Last Week’s Reading: March 12 – 18

The Art of Syntax, by Ellen Bryant Voigt: One on Graywolf’s “Art Of” series on writing techniques (and I’m curious to know your favorites if you’ve read any of the others), this little book is about syntax in poetry: its musicality, how it relates to the poetic line, how poets from Bishop to Kunitz deploy it. It’s on the technical side, understandably, with much discussion of rhythm and grammar, and I suspect therefore would be of most interest to poets/writers.

SPQR, by Mary Beard: I’ve been working on this book since January, and finally made a big push to finish it last week (hence the lack of fiction on this list). This much-acclaimed history of Ancient Rome considers a period of about a thousand years, tracing notions of democracy, empire, and citizenship. The parallels with our own historical moment are sometimes quite uncomfortable. Though this is, of necessity, history in broad strokes, I appreciated Ms. Beard’s keen eye for detail, her readings of architectural evidence and art, and her attempts to give shape to narratives that have often disappeared (those of enslaved people, children, and women). If you’re in the mood for history, I highly recommend SPQR.

Hagar Poems, by Mohja Kahf: I liked the concept of this collection, which plays with different aspects of the Hagar/Hajar story (with Abraham, Hagar conceived Ishmael, and then mother and son were exiled when Sarah gave birth to Isaac), but the execution was uneven. In these poems, Ms. Kahf plays with a multiplicity of voices and settings, and is most successful in tongue-in-cheek poems like “Hajar Writes a Letter to Sarah as a Cathartic Exercise Suggested by Her Therapist” and the moving “Little Mosque Poems” sequence.

Reality Is Not What It Seems, by Carlo Rovelli: You might think of this as a more in-depth companion to Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (which appeared in English first, though this book was first to be published in Italian). In Reality Is Not What It Seems, theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli walks readers through the development of physics from Democritus up to quantum gravity, which is still being explored and theorized. The tenses get a little wonky (but time is relative, right?) and I can’t say that I now understand special relativity or the structure of a 3-sphere, but goodness, this stuff is absolutely fascinating. And Mr. Rovelli appreciates poets (he quotes Dante, Lucretius, and Shakespeare, among others), for which I continue to hold him in esteem. The further I got into this book, the more trippy and weird and beautiful the cosmos seemed. I wish I had a head for physics, but since I don’t, I’m glad there are books like this one to make me feel I understand the structure of reality a little better.

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