Last Week’s Reading: January 29-February 4


The Constitution of the United States: It seemed like a good time to give this a thorough re-read. Highly recommended.

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories, by A. S. Byatt: After I read Possession, I started scooping up Byatt books whenever I ran across one, which is how this one has been on my shelves for two or three years. The first two fairy stories are pulled from Possession, but I was happy to revisit them. “Dragons’ Breath” is a political allegory that I found very uncomfortable to read in the current climate. “The Story of the Eldest Princess” is now in my pantheon of great fairy tales. And the title story–which, at well over 100 pages, is really more a novella–is exactly what I needed: a consuming, sumptuous tale of a strange creature trapped in a bottle, and the scholar who sets him free. A.S. Byatt’s writing is brilliant, in all senses—had her intellect been applied in a different direction, I’m suspect humanity would have colonized Mars or cured cancer decades ago.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, by Warsan Shire: Ms. Shire rose to prominence last year when her work was featured in Beyoncé’s Lemonade (and, in a nice piece of coincidence for this post, it turns out that Ms. Shire wrote a poem for Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement) Her poem “Home” has also been widely shared, and I suspect, given the events of the last ten days, that it will be making the rounds again soon. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is a chapbook-length collection of bruising poems about trauma, sensuality, exile and home, and women’s lives. Recommended. (You can find an earlier post about Warsan Shire here.)

The White Castle, by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Victoria Holbrook): I wanted to love this early novel by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, since his My Name is Red is one of my favorite books, but alas, it was not to be. The premise–in the seventeenth century, a young Italian scholar is taken captive by the Turks and given over to a master who looks exactly like him—is interesting, the writing lovely, the ending masterful. The frame narrative and unreliable narrator are two of my favorite devices and employed remarkably well here, but for me the weight of the psychodrama pulled down the middle, and I found myself wishing the novel were over sooner. Ah well.

Holding Company, by Major Jackson: This 2010 book is the first of Major Jackson’s collections I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. The poems in this collection are ten lines each (with one exception, I think), but there’s such variety among them! Allusive and elusive, lyrical and abstract, personal-political, descriptive: these poems are challenging and a pleasure to read. I’ll be coming back to them.

The Poetry Concierge Recommends: Warsan Shire

PoetryConcierge[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, my first recommendation here, the reboot here, and then email me at: rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.]

This week, our pilgrim in search of poetry is Emily, who writes at The Bookshelf of Emily J.

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

Joyce Carol Oates or John Steinbeck

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

I love cultural history. I just finished The Warmth of Other Suns about the great migration of African Americans from the south to other parts of the country. I learned so much and realized how much more we have left to do in terms of racial equality and acceptance.

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

I would bring Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

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

Oh wow. Maybe five books from Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series because they always make me laugh.

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?)

My future and where academia will take me. I also get worried about issues with my kids. Sometimes nerves keep me up the day before a big presentation or a first day of teaching.

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

I love William Wordsworth and William Blake. I had the opportunity to take a class on British lit as an undergrad, which included poetry, from Leslie Norris, a famed Welsh poet himself.


Well, for a while there I was stumped. Who to recommend? Elizabeth Barrett Browning (whose lifetime overlapped with Wordsworth’s, and whose poetry took on social issues of the day)? Emily’s favored Joyce Carol Oates, who is not only a prolific novelist, but also a poet? Langston Hughes (a contemporary of Steinbeck’s, and of course one of the great American poets)?

Possibilities abounded.

And then I watched Lemonade, the Beyonce visual album that came out this past weekend. The whole piece is utterly absorbing, but I found the poetry between songs most arresting of all. The poet is Warsan Shire, a British poet (she was born in Kenya and her parents are Somali) who earned fame with her 2011 short collection Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. In late 2015 she was profiled in the New Yorker; Alexis Okeowo wrote of her first collection, “It’s a first-generation woman always looking backward and forward at the same time, acknowledging that to move through life without being haunted by the past lives of your forebears is impossible.” You can read a bit more about Warsan Shire here. 

Her poem “Home” was quoted in the New York Times, and by Benedict Cumberbatch in his impassioned plea for aid to refugees after the curtain call for Hamlet (I saw the NT live production in the movie theater). You can read the poem here. 

I think, given Emily’s interest in social issues and the movement of people and cultural history (Steinbeck, The Warmth of Other Suns) that Ms. Shire’s work, which deals with immigration, diaspora, family history, belonging, violence, and womanhood, will be appealing, and still a change of pace. While you can find a few of her poems online—they tend to be widely shared—you should be able to find Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth in your library or in bookstores, and look out for her first full-length collection to appear late this year.

P.S. For those nerves, I recommend Hazel Hall’s “Before Quiet.” And if you’re looking for even more poetry of social engagement, you might want to check out the Split This Rock festival.



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.