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.

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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.

Recommended Reading: Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, by Sally Mann

photo (44)Reading Sally Mann’s new memoir, Hold Still*, was a real treat for me. I came to the book with no expectations at all–here I’ll betray my cultural ignorance by telling you that I really didn’t know who Sally Mann was–and was delighted to find a fascinating, non-linear portrait of an artist, a place, and a family.

The Artist

Sally Mann is, I learned, most famous for a project that included a series of portraits of her children, entitled Immediate Family. It was the subject of debate during the early- to mid-90s culture wars, and Ms. Mann is quite candid about the anguish and self-doubt the controversy caused her, especially as a parent, but stands by her work. Later in the book, she writes, “Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art” (283).

The Immediate Family project is just one aspect of Ms. Mann’s career that the memoir covers. She discusses her later and current projects, her relationship with friend and mentor Cy Twombly, and some of her favorite subjects, as well as how she became a photographer. I should say here that I know absolutely nothing about the practice or aesthetics of photography, and I found her descriptions of the complicated process of getting the right image (illustrated with photographs that were judged lacking) engrossing. This is a long book, but since it’s liberally peppered with pictures (even the rough images in the galley I read are interesting viewing, and some are downright gorgeous), it moves quickly, and I found myself flying through chapters, unable to put the book down.

Ms. Mann is an excellent writer, a keen observer (as one might expect) of others and herself. She’s hard on the girl she was, judging herself harshly for lapses in judgement and reckless, less than empathetic behavior, but it’s clear that she was an intelligent, interested person from the very beginning.

Here’s a passage I found illuminating, in the context of a discussion of Ms. Mann’s recent work documenting, or making art, that shows her beloved husband’s muscular dystrophy:

To be able to take my pictures I have to look, all the time, at the people and places I care about. And I must do so with both warm ardor and cool appraisal, with passions of both eye and heart, but in that ardent heart there must be a splinter of ice. […] And it is because of the work, and the love, that these pictures I took don’t disturb Larry. Like our kids, he believes in the work we do and in confronting the truth and challenging convention. We’ve all agreed for years now that a little discomfort is a small price to pay for that. (144-45)

The Place

The setting for most of Sally Mann’s work is the south, and in particular her family home, on sprawling, heat- and humidity-drenched land in Rockbridge County, Virginia. The farm and the land, which is also where she grew up, are almost characters in and of themselves, so lovingly does she depict it in words and pictures.

Ms. Mann loves the south and its characters, but she doesn’t shy away from its violent, tragic history of slavery of racism, and her own family’s participation in institutionalized and unthinking racism, both historically and during her own childhood. She was effectively raised by the family housekeeper, whom she called Gee-Gee, clearly with great reciprocity of affection. A formidable woman, and a widow, Virginia worked for the Manns six days a week, and managed to send all six of her own children to excellent schools and colleges. How did she do it, asks Ms. Mann.

By working twelve hours a day and by taking in linens to iron at night, linens stuffed into white sacks crowding her front door when my father took her home after all day on her feet at our house. What did he think when he saw those bags? What were any of us thinking? Why did we never ask the questions? That’s the mystery of it—our blindness and our silence. (259)

The Family

Part of what makes this memoir so successful (this coming from someone who generally reads them very selectively) is Ms. Mann’s wide view. She’s exploring her own origins, of course, but reaches far back into the family archives (both her own and her husband’s) to uncover a panoply of information that would keep a writer of Southern gothic novels occupied for years. There’s murder, mayhem, adultery, drugs, great wealth, great sorrow, and dreams set aside for practical realities, and Ms. Mann looks at it all, making connections, asking questions. To learn about her is to be immersed in her family and its past.

I came away with from Hold Still with new insights about art and family and big questions, too. I’m very glad I had the opportunity to fall into this book. Highly recommended reading.

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

Fast Read: Dirty Chick, by Antonia Murphy

photo (3)In a late episode of The West Wing, Toby asks a senator what she’d like to do if she weren’t politicking. “I’d grow apples,” she says.

The first time I saw that scene, a lightbulb went off. That’s what I’d like to do too, if I weren’t writing and reading, and if I had a propensity related to green things that didn’t involve killing them. (Although I like to think that this year I’ve progressed to benign neglect.) Someday I fully intend to (a) buy a house and (b) turn half said house’s backyard into a garden, which will (c) necessitate the acquisition of many, many gardening books. Doesn’t that work out nicely?

Anyway, you’ve perhaps noted that my agricultural ambitions involve only flora, not fauna, and if you’re wondering why, look no further than Antonia Murphy’s Dirty Chick*, a funny, brash, and often gross memoir of her foray into farm life.

Like many of us who saw The Lord of the Rings, Antonia Murphy thought that New Zealand looked like a pretty great place to live. Unlike many of us who saw The Lord of the Rings, she actually moved there.

Rural New Zealand, in her account, certainly has its charms — beautiful countryside, interesting and friendly neighbors, an abundance of fruit with which to make homemade wine — but it’s still a whole new world for an American free spirit with a penchant for embellished headbands and animals that look cute (at first).

Dirty Chick is a zany romp through Ms. Murphy’s first year in Purua with her family, as she deals with grumpy alpacas, a renegade cow, too many maggots, goat medical emergencies, a flock of chickens, and moldy cheese (that last one is a good thing). At the same time, the family adjusts Ms. Murphy’s son’s developmental delays, hoping that life in Purua and the quality of its local school will help him thrive. Ms. Murphy’s obvious dedication to her son, her family, her friends, and her animals is endearing and wonderful to read about.

Dirty Chick is not for the squeamish, those offended by profanity, those with an oversensitive gag reflex, or those who prefer their romantic dreams of artisan farming unshattered (if you don’t believe me, just read the prologue, which involves goat placenta). But if you’re looking for a taste of farm life without the work, a book that will make you laugh every few pages, and an author whose wine recipes you’d love to ask for, and who you’d like to raise a glass with, Dirty Chick is for you. (On that last one: just don’t look in Antonia Murphy’s purse.)

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

Beach Reading: The Road to Burgundy, by Ray Walker

What’s your dream job?

You know, the one you think you’d love to try given time, and money, and the right location, and all those pesky considerations that responsible adults take into account when making decisions? If you could live anywhere in the world, with a respectable salary (enough to live comfortably but not ostentatiously), but you had to work, what would that job be?

Maybe you have two dream jobs. Or the job you have would be your dream job if there were just a couple of alterations (hi, teachers out there!). Maybe you find it hard to pin down because you think that new-car smell would fade pretty darn fast for any kind of job.

photo (96)Ray Walker is the guy who figured out what his dream job was and turned it into his day job — with a supportive family, an unbeatable work ethic, and an insane amount of luck.

The Road to Burgundy* is Mr. Walker’s memoir, a light, fast, straightforward read that chronicles his often-bumpy transition from finance work in San Francisco to making wine in Burgundy with grapes from some of the most storied vines in the world.

It’s the perfect beach read — engaging, but not stress-inducing — especially for anyone who likes reading about France (the food!) or wine. Mr. Walker’s emphasis on terroir — the place-character of a wine, if you will, is quite interesting. I do wish the memoir had gone into more detail about the old-fashioned winemaking techniques that he champions and that, apparently, have resulted in excellent wines, but ultimately, the book achieves its purpose, which is to show that once in a while that dream job is within reach.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Recommended Reading: Next Life Might Be Kinder and I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman

Howard Norman is the kind of writer who gives you the bad news up front. Take the opening paragraph of his best-known novel, The Bird Artist (1994):

My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.

(If you haven’t read The Bird Artist, you should rectify the situation immediately.)

photo 1 (18)Mr. Norman’s new novel (out last week), Next Life Might Be Kinder*, begins: “After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex hotel, she did not leave me.” It’s a bold strategy, to declare in one’s opening sentence the plot points other writers might build toward — but for Mr. Norman, the strategy always works.

Writer Sam Lattimore, Next Life Might Be Kinder‘s narrator, finds himself living in a small cottage hours away from the Essex Hotel, where he and his wife spent the early months — the only months — of their marriage. He’s meeting with a therapist, evading the film director who bought the rights to his tragic story — and the director’s assistant, and seeing his wife on the beach at night. He’s angry, and he’s desperately in love with Elizabeth. As the novel unfolds, Sam recalls how he and Elizabeth fell in love, what their life was like before she died, and the lurking menace of Alphonse Padgett.

Mr. Norman’s writing is, as ever, beautiful. The characters — Sam, Elizabeth, Sam’s new neighbors Cynthia and Philip, Dr. Nissensen the therapist, the unhinged Norwegian film director, even Marghanita Laski, whose work is the subject of Elizabeth’s dissertation — are finely delineated. Objects and places are imbued with significance; the two-page chapter called “Still Life with Underwood Typewriter,” which describes Elizabeth’s desk, is the best characterization-by-catalogue I’ve ever read.

Elizabeth’s appearances to Sam are mysterious, but never campy or sentimental. Sam loves his wife immensely but doesn’t sanctify her: “And I don’t need metaphor to try and elevate her to a deity. She is just Elizabeth. She made good soups and stews. She was writing a book. She used pencils” (80). Next Life Might Be Kinder is, quite simply, a perfect exploration of the particularities of grief.

photo 2 (15)After I finished the novel — in two sittings — I happened upon a review that mentioned its relationship to some of the writing in I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, a memoir by Mr. Norman published last year. I went to the library and read it immediately, then bought my own copy, because it’s a wonderful memoir, and I’ve never much liked the genre. In five sections, Mr. Norman explores pivotal periods in his life; several of the events echo in Next Life Might Be Kinder.

I’ll let the writer himself summarize I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place:

What is remembered here? A bookmobile and an elusive father in the Midwest. A landscape painter whose plane crashed in Saskatchewan. A murder-suicide in my family’s house. A Quagmiriut Inuit rock band specializing in the songs of John Lennon. And in Vermont, a missing cat, a well drilling, and my older brother’s requests to be smuggled into Canada. If there is one thing that connects these disparate experiences, it is the hopeful idea of locating myself in beloved landscapes — Northern California, Nova Scotia, Vermont, the Arctic — and of describing how they offered a home for honest introspection, a place to think things through. Often I just wanted to look at birds for days on end, shore birds in particular. (xi-xii)

These are beautiful books, and highly recommended.

*I received a copy of Next Life Might Be Kinder from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Recommended Reading: The Obituary Writer and Comfort, by Ann Hood

Ann Hood, Comfort, photo by CR OliverAbout five years ago, when I was going through a Very Bad Time, my wonderful friend Mary gave me Ann Hood’s memoir Comfort (in which Ms. Hood very graciously penned a note for me). Comfort‘s chapters deal with the experience of grief; Ms. Hood’s five-year-old daughter died from a virulent form of strep in 2002. The book is gut-wrenching, and the first chapter is the best, truest writing on grief that I’ve ever read.

That grief clearly informs The Obituary Writer, Ms. Hood’s novel that’s out this year. The novel gives us two stories in parallel. We follow Vivien in 1919 San Francisco (and environs) as she comes to grips with the disappearance of her lover in the earthquake of 1906, and Claire in 1960 Virginia, feeling trapped in a loveless marriage and catapulted suddenly into an affair. Their lives intersect, of course, but the contrast between the two women is fascinating.  How did women shape their lives when their roles were so constricted, so defined?

Ann Hood, The Obituary Writer, photo by CR OliverI found as I read that I wanted to know more about Vivien’s relationship with her lover, and how they negotiated social situations and taboos, and I was disappointed to be left in the dark about that aspect of Vivien’s life. However, that disappointment was overmatched by my interest in Claire’s fascination with Jackie Kennedy. I’m a New Englander, but I’ve never felt the affection for the Kennedy family that the rest of Boston perpetually evinces. It wasn’t until I read this book that I came up with a possible explanation for why women loved Jackie: her life, on the outside, at least, was the best, materially speaking, a housewife in 1960 could wish for. Jackie was beautiful, cultured, spoke French, married a handsome man, had two adorable children, and was never in danger of running out of money. The reality of her situation was different, of course, but I suspect that her presence in the White House gave women who felt stifled at home something to aspire to as they engaged with the parameters of their lives. But that’s just a theory.

Have you read Comfort or The Obituary Writer? What did you think?