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?)

Recommended Reading: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

At 555 pages, this novel, inspired by the life of Laura Bush, is quite an undertaking, in more ways than one. The original four Literary Wives bloggers — Angela, Ariel, Audra, and Emily — have reviewed the book with more insight than I’ll be able to muster, but I thought I’d share just a few thoughts.

American Wife

First, some highlights, passage-wise, for me:

  • Alice’s love for the Midwest: “It is quietly lovely, not preening with the need to have its attributes remarked on” (53).
  • “When you are a high school girl, there is nothing more miraculous than a high school boy” (58).
  • The passage about Alice and Charlie during the tornado warning (193-96); Alice and Charlie are from Wisconsin, and Ms. Sittenfield, like yours truly, is a native of Ohio. I live outside Boston now, and the Boston-born didn’t have tornado drills growing up, and are always amused at the description I provide. But I’ve never been really close to  a tornado, and I have no desire to be, ever. Sidebar here: Immediately read Catherine Pierce’s amazing poem “The Mother Warns the Tornado.”
  • “I have always had a soft spot for people who talk a lot beause I feel as if they’re doing the work for me” (223).
  • I can’t find the page, but I liked the way Alice recognized a single woman based on what she was buying at the grocery store — yogurt and apples (though I have to say, I bought my fair share of hamburger as a single woman. Spaghetti is always the right answer to “What should I make for dinner?”). The novel is full of nice little details like this.
  • Almost any passage involving Alice’s grandmother.
  • “But I should note, for all my resistance to organized religion, that I don’t believe Charlie could have quit drinking without it. It provided him with a way to structure his behavior, and a way to explain that behavior, both past and present, to himself. Perhaps fiction has, for me, served a similar purpose—what is a narrative arc if not the imposition of order on disparate events?—and perhaps it is my avid reading that has been my faith all along” (429-30).

I found Alice, the main character, both intriguing and infuriating, both a product of her time and well ahead of it.

I think Alice’s nods to her privileged existence (when she’s at the pool with Jadey, when she’s thinking about the war at the novel’s end) were cursory, but I couldn’t tell if this is a fault in Alice’s thinking or the author’s failing. Sure, Alice is charitable and cares about others less fortunate than she, but she allows her values to be completely overshadowed by her husband’s. It’s as if Alice disappears, and I didn’t feel Ms. Sittenfield provided a satisfactory explanation for Alice’s weak attempt to explain herself (sorry, “they elected him, not me” doesn’t cut it). At the very least, as a citizen, she should feel free to express her views to her husband.

(Please note: I’m not judging Laura Bush here, because I don’t have the access to the interior self that Sittenfeld provides us for Alice. And literacy rules.)

Despite my frustration, I thought the book was excellent, and as I went along, I began to think that maybe the unresolved ambiguities in Alice’s thoughts and behavior are meant to be inscrutable; after all, how much do we really know about our neighbors’ marriages, or about our own? How much do we want to admit to ourselves?

“Inside half-heaven unfolds”

Most Like an Arch This Marriage

John Ciardi (1916-1986)

Three years ago today, my now-husband got down on one knee on a very, very cold beach (in his hometown on Cape Cod), and proposed. The scene behind him looked like an Edward Hopper painting; the waves were blue and barely white-tipped, and a pale house with black shutters on bluff, far, far down the beach stood out against the sky. The air was so cold that it gave everything we saw an extra sharpness. Each rock and stone stood out against the nearly cloudless sky and the coarse sand of the beach.

We got a feel for that extra sharpness when we both fell, laughing and crying, after I tried to hug Ben.  Monuments of grace we are not, but we’re lucky, three years later, to be as happily in love as we were that day.

This week I thought I’d memorize one of the six poems that our friends and family members read at our wedding (we chose two prose selections too, but that’s for another time). My dear friend Aaron read “Most Like An Arch This Marriage” for us, and you can read it here.