“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.)

Recommended Reading: My Darling Detective, by Howard Norman

Howard Norman’s My Darling Detective* is a delight, a blend of noir and family drama set in 1970s Halifax.

Jacob Rigolet works as an art buyer for an eccentric collector in Halifax, attending auctions in London and Amsterdam. But it’s at an auction in his hometown that something very, very strange happens: his mother, a former head librarian who’s been recovering in a “rest hospital” after a nervous breakdown, walks straight up to the photograph on the docket (which depicts the a dead American soldier in Leipzig at the end of the Second World War), and throws a bottle of ink at it.

Police detective Martha Crauchet, Jake’s no-nonsense fiancee, is assigned to the case, which becomes more intriguing as time goes by. Jacob learns, among other things, that he was born in the Halifax library, that his father isn’t who he thought he was, and that his biological father is a suspect in a 1940s murder in case that wasn’t closed. Somehow, Nora links these facts and cases together. Slowly, Martha and her partners, the gruff Tides and Hogdgon, begin to pull the picture into focus. Jacob catalogues the shifts in the story, his straightforward, almost archival accounting of events suggesting his background as a researcher and his desire to keep his shifting life under control.

All of the characters, from Jacob’s particular, meticulous employer to his long-suffering mother to Martha’s partners, are memorable, but I loved Martha best. She has excellent taste in poetry, we learn early on; she keeps Jake’s coffee warm by covering it with a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie** . Martha is one of Mr. Norman’s women who know what they want and don’t mind saying so. She shares quite a bit in common with Leah, the heroine of her favorite radio program, a noir-style detective show set in the 1940s (by way of time travel; as the novel goes on, the radio show and the novel’s plot begin to echo each other); both women are capable, skilled, and deeply in love with men who are looking for answers. My Darling Detective is a story about old family secrets, detective work, and the power of art, but it’s also a gloriously homey vision of a relationship that works. Take this passage:

So many of Martha’s and my declarations of love, bewilderment, moods, and, on rare occasions, doubt, all the human stuff orchestrated by intuition and the desire to keep us honest with each other, took place at her kitchen table.

A wonderful sentence, isn’t it?

Though My Darling Detective includes some of the elements you might expect to find in one of Mr. Norman’s novels—eastern Canada, murder, radio, plainspoken people—it’s a bit more hopeful, I think, noir with a spring in its step and a lilt in its voice. As I said, delightful, and highly recommended.

Related: Reviews of Next Life Might Be Kinder and I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place.

**(I happen to own a first edition myself, which Margaret Atwood signed at an appearance in Boston, one of the highlights of my literary life.)

*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: 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: March 19-25

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman: Last week was novel-less, so I treated myself to a re-read of American Gods while recovering from a cold (handy, since the TV show based on the book debuts later this spring). I read the original version eight or ten years ago, and honestly  couldn’t tell you where the 12,000 additional words of the “Author’s Preferred Text” were spliced in. It’s still a rollicking, gory, fun and desperately sad read; I wanted to give Shadow a big hug at the end.

Building Raised Beds, Fern Bradley Marshall: Okay, so this isn’t the most scintillating book I’ve read lately, but it was a decent primer on how to garden using raised beds. I very much want to start a vegetable garden, but I’m not feeling confident about my ability to a) build a raised bed or b) keep my plants alive . . . so maybe I should stick with container gardening? I don’t know. Tell me your favorite gardening books, please.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling [not pictured because I read it as an e-book]: A light, fun memoir/essay/list hybrid from writer/director/producer Mindy Kaling, who played Kelly Kapoor on The Office and wrote some of its funniest episodes. Though this book doesn’t delve as deep as, say, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, it’s warm-hearted, self-deprecating, and endearing; if I were going to get a celebrity memoir for my youngest sister (see below), this is the one I’d choose. (Also, to file under “Other Concerns”: I really want to know what Mindy’s best friend Brenda is up to these days—ohmygod I just looked her up and she was Brenda on The Office! But that was like ten years ago so I’m still in the dark.)

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare: I am so very proud of my youngest sister, who just starred as Lady Macbeth in her high school production of the Scottish play. I was totally bummed to miss the performance, so I re-read Macbeth to cheer myself up. (If you’d like to know how it fared in my ranking of all Shakespeare’s plays, you’re in luck.)

Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson: I loved this short, beautiful novel about black girls growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. August, the narrator, returns home to bury her father, dredging up memories of her formative years with her best friends Gigi, Angela, and Sylvia. The story is told in fragments and vignettes (to mimic memory, I think), but the novel flows smoothly and feels focused. I closed the book wishing to read more about August, her brother, and August’s work as a cultural anthropologist who studies death. (Sidebar: If you know Ms. Woodson’s children’s books, would you recommend your favorites to me?)

Bright Dead Things, by Ada Limón: Oh goodness, I loved this collection—I don’t know how I missed it in 2015. The voice in these poems struck me—conversational, witty, tough, and tender by turns. I especially liked the sequence dealing with the poet’s stepmother’s final days that focuses on the difficulties of caring for dying people (“The Riveter,” for example, is a gut-punch), but I found poems to love in each of the four sections. Poems about Kentucky and California, Brooklyn and Montana, friendship and lovers, owls and herons, racehorses and dead horses. Highly recommended.

Last Week’s Reading: March 12 – 18

The Art of Syntax, by Ellen Bryant Voigt: One on Graywolf’s “Art Of” series on writing techniques (and I’m curious to know your favorites if you’ve read any of the others), this little book is about syntax in poetry: its musicality, how it relates to the poetic line, how poets from Bishop to Kunitz deploy it. It’s on the technical side, understandably, with much discussion of rhythm and grammar, and I suspect therefore would be of most interest to poets/writers.

SPQR, by Mary Beard: I’ve been working on this book since January, and finally made a big push to finish it last week (hence the lack of fiction on this list). This much-acclaimed history of Ancient Rome considers a period of about a thousand years, tracing notions of democracy, empire, and citizenship. The parallels with our own historical moment are sometimes quite uncomfortable. Though this is, of necessity, history in broad strokes, I appreciated Ms. Beard’s keen eye for detail, her readings of architectural evidence and art, and her attempts to give shape to narratives that have often disappeared (those of enslaved people, children, and women). If you’re in the mood for history, I highly recommend SPQR.

Hagar Poems, by Mohja Kahf: I liked the concept of this collection, which plays with different aspects of the Hagar/Hajar story (with Abraham, Hagar conceived Ishmael, and then mother and son were exiled when Sarah gave birth to Isaac), but the execution was uneven. In these poems, Ms. Kahf plays with a multiplicity of voices and settings, and is most successful in tongue-in-cheek poems like “Hajar Writes a Letter to Sarah as a Cathartic Exercise Suggested by Her Therapist” and the moving “Little Mosque Poems” sequence.

Reality Is Not What It Seems, by Carlo Rovelli: You might think of this as a more in-depth companion to Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (which appeared in English first, though this book was first to be published in Italian). In Reality Is Not What It Seems, theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli walks readers through the development of physics from Democritus up to quantum gravity, which is still being explored and theorized. The tenses get a little wonky (but time is relative, right?) and I can’t say that I now understand special relativity or the structure of a 3-sphere, but goodness, this stuff is absolutely fascinating. And Mr. Rovelli appreciates poets (he quotes Dante, Lucretius, and Shakespeare, among others), for which I continue to hold him in esteem. The further I got into this book, the more trippy and weird and beautiful the cosmos seemed. I wish I had a head for physics, but since I don’t, I’m glad there are books like this one to make me feel I understand the structure of reality a little better.

Recommended Reading: The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey

In Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers,* three astronauts don’t go into space.

Helen, Yoshi, and Sergei are all hyper-competent professionals, astronauts and engineers who’ve been to space and acquired a taste for it. When private company Prime announces that it plans to put people on Mars, these three people are its first choice for a crew. However, before they can set off for the red planet, they’re assigned a long (year and a half) simulation of the mission, to take place on Earth under the observation of Prime staff. It’s the command performance of a lifetime (“The day Helen stops being tested is the day no one needs her,” she realizes at one point).

While they’re “away,” the people they leave behind—Helen’s daughter, Sergei’s son, Yoshi’s wife—also have roles to play (“proud, happy, and thrilled,” as the astronauts’ wives put it in Apollo 13), despite their mixed feelings about the long separation.

In The Wanderers, Ms. Howrey combines realistic science fiction with fine interior portraiture; the result is mesmerizing. The nitty-gritty of extended living in space (disposable clothing, limited showers, myriad strategies to prevent boredom and relieve tension) is fascinating, showing just how single-minded astronauts are, how prepared they must be both for emergencies and for routine discomfort. It’s equally absorbing to dip into the astronauts’ minds; they are constantly aware of how they’re being perceived, fine-tuning their emotional reactions just as carefully as they would a loose wire or a faulty gauge on their spacecraft:

They are all in extreme close-up; one notices the appearance of a new eyebrow hair. And yet they must communicate as if they are not noticing this. They must protect themselves, from Prime, from one another, from whatever parts of themselves they are grasping in the dark.

Their extreme efforts are worth it because more than anything else, the astronauts want to get back to space, “the perfect thing, the incorruptible thing.”  This is the source of tension with their family members, who both resent and accept the astronauts’ ambitions and their desire to leave Earth. Helen’s daughter, a struggling actress, coaches her mother on how to smooth her affect, even though she felt abandoned as a child whenever her mother left for space. Yoshi’s wife Madoka, a successful businesswoman, isn’t sure she’s ever shown her husband her real self, and wonders if he knows that. Sergei’s two teenage sons are accustomed to long stretches without their blustery, tough father, but Dmitri struggles with the pressure of keeping his sexual orientation a secret; his emails to his father both conceal and reveal his fears.

Ambition and loneliness, family and the drive to explore, surveillance and performance, trust and obfuscation—the novel explores all these themes, and more (it is phenomenal on gender, how Helen pressures herself—probably necessarily—to be above reproach, the perfect astronaut without making it seem as if she’s trying). I loved The Wanderers, and highly recommend it.

*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: March 5 – 11

The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey: I’ll post a longer review of this book soon, so for now I’ll just say that I loved it. The hook: three astronauts undertake a long-term simulated mission to Mars, and both they and the loved ones they leave behind struggle with isolation and epiphanies during their experience.

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid: What a lovely novel. Exit West has that graceful fluidity that seems effortless but of course isn’t effortless at all, but the result of a writer’s very hard work. It’s about Saeed and Nadia, two young people falling in love as their city falls apart, destroyed in the conflict between government forces and militants. The pair begin to hear rumors of doors not between rooms, but between countries—doors that have been appearing all over the world. Soon migration doesn’t require a passport, but merely steps through an (unguarded door); the trouble becomes what to do once you find yourself on a beach in Greece, or a mansion in London, or a mountainside in California. As Nadia and Saeed navigate through strange new worlds, Mr. Hamid breaks up their narrative with vignettes of other migrants, giving a global feel to an otherwise intimate narrative. Beautiful writing and a timely tale. Highly recommended.

Baptism of Desire, by Louise Erdrich: I enjoyed this 1989 collection, Ms. Erdrich’s second, just as much as her first (Jacklight). The first group of poems plays with Catholic imagery and theology, while the second section includes narrative poems about various characters (like Mary Kroger, the butcher’s wife). The third section, my favorite, is a long poem, “Hydra,” about both the mythological figure and pregnancy. The prose tale of “Potchikoo’s Life After Death” makes up the fourth section (I don’t think I’ve seen a story in a short collection like this before, but I enjoyed it thoroughly). Poems about marriage, domestic life, and the natural world close this strong collection. You can read Baptism of Desire‘s first poem, “Fooling God,” at the Poetry Foundation.

What are you reading these days?

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: February 12-18

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Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, by Megan Marshall: Full marks to this illuminating biography of one of the twentieth century’s best poets. You can read my in-depth review here.

Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop: Thanks to Ms. Marshall’s biography, I succumbed to the temptation to update my version of Bishop’s complete poems. This volume contains all her published poetry, several uncollected pieces, translations, and some works in progress—a feast, by any measure.

The Essex Serpent photo copyright Carolyn OliverThe Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry: From the moment I saw the cover of this novel, I coveted it. Last month I ordered in from the UK, not willing to wait until its summer release here—and goodness, I’m glad I did. The plot: In 1893, Cora Seaborne, a recently widowed amateur natural historian, sets out from London with her son and her friend/nanny/maid to visit Essex, where she hopes to make exciting discoveries and escape the oppressive memories of her marriage. Further up the coast, fear ripples through a small village after a series of unsettling events lead many to believe that the legendary Essex serpent has returned. Cora hopes that the beast turns out to be a living fossil, while William Ransome, the local curate, believes lack of faith is responsible for his parishioners’ panic. When Will and Cora meet, their intelligence and opposing beliefs draw them together like magnets, and the nature of friendship is tested. The supporting characters are finely drawn and the setting is sumptuous—this is a novel you’ll want to devour. Mark your calendars for June 6, U. S. readers.

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: Had I known more about Sojourner Truth’s life, I probably would have chosen to read Nell Irvin Painter’s biography of the legendary abolitionist and suffragist instead of this primary source (Nell Irvin Painter also wrote the very helpful introduction to this book). Because Sojourner Truth could neither read nor write, her story was necessarily mediated through amanuenses. The Narrative is composed of three parts written or compiled at different times by different figures, and while some of Truth’s speech is set down, it’s hard to tell if it’s an exact transcription (almost all of the work is in the third person, and the first co-writer offers her own opinions freely). Still, I’m glad I read it, since I learned more about Truth’s ordeals as a slave in New York, her years as an itinerant preacher, and her unstinting efforts on behalf of freed persons after the Civil War.

Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal, by G. Willow Wilson, drawn by Adrian Alphona: I loved the concept of this comic, but I think it’s geared for readers younger than I am. Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl living in Jersey City with her Pakistani American family, discovers she has shapeshifting abilities. Becoming Ms. Marvel is no easy task, as she needs to learn how to channel her new powers while simultaneously navigating tricky relationships with her friends, family, and classmates. Essentially, this is a more complex and interesting version of the Spider-Man story, and I’d definitely recommend it for teen readers.