction reader too (having previously read literally nothing other than People and US Weekly magazines!).

  2. Oh, Pearl is such a marvelous poem. I’ve not read a translation, but Armitage seems to be good at early medieval stuff. The Jo Walton sounds AMAZING, as does Rick Gekoski’s memoir—the things I hear from my rare-books colleague about the book-collecting world give the impression of a delightfully juicy, back-biting environment.

    • It must have been difficult to read Pearl in the original! Even with Chaucer under my belt, I couldn’t tease out much of it.

      The Jo Walton is pretty darn fun, as is the Gekoski (though I didn’t love his last chapter). Back-biting indeed, in both cases.

  3. Ah, now I get those Dragon Bound jokes of Rick’s. I was not quite around yet. Ha!
    I will head to Jenny if I ever have a hankering for a romance!

  4. What an interesting combination and so many good reading sessions for you by the sounds of it. I’m wondering how it never occurred to me that Jo Walton’s book was about dragons: what a perfect title! (Loved the bookishness of Among Others!)

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