Recommended Reading: The Tornado is the World, by Catherine Pierce

the-tornado-is-the-world

Years ago, my friend A. (who has great taste) sent me a link to a poem by a friend of hers. That poem was Catherine Pierce’s “The Mother Warns the Tornado,” which is very, very good.

The Tornado Is the World photo by Carolyn OliverI’ve never forgotten it (I watched Twister quite a bit in my formative years), and so I was delighted when a copy of The Tornado Is the World*, Ms. Pierce’s new book of poems, appeared in the mailbox. It’s just as excellent as “The Mother Warns the Tornado” promises.

How do we live in a world where disaster might be just around the corner? This is the question The Tornado Is the World explores in its three sections, beginning with the poem “Disaster Work,” which asks: If you truly focused on each and every tragedy unfolding in the same moment,

How could you do the impossible work
of putting your child to bed,
saying goodnight, closing the door
on the darkness?

You couldn’t, of course; we bear the unbearable by setting it aside, considering it only briefly, or when it happens to us (and it will).

That’s why the metaphor of the book’s title works so well: you can’t predict when the world is going to come for you (“Checks / and balances, and I wait for the tally to be evened”), or how bad the damage will be. In these poems (about two dozen out of the collection, including the entire second section) the tornado is a malevolent entity, power personified. “But the tornado cannot stop. Will not. / The world cannot stop turning, and this minute / the tornado is the world,” the poet writes in “The Tornado Visits the Town.” It gathers objects and living things in a terrifying harvest, as in “The Tornado Collects the Animals”:

The tornado will wrap them tight.
It will make sure the poor things
know what it is to be held.

That’s such a powerful image, echoing the repeated image of the mother huddling over her child in a dry bathtub, trying to protect him from a force of nature, becoming a force of nature herself, maybe.

Though rage and anxiety are swift currents running through this collection, so is gratitude. Gratitude for being spared, for the ability to observe and catalogue aftermaths, but also gratitude for the beauties of this terrible, fearsome world: the hawk (“something prehistoric”) hunting in the suburbs, the “crocus-blessed” Southern winter (“an unhinged sweetheart— / all gloss and lilt, until the shift.”), beach towns and bars and dreams.

I loved this collection, and commend it to your reading.

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


If you’re looking for another poetry collection about destructive natural phenomena, I recommend Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler

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Recommended Reading: The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

The MiniaturistJessie Burton’s The Miniaturist* begins with the well-attended funeral of a person with no friends, and that’s just the beginning of its many mysteries.

Months before this funeral, Petronella Oortman steps up, alone, to the door of her new husband’s house. Johannes Brandt is not home — a state of affairs that’s nearly normal, as she comes to learn — and she faces the household servants and her new sister-in-law on her own. Like the second Mrs. DeWinter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Nella is young, inexperienced, and unaccustomed to great wealth. And like Mrs. Danvers, Nella’s sister-in-law Marin knows weakness when she sees it.

It is 1686.

Amsterdam is prosperous, pious, and deeply committed to maintaining the appearance of both. Johannes is a highly successful merchant, but success has its perils, of course. He keeps Nella at a distance, though she does manage to glean a little information about his professional life. It’s when he gives her a wedding gift — a cabinet intricately designed as a replica of their house — that the narrative takes off. It is an unusual and expensive gift on its own, but Johannes also gives Nella carte blanche to “furnish” the house as she likes.

She contacts a miniaturist, and soon she finds that the miniaturists productions are eerily perfect. They’re beautifully crafted, but the level of detail suggests that the miniaturist knows more about the household than a stranger should.

As Nella settles into her new life, she attempts to unravel the secrets all around her — the miniaturist’s, her husband’s, Marin’s — and finds some unraveled for her without any trying. And not one of those secrets is safe.

Ms. Burton’s painterly writing brings late-seventeenth-century Amsterdam to blooming life. The sensory detail of the novel is remarkable (a dog “moves like spilled liquid, masterless, a chess piece rolling out of place” [115]), almost calculated to outshine the still-lifes we know from museums that hang in the Brandts’ home.

The pace of revelation is excellent, the characters are interesting (I do love fascinating, unlikeable women like Marin). I liked the novel’s unflinching gaze at its own unpleasant events, too. My quibble is with the ending; part of it was too neatly tied off, and part of it felt withheld, in an unsatisfying way. Given the whole of the book, however, this a minor critique, and shouldn’t stop you from picking up The Miniaturist.

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

Recommended Reading: Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

photo (97)I admired so much about Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You*: the seemingly effortless structure that passes seamlessly between decades; the rounded, careful characterizations; the gradual revelation of a loving family’s best-kept secrets.

When I first heard about Everything I Never Told You, I was in equal parts eager and nervous about reading it. Eager because the praise was already coming in, and because I recognized Ms. Ng’s name; we attended the same high school and edited the same high school creative arts magazine (four years apart; we’ve never met). And nervous because, given the book’s opening lines (“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”), I thought that I might be reading something akin to The Lovely Bones, and I wasn’t sure I had the emotional energy in reserve. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried.

Everything I Never Told You is a nuanced portrayal of the ways in which a family copes with a loss both profound and mysterious. It’s also an exploration of how that family came into being, and how the histories of parents shape their children. It’s a novel in which a skillful writer reveals that privates dramas — made of extraordinary-ordinary stuff, no skeletons in the attic — are astonishingly compelling, and astonishingly important.

In their small Ohio town, the Lees stand out as the sole Chinese American family, a distinction that causes difficulties for them, to say the least. James Lee is the son of immigrants (their story, given in brief, is both poignant and gripping, and made me want to hear more about them); Marilyn was raised by her mother and dreamed of becoming a doctor before marriage and motherhood derailed her plans. James respects his wife’s intellect, and did not deliberately keep her from a career; like so many of us, the Lees make their decisions about work and family with practical exigencies in mind and ideal scenarios too far out of reach.

The three Lee children are Nathan (Nath), Lydia, and Hannah. Nath looks forward to leaving for Harvard in the fall; Lydia struggles with her parents’ expectations; and little Hannah is at once nearly invisible and the one who sees best what’s going on around her.

One spring morning in 1977, the Lee family realizes that Lydia is missing. Once her body is recovered, each member of the family starts to look for answers, but their searching reveals just how much has been unspoken among them, and how difficult it will be to knit together an unraveled family.

Ms. Ng’s prose is gorgeous, gliding from character to character in a manner that reminded me of Ian McEwan’s style in, say, Atonement. Here’s one passage I loved:

For the first time, she wishes she were the sort of woman, like her mother, who carried a handkerchief. She would have pressed it to her face and let it filter air, and when she lowered it the cloth would be dirty pink, the color of old bricks. Beside her, Hannah knits her fingers. She would like to worm her hand onto her mother’s lap, but she doesn’t dare. Nor does she dare look at the coffin. Lydia is not inside, she reminds herself, taking a deep breath, only her body–but then where is Lydia herself? Everyone is so still that to the birds floating overhead, she thinks, they must look like a cluster of statues. (60)

I love the detail here, and the way Ms. Ng lights on these two sad figures for just a moment, to give us a sense of what a small moment of loss feels like, how it looks.

Everything I Never Told You is a novel that asks us to examine how we define our own success or happiness, to wonder what it means to belong (in all the senses of the word) and to try mightily to understand each other better. Highly recommended.

Coming Soon: An interview with Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Bostonians: You have two opportunities in July to hear Celeste Ng read from Everything I Never Told You!

July 23: BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH. 7:00 PM

279 Harvard Street
Brookline MA 02446

July 29: NEWTONVILLE BOOKS. 7:00 PM

10 Langley Road
Newton Centre
Newton, MA 02459

Beach Reading: The Road to Burgundy, by Ray Walker

What’s your dream job?

You know, the one you think you’d love to try given time, and money, and the right location, and all those pesky considerations that responsible adults take into account when making decisions? If you could live anywhere in the world, with a respectable salary (enough to live comfortably but not ostentatiously), but you had to work, what would that job be?

Maybe you have two dream jobs. Or the job you have would be your dream job if there were just a couple of alterations (hi, teachers out there!). Maybe you find it hard to pin down because you think that new-car smell would fade pretty darn fast for any kind of job.

photo (96)Ray Walker is the guy who figured out what his dream job was and turned it into his day job — with a supportive family, an unbeatable work ethic, and an insane amount of luck.

The Road to Burgundy* is Mr. Walker’s memoir, a light, fast, straightforward read that chronicles his often-bumpy transition from finance work in San Francisco to making wine in Burgundy with grapes from some of the most storied vines in the world.

It’s the perfect beach read — engaging, but not stress-inducing — especially for anyone who likes reading about France (the food!) or wine. Mr. Walker’s emphasis on terroir — the place-character of a wine, if you will, is quite interesting. I do wish the memoir had gone into more detail about the old-fashioned winemaking techniques that he champions and that, apparently, have resulted in excellent wines, but ultimately, the book achieves its purpose, which is to show that once in a while that dream job is within reach.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Recommended Reading: The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner

photo (5)Cordelia Kings was born into royalty — lobstering royalty, that is. Her father, Woody, is the most respected lobsterman on Loosewood Island, a small community on land claimed by both Canada and the United States. The Kings trace their family history all the way back to Brumfitt Kings, a painter who was the island’s first settler, and it’s a history in which the sea’s bounty goes hand-in-hand with a curse: the death of the first-born son in each generation.

Unlike her two sisters, Cordelia loves lobstering from the moment she sets foot on a boat, and considers herself her father’s rightful heir, in more ways than one. But as Cordelia grows up, Loosewood Island changes too. Threats both within and outside the community surface: people on the island are selling meth, and fisherman from a nearby town are making a power play for Loosewood’s waters.  Cordelia has her own problems, too: a married sternman she can’t help falling for, sisters whose proximity makes tensions rise, and a father she adores who isn’t getting any younger.

As you might have guessed, Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings* was inspired by King Lear, but is not a retelling in the vein of, say, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Like Lear, however, The Lobster Kings is a family drama with repercussions outside the family unit, and as you can imagine, since Loosewood Island is off the coast of northern Maine, you’re in for a hell of a storm.

Woody Kings may be a patriarch with three daughters, but he’s a cautious man (generally), and a loving father to all his children; his concern for his daughters’ welfare and theirs for him makes The Lobster Kings one of my new favorite father-daughter books. If Woody’s ever mad, it’s with the kind of madness that could overtake any of us in the throes of grief.  He’s feared by his enemies, and very well respected by his fellow lobstermen:

He was the king of the harbor, and his grandfather before, and there would come a day, probably, when I’d take over. We made decisions as a group–to shorten the season, to fish less traps, to stop letting cruise ships dock in the harbor–but anytime we made a decision, big or small, there was always a moment when every man would look to Daddy to see if he agreed. (111)

Cordelia’s love for her father is built on a foundation of respect. Lobstering is immensely difficult work, and after reading this novel, you’ll never look at your lobster roll the same way. Take ropes: “Warp scatters everywhere. Good lobstermen will keep their warps organized, lines coiled and out of the way, where they need to be, and so will the bad lobsterman. Highliners and dubs alike, they keep the ropes neat. The only lobstermen who don’t keep their ropes neat are dead ones” (47).

This kind of realism and awareness of danger permeates The Lobster Kings, even as Cordelia relates present events to analogues in the island’s semi-mythic past. Her narration is interspersed with accounts of Brumfitt Kings’s paintings and the stories behind them. In Cordelia’s view, “Brumfitt was just trying to capture the sea and its power and how little control we have over it. He was just trying to capture the darkness” (161). With lovely, evocative language, Mr. Zentner brings these paintings to brilliant life; you can almost see them hanging in the MFA. Here’s one of my favorite descriptions:

My favorite picture of Brumfitt’s wife is probably Marriage Bed. It’s dated from the first year of their marriage. Brumfitt’s wife’s hair is splayed down her naked back, the sheets billowing and creased around her lower body, leaving an amorphous shape below her waist that Daddy thinks looks like a mermaid’s tail. I’m not sure that I agree with Daddy, but there is something else in the picture that makes me think of the selkie myth instead; pushed partially under the table is a stool, and on the stool is what appears to be a coat made of sealskin. Maybe Brumfitt stole her skin, but loved her enough to offer it back. And maybe she loved him enough that she didn’t take it up, loved him enough that she refused the gift of her skin returned, loved him enough that she let him keep her skin, let him keep her bound to Loosewood Island, to Brumfitt Kings. (217)

It’s this kind of painting — in the nebulous space between the feel-good seascapes that grace dentists’ walls and threatening pieces beloved by art critics (Loosewood Island’s second major industry is tourism) — that draws in both Cordelia and her father. This blending of the real and the perhaps-real, the mythic, in swirls of artful description, is what will draw readers into The Lobster Kings.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday: An interview with Alexi Zentner, author of The Lobster Kings.

Coming Soon: The Bees, by Laline Paull

When I was a child, I hated Watership Down.

I think most of my dislike was bound up in the movie, which I found frightening — to this day, the only memories I have of it are images of cartoon rabbits spouting blood — because the writing itself didn’t make an impression on me. Reading synopses now, I suspect that if I tried it again I’d find it deeply aggravating for its attitude toward female characters.

imageI bring this up because Laline Paull’s The Bees* (out May 6 from Ecco) is garnering praise that compares it to Watership Down, and so I’m here to tell you that if you didn’t like Watership Down, you might still like The Bees — I did, very much.

Like Watership Down, The Bees‘s main characters are nonhumans, in this case — you guessed it — bees. Flora 717 is born ugly, deviating far enough from the norms of her hive that she’s about to be killed when an older, powerful bee steps in to save her life. Flora, she thinks, might be useful; she decides to allow Flora to live on a temporary basis.

As a member of the lowest caste of bees — a sanitation worker — Flora is surprised to find herself in the nursery feeding infants, but that’s just the first twist that’s in store for her. The hive mantra is “Accept, Obey, Serve,” which Flora, devoted to the queen (as are her sisters) tries desperately to follow as she faces dangers both within and without the hive: the vicious Fertility Police, a marauding wasp, and the unwelcome attentions of the hive’s overfed and pampered drones. Flora’s role in the story changes as she grows and learns; sometimes she seems like a Cinderella figure, or a questing knight, or Katniss Everdeen, or Offred. She’s a compelling heroine with six legs and an acute sense of smell — courageous, loyal, fierce, hardworking.

The Bees is not a book suitable for children; Ms. Paull does not shy away from the violence and cruel practicalities of life in the hive (an interviewer suggested that some scenes were reminiscent of Game of Thrones, to which Ms. Paull replied: “Game of Drones!”). The book doesn’t suggests that bees — one of the most complex and successful animal species — survive despite the violence, but that their society in some ways requires it. In fact, some of these scenes are so strange that I thought “there’s no way bees behave this way’; after a little research, I realized, yes, they do. I loved that this book prompted me to learn something outside of my general areas of interest.

While the novel’s environmental message is none too subtle, Ms. Paull does keep the focus on character development and extraordinary descriptions of hive structures and practices from the bees’-eye view. The pacing is brisk and careful, and the bees’ world feels totally new (believe me, you’ll never look at a candle or a jar of honey the same way again). The Bees is an absorbing, imaginative debut, and perfect late-spring reading.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Recommended Reading: Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing

 

20140423-140244.jpgEvie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing* is a terrifying novel, combining bump-in-the-night horror with the kind of terror inspired by the cruelty of ordinary human beings. More than once I had to put the book down because the writing was so intense I could feel my heart pounding, and that’s pretty unusual in my reading experience.

Something — or someone — is killing Jake Whyte’s sheep. She lives alone on an unidentified British island with only her sheep and her dog (named Dog) for company, resolutely refusing calls to socialize with other locals. She’s an outsider in more way than one, though isolated, it seems, by choice. But the death of her sheep forces her into contact with other people as she searches for answers: Don, a kindly neighbor; Lloyd, a stranger whose agenda is unclear; and neighborhood kids with maybe more than mischief on their minds.

While Jake wonders who’s gutting her sheep, the reader wonders how Jake ended up on island by herself, and why she’s so gruff and frightened. As Jake works on her mystery in the present day (using the past tense), alternating chapters take us back to the past, in which Jake narrates the events that led to her leaving Australia for England, and how, exactly, she started raising sheep. These past-chapters unfurl backwards, but are narrated in the present tense, lending a firghtening immediacy to Jake’s memories of violence and fear.

Ms. Wyld’s writing is fierce, clear, and perfectly detailed. Her deft touch finds the perfect balance between intimacy and mystery as she brings Jake to life. Take this paragraph, from the first chapter:

I slammed the fridge and leant my head against it. Stupid to have become so comfortable. The fridge hummed back in agreement. Stupid to think it wouldn’t all fall to shit. That feeling I’d had when I first saw the cottage, squat and white like a chalk pebble at the black foot of the downs, the safety of having no one nearby to peer in at me — that felt like an idiot’s lifetime ago. I felt at the side of the fridge for the axe handle.

It’s the kind of writing that offers new questions even as it answers others. All the Birds, Singing is brilliant and brutal, and highly recommended.

*My thanks to the publisher for sending an advance review copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

“Once I walked out and the world / rushed to my side”: Mark Wunderlich’s The Earth Avails

photo (70)Brimming with life and color, Mark Wunderlich’s collection The Earth Avails* is the perfect book to read on Earth Day. In these poems, the natural world is both celebrated and mourned in a speaker’s voice that is sometimes measured, sometimes impassioned, and always thoughtful.

In his Notes on the poems, Mr. Wunderlich explains that upon reading a nineteenth-century small book of German prayers found in his family’s home, as well as Heaven-letters, “folk-religious documents” from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he adapted these documents into poems (69). Roughly half the poems in The Earth Avails take the form of prayers or Heaven Letters; in their posture of supplication, in their evocations of simple desires (“spare the orchards from hail”), they nonetheless suggest that the power addressed is the power of language itself, building in rumbling, crescendoing couplets.

In adapting these older forms, Mr. Wunderlich has written poems with an utterly fluid sense of time. A poem might include charms against flooding or pests or disease — common enough nineteenth-century agrarian concerns — but then mention at its end a detail that places the poem in a contemporary world. The juxtaposition is pleasantly jolting, showing us just how rooted we are in the past — and how far we are from it — while offering the promise that the sense of connection to the land we think we’ve lost could be recovered.

Many of the poems reflect the landscape, both interior and exterior, of Mr. Wunderlich’s home in the Hudson Valley. The word that kept coming to mind as a I read was “renovation,” not only in the sense of rebuilding a structure, like the house here with its “crumbling cow-hair plaster mending the wall,” but also in its etymological sense of “to make new again.” The poems in The Earth Avails make the natural world new again, giving us fresh eyes to see the coyote with mange, or “the green worms / ciphering the cabbages’ leaves” or the wild boar’s “rusty wool along the belly.”  These poems reflect engagement with other nature poets (Robert Frost came to mind more than once, and “Sand Shark” would be a perfect companion piece for anyone teaching Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”), and since I’ve just read The Poetic Species, I couldn’t help thinking about the ways in which this volume works at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences.

I think you can probably tell that I loved these poems. I highly recommend The Earth Avails.

The featured poem of the week is “Prayer for a Birthday,” by Mark Wunderlich, which appears in The Earth Avails. You can read the poem, and a short comment from the poet, on Poets.org.

*My thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

“Sweetbitter”: The Complete Poems of Sappho, translated by Willis Barnstone

sappho trans, barnstonePlato called her “the tenth muse,” and yet Sappho remains an elusive figure. The outlines of her biography are sketchy, and nearly all her extant poems are fragmentary. Still, the lines we have are some of the most beautiful ever written, hungry and haunted as they are by love and loss.

Acclaimed poet and translator Willis Barnstone’s edition of the poems is grouped thematically, and he makes the interesting choice to title the poems. I’m still on the fence about the effect. In some cases, the titles merely refer to a personage named in the poem; in others, the titles reflect the obvious subject of the poem (“Old Age,” for example). With a few of the poems, however, I would have preferred an untitled version in order to better draw my own conclusions. But this is a small complaint; the volume is beautifully done, and I highly recommend it. (I’d also love to compare it with Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter, which I haven’t read yet — if you have, will you tell me what you think?)

It’s difficult to choose which poem to highlight this week, so I’ll leave you with Mr. Barnstone’s translation of fragment 130, which he titles “Sweetbitter”:

Eros loosener of limbs once again trembles me,
a sweetbitter beast irrepressibly creeping in

Feeling Restless After The Ten-Year Nap

The Ten-Year Nap finds four friends, women who live in New York, contemplating the choices they made about parenting and professions. The four all gave up their careers about ten years ago (hence the title), and some regret the decision; others are comfortable with the lives they’ve chosen.

The Ten-Year Nap 

It’s a testament to the talents of Meg Wolitzer that even thought I didn’t care for this book, I still borrowed two more of her novels from my local library. She’s very, very funny — keep an eye out for Amy Lamb’s reaction to her son’s favored reading material.

The novel follows all four women, plus one more character who drives the plot, and then veers off to show vignettes in the lives of women related the main characters. I felt that the novel never settled, as if Ms. Wolitzer couldn’t decide which person she was most interested in exploring; there’s fodder here for two or three novels.

Another aggravation for me was the jacket copy (no surprise there), which described the characters as middle class. Um, no. Maybe two of them are middle class by New York standards, as my friend Katie pointed out, but by any other standard these women are wealthy, wealthy, wealthy, with the luxury of choosing whether or not to parent their children at home.

Occasionally they glance at the lives of the less fortunate. Roberta, for instance, flutters in and out of left-wing activism; at the private boys’ school attended by three of the friends’ sons, poor children of color are invited for a yearly visit that is halted after an incident (there’s not too much plot to give away here, but nonetheless, I refrain.). Even Jill, whose adopted daughter comes from an understaffed Russian orphanage, spends her mental energy focused on herself, without much thought for the other children left without adoptive parents.  I found these women unlikable, but I suspect Ms. Wolitzer is trying to point out foibles that we might find in ourselves: a tendency, no matter our political leanings, toward self-centeredness. We draw back from the world we see out the window.

The Ten Year-Nap also made me uncomfortable because it hits close to home. I’m the at-home parent to our son, and though he’s too small for school now, I do wonder what I will do, how I will feel, when he’s ten, or twelve, or fifteen. Even if I wanted to enter the workforce right now (I’m ambivalent, given H’s age), or go back to grad school to finish my PhD, we couldn’t afford it. Yes, you read that right. Daycare is so expensive here that it’s cheaper for me to stay home than to work as a teacher. And for other women the situation is reversed: they can’t afford not to work. As I often explain, it’s a complicated calculus, one that will probably hold for the next few years, though I hope not forever. I love my child and will do my best to see that he arrives safely at adulthood as a kind and loving person, and I think that’s a worthy goal, a worthy and difficult occupation. But I want to contribute something more to the world —not necessarily something better, just something more.

To me, The Ten-Year Nap implies that the women it follows had done something wrong, some disservice to themselves, by parenting their children at home. Even the title is diminutive, implying that the women are childish (not a rest or a sleep, but a nap). Maybe it’s the suggestion that these women are asleep to themselves that I find annoying; why can’t one be oneself and an at-home parent too?

Have you read the novel? What did you think?