Last Month’s Reading: August 2017

Dear Readers, I hope your August was lovely.

We traveled: to Edinburgh (just for a few days; our first trip out of the country as a family), where I was delighted to find the Scottish Poetry Library, and later in the month spent a quick weekend at Niagara Falls (our son adored the Maid of the Mist, as did we), with a chance to visit a dear friend on the Canadian side.

Our garden is winding down, school is starting, and the blankets are on the beds at night. Wishing you all a happy fall (or spring, Australian readers), and happy reading.

I know many of you have probably already donated to the relief efforts in Texas. If you’re looking for more ways to help, Book Riot put together a list of book/library/publishing-related ways to do so. Texans, we’re thinking of you.

Last Month’s Reading: August 2017

Goodbye, Vitamin*, by Rachel Khong: A quietly beautiful novel about one year in the life of a woman who comes home to help care for her father, who suffers from dementia. Empathetic and funny without shying away from the terrible frailty the disease exposes in both patient and caregiver. Recommended.

The Art of Time in Fiction, by Joan Silber: My favorite entry (so far) in Graywolf’s “Art Of” series for writers. I’ll be coming back to this book.

Day, by A.L. Kennedy: I bought this novel in the Edinburgh airport and read it cover to cover on the flight home. Day is about Alfred Day, a young man from an unhappy home who volunteers to serve as a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber during World War II. The book begins in 1949 as Day is working as an extra in a war movie that triggers memories of his experiences.  It’s absolutely stellar.

The Bonniest Companie, by Kathleen Jamie: One of my finds at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. This is a collection about Scotland; Ms. Jamie wrote one poem a week in 2014, and those poems became this book. I love her engagement with the natural world (from “High Water”: “When the tide returns / from its other life / bearing its adulterer’s gifts”). Recommended.

Lessons on Expulsion*, by Erika L. Sánchez: Full review of this bold collection here.

The Mountain*, by Paul Yoon: Six gorgeous stories from a master of the form. Longer review coming soon.

The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin: The brilliant finale to Ms. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (the first two installments of which I inhaled at the very end of 2016). Highly, highly recommended.

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett: A little gem of a book; the uncommon reader is the queen, who discovers late in life a passion for reading. Spend an afternoon with this charming novella while you wait for the second season of The Crown.

The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy: If you’ve read “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” Ms. Levy’s gut-wrenching New Yorker essay, you know how gifted a writer she is. This memoir builds toward the events of that essay in candid, clear prose. Unfortunately, the last few chapters fizzle, holding back in ways the rest of the book (which deals with infidelity, alcohol addiction, and infertility, among other difficult subjects) does not.

The Windfall, by Diksha Basu: In New Delhi, Mr. and Mrs. Jha decide to relocate from their small apartment complex to an upscale neighborhood after Mr. Jha sells his business for a significant sum . They know the move will be difficult, but they can’t foresee its effects—hilarious and otherwise—on their neighbors, new and old, and their son, struggling at an American business school. Ms. Basu skewers the rich with a smile, and I was delighted by her nuanced characterizations of long-time friends Mrs. Jha and Mrs. Ray; it was good to see middle-aged women given such close attention.

*I received copies of these books from their publishers for review consideration.

Recommended Reading: 5 Books for Excellent Last-Minute Gifts

Tis the season for end-of-year best-of lists, and while I’m quite happy to endorse many of the critic’s favorites this year, it may be that you don’t know your last-minute giftees quite well enough to give them A Little Life or Fates and Furies or The Wake (excellent, but . . .).

Herewith, in no particular order, five  2015 releases sure to please:


Patricia Park, Re Jane: A modern take on perennial favorite Jane Eyre, this smart, funny novel is a must-read for any fans of Charlotte Brontë and modern retellings on your list.

Kathleen Jamie, The Overhaul: For the poetry fan who hasn’t read this Scottish poet and who craves a well-turned image and a gorgeous landscape. (Check out “The Whales,” part of which I have tattooed.)

Anthony Marra, The Tsar of Love and Techno: For anyone who loved A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, aficionados of the short story, or anyone who wants to be transported to a different time and place. (Bonus pick for fiction aficionados: Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal)

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk: For anyone who hasn’t read this year’s must-read memoir yet, a gripping blend of writing about grief, literature, and goshawks. (Bonus memoir recommendation: Hold Still, by Sally Mann)

Sarai Walker, Dietland: For feminists, proto-feminists, and anyone who is utterly exhausted by the fat-shaming and the dreaded “have you lost weight?” questions (twins, aren’t they?) that always seem worse around the holidays.

And you, Dear Readers? What are your last-minute book recommendations?




Recommended Reading: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth and The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie

be waery of the storm.

be most waery when there is no storm in sight

Friends, it’s time to talk about The Wake*.

IMG_5197I’ve had my eye on this book for months, ever since I read Kay’s review, and when it arrived and I started reading, it was incredibly hard to pry myself away from it for food, sleep, parenting, and other adult-type endeavors.

Let’s chat history for a second. What do you know about the Norman conquest? Here’s my list as of ten days ago:

  • It involved the Normans.
  • There was a conquest.
  • It happened in 1066.
  • It involved the Battle of Hastings.
  • William the Conqueror was the big winner.
  • Normans are the bad guys in Robin Hood.

And there you have it. I’m willing to bet that for most of us, that’s pretty much the extent of our knowledge. After all, when’s the last time you saw a movie or read a novel about the Norman conquest? Truth may be stranger than fiction, but art brings history to life, and keeps it living in the minds of readers (and viewers) for hundreds of years, or thousands. And when there isn’t much, or any, art about a culture or a period or a people, it or they will tend to fade in our collective memory. (Cue Galadriel’s Lord of the Rings preamble here.)

Read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and the Norman conquest will be seared in your mind. You won’t forget it. This is an amazing book, terrifying and beautiful all at once. Its pacing is exquisite, its language revelatory, its protagonist a marvel of extended characterization.

When 1066 begins, The Wake‘s narrator, Buccmaster, is a socman of Angland, a landowner who owes allegiance to no thegn (if that word sounds familiar, think Macbeth), only the king.  He has a wife and two teenage sons, as well as three servants (two laborers and one servingwoman for his wife). Proud and stubborn, he comes to feel that signs in the natural world are speaking to him of something momentous that is coming.

That something is the Norman army. Soon Buccmaster has lost everything of value in his world—his wife, children, land, servants—with the exception of his grandfather’s sword, which his grandfather claimed was given him by a mythical figure named Weland the Smith.

Taking his sword, Buccmaster retreats into the forest and over the next two years recruits a small band of green men to conduct what is essentially guerrilla warfare against the French invaders, with increasingly disastrous results.

“now Angland is but a tale from a time what is gan,” says Buccmaster early in the novel. His account, flawed and madness-filled, is the tale of a lost England, but it is of course his tale too, one that he controls with varying degrees of dexterity. He includes tales of the old gods, like the set pieces in the Iliad or the Odyssey, tales of his own history, tales of the recent past (his own and others’) that he reframes without shame to suit his present audience. But in the end, it is a tale told by a woman—and women in this book are almost always marginalized, oppressed, almost always objects of violence (Buccmaster is an unapologetic wife-beater)—that undoes the story he’s told about himself.

It becomes increasingly apparent that he’s becoming unhinged, like a slow-burning Lear; for him, the invasion is not the first unwelcome advance of a foreign power. Though he is economically privileged, Buccmaster is also an outsider because like his grandfather, he despises “the crist” (Christ), viewing Angland’s weakened state as a result of its people turning away from the old gods (Norse, as we would think of them). Thus his quest to rout “the frenc” and return Angland to what he thinks are its roots is doubly doomed.

There’s so much in the novel to think about: madness, pride, grief, colonization, memory, religion, storytelling, vengeance. Buccmaster’s unreliability is mirrored in the reader’s realization that what we know, what we’ve been taught, is inevitably incomplete. We are accustomed to recognizing that the English, the French, the Dutch colonized parts of the world that have yet to recover from imperialism’s yoke (and hopefully we realize that the descendants of those colonized peoples are often still treated terribly unjustly; for a literary example, see The Round House). It’s harder to grasp that England itself was colonized, violently and more than once, in this case by an enemy with superior technology (steel, horses, chainmail), an enemy that re-shaped the land itself (through the building of castles, which Buccmaster and his men regard as devilish).

How far back does this chain of suffering extend? What does it mean to be English, French, any one people?

There is no single answer to that question, but one possible answer has to do with language, the stuff from which we build our stories. Buccmaster wonders how his language will survive and the answer is before us, since so much of it did; The Wake is almost an experiment in how language itself—sounds, really—can re-create a lost world.

Citing his dissatisfaction with historical novels written in modern language**, Mr. Kingsnorth wrote the book in what he calls a “shadow tongue,” Old English updated with enough modern grammar and sentence structure to be readable by people (like me) who’ve never studied it. Mr. Kingsnorth writes almost exclusively with Anglo-Saxon, not Latinate words, and provides a brief glossary to catch those that might not be understandable phonetically and in context. It takes a few pages of getting used to, but after about ten pages I was hooked, just awash in this not-English English. (Sci-fi readers: the experience is a bit like reading Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden.)

The difference of the language, the requirement of focusing on each and every word, and the unusual orthography (there are no commas, colons, semicolons, or question marks that I noticed; proper names are rarely capitalized; paragraphs end without periods) ensure that the reader is locked into the world of the novel. For the first fifty pages or so, I felt almost overwhelmed by dread. By the end of the book, my hair was quite literally standing on end***. It’s just harrowing, completely harrowing. Read the first two pages and you’ll see****.

a storm saes the gleoman cums from heofen it cannot be feoht only lifd through

[a storm says the storyteller comes from heaven it cannot be fought only lived through]

A week or two ago, I pointed readers toward “The Whales,” a poem by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. I’ve had the chance to read the rest of the collection in which it appears, called The Overhaul*, which is stellar. I highly recommend it.

In some ways, Ms. Jamie’s voice reminds me of a sparer Mary Oliver; the two poets share a keen sense of the detail in nature and spin that detail into larger observations, but Ms. Jamie’s poems are less conversational. I loved her striking images, like the stags who “hold” the speaker and her companion in “civil regard” as their  antlers rise “like masts in a harbour, or city spires.”

In an odd way, The Overhaul resembles The Wake in its evocation of the landscape and in its occasional dip into Scots (as in the poem “Tae the Fates,” in which the speaker begs the powers that be for just “ane summer mair” to make “ane perfect poem”) to conjure up a sense of a different time. While these poems develop a sense of sadness for the things of this world that are passing away, like the young eagle in “The Halfling” leaving its youth behind or the seasons that fade, there is also a sense of hope in them, which I found refreshing and necessary after the marathon of The Wake; I’ve gone back to these poems more than once after reading them.


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

**One wonders, though, if he’s read Hilary Mantel.

***(I took a picture to prove it, but the whole disembodied-arm thing didn’t really seem like the best choice here).

****Or get in touch with me (e-mail, Twitter, instagram) and I’ll send you an audio file of me reading them. This book is built to be read aloud.

“answering through the vastnesses”: Kathleen Jamie’s “The Whales”

Photo by Christopher Campbell via Unsplash

Photo by Christopher Campbell via Unsplash

Lately I’ve been reading Kathleen Jamie’s superb book The Overhaul, which landed on my radar months ago thanks to Graywolf Press‘s delightful habit of posting a poem of the week on its website.

I read “The Whales” and just couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. It’s a bit funny, very beautiful, and then unsettling (with that Dickinson dash in the last line), all in just sixteen short lines. It’s one of my new favorite sea poems.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read it and tell me what you think!