Elections and Empathy


Friends, it’s Election Day in the United States.  If you haven’t voted early, perhaps you’re on your way to a local elementary school or a house of worship or a library, temporarily repurposed so that we can choose our future together.

I love voting. I love that, in principle, we all bring our hopes and our convictions and our experiences of America with us to our polling places, these public spaces that shaped us and that we in turn may shape with our best intentions.

Every vote—for president or state representative or a ballot initiative—affects someone; cultivating empathy allows us to examine the ramifications of our votes from the perspective of others with experiences different from our own.

And reading is one of the best ways to cultivate empathy.

So this week, I’m recommending The Fortunes*, by Peter Ho Davies, a book that helped me to think and learn about the Chinese American experience over the last century.

The Fortunes is a novel, but one with an unusual structure. In four sections, Mr. Davies explores the lives of men and women of Chinese heritage as they try to make sense of their identities—the ones they assign themselves and those assigned to them by others.

In “Gold,” which could stand on its own as a novella, Ah Ling is sold by his uncle to work img_2359in a California laundry; from there, Ah Ling becomes the personal servant to a railroad tycoon (the historical figure Charles Crocker) and watches the fortunes of his fellow immigrants, sometimes from within their ranks, sometimes from a less intimate distance. When he first mistakes the maid for Mrs. Crocker, “a hand had loosened from the knot across her chest, floating up to pat her hair coquettishly. She wasn’t flirting with him so much as admiring herself in the mirror of his error, as if he were no more than a puddle or a window she’d caught sight of herself in.” His racial difference, Ah Ling reflects, allows marginalized whites–the Irish, in this case–to see themselves as part of the majority group. “We made them white, Ling thought. Just like Uncle Ng said. Just like bluing. Whiter than any laundry.”

Silver screen star Anna May Wong is the main character in “Silver.” In short vignettes, the story traces her biography as she begins a journey by ship to China to visit her father after suffering a major disappointment—though she’s a famous actress and of Chinese descent, producers refused to cast her in the adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. She doesn’t let the hurt show.  “It thrills her fellow passengers, she can see, that they know her and she knows Carole Lombard, and it dismays her too, this reflected starlight that dims her own pallid glow.”  For her—a movie star not allowed to kiss her white co-stars on screen, a daughter whose father is not proud of her work—being Chinese American is incredibly complex, a performance she never gets credit for. Near the end of her life, after the Communist takeover of China, she realizes “They—all of them—are Chinese American now, not just because America has finally, begrudgingly, allowed them to be, but because China has closed to them.”

“Jade” is especially difficult to read. It’s an account of a 1982 hate crime by a childhood friend of the victim. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, was mistaken for Japanese and beaten by two white autoworkers angry at Japan’s perceived role in the declining American auto industry. He died a few days later. This happened before I was born, and I’m sorry to say that until I read The Fortunes I had never heard of this tragedy, which was one factor in the rise of Asian American rights groups. Vincent’s friend narrates from a place of anger and grief and frustration, wondering if he failed Vincent, wondering how things might have been different. He longs for the “warm anonymity” of the word “American.”

In “Pearl,” Chinese American writer John Smith is in China with his (white) wife, waiting to adopt a baby girl. Small bits and pieces from the other stories filter into this last chapter, suggesting the ways that history repeats itself and bubbles up to the surface of the present. As he considers his daughter’s future (and the inevitable “Where are you from?“), he thinks of the terra-cotta soldiers the famous tomb of the emperor. Each one is different, an individual face, “each figure standing for precisely one man, representing only himself.”

This timely, beautifully written, affecting novel reminds us that we are all part of the kindness and cruelty that is history, shaped by it and shaping it.

May we take the best of our humanity to the polls with us.

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

“A far sea moves in my ear”: Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song”


Around this time last year, I wrote a quick poetry post to welcome our first niece into the world. I’m delighted to say that this week, we welcomed our second niece (the first on my husband’s side of the family)—she was unexpectedly early, but given her sweet countenance and perfect health, I suspect that, like a wizard, she arrived precisely when she meant to.

This week, then, I’m reading Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song,” a poem that might remind parents out there of their own first mornings with little ones. This stanza in particular had me strolling down memory lane:

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

Welcome to the world, Eleanor Hermione!

“first rubythroat / in the fading lilacs”: Maxine Kumin’s “Whereof the Gift Is Small” from And Short the Season

Whereof the Gift Is Small---poetry, Maxine Kumin, poem of the week, poetry discussion, flowers, nature

Last week, I had the pleasure of reading And Short the Season, the last collection by Maxine Kumin (1925-2014). Usually I try not to read late collections until I’ve read a few early collections for reference, but I couldn’t pass up this beauty when we stopped in at Island Books in Rhode Island last month.

IMG_0019In the collection, Kumin writes about her New Hampshire farm, politics, the seventeenth-century writer Margaret Cavendish, and the approach of death. These poems, simultaneously elegant and earthy, made me want to pick up Kumin’s selected poems.

Today’s poem, “Whereof the Gift is Small,” refers to and quotes from a sixteenth-century sonnet often called “Brittle Beauty”  by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. (As you can see, Kumin also took the collection’s title from this poem.)

Here’s Surrey’s sonnet:

Brittle beauty, that Nature made so frail,
Whereof the gift is small, and short the season;
Flowering to-day, to-morrow apt to fail;
Tickle treasure, abhorred of reason:
Dangerous to deal with, vain, of none avail;
Costly in keeping, past not worth two peason;
Slipper in sliding, as is an eel’s tail;
Hard to obtain, once gotten, not geason:
Jewel of jeopardy, that peril doth assail;
False and untrue, enticed oft to treason;
Enemy to youth, that most may I bewail;
Ah! bitter sweet, infecting as the poison,
Thou farest as fruit that with the frost is taken;
To-day ready ripe, tomorrow all to-shaken.

(Carol Rumens has an excellent write-up of the poem in The Guardian.)

In “Whereof the Gift Is Small,” which opens And Short the Season, Kumin takes Surrey’s theme—that beauty is not only frail and transitory, but maybe even dangerous—and softens it considerably. Surrey, the last person executed on the orders of Henry VII, died at 30; “Whereof the Gift Is Small” appeared in print in 2011, when Kumin was past 80. True that beauty is swift to fade, she writes with the benefit of those extra fifty years; true that there’s “a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart / on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm / him underground.”

But look, she seems to say, at the texture and richness of nature’s brief beauty; consider the beginnings made out of ends: the rubythroated hummingbird in the “fading lilacs,” the alyssum (an annual, usually cream-colored, that smells like honey), the bee in the bleeding heart (a flower that looks like its name), the green of the new grass eaten by the living horses. Consider the “bluets, violets,” the “little flecks of buttercup on my sneaker toes.” These delicate flowers (all of them small, or composed of very small petals bunched together) are a rainbow of color, and like a rainbow, short-lived.

While the speaker’s “wet feet, wet cuffs” and her sneakers suggest (to me, anyway) a child outdoors at first light, soaked with dew, the poem’s last line—“brittle beauty—might this be the last?”—reminds us that the speaker is no child, that this season, this gift, could be the last whose shock of color she witnesses, and versifies.

What poems are you reading this week?

What I Did on My (Impromptu) Summer Vacation

Summer Vacation

Dear Readers,

You might have noticed that things have been a bit quiet around here lately. Regular programming should resume this week, but perhaps you’d like to know what’s been going on since your erstwhile book recommender and poetry pusher disappeared. Since the last time I wrote:

  1. We moved into our first house, which we are really, really excited about. It’s just the right size for us (and the obscene number of books I own), and for the first time in ten years my desk is not in the dining room. Also we named our house Bag End.
  2. We’ve visited with two dozen friends and family members at the house in under a month, which is awesome, and possibly explains why I’ve read a grand total of only four books and completely neglected this site since we moved.
  3. I’ve had another story and another poem (both quite short) published, which I’m also, really excited about. There are links over on carolynoliver.net if you’re interested.
  4. We took an actual vacation with my family to Rhode Island, where I read three of the four books I just mentioned and saw four movies in a movie theater. Totally recommend the new Star Trek, btw.
  5. I discovered that a month away from blogging is a bit too long for my taste. I’ve missed writing about books, and reading what other bloggers have to say about them. Onward!


“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 a poem like this one, 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.)

“the rueful admission”: Billy Collins’s “The Lanyard”

Collins_The LanyardA couple of years ago, in a post about my mother, I obliquely mentioned “The Lanyard,” a poem by Billy Collins. “The Lanyard” was the eulogy my uncle read at my grandmother’s funeral recently, and so I’m featuring it this week. It’s one of my favorite poems about parents and children, and I hope you’ll like it too.

Here’s a link to Mr. Collins reading the poem. 

On Omnivorous Reading: A Tribute

About two years ago, I sent my 80-year-old grandmother a copy of The Martian, by Andy Weir, having forgotten that the first line of the novel is “I’m pretty much fucked.” That’s how I felt when I remembered it a day later, when the book was already on a truck headed for her house in the suburbs of Buffalo.

Turns out I shouldn’t have worried; as you might suspect, given that I assumed she’d want to read The Martian in the first place, Grammie told me later that she liked the novel “very much,” her highest form of praise for books and movies, even saying, with a laugh, that she appreciated the profanity because “who wouldn’t curse in that kind of situation?” She said The Martian would be one of those books she re-read once a year or so as a treat. I’m not sure she ever did get a chance to re-read it; I forgot to ask about it in our conversations over the last few months.

"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” This is my grandmother's copy of Jane Eyre.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” This is my grandmother’s copy of Jane Eyre.

Grammie died last week, and I miss her already. I loved her very much, and was always pleased that we shared a favorite color and a favorite novel, Jane Eyre. She had the same patience with me that Helen Burns had for Jane; like Helen, she quietly accepted life’s troubles, her stoicism always a source of curiosity to me (I have the temperament, I should perhaps regret to say, of ten-year-old Jane).

Like Helen, whom Jane meets when she’s reading Johnson’s Rasselas, Grammie was a reader. I’ve written before about my parents’ love of reading and the effort they put into our reading lives, but I’ve never talked much about Grammie, and just how important she was to me, not only in the familiar grandmotherly ways—stroganoff, hamburgers in gravy, perfect chocolate cakes chilled in the fridge, quality time with her skinny hairbrush and Johnson’s no-more-tangles, birthday cards with the most even and lovely penmanship I’ve ever seen, love and support through the very best and worst of times—but also in shaping the way I read. By her example, my grandmother taught me that reading offers not only the pursuit of knowledge or the cultivation of empathy, but also pleasure and enjoyment.

When I was a child I watched my Grammie read from a distance. As Jane Eyre recalls of Helen, “I think her occupation touched a chord of sympathy somewhere; for I too liked reading, though of a frivolous and childish kind; I could not digest or comprehend the serious or substantial.” Grammie  read everything, it seemed—novels about submarines, true tales of disaster and survival (believe me, there was nary a chick flick to be found on her movie shelf), classics like Kristin Lavransdatter.

Grammie's living room bookshelf.

Grammie’s living room bookshelf.

On her living room shelves in Buffalo were handsome 1960s volumes of major authors (Melville, Hugo, Petrarch, Dante, Dickens, Montaigne), while upstairs paperbacks left behind by my uncles (I read all  Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels one summer) jostled with nonfiction history from college courses and late-60s/early-70s bestsellers (thanks to which I can report with confidence that Love Story is truly terrible and The Godfather is way raunchier than the movie). Whenever I happened into Grammie’s room there’d be a book on the nightstand (which now sits in my room) or on the nubbly white bedspread, usually with a sticker around its spine and a dust jacket; Grammie was a devoted patron of her public library. Hers was a house of books; there was always something to read, no matter what mood you were in.

Just as important as her example of omnivorous reading was her refusal to dictate what anyone else read. Grammie (like my other grandmother) was a teacher and then a homemaker, raising a family of readers (and teachers) with tastes as diverse as her own. She lived alone for more than twenty-five years, her solitude interrupted by periods when she helped to care for two separate sets of grandchildren while their mothers studied for graduate degrees. When she lived with us from when I was 7 until I was 10, every Saturday morning brought chores first, then a trip to Blockbuster (Goonies and Meatballs were perennial favorites) and the library.

The fountain at the former SEL library.

The fountain at the former SEL library.

The library in this little Cleveland suburb was like something out of a fairytale—a big Tudor mansion spangled with light (alas, it has been sold and is no longer a library). It featured slate floors, marble fireplaces, indoor plants, a burbling fountain, oddly-shaped rooms, twisty corridors, and nooks for a little reader to hide in. When we arrived at the library those Saturday mornings, Grammie took my younger sister to pick out books (hers and my sister’s), and left my brother and me to find our own. Every week for a long time I took out seven Nancy Drew books, the old editions with golden-yellow spines grayed by many grubby hands and black-edged pages that I now collect. Never once did she tell me I’d taken out too many books, never told me a little girl couldn’t read that many in a week. So I assumed I could, and every Saturday I came back for seven more until I’d read them all, and then I moved on to other authors, from Lois Lowry to Anne Frank to Judy Blume to Madeleine L’Engle. Grammie never once told me that I shouldn’t read a book because it was too mature for me; she let me and my siblings read as we chose, allowing us to develop our own tastes (a trait my parents also shared).

IMG_6163Like Jane Eyre observing Helen Burns in Lowood’s schoolyard and then peppering her with questions about her book, I loved to call up Grammie and chat with her about what she was reading. Usually it was something I hadn’t heard of, since she read quite a bit of nonfiction. One of the last times we talked about books, though, before she got sick enough that we spoke mostly about the weather or what shenanigans her great-grandson was up to, she told me she was re-reading The Country of the Pointed Firs, an oft-neglected nineteenth-century classic by Sarah Orne Jewett that I didn’t encounter until a graduate school seminar nearly ten years ago. I went to my shelf to pull out my copy, flipping through a few dog-eared pages, and read her the passage that had stayed with me, and which I’ve been coming back to over and over again this week:

There was the world, and here was she with eternity well begun. In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.


“Yes,” she said. “I like that very much.”


“People say — This is how the world works”: Emily Mohn-Slate’s “Needlework”

Emily Mohn-Slate -Needlework-This week’s poem is very new; “Needlework” was just published in Tupelo Quarterly. Emily Mohn-Slate is a poet and teacher, and I had the pleasure of meeting and becoming friendly with her in graduate school (you can read more about Emily here).

I loved “Needlework” as soon as I read it. I’m interested in poems about people’s working lives and poems about everyday events (breakfast, phone calls, walks), and this poem is about both. There’s both a playfulness (the references to the gym and the treadmill–working out–in a poem about work) and a seriousness to it. This stanza–

My father told me to do what I loved to do — one third of my life
will be work. Every day, he arrived home ashen,
hiked the basement stairs broken by long pauses.

–is to me the crucial one (Note how all the stanzas are built to resemble stairs. And the description of the speaker’s father reminds me of Robert Hayden’s brilliant “Those Winter Sundays”). How many of us have been told to do what we love, and how many of us find ourselves instead doing a job we merely stand?

I think the poems suggests that the key to avoiding misery in the work that is one third of one’s life is finding something to love in the work, no matter what it is. Take the men who “cut off the trees’ hands.” This doesn’t seem, at first glance, like loveable work, to prune away something that’s alive (reinforced by the use of “hands” for branches), and yet the speaker thinks she hears “them singing,” an echo of the hum of the machines in the first stanza.

It’s a poem that bears re-reading, and I hope you’ll find it as rewarding as I have.

What’s your favorite poem about work?

Recommended Reading: My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, Translated by Ann Goldstein

Yes, it’s just as good as everyone’s been saying—and I’m very glad I waited to read it.


No doubt you’ve heard of the Neapolitan novels, the quartet of books by Italian writer Elena Ferrante (whose identity is not known; she’s used a pen name since her first novel was published more than twenty years ago) and translated by Ann Goldstein.

I do wish someone would give Ann Goldstein a medal, because the translation is superb, as far as this non-Italian speaker can tell—it flows exactly as it should; one never stops to think of it as a translation.

My Brilliant Friend tells of the childhood and adolescence of Elena (or Lenu), the narrator, and Lila, her enigmatic, incredibly, almost dangerously intelligent friend. Both girls are sensitive, inquisitive, brave, desirous of accomplishment; but Lila has “the characteristic of absolute determination,” while Elena sometimes flounders, unsure of herself, looking to Lila as an anchor. Their subtle competition with each other wends through the novel, as Elena reaches back into her memory to understand her friend and rival. This is best bildungsroman I’ve read since Jane Eyre, though of course completely different in scope and setting. Lila and Elena, both born in 1944, live in a rough neighborhood on the fringes of Naples; parents hitting children and husbands hitting wives are commonplace. In their neighborhood wealth stands out, as do book smarts, though neither is particularly welcome; Elena recalls, “we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”

The structure of the novel reminded me of a sidewinder; it moves forward, but often by moving sideways. Elena sets a scene—a confrontation with rock-throwing boys after school (considerably less tame than a similar scene in Anne of Green Gables, by the way)—only to skip away laterally and return to it later. Ms. Ferrante is so talented, though, that these parries and feints aren’t jarring, but fluid.

I put off reading these books for two reasons, one good and one bad. The bad reason is that I find the covers off-putting, though thematically appropriate. The good reason, or the reasonable reason, perhaps, is that each installment of the series appeared a year apart, the last in September 2015; I suspected, based on the praise I heard, that I would not want to wait before delving into each subsequent novel. That suspicion was correct; within a half hour of finishing My Brilliant Friend, I was twenty pages into The Story of a New Name. I can’t wait to see what happens, how Lila and Elena will illuminate each other’s lives.



In Brief: Poetry and Picard

Dear Readers,

I hope you’ll forgive this departure from our regularly scheduled programming for two brief notes.

First, my first published poem is online to be read or listened to (that’s me reading in a very sleepy voice that I hope comes across as appropriately serious and poetic). It’s about Catherine of Aragon, whom I’ve always found fascinating and rather tragic, in the way that sixteenth-century son-less Spanish princesses can be.


Some weeks ago I mentioned that I’m writing an advice column called Dear Clementine; you can read the first column, called “The Other Picard,” here. It involves both babies and Star Trek. And please do send questions to dearclementinepostscript [at] gmail [dot] com.

And that’s the news from here. What are you up to, Dear Readers?