Last Month’s Reading: August 2017

Dear Readers, I hope your August was lovely.

We traveled: to Edinburgh (just for a few days; our first trip out of the country as a family), where I was delighted to find the Scottish Poetry Library, and later in the month spent a quick weekend at Niagara Falls (our son adored the Maid of the Mist, as did we), with a chance to visit a dear friend on the Canadian side.

Our garden is winding down, school is starting, and the blankets are on the beds at night. Wishing you all a happy fall (or spring, Australian readers), and happy reading.


I know many of you have probably already donated to the relief efforts in Texas. If you’re looking for more ways to help, Book Riot put together a list of book/library/publishing-related ways to do so. Texans, we’re thinking of you.


Last Month’s Reading: August 2017

Goodbye, Vitamin*, by Rachel Khong: A quietly beautiful novel about one year in the life of a woman who comes home to help care for her father, who suffers from dementia. Empathetic and funny without shying away from the terrible frailty the disease exposes in both patient and caregiver. Recommended.

The Art of Time in Fiction, by Joan Silber: My favorite entry (so far) in Graywolf’s “Art Of” series for writers. I’ll be coming back to this book.

Day, by A.L. Kennedy: I bought this novel in the Edinburgh airport and read it cover to cover on the flight home. Day is about Alfred Day, a young man from an unhappy home who volunteers to serve as a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber during World War II. The book begins in 1949 as Day is working as an extra in a war movie that triggers memories of his experiences.  It’s absolutely stellar.

The Bonniest Companie, by Kathleen Jamie: One of my finds at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. This is a collection about Scotland; Ms. Jamie wrote one poem a week in 2014, and those poems became this book. I love her engagement with the natural world (from “High Water”: “When the tide returns / from its other life / bearing its adulterer’s gifts”). Recommended.

Lessons on Expulsion*, by Erika L. Sánchez: Full review of this bold collection here.

The Mountain*, by Paul Yoon: Six gorgeous stories from a master of the form. Longer review coming soon.

The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin: The brilliant finale to Ms. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (the first two installments of which I inhaled at the very end of 2016). Highly, highly recommended.

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett: A little gem of a book; the uncommon reader is the queen, who discovers late in life a passion for reading. Spend an afternoon with this charming novella while you wait for the second season of The Crown.

The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy: If you’ve read “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” Ms. Levy’s gut-wrenching New Yorker essay, you know how gifted a writer she is. This memoir builds toward the events of that essay in candid, clear prose. Unfortunately, the last few chapters fizzle, holding back in ways the rest of the book (which deals with infidelity, alcohol addiction, and infertility, among other difficult subjects) does not.

The Windfall, by Diksha Basu: In New Delhi, Mr. and Mrs. Jha decide to relocate from their small apartment complex to an upscale neighborhood after Mr. Jha sells his business for a significant sum . They know the move will be difficult, but they can’t foresee its effects—hilarious and otherwise—on their neighbors, new and old, and their son, struggling at an American business school. Ms. Basu skewers the rich with a smile, and I was delighted by her nuanced characterizations of long-time friends Mrs. Jha and Mrs. Ray; it was good to see middle-aged women given such close attention.

*I received copies of these books from their publishers for review consideration.

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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: April 2-8

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett: I requested this book on the recommendation of my friend Mary, who owns Newtonville Books, where Ms. Hartnett once worked. Rabbit Cake is narrated by precocious but not precious Elvis Babbitt, who recounts the events after her mother’s untimely death by drowning due to sleepwalking. As Elvis and her sister and her father try to hold their family together, each takes on different coping strategies of varying effectiveness (there’s a talking bird involved, and dozens of cakes). There was potential here to veer into over-stylized Wes Anderson territory (I love Wes Anderson, but I do not think I would care for his work in novel form), but Ms. Hartnett’s assured debut remains grounded in the Babbitt family’s frailties and love. Recommended.

Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar: This slim, striking collection whetted my appetite for Kaveh Akbar’s full-length book of poems Calling a Wolf a Wolf, coming this fall. The poems in Portrait of the Alcoholic are intimate and beautiful, a catalogue of desires—for drink, for God, for understanding—fulfilled and unfulfilled.

Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach: I’ve been on the lookout for Fortune’s Pawn ever since Rory recommended it years ago, and after striking out at bookstore after bookstore, I finally requested it from the library. Devi Morris (think Starbuck meets Ripley) is an armored mercenary with a big ego and the skills to match it. Ambition leads her to take a position on the Glorious Fool, a ship that gets into even more trouble than its name suggests. Devi thinks she can handle it, but she has no idea what she’s in for. This is a fun, action-packed sci-fi novel with a bit of romance—a perfect palate cleanser if you’re between more serious reads.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: I’m on a bit of a sci-fi kick, as you see. I adored this novel, which is like a whole season of Firefly packed into a book, only with more aliens. The setup is conventional: Rosemary Harper wants to escape her past, and what better way than be joining the crew of a ship that tunnels wormholes through space? Of course the crew is completely unconventional, from the reptilian pilot Sissix to the friendly AI Lovey and the cook/doctor, six-limbed Dr. Chef. On a long deep-space assignment, the crew faces adventure and loss and meets some of the most interesting sapients in the galaxy. The concerns of the novel are serious—how families are made, what sentience means, how gender and sexuality might look in a galaxy filled with different species, how risk should be valued—but the tone is lighthearted and warm. It’s a delectable book, and highly recommended.

Lighthead by Terrance Hayes: Another entry in the “poets I should have read years ago” category. I’ve run across Terrance Hayes’s poems before, but this is the first time I sat down to read a whole collection. Lighthead is such a good collection: playful, melancholy, and multifaceted. These poems felt full to bursting with the richness of their language. My favorites included “The Golden Shovel,” a riff on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool”; “Carp Poem”; “God Is an American”; and “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Highly recommended.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (not pictured since I read it as an e-book): This 2008 essay collection fell a bit flat for me; I’m used to breaking out into the kind of chortles that alarm small children and passersby when I read David Sedaris, but no one near me was the least bit startled while I read this book. I don’t mean to say that it isn’t worth reading—a few essays are quite moving—but I don’t feel the need to buy it for my own library.

Last Week’s Reading: February 26 – March 4

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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.

Last Week’s Reading: January 29-February 4

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The Constitution of the United States: It seemed like a good time to give this a thorough re-read. Highly recommended.

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories, by A. S. Byatt: After I read Possession, I started scooping up Byatt books whenever I ran across one, which is how this one has been on my shelves for two or three years. The first two fairy stories are pulled from Possession, but I was happy to revisit them. “Dragons’ Breath” is a political allegory that I found very uncomfortable to read in the current climate. “The Story of the Eldest Princess” is now in my pantheon of great fairy tales. And the title story–which, at well over 100 pages, is really more a novella–is exactly what I needed: a consuming, sumptuous tale of a strange creature trapped in a bottle, and the scholar who sets him free. A.S. Byatt’s writing is brilliant, in all senses—had her intellect been applied in a different direction, I’m suspect humanity would have colonized Mars or cured cancer decades ago.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, by Warsan Shire: Ms. Shire rose to prominence last year when her work was featured in Beyoncé’s Lemonade (and, in a nice piece of coincidence for this post, it turns out that Ms. Shire wrote a poem for Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement) Her poem “Home” has also been widely shared, and I suspect, given the events of the last ten days, that it will be making the rounds again soon. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is a chapbook-length collection of bruising poems about trauma, sensuality, exile and home, and women’s lives. Recommended. (You can find an earlier post about Warsan Shire here.)

The White Castle, by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Victoria Holbrook): I wanted to love this early novel by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, since his My Name is Red is one of my favorite books, but alas, it was not to be. The premise–in the seventeenth century, a young Italian scholar is taken captive by the Turks and given over to a master who looks exactly like him—is interesting, the writing lovely, the ending masterful. The frame narrative and unreliable narrator are two of my favorite devices and employed remarkably well here, but for me the weight of the psychodrama pulled down the middle, and I found myself wishing the novel were over sooner. Ah well.

Holding Company, by Major Jackson: This 2010 book is the first of Major Jackson’s collections I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. The poems in this collection are ten lines each (with one exception, I think), but there’s such variety among them! Allusive and elusive, lyrical and abstract, personal-political, descriptive: these poems are challenging and a pleasure to read. I’ll be coming back to them.

In Brief: Reputations and The Mothers

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Dear Readers, I hope your autumn (or spring, hello Australian readers!) has been going swimmingly. Here at Chez O I’m ramping up my night-time knitting (the holidays, and new nieces/nephews approach), so my evenings are not as devoted to reading as they are the rest of the year. Still, recently I finished two books that I’m happy to recommend.

Reputations, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean

Reputations_Carolyn Oliver photoThis slim novel (under 200 pages) reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in two ways. First, Reputations takes place over a short period (three days to Mrs. Dalloway‘s one), but manages to show the contours of the middle-aged main character’s entire life. Second, Mr. Vásquez’s management of tense is remarkable, like Woolf’s. The past and present flow alongside each other easily, almost liquid.

The prose is beautiful (credit to the translator here too!), with long, cascading sentences, and memorable similes. Two of my favorites:

“The night before had been like making love with a memory, with the memory of a woman and not with the woman who was present, the way we keep feeling, after stepping barefoot on a stone, the shape of the stone in the arch of our foot.”

“Forgetfulness was the only democratic thing in Colombia: it covered them all, the good and the bad, the murderers and the heroes, like the snow in the James Joyce story, falling upon all of them alike.”

The plot: Political cartoonist Javier Mallarino is a force to be reckoned with, dashing careers for decades with a bit of ink and a pithy caption. Honored for his work one evening, he is confronted by a forgotten figure from his past the next day, causing him to question memory, honesty, and his own reputation.

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett

The Mothers photo by Carolyn OliverIf you’re a denizen of the bookternet, there’s no way you haven’t heard of this book, one of the most anticipated of the year. Brit Bennett’s debut novel follows three young people in Southern California—Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey—over the course of a decade.

Reeling after the death of her mother, Nadia becomes involved with Luke, the pastor’s son (and a former football star) during the summer before she leaves for college. But their time together ends in a secret and a coverup, one that if exposed would shake their tight-knit black community badly. After Luke and Nadia part ways, Nadia becomes close with Aubrey, a shy, chaste girl who’s often to be found helping Luke’s mother at their church.

The Mothers is a book about friendship, love, community, mothering, and most importantly, choices. The three main characters’ lives are webbed together not only by the paths they took, but by the paths they didn’t take, and these haunt them.

I loved the writing in this novel (though I wanted more from and about The Mothers, the elderly women who keep Upper Room, the church, running, and who serve as the collective narrator). Here are a few of my favorite lines:

“[ . . .] hard deaths resist words. A soft death can be swallowed with Called home to be with the Lord or We’ll see her again in glory, but hard deaths get caught in the teeth like gristle.”

“The pier was nothing but a long piece of wood that kept crumbling until it was rebuilt, and years later, she wondered if that was the point, if sometimes the glory was in rebuilding the broken thing, not the result but the process of trying.”

“Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.”

What are your reading plans for this season? 

Recommended Reading: The Best American Short Stories 2016 Edited by Junot Díaz and Heidi Pitlor (series editor)

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I love The Best American Short Stories anthologies; usually, I’ll have one around for quite awhile, dipping in from time to time when I want to read a story but don’t want to commit to a novel or a whole collection.

This year, though, I read The Best American Short Stories 2016* cover to cover, and I’m soimg_0839 glad I did. Like many writers, I subscribe to a rotating cast of literary magazines, but it’s impossible to read them all—unless that’s your job. Guest editor Junot Díaz and series editor Heidi Pitlor read many, many stories and chose twenty for this year’s anthology. Their choices are diverse in style, length, subject, and authors’ identities. This is a stellar collection, and I highly recommend it.

While I’d be happy to read any of these stories again, and Junot Díaz’s introduction is not to be missed, standouts (to me) included:

  • “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: In Enugu (a city in Nigeria) a man looks back to his childhood, when his friendship with a family servant his own age ended disastrously. “Reading did not do to me what it did to my parents, agitating them or turning them into vague beings lost to time, who did not quite notice when I came and went.”
  • “The Letician Age” by Yalitza Ferreras: A girl and geology, tragedy and family, love and a volcano. “Yet once in a while a person explodes out of her bedrock and becomes someone else.”
  • “For the God of Love, for the Love of God” by Lauren Groff: Tensions simmer as two friends and their husbands share a house in France. “She’d never met a child with beady eyes before. Beadiness arrives after long slow ekes of disappointment, usually in middle age.”
  • “Bridge” by Daniel J. O’Malley: “His mother’s words found a home in his mind the moment they left her mouth.” A boy, supposed to be studying, watches as an elderly couple prepares to jump from a bridge. Absolutely killer last line, which I won’t quote.
  • “On This Side” by Yuko Sakata: A changed figure from a man’s past returns asking for help, or maybe to confront him. “The first thing he felt on the staircase was a knot forming in his stomach, a forgotten seed of guilt he didn’t care to inspect, and now it was threatening to grow.

Two other stories, “Cold Little Bird” by Ben Marcus and “Gifted” by Sharon Solwitz, scared the heck out of me. The first is about a little boy who suddenly and totally withholds all affection from his parents; the second is about a woman whose son becomes critically ill. That’s not really what they’re about, of course–that’s just the framework, but let me tell you: chills. I had to go eat a piece of chocolate after “Cold Little Bird.”

And if you haven’t yet read Louise Erdrich’s excellent LaRose, you can get a taste here; her story “The Flower” is adapted from the novel.

Finally, one of the best parts of these anthologies are the Contributors’ Notes at the end–each includes a short bio of the author and some background on how the story came to be written and published—whether dashed off in a day or labored over for years and dozens of drafts. Fascinating.

Have you read any of the “Best American” anthologies? Do you have a favorite to recommend?

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

Recommended Reading: The Granite Moth by Erica Wright

The Granite Moth

Are you looking for the right book during the transition from summer into fall? Look no further: with its page-turning plot and crisp autumn setting, Erica Wright’s The Granite Moth* is the book for you.

IMG_0592On Halloween night, private investigator Kathleen Stone—Kat, or Kate, Katya, Kathy, Keith, Kennedy,  or another alias, depending on who’s asking—is waiting on a friend and former colleague to drop off some leads that could help her build a case against her nemesis, cartel boss Salvatore Magrelli. Ever since she left undercover work for the NYPD, she’s felt much more comfortable in disguise, and this night is no exception, so she’s surprised when her friend Dolly, the star of the Pink Parrot’s famous drag show, recognizes her from his position on  the club’s float.

Minutes later, the float explodes, and Kat finds herself juggling two cases at once as she’s pulled into investigating the incident by Big Mamma, the club’s owner, who’s convinced it’s no accident. When Kat infiltrates the Skyview, a tony private club run by Magrelli’s wife, the murder of an employee makes her think that the two cases are possibly connected—as hate crimes.

What I liked best about The Granite Moth, in no particular order:

  1. The plot: It’s full of twists and turns, but it’s not convoluted, and it doesn’t rely on sexual assault as a plot point or character motivation (hallelujah!). Also, until now I’d never read a detective novel with (potential) hate crimes as a focus. Timely, unfortunately.
  2. The secondary characters: Dolly and his friends at the Pink Parrot are fully differentiated and fleshed out, as is Kat’s former colleague and friend Ellis, an NYPD detective. The only character I had a hard time understanding was Meeza, Kat’s assistant; it wasn’t clear why a smart, capable woman is interested in V.P., a small-time criminal.
  3. Kat: Kat is smart and brave, though scarred by her work undercover and reasonably worried about the dangerous people crossing her path–a far cry from the usual marks she pursues.  She doesn’t carry a gun, which makes her resourceful; scenes have more room to breathe since violence isn’t always imminent. Disguise is her weapon of choice, but she also listens carefully and carries bolt cutters. Plus, I enjoyed Kat’s sense of humor (wry, as befits a PI).
  4. The writing: Ms. Wright’s prose doesn’t call attention to itself, which (for me, anyway) is ideal in genre fiction, but it certainly has some lovely moments, like this image: “Ellis stopped abruptly and turned me to face him. He ducked down until he was peering into my eyes with his translucent one. I could see myself in his pupils, the smallest nesting doll in the set, the one with nothing inside.”

If you, like me, aren’t a connoisseur of crime fiction but like to sample the genre from time to time, I’d happily recommend The Granite Moth.

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

The Great Library Rundown, Part 3: Afternoon Reads

Fast Reads

Today for your consideration, Dear Readers: two books you can read in an afternoon.

IMG_6535First is Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, a book of short meditations on her love for Italian. A few years ago, the writer acclaimed for books including The Interpreter of Maladies and The Lowland moved to Italy and committed to reading and writing exclusively in Italian, which she had started learning in her twenties (and which is, by the way, her third language). Ms. Lahiri wrote the book in Italian, and the original is presented side-by-side with Ann Goldstein’s translation into English (if that names sounds familiar, it might be because she also translates Elena Ferrante’s work).

I loved reading this (and it was fun to dip into the Italian to look for phrases to puzzle out, or just to whisper all those delightful consonants), not only for the language, but also for its consideration of isolation, belonging, effort, mastery, and passion. Highly recommended.

IMG_6536Next is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo, edited and with notes by esteemed Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger. Drawn from the Kalevala, a Finnish epic, the tragic tale follows Kullervo, one of the inspirations for The Silmarillion‘s Túrin Turambar. Here’s the summary from the publisher:

Brought up in the homestead of the dark magician Untamo, who killed his father, kidnapped his mother, and who tries three times to kill him when still a boy, Kullervo is alone save for the love of his twin sister, Wanona, and guarded by the magical powers of the black dog, Musti. When Kullervo is sold into slavery he swears revenge on the magician, but he will learn that even at the point of vengeance there is no escape from the cruelest of fates.

It’s a rather grim tale, and I think that if you’re not a Tolkien die-hard, this book isn’t for you, since the story itself is not fully fleshed out. The explanatory material is quite interesting, though, and it put the Kalevala on my to-read list.

Have you read any afternoon-long books recently?

Recommended Reading: Jennifer Stewart Miller’s A Fox Appears

A Fox Appears

My friend Emily sent me  A Fox Appears by Jennifer Stewart Miller, and I’m so grateful she did (thanks, Emily!). This is a small gem of a book, “a biography of a boy in haiku,” as the subtitle has it.

In six sections, the poet gives us glimpses of her son’s early life through haiku. Maybe you, like me, spent a fifth-grade unit on haiku, struggling to conjure up nature imagery and conform to the 5/7/5-syllable format (those pesky articles and conjunctions, am I right?). As it turns out, rules are meant to be broken; the charming folks at the Academy of American Poets tell us that in modern haiku-writing, while some formal elements may lapse, “the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination.”

IMG_6829That is exactly what I found in A Fox Appears. As Ms. Miller shows, the haiku is an ideal form (perhaps the ideal form) for evoking a parent’s perspective of the fleeting phases of early childhood. These poems are perfectly, unexpectedly descriptive; their simplicity enhances their perceptiveness.

Here are a few of my favorites (with apologies since the line indents won’t come through):

I stroke the sole
of your foot — small toes
flick open like a fan.

Tiny hands —
fiddlehead ferns
waiting to unfurl.

Patient as stone
you drop stones
in the sea.

The washing machine
empties your pockets —
acorns acorns.

Across a green field
a bluebird flew —
you were at school.

Lovely, aren’t they?

Cats, the moon, stones, and feathers appear throughout this slim volume, tying together the observations and giving us a sense of the passing of seasons and years. And I should note too that Franklin Einspruch’s beautiful black and white gouache artwork complements the poems very well. A Fox Appears is a beautiful volume, and recommended. Thank you Emily!

Have you ever written haiku? Do you have a favorite?