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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Recommended Reading: My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

IMG_5831I picked up My Name is Lucy Barton*, the new novel from acclaimed author Elizabeth Strout, expecting to read a chapter or two and then come back to it the next day.

Seventy pages later, I looked up to realize that my tea had gone cold and that I’d meant to be asleep half an hour earlier. Reluctantly, I put the book aside. I finished it in one sitting the next evening.

Like Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, this novel’s slimness belies its author’s complete mastery of form and character and ability to delve into complex psychological territory.

In the 1980s, Lucy Barton is a thirty-something woman confined to the hospital for weeks due to an unforeseen complication after an appendectomy. Her husband loathes hospitals and seldom visits; she misses her young daughters terribly. To Lucy’s utter surprise, her mother arrives unannounced to visit her; the two had been effectively estranged for many years.

Lucy (from a point more than two decades in the future; she is a writer) recalls their conversations, mostly about neighbors and acquaintances fallen on hard times. Elliptically, these talks cover the ground of her childhood, as Lucy gingerly remembers the desperate poverty of her rural Illinois upbringing. The family lived in a garage until she was eleven; she was locked into a truck cab when both her parents had to work and couldn’t afford a babysitter; she stayed in school as long as possible after classes because it was warm.

That poverty was tangled with abuse, as we slowly come to realize, and more difficult to understand, with love. Untethered from her family after her marriage and move to New York, Lucy desperately craves her mother’s affection—the evidence of which is her journey to a strange city and quiet refusal to leave her daughter’s side, venturing even into the bowels of the hospital when Lucy is taken away for tests—and more than that, her acknowledgment of their troubled past.

Isolation and loneliness are Lucy’s ever-present companions; one imagines her reading Forster’s prescriptive “only connect” and seeking, day after day, to do just that. Her writing is one attempt to bridge the gap between her memories and her present life—that is why, I think, she often refines her sentences, and reflects on what she’s just said to her mother, seeking precision on the one hand and internal clarity on the other. Writing about a friend, she notes, “I see now that he recognized what I did not: that in spite of my plenitude, I was lonely. Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

This is a gorgeous, thoughtful book that seeks to understand characters too often missing from contemporary novels (or reduced to cheap stereotypes), illuminating our common condition (who among us, no matter how loved and loving, does not recognize that we die alone?) with grace. It is, in a way, a plea for kindness. Highly recommended.

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