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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Recommended Reading: Lessons on Expulsion, by Erika L. Sánchez

I admired Erika L. Sánchez’s debut collection, Lessons on Expulsion*, for its unflinching determination to illuminate hidden worlds, to explore difficult emotions—bewilderment, sorrow, lust, rage.

In Lessons on Expulsion you’ll find a lifetime’s worth of poems: poems about what it’s like to be a girl or woman of color objectified by men (“Hija de la Chingada,” “A Woman Runs on the First Day of Spring”), poems about difficult ends to love affairs, about missing someone in a city that’s not your own, poems about immigrants and the terrors and hardships they face, poems about the murdered and missing in Mexico (“Las Pulgas” is absolutely chilling; “Forty-three” aches: “In this land / of child-brides and teenage assassins, / a bus fill of students dissolves / into the mountain mist.”).

I especially appreciated “Crossing,” a poem that begins with the speaker’s parents crossing the border in the “the trunk of a Cadillac” belonging to men “who study my mother’s wet-startled body” and moves through the family settling in Chicago (“The roaches makes nests in our toys”), the parents working “in factory heat,” vowing that their children won’t. As a teenager the speaker rebels, self-harms, eventually travels to Spain (“I cross the Atlantic / like no one in my family ever has”), visiting the Prado while her father “is rising before the sun / to assemble air filters.” It’s a beautiful, moving poem.

Some other lines I loved in this collection:

“The glittering women swing / their hips like eternal bells” (from “La Cueva”)

“Amá, I leave because / I feel like an unfinished / poem, because I’m always trying / to bridge the difference.” (from “Amá”)

“The body as eruption. / The body as contraband.” (from “Juárez”)

“Even the killers / cross themselves // in the vespers’ milky hush.” (from “Capital”)

Lessons on Expulsion is a startling and bold book that doesn’t shy away from the painful, generous impulse to deliver to readers a vision of the messy, beautiful, hard world as it is.

[YA Readers: Be on the lookout for Erika Sánchez’s novel I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter in October.]

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

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.

Recommended Reading: Lena, by Cassie Pruyn

Lena, Cassie Pruyn’s debut collection, is a tender and fierce evocation of love and painful loss.

Lena was the poet’s first love; after their relationship ended, Lena was diagnosed with cancer and later died. In these poems, Ms. Pruyn offers readers both an unabashedly sensual portrait of first love and an elegy for Lena. The book is non-linear, threading together the poet’s complicated, overlapping emotions regarding Lena: affection, desire, frustration that their relationship couldn’t be lived openly, relief when it ended, grief in the face of her illness and death.

I admired this collection’s craftsmanship (particularly Ms. Pruyn’s facility with rhymes and stanza breaks), but even more so its wrenching honesty, from the innocent eroticism of “Lena’s Summer House in Rockport” (“and Lena      all skin / among scattered pillows”) to the yearning in “The House on Tator Hill” (“I didn’t belong in that house, or in any of its portraits / but we tried to make a home of its four-poster bed”), the guilt in “Dive,” and the incredulity in “Self-Interrogation.” In this poem, “Where is her body?” is repeated, a haunting refrain, in the poem’s first section, which imagines the body after death, and in the second, in which the speaker recalls the beloved’s body in life.

“Lena, No One Knew,” “Elegy for a Room,” and “Twenty Minutes at the Clam Shack,” and “In the Vineyard” (“she slants against the wind in her peacoat”) are some other favorites from this beautiful book, which I’m happy to recommend.

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).

Recommended Reading: Afterland, by Mai Der Vang

In Afterland*, her first collection, Hmong-American poet Mai Der Vang summons the specters of the Secret War in Laos and the resulting exodus of Hmong refugees (including members of her family). Afterland is a beautiful and painful memorial to the trauma of war and exile.

In many of these poems, short lines offer a sense of fracture and fragmentation, compelling the reader forward into often horrifying imagery, as in “Tilting Our Tears on a Pendulum of Salt” (apologies for the formatting that doesn’t transfer here):

Let us make
Our separate ways,

Until we meet
Our body’s dusty gallery,
Hollow-eyed, until we’ve

Passed the troops
Who have set our forest table
With tracheas.

I was also particularly struck by poems about language, like “Original Bones” and “Mother of People without Script” (Paj is not pam is not pab. / Blossom is not blanket is not help. — you can listen to the poem here), and by the way Ms. Vang uses language about writing in other poems (“I have heard the flames / hunting inside your glossary”).

Ms. Vang describes with terrible exactness the visceral horror of war and the despair of defeat and abandonment (“The leftovers ever still waking / Inside the smoke of a hole”), but just as impressive is her tender elegy “Your Mountain Lies Down With You”:

Here, rest not by the lotus of your old country but with
carpenterias and fiddlenecks of spring.

These woodlands may be unfamiliar, their sequoias thicker
than bamboo, and the rains unable to assemble monsoons.

Still, look out to the distance from where you lie.

You will see Mt. Whitney is as beautiful as Phou Bia.

The moon is sharp enough to cut your ear as the one from your village.

Afterland is an impressive collection, a luminous portrayal of loss and survival, and filled to the brim with blistering imagery. Highly recommended.

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

Last Week’s Reading: May 7-13

Each Leaf Shines Separate, by Rosanna Warren: This is Rosanna Warren’s first collection, and it’s lovely. Quite a few ekphrastic poems here, and they’re excellent. I also particularly liked the poems about snow (“I had not yet / entered that white.”), and those about motherhood, near the end of the book. If you like lyric poetry, there’s much to enjoy here.

The Ink Dark Moon, by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, translated by Jane Hirshfeld with Mariko Aratani : These are beautiful, spare poems by poets who lived a thousand years ago in the Heian court of imperial Japan. The poems, infused with the sense of life’s ephemeral nature, are both private and public; some intimate, some focused on deeply personal spirituality. Grief and love are amply represented. I appreciated the introduction and notes to the poems, and I’m so grateful for translators like Ms. Hirshfeld and Ms. Aratani! This is a compelling collection, and highly recommended.

The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard: My uncle and aunt visited us last week, which was delightful, and my uncle brought three books on writing with him, which was very kind. Of course, reading Annie Dillard–the fiery prose, the crisp, surprising sentences, the assured pronouncements–made me feel that my own writing is a hopeless mess, but it gives me something to strive for. Ms. Dillard’s writing life is (alas? fortunately?) not my own writing life, but I’m so glad to have been immersed in it for a little while.

Last Fortnight’s Reading: April 23-May 6

Looking for the Gulf Motel, by Richard Blanco: I read most of these poems out loud, in the car with my family on the way to my grandfather’s funeral, and was surprised to find myself tearing up a bit. Mr. Blanco (the 2013 inaugural poet) grew up in the Cuban exile community in Miami, and the poems in Looking for the Gulf Motel speak movingly of his family and childhood memories. If you’re looking for a smooth-reading collection with a strong sense of place, I highly recommend it.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill: This very short, almost pointillist novel anatomizes a disintegrating marriage, and it’s particularly sharp on motherhood. Recommended.

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill: This 1988 collection, Ms. Gaitskill’s first, could have been written yesterday; its themes of discontent, isolation, and desire still resonate. I’m not sure there’s a single likable character in the book, which makes it simultaneously fearless and disquieting. The writing is very, very good, but I can’t say I’ll come back to this one.

Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe: One of the best collections I’ve read this year (and I’ve read some great ones). I loved Ms. Howe’s use of form, her facility with language, the sheer variety in Loop of Jade. Ms. Howe was born in Hong Kong and lives in the UK (her father is British, her mother Chinese), and Loop of Jade explores her heritage through narrative and lyric poems. Exquisite, and highly recommended.

Trajectory, by Richard Russo: After last year’s disappointing Everybody’s Fool, I was wary about this collection of four stories/novellas (three can be found elsewhere; one is brand new). However, Mr. Russo is back to form here. Particularly affecting are “Horseman” (a college professor confronts a cheating student and her own past) and “Milton and Marcus,” which features thinly-veiled portraits of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Recommended.

Last Week’s Reading: April 16-22

A light week, Dear Readers, for the best of reasons: a delightful post-Easter visit from family. Hope you’re all enjoying spring (or autumn, for you Southern Hemisphere folks).

Afterland, by Mai Der Vang: A haunting debut poetry collection; full review to come.

Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar: Like Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, Spaceman of Bohemia is literary sci-fi that explores questions of surveillance, ambition, and love, but it’s quite a bit weirder and much less invested in realism. In 2018, Czech scientist Jakub becomes his country’s first astronaut, sent into space (in a ship whose components are named after various sponsoring companies) to study a cloud of cosmic dust near Venus. The mission takes Jakub from his beloved wife Lenka, but offers him the opportunity to rise beyond the taint of his Communist informant father’s past. However, lonely days in space  start to feel less like heroism and more like insanity; soon Jakub is conversing with a Nutella-loving giant space spider (Imaginary? Maybe, maybe not) and sharing, almost re-living, his childhood memories of the rural village where his grandparents tried to protect him from the consequences of his father’s sins. Spaceman of Bohemia is an odd and touching debut novel, and I recommend it.

Float, by Anne Carson: I bought Float last fall as a birthday present to myself, but after paging through it, decided to wait for a quiet day to take it all in. That day was Saturday, but I think I’ll need quite a few more before I process the whole thing. Float is a collection of 22 chapbooks that can be read in any order. Poetry, essays, lectures, performances, hybrid forms—they’re all here, in that inimitable Anne Carson style. It was the prose that drew me most this time, especially a gorgeous essay on translation (“Variations on the Right to Remain Silent”) and “Uncle Falling: A Pair of Lyric Lectures with a Shared Chorus.” If you’re an Anne Carson fan, Float is a must-read.