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: The Granite Moth by Erica Wright

The Granite Moth

Are you looking for the right book during the transition from summer into fall? Look no further: with its page-turning plot and crisp autumn setting, Erica Wright’s The Granite Moth* is the book for you.

IMG_0592On Halloween night, private investigator Kathleen Stone—Kat, or Kate, Katya, Kathy, Keith, Kennedy,  or another alias, depending on who’s asking—is waiting on a friend and former colleague to drop off some leads that could help her build a case against her nemesis, cartel boss Salvatore Magrelli. Ever since she left undercover work for the NYPD, she’s felt much more comfortable in disguise, and this night is no exception, so she’s surprised when her friend Dolly, the star of the Pink Parrot’s famous drag show, recognizes her from his position on  the club’s float.

Minutes later, the float explodes, and Kat finds herself juggling two cases at once as she’s pulled into investigating the incident by Big Mamma, the club’s owner, who’s convinced it’s no accident. When Kat infiltrates the Skyview, a tony private club run by Magrelli’s wife, the murder of an employee makes her think that the two cases are possibly connected—as hate crimes.

What I liked best about The Granite Moth, in no particular order:

  1. The plot: It’s full of twists and turns, but it’s not convoluted, and it doesn’t rely on sexual assault as a plot point or character motivation (hallelujah!). Also, until now I’d never read a detective novel with (potential) hate crimes as a focus. Timely, unfortunately.
  2. The secondary characters: Dolly and his friends at the Pink Parrot are fully differentiated and fleshed out, as is Kat’s former colleague and friend Ellis, an NYPD detective. The only character I had a hard time understanding was Meeza, Kat’s assistant; it wasn’t clear why a smart, capable woman is interested in V.P., a small-time criminal.
  3. Kat: Kat is smart and brave, though scarred by her work undercover and reasonably worried about the dangerous people crossing her path–a far cry from the usual marks she pursues.  She doesn’t carry a gun, which makes her resourceful; scenes have more room to breathe since violence isn’t always imminent. Disguise is her weapon of choice, but she also listens carefully and carries bolt cutters. Plus, I enjoyed Kat’s sense of humor (wry, as befits a PI).
  4. The writing: Ms. Wright’s prose doesn’t call attention to itself, which (for me, anyway) is ideal in genre fiction, but it certainly has some lovely moments, like this image: “Ellis stopped abruptly and turned me to face him. He ducked down until he was peering into my eyes with his translucent one. I could see myself in his pupils, the smallest nesting doll in the set, the one with nothing inside.”

If you, like me, aren’t a connoisseur of crime fiction but like to sample the genre from time to time, I’d happily recommend The Granite Moth.

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