Winter Reading

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.

Recommended Reading: Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett


Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth* is like an unfamiliar lake on a ninety-degree day that you can’t  wait to sink into; even if you don’t know how deep it goes, you won’t want to come up for air.

img_1022It starts in Los Angeles, with a bottle of gin and orange trees heavy with fruit. Bert Cousins walks into the christening party for Beverly and Fix Keating’s new daughter Franny with a completely inappropriate gift (the gin), which when mixed with fresh-squeezed juice from the backyard oranges leads to revelry not usually associated with christening parties.

Then Bert kisses Beverly, leading to the unraveling of two families and the imperfect attempt to knit together a new blended family. Beverly and Bert move to Virginia with Franny and her older sister Caroline; Bert’s four children—Cal, Holly, Jeanette, and Albie—visit during the summers, leaving their mother Teresa behind in L.A. Bert and Beverly are “careless people” in many respects; the children are often unsupervised, and they find their (dangerous) freedom exhilarating: “It was like that every summer the six of them were together. Not that the days were always fun, most of them weren’t, but they did things, real things, and they never got caught.”

The kiss is the first of three turning points in this excellent novel. The second involves a terrible accident; the third is when Franny, adrift in her twenties, meets the acclaimed novelist Leo Posen and tells him her family’s story.

Commonwealth follows eleven major characters over fifty years—and manages to deliver full portraits of their lives in less than 350 pages. Each chapter is as exquisitely paced and revealing as a short story (indeed, several of the chapters could stand alone as stories), and yet the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Ms. Patchett’s storytelling makes the ordinary gripping; for instance, when Franny is treated like a cook and maid by Leo’s publishing friends in the summer house they’ve rented together, I started biting my nails, wondering if she would snap. I practically cheered when, earlier in the book, Teresa puts her four kids on the plane to their father (who had pushed for full summer custody) without suitcases but with a list of all the appointments they need (dentist, doctor, etc): “Beverly Cousins wanted her family? Have at it.”

I started off thinking that Commonwealth would be a book about divorce; and it is, of course, but it’s more about family, bad decisions and living with the consequences of those decisions, loyalty, and friendship. My copy of the book is studded with notes marking favorite passages and lines (“Franny’s skin was so translucent it acted more as a window than a shade.”); I’m willing to bet that if you pick it up (it’s out today), your copy will be too. Commonwealth is highly recommended.

Have you read Commonwealth or any of Ann Patchett’s other books?

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

** Confession: Though I own Bel Canto and State of Wonder (the former acquired at a delightful book swap birthday party in January 2009, the latter at Target, which maybe tells you something about my collecting habits), Commonwealth is the first of Ann Patchett’s books that I’ve read. I admire her work on behalf of independent bookstores, and you can be sure that if I ever visit Nashville, Parnassus Books would be the first stop on my itinerary.

Colorado Reading

I don’t know about you, but I find I hardly ever get as much reading done on vacation as I think I will. And that’s okay; usually it means there’s been sightseeing and visiting and talking late at night and eating and museum-going aplenty.

As I mentioned not too long ago, recently we visited family and friends in Denver, which was delightful. I brought along War of the Encyclopaedists, which I started and finished on the trip, as well as Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories. I figured something with a Western vibe that I could read in short chunks would be a good choice, and it was, if grimmer than expected. Close Range includes Brokeback Mountain, the basis of the movie of the same name, and all things considered it’s one of the brighter stories in the collection. Close Range is visceral reading—Ms. Proulx has an extraordinary gift for rendering place, and her characters are both strange and real.

photo (46)That’s two books, and extraordinary restraint in book-packing on my part, I must say. There’s a reason for that: I had a list of about a dozen bookstores I wanted to visit in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder, but I only made it to two (guess I’ll just have to go back, darn).

First up was the Tattered Cover, Denver’s largest and most famous independent bookstore. It has several outposts, and I visited the store on Colfax, where I picked up Gregory Pardlo‘s Pulitzer-Prize winning Digest. I read it over the next few days and finished it on the plane, and I highly recommend it. The poems are about origins and identity, fatherhood and what it means to be American. They’re very, very good, and packed with intellectual energy; I want to re-read them all again.

Next I went to one of my uncle’s favorite bookstores, Colorado’s Used Bookstore in Englewood. It’s an unassuming store, with a huge selection of genre paperbacks, an eclectic poetry section, and a huge set of back rooms for nonfiction and trade paperbacks. The woman I met, who I believe owns the store, was very friendly and helpful, and pointed out that they sell books online, including hard-to-find books.

At Colorado’s Used Bookstore I found Ghost Ship by Mary Kinzie and On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove (both poetry), Moral Disorder (a collection of Margaret Atwood stories), Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce (I loved The Orenda and Three-day Road) and Louise Erdrich’s Tracks (still can’t stop thinking about The Round House). I can’t wait to dive into these.

Next time in Colorado, I’ll be trying for those other ten bookstores, and I’d like to look up some Colorado writers before I go, to find their work in its native habitat.

And what about you, Dear Readers? Do you race through books on vacation, or pack more than you can read?

“We were born before the wind”: Van Morrison’s Lit Up Inside: Selected Lyrics

Lit Up InsideVan Morrison’s collection of lyrics, Lit Up Inside*, is out today, and if you’re a fan, you’re going to want to pick it up. Famously private, Mr. Morrison doesn’t often comment on his work, so this selection (roughly 100), which is about a third of his total output, is itself a statement.

The lyrics chosen range from the famous early work (“Moondance,” “Gloria,” “Brown Eyed Girl”) to songs from his recent catalogue. Many are grounded in the singer’s native Ireland, in its cities and working people (the introduction by Eammon Hughes focuses in particular on urban geography), and of course in Van Morrison’s romantic lyricism and interest in the divine.

Like his music, the lyrics collected in Lit Up Inside often defy categorization; some are really lyrics alone, requiring music to reach their potential greatness; some read like Beat poetry; some are prayers. All of them made me want to listen to Van Morrison, which is perhaps the best compliment I can pay the book. 

Thanks to Lit Up Inside, I just revisited two of my favorite albums.  Astral Weeks is just plain brilliant, and who doesn’t love Moondance? “And It Stoned Me” is one of the best songs about childhood of all time. “Crazy Love” is on my top-five list of greatest love songs. “Everyone” was our wedding recessional, and now our son likes to dance to it on sunny Sunday mornings. 

I have maybe five of his forty-odd albums, so I’m not a die-hard Van Morrison fan by any means, but this selection gave me the opportunity to focus on the lyrics alone, and thus Mr. Morrison’s engagement with literature, religion, history, and social concerns (reflected in Mr. Morrison’s choice of the venerable and independent City Lights as the United States publisher).  But it also made me think about how poetry and music make each other, and I think for Van Morrison, even more than, say, Leonard Cohen, the two are inextricably linked.  If you’d like to know Van Morrison better, I wholeheartedly recommend Lit Up Inside.

Here’s a link to “Into the Mystic,” which is the poem of the week.

*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

A Literary Wedding, or, “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

our rings

Our wedding rings

We were married three years ago this week, back in the olden days before Pinterest provided endless helpful suggestions regarding how to personalize your wedding with monograms and mason jars.

Now, I love a mason jar as much as the next gal, but our last name’s initial looks a heckuva lot like a circle, so I didn’t (and don’t) see much point in monogramming anything. I think it would have confused people. (“Which table are you sitting at?” “Table 0.” “Oh, I thought we were at table O.” “Oh dear.”) Personalizing one’s wedding ought to mean something more than splashing one’s initials all over it in in perfect wildflower hues, right?

Our wedding would never make the pages of Martha Stewart Weddings. We didn’t meticulously handcraft garlands of paper cranes from the pages of vintage books. We didn’t do favors, rice, confetti, a “real” wedding cake (we went with the Heart of Darkness chocolate torte, with mango coulis), or a “normal” ceremony.

What we did do was try very hard to make the wedding our own, an event that expressed not only who we are as a couple but where we came from — the people and words and music that shaped our lives.

The program included the line from “Birches” I’ve used in this post’s title, and Juliet’s immortal lines, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea / My love as deep. The more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite.” The lettering on the front of the program used a font based on Jane Austen’s handwriting; on the last page we reprinted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 in memory of absent friends.

The processional was “Building the Barn” from Witness, because, well, just watch that part of the movie (bonus: Viggo Mortenson cameo!). And the recessional was “Everyone” by Van Morrison because, well, watch the end of The Royal Tenenbaums. But only if you’ve seen the beginning and the middle.

While guests waited they had the option of tinkering with a crossword we made about us, our friends, and families, or looking out over a little river and falls, or browsing in the bookstore.

Yes, we were married at a bookstore. Well, technically, we were married on a deck that’s part of a restaurant that’s located in an old mill that’s been converted into a used bookstore in a town called, of all things, Montague. But I just tell everyone that we were married at a bookstore. It’s easier that way.

[It’s lovely to be able to return to a place that holds such beautiful memories for us; we try to go back at least once a year. I’ll post pictures from our latest visit tomorrow.  I bet you’ll want to go there too.]

Our ceremony was comprised of the usual wedding bits, retooled to suit our beliefs and preferred wording, and literary readings. Each of us asked a parent, a sibling, a friend, and an aunt or uncle to read during the ceremony, in groups of two.

Which readings, you ask?

  • “In Lands I Never Saw,” by Emily Dickinson
  • “The Owl and the Pussycat,” by Edward Lear
  • Most Like an Arch This Marriage,” by John Ciardi
  • Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare
  • “The Master Speed,” by Robert Frost
  • a selection from the Song of Songs
  • a selection from Emma, by Jane Austen
  • a selection from The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I can still hear each one of these people reading, people we love who shared these words that mean so much to us. Because a marriage ceremony is an act of speaking something into being, and it’s important to get the words right.


So, since today is Tuesday, and therefore a poetry day around these parts, I thought today I’d highlight a poem that wasn’t read at our wedding.

You read that right. We both love Robert Frost’s “Birches” — so much so that my husband’s wedding ring is etched to look like birch bark — but it is long, and not really related to marriage, so we chose a different Frost poem for our set of readings. Now, though, after three years and one child together, this poem has taken on even more significance to us. Sometimes I imagine my son as the boy in the poem, confident though solitary. Sometimes I turn to the poem when things get hard, as they are wont to do, when

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

But above all, we love the poem for its abiding love for the beauty and promise of this world and its often-anonymous inhabitants. After all, “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

Three years later, at the bookmill.

Three years later, at the Bookmill.

Did you incorporate readings into your wedding ceremony? How did you choose your readings?