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?)

“And early though the laurel grows / It withers quicker than the rose.”

Readers might notice that on or around April 11 every year I post this poem or one like it, in honor of someone I loved very much.


To an Athlete Dying YoungHousman

A. E. Housman

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.


 

(Rest in peace, EVC.)

Bringing Sexy Back (To Valentine’s Day): 17 Steamy Poems by Esteemed Poets

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Valentine’s Day is upon us, friends, and in its original form (featuring fifteen poems), this has been one of the most popular posts over the last few years. For 2017, I’ve added two poems, for seventeen total. Do you have a favorite I should feature next year?


Toss that teddy bear and give your significant person the gift of verse this Valentine’s Day.

That poet everyone reads at weddings is actually much more appropriate for the bedroom:

e. e. cummings, “i like my body when it is with your” 

An unsexy title for a very sexy poem (check out those ellipses!): 

Li-young Lee, “This Room and Everything In It”

The “Oh, snap” kind of sexy:

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I, being born a woman and distressed”

Wistful sexy:

C. P. Cavafy, “Body, remember”

Bitter sexy:

Thomas Wyatt. “They Flee from Me”

Literate sexy:

Robert Hass, “Etymology” (start watching at 18:42)

Damn sexy:

Audre Lorde, “Recreation

Desire, frustration, and jewelry. Also: socioeconomic tension. (And the first overtly lesbian poem I read as a teenager. Bit of a lightbulb moment, there.)

Carol Ann Duffy, “Warming her Pearls”

Difficult to choose just one Donne poem, but hey, let’s go with the salute to nakedness:

John Donne, “To His Mistress Going to Bed”

Restraint and abandonment, all at once:

Emily Dickinson, “Wild Nights – Wild Nights! (269)”

For the Dear Readers who are also parents: 

Galway Kinnell, “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps”

Maybe this is where they got the title for Blue is the Warmest Color:

May Swenson, “Blue”

I hate birds, but this poem is still amazing: 

Henri Cole, “Loons”

You’ll never look at roses the same way again, I promise:

D.H. Lawrence, “Gloire de Dijon”

And yes, a Neruda poem. But I can’t find it anywhere on the interwebs, so you’ll have to go find a copy of World’s End or Late and Posthumous Poems for yourself. 

Pablo Neruda, “Física”/”Physics”

Sexy in translation: 

León Salvatierra (trans. Javier O. Huerta), “Act”

Desire in list form: 

Major Jackson, “Superfluities”

 

Your turn: what’s the sexiest poem you’ve ever read?

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.

Last Week’s Reading: January 15-21

last-week-reading-january-15-21

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.

Happy New Year!

happy-new-year

Dear Readers,

Happy New Year! I hope 2017 brings you health, happiness, and many delightful books.

Rosemary & Reading Glasses has just entered its fifth year, and some changes are in the offing. In order to pursue some personal projects and goals, I’ll be cutting back on the number of posts; instead of posting twice a week, I might post three to four times a month. I’ll still be reviewing new books, but not quite so many, and I’d like to focus particularly on debut authors, poetry, and small presses. You can also expect to see books reviewed in batches, since I anticipate that reducing the amount of time I spend writing longer reviews will give me more time to, you know, read more books.

As ever, I hope these posts lead you to great books (and more poetry!), and I thank you very much for reading.


A final note:

I’m delighted to have a story in the new issue of Pulp Literature, which Canadian readers might be able to find in local bookshops; the magazine is also available for e-readers.

(Links to other work, as usual, are on carolynoliver.net.)

 

Another Year in Books: Best of 2016

 

best-of-2016Dear Readers,

Thank you so much for another wonderful year in the world of books. I wish you health and happiness in the new year, and a warm, cheery holiday season, however you celebrate.

Now, for the last Rosemary & Reading Glasses post of the year, the traditional last-minute gift guide. It would tax your patience if I were to talk about every book I’ve read this year (97 as of this writing, probably just over 100 by year’s end), so I’ve listed (with two exceptions) 2016 releases in categories constructed by my arbitrary whims. All these books are recommended.

Poetry

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Donika Kelly, Bestiary

W. S. Merwin, Garden Time

Catherine Pierce, The Tornado is the World

Monica Youn, Blackacre

Honorable Mention to Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (2015), which I couldn’t bear to leave off this list.

Short Stories

Ellen Prentiss Campbell, Contents Under Pressure

Helen Oyeyemi, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

Junot Díaz (editor) and Heidi Pitlor (series editor), The Best American Short Stories 2016

Clare Beams, We Show What We Have Learned

Short Novels

Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday

Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton

Idra Novey, Ways to Disappear

Longer Novels

Dominic Smith, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Alexander Chee, The Queen of the Night

Louise Erdrich, LaRose

Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes

Lived Up to the Hype

Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

Brit Bennett, The Mothers

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Jeff Zentner, The Serpent King

Books in Translation

Maylis de Kerangal, The Heart (translated by Sam Taylor)

Dulce María Loynaz, Absolute Solitude (translated by James O’Connor)

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Reputations (translated by Anne McLean)

Nonfiction

Claire Harman, Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures

Depressing (and Very Good)

Katy Simpson Smith, Free Men

Jung Yun, Shelter

Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You

Katie Roiphe, The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End

Delightful (and Very Good)

Shirley Barrett, Rush Oh! 

Lindsay Faye, Jane Steele

Honorable Mention to Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, out in paperback this year

Best for Sleuths

Elliott Chaze, Black Wings Has My Angel

Erica Wright, The Granite Moth

Best for New Parents

Jennifer Stewart Miller, A Fox Appears

Best Shakespeare Adaptation

Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

Best Graphic Novel/Comic

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Saga: Volume 6 (Start with Volume 1, though!)

Best Sui Generis

Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond

 

Books as Refuge and The Rain in Portugal

IMG_4318In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (highly recommended), a theater troupe makes its way through a post-apocalyptic world, performing Shakespeare for tiny communities that have escaped the plague. The company’s motto, taken from Star Trek Voyager, is “Survival is insufficient.”

Which is, essentially, the raison d’etre for this site in the post-election landscape.

I believe in making calls, making donations, making the decision every day to stand up for our fellow human beings.

And I believe that when we are weary and heartsore from the work of the world, books are a refuge. They give our minds rest; they let us escape; they encourage us to love harder; they call us back to action.

We must have light in the darkness. We must have all kinds of books.

I’m going to do my best for the world beyond the page, but I’m going to keep reading omnivorously too (even if I’m not writing as much as usual).

I hope you’ll find some comfort, and some light, here.


And on that note, today I’ll recommend Billy Collins’s new collection, The Rain in Portugal.*

Like Mary Oliver, Mr. Collins is one of the most popular poets in the United States; read “The Lanyard” if you want to know why. As I wrote in my review of Aimless Love a few years ago,

His poems are cozy but not uncomfortably intimate, clever but not arrogant. Their subjects are work and rest, reading and writing, eating, looking out of windows; in short, the everyday business of being alive in America. As I’ve written elsewhere, his poetry is perfect for picking up on a whim, while you wait for a friend who’s late to dinner, say. You’ll be entertained, you’ll think, and you might even laugh, but you won’t be trying to unknot a metaphor half an hour later while you chew your escarole.

The Rain in Portugal is a collection that deploys Mr. Collins’s signature humor, which is often self-deprecating (“Some days, I look worse than yesterday’s oatmeal”). The book’s title comes from a poem called “On Rhyme,” which pokes fun at his lack of facility for rhyming. And in “Early Morning,” the speaker begins:

I don’t know which cat is responsible
for destroying my Voter Registration Card
so I decide to lecture the two of them on
the sanctity of private property,
the rules of nighttime comportment in general,
and while I’m at it, the importance
of voting to an enlightened citizenship.

After delivering this admonishment, he ruefully notes that he once told an interviewer that “early morning was my favorite time to write / I was not thinking of this particular morning.”

img_2357More fanciful are poems like “Cosmology,” in which the world is imagined to rest of Keith Richards’s head (literally) or  “The Bard in Flight” (you can read a slightly different version here), in which the speaker imagines sitting next to Shakespeare in an airline cabin; particularly clever is the way he imagines the Bard trying to catch the nuances in the flight attendants’ speech (for later use, of course).

Still, despite the humor and the flights of fancy (couldn’t resist), I found this collection more somber than I expected; maybe wistful is the right word. The poems about travel seem a lonely, for one thing. There’s a brief elegy for Seamus Heaney that sneaks up on the reader, like a silent rabbit in a yard. And I loved “December 1,” a tribute to the poet’s mother on what would have been her 114th birthday.

If you’re looking for respite, a quiet hour or two to spend in someone else’s everyday life, with thought experiments and gently put questions, you won’t go wrong with The Rain in Portugal.

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


Blogger friends, if you’ve read this far, thank you, and thank you for all your kind comments over the last few weeks. I’m sorry to have fallen behind with your posts, and I hope to get back up to speed in December, though I probably won’t be around as much as I used to be.

“Going home / behind the curtain”: Farewell, Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen books photo by Carolyn Oliver

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat
from “Going Home”

If you’re a longtime reader of R&RG, you know about my devotion to Leonard Cohen. His death wasn’t public when I wrote the post quoting “Anthem” right after the election last week, but now I realize how strange it was that I used the past tense to talk about him—I almost always use the present when writing about living authors. The news of his death wasn’t shocking  (his last album, You Want It Darker, which is amazing, is also a farewell; and then there was his last letter to Marianne Ihlen, who died this summer), but it was heartbreaking nonetheless.

I can’t muster much more at the moment, except to commend his books to your reading and his albums to your listening; recommendations available upon request.

Rest well, Leonard. Endless love, see you down the road.

Here’s a 2014 review of Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, edited by Jeff Burger.


I’m fairly certain that I would have spent my high school years as perpetually moody and angst-ridden as Molly Ringwald in any given John Hughes movie had it not been for Theatre (capital-T, said in your best Addison DeWitt voice).

To the Shaker Heights High School Theatre Arts Program (yes, it’s really called that) I owe a debt of gratitude: for leading me to my two best friends in high school, one of whom I met when she was tasked with teasing my nearly waist-length hair so that it would stand straight out from my head; for playwriting class; for teaching me the world “décolletage”; for the knowledge that I should never, ever wear flesh-tone spandex; for the chance to eat lunches with friends in Room 129; for the ability to recite, in perfect tandem with any other alum, “Shaker Theater events are non-smoking, non-drinking, non-drug-using, safe-driving, recycling events”; and for Leonard Cohen.

The department chair, Mr. Thornton, had a fondness for the Canadian singer-songwriter, and from the moment I heard that smoky voice singing “The Window,” I was hooked. I used my babysitting money to buy his albums, talked so much about him that my parents knew to get me Ten New Songs for my birthday, and hoped Leonard Cohen would tour someday so that I could see him live. One of the stupidest things I’ve ever done is not begging, borrowing, or stealing enough money to see him in concert in Boston in 2012.

photo 3 (5)Before he became famous, relatively late (he was in his thirties) as a singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen was a poet and novelist whose work earned him comparisons with James Joyce, even if it didn’t pay the bills. Music did, and more than forty-five years after the release of Songs of Leonard Cohen, the dapper and impeccably polite poet is a musical legend.

photo 2 (14)I was so entranced by his music that it wasn’t until college that I went looking for Mr. Cohen’s published poetry and fiction.  Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) which I recently re-read, is raw and energetic, the work of a young idealist who’s afraid the world is already lost. Book of Mercy (my favorite of the collections) is often called a modern book of psalms, although in an interview Mr. Cohen characterized them as “more conversations with the absolute” (148). The prose-poems — fifty of them — are prayers of great sadness and great longing. Here’s part of my favorite (19): “O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy.” It’s the same voice — almost mystic, worldly, sad — from “The Window”:

Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul

Like his poetry, Leonard Cohen’s songs are about the difficulties of love, of living, of dying; he sings about a world that’s broken and the people trying and often failing to keep the pieces together. He writes songs about betrayal, sex, faith, politics. A reviewer once famously said that it was “music to slit your wrists to,” but I’ve never found it anything but comforting, occasionally funny (see “Tower of Song”), and very, very beautiful. I’m not the only one.

photo 1 (17)Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters*, edited by Jeff Burger and recently published by Chicago Review Press, is a book meant for fans of the man who wrote not only “Suzanne” and “First We Take Manhattan” and yes, the ubiquitous “Hallelujah” (for the record, I like Leonard’s version best, followed by Jeff Buckley’s, followed by John Cale’s, then k d lang’s), but also Book of Mercy and Beautiful Losers and The Spice-Box of Earth. Judiciously selected interviews from Mr. Cohen’s four decades in the music industry trace the evolution of his public persona even as they illuminate aspects of his personal life and career that aren’t widely talked about. (Did you know he once made a signature drink for his band? I do now, and I’ll be mixing up a few batches this summer.)

What comes across in these interviews — which the interviewers themselves note in their interviews with Mr. Burger — is Leonard Cohen’s graciousness, his sense of humor, and his modesty. He unflappably fields predictable questions about his lack of commercial success in the U.S., speaks well of every woman he’s been romantically linked with, and pokes fun of himself (he riffs on his early albums’ bland (“neutral”) titles by joking that he’ll call the next one Songs in English [163].) He’s completely open about the grueling process of songwriting (he’ll write dozens and dozens of stanzas for one song, rejecting all but a few; songs often take years to complete), his difficulties with romantic relationships, and, in the later interviews, about his struggles with depression. Most longtime Leonard Cohen fans know that he spent years in relative isolation at a Zen center outside Los Angeles, but these interviews offer a fuller view of what those years were like, which I found particularly fascinating.

With more than five hundred pages of interviews (several never before translated into English, some transcribed from the raw footage of television interviews), it’s not surprising that some material is repetitive. Interviewers ask questions asked many times before, and sometimes Mr. Cohen’s answers retread ground already broken. Still, the book is a treasure trove, and worth reading just for the interviewers with specialized backgrounds who share long, knowledgable conversations with Mr. Cohen on songwriting and his Jewish background, among other subjects. Rarely did four or five pages pass without me turning down a corner to come back to an idea or a phrase; choosing favorite passages and quotes for this review proved an impossible task. But here’s a snippet from a conversation the editor had with interviewer Thom Jurek, who spoke with Leonard Cohen in 1993:

Jurek recalled asking Cohen why it had taken so long after the release of The Future for him to tour. “He explained that it was because backing vocalist Julie Christensen had borne a child; it was important to hold off on the tour to give the new family time to bond.” What about finding another singer? Cohen said he hadn’t even considered that. “The reason, he said– and I am pretty sure I remember this by heart–was: ‘She shouldn’t be punished for bringing life into the world.’

This from a man who says, “We cannot forestall the apocalypse. The bomb has already gone off. We are now living in the midst of its aftermath. The question is: how can we live with this knowledge with grace and kindness?” (507).

There is a risk in books of this kind — as in meeting a favorite author — that the subject will be demystified in some way, will appear all too human, which is not, after all, how we prefer our idols. This isn’t the case with Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen. For all his foibles and favored anecdotes, the man is consistently human in the best sense of the word: compassionate, invested in the welfare of others, deeply concerned with ideas. I came away admiring him, and loving his work, even more.


Related:

An Interview with Jeff Burger, Editor of Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen.

“Going Home”

Review of So Long, Marianne

New Yorker profile of Leonard Cohen (October 2016)

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