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: 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.

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, 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.

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: March 26 – April 1

There Now, by Eamon Grennan: I’ve forgotten what led me to request this poetry collection from the library, so if it was your recommendation, please let me know in the comments! This was my first time reading Mr. Grennan’s work (I’m sure I’ve said this before, but the more I read contemporary poetry, the more I realize I haven’t read) and I enjoyed it thoroughly. There Now features poems that are short on commas, long on inventive hyphenated adjectives, and virtuosic in their syntax. I’ll be adding this to my Christmas list come the end of the year.

A Separation, by Katie Kitamura: In A Separation, the narrator learns that her estranged husband is missing, and travels from London to Greece to seek him out. That their separation is secret makes an already unfortunate situation even more complex, especially when Christopher’s overbearing mother and possible fling are thrown into the mix. This is a cool, controlled a novel that’s more about the narrator’s psychology and observations on relationships than it is about the mystery plot. While I appreciated those observations and Ms. Kitamura’s handling of alienation as a theme, the style—run on sentences meant to approximate the slip-patter of thought—was to me intrusive, and detracted from my reading experience.

Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier: I’ll be posting a full  review of this searing collection soon.

My Darling Detective, by Howard Norman: This new novel by one of my favorite authors didn’t disappoint. Full review coming soon.

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, by Morgan Parker: Goodness, I wish I could have made it into Boston to hear Ms. Parker read from this collection—with their rhythmic intensity, these poems beg to be read out loud. Pop culture, politics, and personal experience are woven together throughout the collection, which ranges in tone from jaunty and risqué  to forlorn. “I’m a little unpolished / behind the scenes,” the poet writes. Some of my favorite poems include “99 Problems,” “Delicate and Jumpy” (“I’m a museum / of  necklines and cloudscapes, a heaven / diving into the wrong hard mountain.”), “Afro,” and “Slouching Toward Beyoncé.” An excellent collection and a must-read for its perspectives on race, feminism, and vulnerability.

Saga Vol. 7, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples: I adore Saga; it convinced me to try other comics and graphic novels, but aside from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, none have impressed me like Saga. This installment is pretty bleak, but I think that was to be expected. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for Hazel and her family next.

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: February 19-25

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Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders: I confess that this is the first George Saunders book I’ve read, and now I get what all the hype is about. The novel takes place on one night, in the graveyard where young Willie Lincoln’s body has been delivered. His grieving father, faced with the loss of his son and the looming loss of his country (the war is not going well), visits the cemetery, to the surprise of the resident ghosts. Mr. Saunders stretches the form of the novel in unexpected directions, and the result is polyphonous, nuanced, joyful and terrible, and—dare I say it?—Joycean, in a good way. Highly recommended.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Everything there is to say about this book, a father’s letter to his son about moving through American life in a black body, has already been said, I think, but: yes, it’s searing, bleak, and galvanizing. And the writing is beautiful. Highly recommended.

Peacock & Vine, by A. S. Byatt: As an object, this book is covetable—gorgeous thick paper, a carefully chosen font, around 50 full-page photos—but I closed it and wished for more. It’s an essay, A. S. Byatt is careful to say, that through various lenses considers the lives and work of the artists Mariano Fortuny and William Morris. I knew a bit about Morris coming into the book, but nothing about textile designer Fortuny, and in both cases I felt out of my depth because of my lack of knowledge. Byatt’s writing is gorgeous, of course—is there a writer who can describe color better?—but I think this book is best suited for people particularly interested in the two designers. Made me want a Fortuny coffee-table book, though.

Look, by Solmaz Sharif: In Look, Ms. Sharif’s debut collection, poetry is an act of witnessing, even when what is witnessed is erasure. These poems focus on the way war destroys or maims the body, relationships, and language itself. A powerful, sad, cohesive collection. Highly recommended.

(The library was good to me this week, as you can see. Wish I’d had time to write longer reviews!)

Last Week’s Reading: January 15-21

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A dystopian classic, two collections by Poets Laureate, sci-fi shorts, a nonfiction juggernaut, and a powerful play.

Well, Dear Readers, here we are. And here’s what I read last week.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood: Even more frightening now than when I first read it ten years ago. If you haven’t read this classic yet, now might be a pretty good time.

On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove: I bought this collection in Denver last year, and finally read it on Martin Luther King Day. It’s excellent, particularly in the way the title sequence allows us to see the sweep of historical events through individual experience. The poems grouped in “Cameos” and “Black on a Saturday Night” reminded me of Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work; you might try reading the collections together. And bookish folk will love the poems “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967” and  “The First Book.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot: I finally got a library card for our new city’s system, and then proceeded (finally) to read this medical and social history that practically everyone else has read in the six or so year since it came out. I was impressed by the volume of research Ms. Skloot conducted and the sensitivity with which she handled the stories of Henrietta Lacks’s family, but I did wish for more background on cell science and advances made with HeLa cells. If you read the book when it came out, you might want to head over to this website to read updates about the project.

Arrival (original published as Stories of Your Life and Others), by Ted Chiang: I bought this collection because I very much want to see Arrival (unfortunately, I missed it in theaters), and I like to read source material first. “Story of Your Life,” which is the basis for the movie, is exceptionally good, one of the very best short stories—though it feels like a super-compressed novel—I’ve ever read. Stunning, and by that I mean I felt stunned after I read it. Also very impressive was “Tower of Babylon,” which leads off the collection. The other six stories (most of the stories in the book are very long for short stories, by the way) were interesting, but not quite my cup of tea, stylistically; they seemed, with exception of “Seventy-two Letters,” like sustained thought experiments. All the stories, however, reveal a deeply thoughtful mind at work, and offer more questions than answers; I’m glad I read them.

The Laramie Project, by Moisés Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project: This play must have been (must be) incredibly powerful in performance. It’s an exploration of Laramie, Wyoming’s reaction to the brutal murder of Matthew Shepherd in 1998. The members of the theater group traveled to Wyoming six times in eighteen months to interview friends of Matthew, friends of the perpetrators, police officers, students, religious leaders, and other townspeople; the words gathered in the interviews were shaped into the work. The Laramie Project is an act of radical witness; it’s impossible not to be moved by it.

Notes on the Assemblage, by Juan Felipe Herrera (current United States Poet Laureate): The poems in this collection are political and personal, full of lamentation and exuberance. You’ll find calls to action, pleas for remembrance, elegies, riffs that feel like jazz, Spanish and English talking to each other and not speaking. “Borderbus” was for me the standout poem—heartbreaking and unforgettable.


P. S. Given the busy news cycle this weekend, you might not have focused on the destructive and deadly storms in the South this weekend. If you’d like to support disaster relief efforts, here’s a link to the Red Cross donations page.  You can also check out Pinebelt Relief.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, Dear Readers. See you next week.