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.

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Last Month’s Reading: June 2017

June was a busy month for our family,  with meetings, farewells, travels, and celebrations, and thus a light month for reading. I did manage to squeeze in these books:

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson (not pictured; library e-book): I actually did read this one in a hurry, finishing it just a half an hour before it was automatically returned (no overdue finds for e-books, I guess). In these short essays, many revised from previous publication, Neil deGrasse Tyson covers a wide range of topics in astronomy and astrophysics (think dark energy or the Big Bang) for the layperson. It’s a cosmological amuse-bouche, if you will.

House of Names, by Colm Tóibín (not pictured; returned to library): House of Names is an unsettling take on the miseries of the mythological House of Atreus, presenting the perspectives of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra to suggest how everything went terribly wrong. Mythology gives readers a wide sweep, archetype and theme; Mr. Tóibín offers grim detail, whispers in the dark. Read this—the first line is “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.”—and you’ll never again look at your copy of Edith Hamilton without a shudder.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, by Scaachi Koul:  I remember reading, in Buzzfeed a couple years ago, “Hunting Season,” Ms. Koul’s essay about the dynamics of men watching women while they drink. It was so smart, so spot-on, so scary. You’ll find it in this collection of essays that’s undergirded by Ms. Koul’s experience as a woman of color in Canada (her parents moved to Canada from India before she was born). Despite its bleak title and serious themes, this collection is often hilarious—her boyfriend is called Hamhock—since Ms. Koul uses humiliating-yet-funny experiences (a dressing room incident in which a skirt refuses to budge, for example, or feeling absolutely terrified about flying) from her own life to illuminate larger questions about identity and culture. A winner.

Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann: Bite-size pieces of advice to beginning writers, with a focus on empathy and perseverance. Excellent epigraphs. Chances are you’ve heard versions of this advice if you’ve read around in the genre, but still, this is a warm and welcoming read.

Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give*, by Ada Calhoun: I don’t think I’ve ever read a non-fiction book about marriage before, but such is the power of a purple cover and Ms. Calhoun’s funny introduction. These toasts are essays on the pleasures and problems of staying married (when she asks her mother for advice on the subject, her mother replies, “You don’t get divorced.”). While not everything in the book spoke to me—there’s quite a bit about infidelity, and I would have liked more LGBTQ-inclusive examples and language—I laughed often and appreciated its realistic attitude, neither “the institution of marriage is doomed” nor “marriage is the happily ever after.”
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

Duende, by Tracy K. Smith: I cheered out loud when I saw that Tracy K. Smith had been named the new poet laureate, and to celebrate I bought this 2007 collection. It’s beautiful and technically accomplished, of course, and I was so impressed by the way Ms. Smith brings histories of violence to life and into the realm of the particular body. She’s an absolutely phenomenal poet.

Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney: The last of the Irish writers I read this month (an unintentional grouping). There’s nothing quite like reading Seamus Heaney to deflate one’s pride; in Human Chain I found a poem about a pen (“The Conway Stewart”) that’s better than anything I’ve ever written or will ever write. And in “The Door Was Open and the House Was Dark” I found the poem I would have read at my dear grandpa‘s memorial service. A beautiful, moving collection.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by Lynn Nottage: I loved this play by Ms. Nottage, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1930s Los Angeles, Vera Stark is an aspiring actress who works as a maid for a difficult screen star (with whom she shares a secret common history). This comedy-drama is witty, fast-paced, and incisive as it considers racism in Hollywood and how modern critics and theorists analyze it. Brilliant, and highly recommended. (P. S. If you’ve read this, can we talk about the Imitation of Life and All About Eve references?)

Last Week’s Reading: January 15-21

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A dystopian classic, two collections by Poets Laureate, sci-fi shorts, a nonfiction juggernaut, and a powerful play.

Well, Dear Readers, here we are. And here’s what I read last week.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood: Even more frightening now than when I first read it ten years ago. If you haven’t read this classic yet, now might be a pretty good time.

On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove: I bought this collection in Denver last year, and finally read it on Martin Luther King Day. It’s excellent, particularly in the way the title sequence allows us to see the sweep of historical events through individual experience. The poems grouped in “Cameos” and “Black on a Saturday Night” reminded me of Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work; you might try reading the collections together. And bookish folk will love the poems “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967” and  “The First Book.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot: I finally got a library card for our new city’s system, and then proceeded (finally) to read this medical and social history that practically everyone else has read in the six or so year since it came out. I was impressed by the volume of research Ms. Skloot conducted and the sensitivity with which she handled the stories of Henrietta Lacks’s family, but I did wish for more background on cell science and advances made with HeLa cells. If you read the book when it came out, you might want to head over to this website to read updates about the project.

Arrival (original published as Stories of Your Life and Others), by Ted Chiang: I bought this collection because I very much want to see Arrival (unfortunately, I missed it in theaters), and I like to read source material first. “Story of Your Life,” which is the basis for the movie, is exceptionally good, one of the very best short stories—though it feels like a super-compressed novel—I’ve ever read. Stunning, and by that I mean I felt stunned after I read it. Also very impressive was “Tower of Babylon,” which leads off the collection. The other six stories (most of the stories in the book are very long for short stories, by the way) were interesting, but not quite my cup of tea, stylistically; they seemed, with exception of “Seventy-two Letters,” like sustained thought experiments. All the stories, however, reveal a deeply thoughtful mind at work, and offer more questions than answers; I’m glad I read them.

The Laramie Project, by Moisés Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project: This play must have been (must be) incredibly powerful in performance. It’s an exploration of Laramie, Wyoming’s reaction to the brutal murder of Matthew Shepherd in 1998. The members of the theater group traveled to Wyoming six times in eighteen months to interview friends of Matthew, friends of the perpetrators, police officers, students, religious leaders, and other townspeople; the words gathered in the interviews were shaped into the work. The Laramie Project is an act of radical witness; it’s impossible not to be moved by it.

Notes on the Assemblage, by Juan Felipe Herrera (current United States Poet Laureate): The poems in this collection are political and personal, full of lamentation and exuberance. You’ll find calls to action, pleas for remembrance, elegies, riffs that feel like jazz, Spanish and English talking to each other and not speaking. “Borderbus” was for me the standout poem—heartbreaking and unforgettable.


P. S. Given the busy news cycle this weekend, you might not have focused on the destructive and deadly storms in the South this weekend. If you’d like to support disaster relief efforts, here’s a link to the Red Cross donations page.  You can also check out Pinebelt Relief.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, Dear Readers. See you next week.

Last Week’s Reading

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January 8-14: A haunting novel in translation, debut fiction from a poet, a ghost story, a highly acclaimed play, and a poet I wish I’d read years ago.

Human Acts photo by Carolyn OliverSouth Korean writer Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian (which I haven’t read); Human Acts*, which you can find at your local bookstore today, is the next of her novels to be translated into English by Deborah Smith. It is absolutely riveting, though quite hard to read, given the subject matter. The subject is the viciously quelled 1980 Gwanju Uprising, and the lens is the life and death of one boy, Dong-ho. In chapters that shift focus among different people who knew Dong-ho (well or tangentially), the author explores trauma, resilience, memory, witness, and questions of the soul. At what cost do survivors of torture bear witness to their sufferings? How do ordinary people find the strength to resist brutal injustice? How ought we to feel about being human when humans can be despicable creatures—or brave and kind? Human Acts is a devastating, brilliant book.

img_3538After reading Human Acts, I needed something a bit lighter to take the edge off, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, was just the ticket. Eighty-something Lillian Boxfish decides to end 1984 by taking a walk around her beloved New York City, reflecting on a life lived to the very fullest—if not always happily. Lillian has verve, and her recollections of working in the advertising department at Macy’s in the 1930s are wonderful (especially if you’re missing Mad Men); the character is based on Margaret Fishback, the highest paid woman in advertising during her heyday. This novel is light but not fluffy; the emphasis on connection was sensitive rather than mawkish. I generally loved the company of Lillian’s sharp mind (with the exception of several instances of fat-shaming, which, please, dear authors, can we dispense with?).

Less delightful was Gillian Flynn’s The Grown Up. Originally included in a short story anthology, the tale would, I suspect, be better served in that format, rather than as a standalone book (it was included in this month’s Book of the Month mailing). It’s a ghost story with a twist; I found it more grotesque than thrilling, and the ending, alas, didn’t satisfy.

img_3496One of the last books I read in 2016 was John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt; I couldn’t resist the temptation to make the next play I read Proof, David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winner (2001). Sometimes I forget how much I love reading drama (I used to teach it), though I’m happy when plays like these remind me. I suspect I don’t read drama often because it doesn’t get the hype in book-world (where, for good or ill, I spend much of my time) that fiction, nonfiction, and even poetry do. I wonder why that is. Anyway, Proof is about math, mental illness, and family. It’s very, very good.

fullsizerender-13Last week, I finally read Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poems (edited and introduced by Irish poet Eavan Boland). Mew came highly recommended by friend and poet Emily Mohn-Slate, and I am kicking myself, Dear Readers that I (a.) didn’t pick up this book ages ago and (b.) didn’t read it as soon as it arrived as a birthday present. Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) is an utterly tragic figure, but her poems are marvels—lines like none I’ve ever read before: part Victorian, part Georgian, part Modernist, and all deeply moving.  I cried twice reading this slim volume, and friends, I do not cry easily when it comes to poetry.


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

I’m not sure this weekly reading wrap-up is going to be a regular feature, but I’m running with it for now!

What are your favorite first lines?

Yesterday, my friend Kori pointed me to a piece in the Atlantic in which authors choose their favorite opening lines, and write little paragraphs about their reasoning, or, in Margaret Atwood’s case, a tweet:

“Call me Ishmael.” 3 words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael? It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?

That’s my favorite of the lot. My own favorite first line, however, is a tossup between Hamlet and Jane Eyre.

Hamlet begins with Bernardo’s challenge, “Who’s there?” — and the interpretive possibilities are endless. Is he afraid? Full of bravado? Why is a soldier, on duty in his own kingdom, challenging someone else in uniform? Is it nighttime? Is he speaking to us, the audience? Who’s the “who”? How do we define ourselves? How do we answer?

Shakespeare offers at least as many questions in two words as Melville does in three.

Now, on to Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Why not? Who was planning on walking? What’s the significance of “that” day?

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

This line has more meaning as you progress through the novel (and if you haven’t, now’s the time to stop reading this post so I don’t ruin the experience for you. And seriously, go read Jane Eyre!).

Of course, “that” day is the day that John Reed throws a book at Jane’s head and Mrs. Reed sends Jane to the Red Room, which precipitates her move to Lowood, and, eventually, Thornfield Hall. And while Jane and her cousins remain inside on account of the rain, in a few short weeks, she and the other unfortunate girls at Lowood will be exposed to all manner of the elements. Jane often walks when others think she ought not to, or when she has no other choice. For instance, it’s on a long walk alone (despite the protestations of Mrs. Fairfax) that she meets Mr. Rochester, and it’s alone again that she makes her way through the fields to the Riverses’ cottage.

But where would Jane have ended up if she had been able to walk that day?

What are your favorite first lines?