Last Week’s Reading: February 5 – February 11


Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee: I loved this family saga about Korean immigrants in twentieth-century Japan. You can read my full review here.

The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman: I grew up watching the film adaptation (starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton) of this 1966 play, and I was delighted to find that the screenplay matches the script almost exactly. It’s a firecracker of a play about Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their scheming sons, brought to life with some of the wittiest, cruelest banter you’ve ever read. My copy, which I found at Loganberry Books in Cleveland, is a first edition, and it includes stills from the first production–imagine my surprise at seeing a very, very young Christopher Walken in these pages! Perfect escapist reading.

Thrall, by Natasha Trethewey: This 2012 collection by former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey is brilliant. Thrall takes as its focus the poet’s interracial background, interrogating classic paintings that depict mixed-race people and themes and exploring the poet’s relationship with her white father. Two of my favorites from this beautiful, necessary, American collection: “Rotation” and “Enlightenment.”

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman: I’ve been looking forward to this book for months, and Neil Gaiman did not disappoint. In these tales, he brings the Norse gods to life—wise but fallible Odin, hulking Thor, dangerous Loki (and he points out that much of what must have been passed down about goddesses and other female figures has been, alas, lost—hence the disproportionate number of myths about male figures). A gifted storyteller and fascinating legends makes for a classic combination. Gorgeous cover, too.

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro: A subtle, unnerving novel about a woman, Etsuko, who recalls one hot, eventful summer in post-war Nagasaki decades later, after she’s moved to England. Her older daughter has recently committed suicide, and her younger daughter comes to visit Etsuko at her country home. The writing is atmospheric and outwardly serene, but malaise creeps beneath the surface. I’m amazed at Mr. Ishiguro’s skill in showing how characters mean exactly the opposite of what they say. Even more amazing is that A Pale View of Hills was his first novel. Recommended.

“a narrow plot of sand”: Natasha Trethewey’s “History Lesson” from Domestic Work

photo (23)Domestic Work is the first collection of poems by Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate of the United Sates from 2012 to 2014 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The collection won the inaugural Cave Canem Prize (an annual prize for the best first collection of poems by an African American poet), selected by Rita Dove. In both free verse and gorgeous formal poetry, these poems tell the stories of working-class African American people, focusing on men and women in the South in the twentieth century.

In her introduction to the book, Rita Dove writes, “With a steely grace reminiscent of those eight washerwomen [in the poem “Three Photographs”], she tells the hard facts of lives pursued on the margins, lived out under oppression and in scripted oblivion, with fear and a tremulous hope” (xi-xii).

It’s the tremulous hope that shines brightest in Domestic Work, but it’s a hope that flutters on the edges of a terrible past and an uncertain present. Take, for instance, “History Lesson.” At first, Trethewey describes a picture of herself as a small girl in a flowered bikini, toes curling in the sand “on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,” painting in vivid words the sense of the photo, and the bright sun of the day.

Then, at precisely the poem’s midpoint, the turn: “I am alone / except for my grandmother, other side.”

Now the focus shifts to the “history lesson” of the poem’s title, as Trethewey takes us back in time in two jumps. We learn that the poet’s grandmother is taking the picture in 1970—just “two years after they opened / the rest of this beach to us,” a chilling reminder of the cruelties of Jim Crow South; who could deny the pleasures of this beach, with its sun and its minnows, to a child?

And then the end of the poem completes the structure Trethewey has set up: it’s forty years since her grandmother (to whom the second half of the poem belongs)

stood on a narrow plot
of sand marked colored, smiling,

her hands on the flowered hips
of a cotton meal-sack dress.

The “meal-sack dress”  on is the visual counterpoint to the bikini Trethewey’s child-self wears, which seems like symbol of progress (out of poverty, and with only the beach behind it, not the dreadful sign). But then we remember that the picture of the poet is only two years past the end of the beach’s segregation, and progress—from “narrow plot” to “wide strip”—seems a fragile, fragile thing.

The Poetry Concierge Recommends

. . . a poem for Katie of 5cities6women!

Katie, in addition to being a blogger and all-around awesome human, is also my friend and neighbor, and she kindly reminded me last weekend that I meant to start up the Poetry Concierge (I sure need a logo, don’t I?).

I’m delighted that Katie wrote in with answers to the Poetry Concierge questionnaire so we can kick off the series in style.

1. When you read fiction, who’s your go-to author?

Not to be difficult, but I don’t have a go-to author for fiction. Lately, I just grab whatever new, well-reviewed or personally recommended stuff I can find. When I was reading lots of short stories, I read everything I could by Stacey Richter and TC Boyle and Lorrie Moore, but now I’m on novels and it’s all random.

2. If you read nonfiction, which subjects are most likely to interest you? (cultural history, science, biography, memoir, survival stories?)

Memoir, history, anthropology, travel stories

3. If you were stuck on a desert island for a week, which five books would you bring to keep you entertained?

Catch-22 (read it); Sea of Hooks (reading it); Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Tryptich (reading it very slowly); Americanah (want to read it); My Date with Satan (read it)

4. If you were on a five-year mission to Mars, which five books would you bring to keep you sane?

5 books for 5 years? Yikes! Ok, for fiction, Catch-22 again, Jazz, and Cloud Atlas; for nonfiction, Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders (just seems appropriate), and a TBD book on dealing with claustrophobia

5. What kinds of questions are most likely to keep you up at night? (death, the nature of love, politics, environmental issues, meaning of life, end of the world, justice and injustice, etc?)

Nothing keeps me up at night because I’m possibly narcoleptic. I guess if I had to pick something though, I’d say meaning of life and death, and whether I’m doing the right things to make the most of my time here on this planet.

6. If you’ve read poetry before, what have you liked? What have you disliked?

I’ve always liked the WWI poets and the Beats, especially Diane diPrima. I like ee cummings, and TS Eliot but often feel like I don’t fully understand him. I’ve liked the little bit of Catherine Pierce I’ve read recently, but I don’t generally speaking have an allegiance to any particular poet or style – though I’m always really impressed with a good villanelle.


Ok, so here’s hoping I get this right. Based on Katie’s answers, I’m recommending:

“Myth,” by Natasha Trethewey

Why? Well, here are a few reasons:

  • It’s a modified villanelle
  • As a modified villanelle that works like a palindrome, its structure is repetitive and circular, qualities associated with Catch-22 (as I understand it; I admit to never having read the novel). The attention to form often characterizes the poetry of World War One, as well.
  • It meditates on the meaning and perception of death, and the permeability of sleep
  • Natasha Trethewey is the current Poet Laureate of the United States — she’s the real deal.

Katie, I hope you like “Myth”!


Would you like the Poetry Concierge to make a recommendation for you? Check out the introductory post, and send your answers to the questionnaire, along with the name and/or blog you’d like posted with the reply, to rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.