Last Week’s Reading


January 8-14: A haunting novel in translation, debut fiction from a poet, a ghost story, a highly acclaimed play, and a poet I wish I’d read years ago.

Human Acts photo by Carolyn OliverSouth Korean writer Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian (which I haven’t read); Human Acts*, which you can find at your local bookstore today, is the next of her novels to be translated into English by Deborah Smith. It is absolutely riveting, though quite hard to read, given the subject matter. The subject is the viciously quelled 1980 Gwanju Uprising, and the lens is the life and death of one boy, Dong-ho. In chapters that shift focus among different people who knew Dong-ho (well or tangentially), the author explores trauma, resilience, memory, witness, and questions of the soul. At what cost do survivors of torture bear witness to their sufferings? How do ordinary people find the strength to resist brutal injustice? How ought we to feel about being human when humans can be despicable creatures—or brave and kind? Human Acts is a devastating, brilliant book.

img_3538After reading Human Acts, I needed something a bit lighter to take the edge off, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, was just the ticket. Eighty-something Lillian Boxfish decides to end 1984 by taking a walk around her beloved New York City, reflecting on a life lived to the very fullest—if not always happily. Lillian has verve, and her recollections of working in the advertising department at Macy’s in the 1930s are wonderful (especially if you’re missing Mad Men); the character is based on Margaret Fishback, the highest paid woman in advertising during her heyday. This novel is light but not fluffy; the emphasis on connection was sensitive rather than mawkish. I generally loved the company of Lillian’s sharp mind (with the exception of several instances of fat-shaming, which, please, dear authors, can we dispense with?).

Less delightful was Gillian Flynn’s The Grown Up. Originally included in a short story anthology, the tale would, I suspect, be better served in that format, rather than as a standalone book (it was included in this month’s Book of the Month mailing). It’s a ghost story with a twist; I found it more grotesque than thrilling, and the ending, alas, didn’t satisfy.

img_3496One of the last books I read in 2016 was John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt; I couldn’t resist the temptation to make the next play I read Proof, David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winner (2001). Sometimes I forget how much I love reading drama (I used to teach it), though I’m happy when plays like these remind me. I suspect I don’t read drama often because it doesn’t get the hype in book-world (where, for good or ill, I spend much of my time) that fiction, nonfiction, and even poetry do. I wonder why that is. Anyway, Proof is about math, mental illness, and family. It’s very, very good.

fullsizerender-13Last week, I finally read Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poems (edited and introduced by Irish poet Eavan Boland). Mew came highly recommended by friend and poet Emily Mohn-Slate, and I am kicking myself, Dear Readers that I (a.) didn’t pick up this book ages ago and (b.) didn’t read it as soon as it arrived as a birthday present. Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) is an utterly tragic figure, but her poems are marvels—lines like none I’ve ever read before: part Victorian, part Georgian, part Modernist, and all deeply moving.  I cried twice reading this slim volume, and friends, I do not cry easily when it comes to poetry.

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

I’m not sure this weekly reading wrap-up is going to be a regular feature, but I’m running with it for now!

Recommended Reading: Absolute Solitude by Dulce María Loynaz, translated by James O’Connor

Absolute Solitude

I’m so happy to have been introduced to the work of Dulce María Loynaz (1902-1997) through Absolute Solitude*, a selection of her prose poems translated by James O’Connor.

Though her early work was well received in her native Cuba and abroad (including by writers like Gabriela Mistral and Juan Ramón Jiménez), after the Cuban Revolution Loynaz stopped writing poetry (her books were banned for decades), leaving her work to be rediscovered by a new generation when she won the prestigious Premio Miguel de Cervantes in 1992. You can read more about the poet, her struggles, and her legacy in this piece by translator James O’Connor.

Most of Absolute Solitude is taken up with a large selection from Loynaz’s book Poems Without Names (Poemas sin nombre), originally published in Spain in 1953. These prose poems are brief; almost all are less than a page in length, and most are shorter than a paragraph. (The one-line poems are almost aphoristic.)  The Spanish originals and English translations appear on opposite pages.

The poems are intensely personal, and yet encompass universal themes: the agonies of love, the pleasures and terrors of solitude, wrestling with the divine. I was reminded, at different times, of Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Leonard Cohen, and Gabriela Mistral; while I often find contemporary prose poems difficult—too obscure, I suppose—these I found to be transporting.

Here are a few of my favorites.

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For me, the blank space on the page following each poem was an invitation to pause and think carefully about what I’d just read. I loved this jewel of a collection.

What poems are you reading this week?

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

Recommended Reading: Ways to Disappear, by Idra Novey

IMG_5996Idra Novey’s debut novel, Ways to Disappear*, defies easy categorization. It’s part mystery, part literary meditation, part romance, part comedy—and all brilliant. I loved it.

Beatriz Yagoda, acclaimed Brazilian novelist with a fondness for cigars and online gambling, one day climbs an almond tree (cigar and suitcase in hand) and vanishes, leaving no word of her intentions with her two children, Raquel and Marcus, or with her American translator, a young woman named Emma.

“For so long, she’d willfully sought the in-between. She’d thought of herself as fated to live suspended, floating between two countries, in the vapor between languages. But too much vaporous freedom brought its own constraints. She now felt as confined by her floating state as other, more wholesome people were to the towns where they were born.”

After learning of the disappearance, Emma leaves Pittsburgh (and her fiancè, Miles) for Brazil, where an encounter with a violent loan shark is just the first sign that she’s in way over her head. Her presence isn’t exactly welcome by her author’s children, and she’s searching for Beatriz based clues from her books. Meanwhile, Beatriz may be leaving cryptic breadcrumbs for her wealthy and world-weary first publisher, Rocha, who begins a parallel search for the enigmatic writer.

It’s a wonderful setup for a novel, and Ms. Novey’s writing is top-notch. The heat of Brazil’s cities radiates from the page, her descriptions expertly woven from choice details (“a tall glass shipwrecked on the bar in a spill of caipirinha”). The glimpses of Beatriz’s own writing (mediated through Emma’s translations) are astoundingly unexpected and savagely beautiful, perhaps informed by Ms. Novey’s own work as a translator and poet. Brief chapters—the longest is four pages, I believe—are interspersed with modified dictionary entries, e-mail messages, and Brazilian news reports, giving this short book rapid-fire energy.

About her work with Beatriz, Emma thinks, “She’d remember a morning in Rio as no more than an orange glow over the ocean and use that light to illuminate the strange, dark boats of Beatriz’s images as she ferried them into English.”

What a metaphor. I highly recommend Ways to Disappear—you’ll want to ferried on this strange boat yourself.

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

Recommended Reading: I’ll Be Right There, by Kyung-sook Shin

photo (88)I’ll Be Right There* is a gem of a novel, a quiet, masterful rendering of the emotional life of a young woman looking back on the formative years of her early twenties. Ms. Shin is one of South Korea’s most popular writers, and I’ll Be Right There is her second book translated into English (the first was the bestseller Please Look After Mom); Sora Kim-Russel’s deft translation flows smoothly and carefully through its pages.

Jung Yoon recalls the period that began with the illness and death of her mother, when Yoon attempts to navigate life on her own, university courses, friendships new and old, first love, and escalating political turmoil. Though the novel is loosely set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ms. Shin makes clear in her author’s note that she deliberately did not assign specific dates to the work:

[. . . ] I believe that what happens to the characters in I’ll Be Right There is in no way limited to South Korea. Everything that happens in this novel could happen in any country and in any generation. I believe that no matter how rough the world becomes, there will always be teachers and students learning from each other, and even when savage and violent powers obstruct our freedoms, there will always be earnest and heartfelt first loves and friendships being born. While writing, I was focused on and absorbed in giving expression to those moments. I believe those are the moments that define our lives. We may be the protagonists of tragedy, but we are also the heroes of our most beautiful and thrilling experiences. (324)

I loved Yoon’s thoughtful, melancholy voice from the beginning of the novel, and her three friends — Miru, lost without her absent sister; Myungsah, wavering between protest and study, and Yoon’s first love; and Dahn, Yoon’s childhood friend who abandons art for the army — are beautifully delineated through Yoon’s memories, as well as letters and diary entries.

A show-stopping passage in which Yoon’s favorite professor tells a version of the St. Christopher tale, about fifty pages into the novel, makes I’ll Be Right There a must-read; it resonates through the rest of the novel, to the very end. Like the professor’s story, I’ll Be Right There is about how we manage adversity and grief in all its forms. Delicately conveyed and beautifully human, it’s highly recommended reading.

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

“El amor como la resina”: Pablo Neruda’s “Física”

Well, it’s the end of February, which means this is the last entry in my series of sexy poems by photo (56)dead poets. It’s been fun — let me know in the comments if you think I should try this again next February, or something different?

Neruda is over-anthologized when it comes to love poems, but here’s one that’s less well known. I cannot find the full text of this poem anywhere online, so here it is in the original Spanish, with my (very humble) translation following.


El amor como la resina
de un árbol colmado de sangre
cuelga su extraño olor a germen
del embeleso natural:
entra el mar en el extremismo
o la noche devoradora
se desploma el alma en ti mismo,
suenan dos campanas de hueso
y no sucede sino el peso
de tu cuerpo otra vez vacío.


Love, like the resin
of a tree, overflowing with blood
suspends its strange scent over the bud
of spontaneous ecstasy:
the sea enters us in the last extremity,
or the devouring night
collapses your soul into itself,
two bells of bone ring out,
and nothing follows except the weight
of your body, hollow again.

“Like an ermine mantle tossed over someone’s shoulder”

This week, I’m departing from Shakespeare only to find him again in a short poem, “While Reading Hamlet” (1909), by Anna Akhmatova, the foremost Russian poet of the twentieth century. She’s perhaps best known for her long cycle Requiem, an outcry against Stalinist oppression, which claimed the lives of two of her three husbands.

This little poem is much lighter in tone, though the menace of the cemetery lingers. I wrestle with reading poems in translation, because to me it tends to feel almost like voyeurism, peeking in at something I don’t really have the right to know about or understand. No-one can speak all languages, though, polyglots notwithstanding, and so I must resign myself to translation if I want to read Milosz or Szymborska or Rimbaud or the great Anna Akhmatova.

I’m reading from my copy of the Norton edition of Akhmatova’s poems translated by Lyn Coffin; you can find it here.

“Dios padre sus miles de mundos / mece sin ruido” // ” God the father his thousands of worlds / rocks without sound”

Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, so you’d think her poems would be easy to find, since, you, know, she’s pretty darn awesome.

Not so.

I comb bookshelves on a fairly regular basis, and in, say, the ten years that I’ve been on the lookout for one of her books, I’ve never found one.

But the interwebs is a blessing, despite its many flaws, and on I found a true gem: a third printing of a 1957 volume of Mistral’s poetry translated by Langston Hughes. THE Langston Hughes. Doubly awesome.

The book’s shortcoming is that it doesn’t include the poems in the original Spanish, but after ten years, I’ll take it. Of course, those ten years took most of my fluency in Spanish with them, but c’est la vie. Sorry. Es la vida. If you’d like a side-by-side translation, you might check out Ursula K. LeGuin’s newer edition, also on Powell’s.

These past few weeks we’ve been watching our son make an speedy transition from babydom into boyhood, and I’m feeling a little nostalgic, so out of the many lovely poems in this volume, I’m learning “Cradle Song” or “Meciendo” in Spanish, which means “rocking.” It’s sweet without becoming treacly, and, as you’d expect, it’s quite rhythmic and repetitive. Underneath the poem runs a current of power and tragedy, which presages, I think, Mistral’s later, dark work. “Meciendo” comes from her early volume Desolacion.

I’m going to try to learn the poem in Spanish. As far as I can tell, Hughes’s translation is less literal than Le Guin’s, but each has its own advantages. I might try my own translation — I’ll post an update next week.

“wylde for to hold”

Who so list to hount, I knowe where is an hynde,
But as for me, helas, I may no more:
The vayne travaill hath weried so sore
I ame of theim that farthest commeth behinde.
Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
Drawe from the Diere: but as she fleeth afore,
Faynting I folowe. I leve of therefore,
Sins in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount, I put him owte of dowbte,
As well as I may spend his tyme in vain;
And, graven with Diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte:
Noli me tangere, for Caesars I ame;
And wylde for to hold, though I seme tame.

I first read Thomas Wyatt’s poetry in college, and had the singular, wonderful experience of listening to the mellifluous voice of my English-born Renaissance literature professor read this sonnet, a translation from Petrarch.  Wyatt (1503-1542) was rumored to be Anne Boleyn’s lover, though he managed to escape execution for the supposed offense, and often this poem is read as a wistful forgoing of her companionship.

The poem’s form never interferes with its meaning, and, I think, makes this one of the most pleasing sonnets to read aloud. I’ve reproduced it here with something close to its original spelling, and I’ve tried to make the punctuation as unobtrusive as possible (you’ll find different punctuation in almost every published version of the sonnet).

Something I noticed on this reading: At line 11, the speaker’s note that the “hynde” wears a diamond collar indicating Caesar’s ownership begins with “And” — it’s almost an afterthought. The exhausting chase makes the hunt impossible, not Caesar’s prior claim.