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?)

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“All glam-glow, all twinkle and gold”: Tracy K. Smith’s “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” (RIP David Bowie)

Tracy K. Smith-Bowie

Since David Bowie has left us for what I’m guessing must be some sort of starsplitting transcendent plane, it’s only appropriate this week to feature Tracy K. Smith’s gorgeous and evocative “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” from her appropriately titled collection Life on Mars

The poem has been making the rounds this week—justifiably so—because it hones in on the multi-persona man as a way to consider the big questions about time, space, death, and belief. In the poem, Bowie is both an otherworldly immortal figure and one of us—just immeasurably cooler (literally, in part two of the poem). I pretty much want to quote the whole poem right now, so please read it. 

Bowie was an avid reader, and if you’re craving more bookish Bowie goodness, head over to BookRiot to check out their list (from summer 2015) of all things books and Bowie.

Turns out I can’t resist quoting the poem:

 

And how many lives

Before take-off, before we find ourselves

Beyond ourselves, all glam-glow, all twinkle and gold?

 

Safe travels, Starman.

bowie-reading

“the little Mars rover”: Matthew Rohrer’s “There Is Absolutely Nothing Lonelier”

photo (74)A couple weeks ago, Mr. O and I were able to go see The Martian in the theatre (a rare treat); I absolutely loved the book and heartily endorse the movie. There was a catch, however: now I want to re-read the book, and since this is the season when my desire to read all the books smashes up my need to knit all the things—Houston, we have a problem.

To satisfy my sci-fi craving, first I tried to convince our four-year-old to watch WALL-E, but no dice; he’s preemptively scared of most movies. You’re thinking that maybe I should just look forward to the next Star Wars, but I say unto you: thrice bitten, still shy (and still going, but that’s beside the point).

So then I started thinking about poetry, and while I continue to commend Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars to you, I have a new poem for your perusal. I owe a tip of the hat to poet Simeon Berry on this one, who posted a link to Matthew Rohr’s poem “There Is Absolutely Nothing Lonelier” a few days ago.

You will never read a JPL press release quite the same way again.

The Poetry Concierge Recommends: Two Books, This Time Per Request

[The Poetry Concierge is an occasional feature here on Rosemary and Reading Glasses wherein I select a poem, poet, or book of poems for individual readers based on a short questionnaire. Come play along! Read the introductory post here, the first recommendation here, and then email me at: rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.]

This week, our pilgrim in search of poetry is Rick, who blogs about books over at Another Book Blog. Rick went very public with his poetry concierge request (a minor, forgiven insurrection); he further stipulated that he’d like me to recommend two books of poetry, which will become part of his self-re-education program. No pressure or anything.

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

I don’t know if I’ve ever had a go-to author, to be honest. I don’t have anyone specific that I turn to when I’m in a reading funk. If anything, my literary achilles heel has always been how easily I get bored with any one thing after a while. However, if there’s anyone who even comes close, it’s Tad Williams. He’s probably my single biggest inspiration, and the author from whom I’ve read the most.

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

I really love nonfiction books about people who challenge the status quo. I’m not a big backer of rebellion per se, at least not in any physical way, but intellectual rebellion really appeals to me. I’m fascinated by religion, and science, and historical shifts.

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

A.J. Jacobs’ The Know-It-All, because it’s basically an encyclopedia in less than 400 pages. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, because it’s the best science text for the uninitiated I’ve ever read, and I swear to god it’s funny. Apathy and Other Small Victories, probably the funniest book I’ve ever read. Essex County, my favourite graphic novel of all time, a truly brilliant piece of literature short enough to savour in just a week of exile. And a book of Mad Libs, because ever since I discovered how funny they can be when you think of the most disgusting answers possible, they’ve been one of my favourite things on Earth.

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

I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb, River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Book of Joby by Mark J. Ferrari, and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Four of them because they’re four of my favourite single volume stories (and they’re all really long), The Brothers Karamazov because I’ve always wanted to read it, and five years on Mars sounds like I’d finally find the time.

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?)

I’ve always been a fan of righteous indignation. I’m fascinated by spirituality even though I don’t subscribe to anything in particular. I’m in awe of the universe and all it’s (likely) unanswerable questions. I couldn’t give two s**ts about conversations regarding politics and the environment because there hasn’t been a single one I’ve come across that hasn’t degenerated into smart people sounding like partisan a**holes. [Sorry for the censorship, but my Mom reads this blog, so, you know. –CO]

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

The one work of poetry that’s actually resonated with me (that’s lasted more than a month is In Memoriam by Lord Alfred Tennyson. I’ve always been awestruck at how thousands of people have been arguing both for and against its Christian/anti-Christian message for hundreds of years. It takes a special kind of rhetorical talent to receive adamant support from both of those groups at the same time. For the record, I think it’s clearly a Christian poem by the end, but Tennyson’s willingness to question his faith has always been the measuring stick to which I hold up all religious persons. Furthermore, it’s just beautifully written and undeniably tragic and heartfelt.

As for what I don’t like: If you prescribe me something like The Red Wheelbarrow, then “Friends Off.”


Like I said, no pressure.

Rick’s into big ideas — science, religion, meaning of life, that kind of thing, so right off I dismissed light verse as a possibility, even though Rick has a wily sense of humor (no Edward Lear for you, Rick.). And while I’m tempted to round out Rick’s poetic education with other DWMs (Dead White Men, for those in the peanut gallery) — think Yeats, Eliot, Browning, Donne — I think living poets deserve to be read by a reader like Rick.

So here are my bold picks:

photo 2 (13)Anne Carson’s work defies categorization, blending poetry, Classics (capital-C), translation, drama, essays, prose, and scholarship. She’s a phenomenal intellect. I was tempted to start off with the unbelievably good Glass, Irony, and God, but given Rick’s fondness for Satan — the Miltonic Satan, that is — I think a poem about a winged red monster might be in order. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red is incredibly weird and wonderful, a novel in verse form (framed with some classical scholarship and jokes — just go with it, and it works) in which she transforms the myth of Geryon — said monster, killed by Herakles as one of his labors — into a most unusual bildungsroman. Geryon is a lonely, artistic soul, just a little boy when we first meet him, and Ms. Carson captures his pain and his pleasures with a lens that’s never sentimental, only scintillating. It’s heartbreaking and gorgeous. I’m surprised every time I re-read it.

Bonus: Anne Carson is Canadian, so Rick gets a little CanLit infusion for his syllabus.

Double Bonus: There’s a sequel!

photo 1 (16)Next, I’ve selected Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars (which won the Pulitzer in 2012). You want science and the universe, Rick? Here it is. As the New Yorker‘s review puts it, “Smith’s central conceit allows her to see us, our moment, as specks in the future’s rearview mirror. Futures and pasts are, in astronomy as in poetry, all mixed up.” Life on Mars is, in part, an elegy for Ms. Smith’s father, who worked on the Hubble space telescope. The tone varies from wonderment to fury and back again, as the poems consider matters both existential and quotidian, personal and political. Take a look at “Sci Fi,” which is the poem of the week, for an example of Ms. Smith’s original take on the future.

Rick, I (fervently) hope you’ll find poems you love in these books. Thanks for writing in!


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.