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?)

Last Week’s Reading: May 7-13

Each Leaf Shines Separate, by Rosanna Warren: This is Rosanna Warren’s first collection, and it’s lovely. Quite a few ekphrastic poems here, and they’re excellent. I also particularly liked the poems about snow (“I had not yet / entered that white.”), and those about motherhood, near the end of the book. If you like lyric poetry, there’s much to enjoy here.

The Ink Dark Moon, by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, translated by Jane Hirshfeld with Mariko Aratani : These are beautiful, spare poems by poets who lived a thousand years ago in the Heian court of imperial Japan. The poems, infused with the sense of life’s ephemeral nature, are both private and public; some intimate, some focused on deeply personal spirituality. Grief and love are amply represented. I appreciated the introduction and notes to the poems, and I’m so grateful for translators like Ms. Hirshfeld and Ms. Aratani! This is a compelling collection, and highly recommended.

The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard: My uncle and aunt visited us last week, which was delightful, and my uncle brought three books on writing with him, which was very kind. Of course, reading Annie Dillard–the fiery prose, the crisp, surprising sentences, the assured pronouncements–made me feel that my own writing is a hopeless mess, but it gives me something to strive for. Ms. Dillard’s writing life is (alas? fortunately?) not my own writing life, but I’m so glad to have been immersed in it for a little while.

“to paper my wall with rejection slips”: W.S. Merwin’s “Berryman”

Photo by Viktor Jakovlev via Unsplash

Photo by Viktor Jakovlev via Unsplash

I don’t write much about my non-blog, non-job-related writing for a variety of reasons. One is that there’s precious little time for that writing, so writing about it seems like a waste of that time. Another is that I get a great many rejections. Six in a week? Been there.Three in one day? Yep. Two rejections (from different magazines) in two minutes? Yes, it’s possible.

This is, as you might suspect, discouraging.

Plenty of articles, lists, and even whole magazines are dedicated to encouraging and advising writers, both new and seasoned, in the face of almost certain rejection. I sample these prescriptions for perseverance occasionally, but the best I have ever found is a poem (surprise? probably not).

In “Berryman,” poet W. S. Merwin (he’s prolific, but most likely you’ve encountered his translations of Neruda) describes the advice John Berryman (most famous for The Dream Songs) gave him as a young writer. I love the whole poem, but especially these lines:

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
and the closing two stanzas:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

And there you have it.

A Small Confession

Dear Readers, I hope you will not mind a post of a slightly different sort. I have a small confession to make: I’m a closet writer.

Sure, I write as part of my job, and of course I write about books here. But I also steal a little time, here and there, to write fiction and poetry. It’s slow going, so I’m pleased as punch to say that I’ve got a very short (really, as in 500 or so words) story in the latest issue of Midway Journal. You can read it here, if you’re so inclined, along with the work of writers whose company I’m very proud to be in.

Thank you for indulging this shameless self-promotion. Back to regularly scheduled programming next week.

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An Interview with Alexi Zentner, Author of The Lobster Kings

On Monday, I reviewed Mr. Zentner’s new novel, The Lobster Kings. Mr. Zentner graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of The Lobster Kings? What was the writing process like?

Alexi Zentner  Author Photo (c) Laurie Willick

Alexi Zentner
Author Photo (c) Laurie Willick

AZ: The day after I sold my first novel, Touch, in 2009, I drove out to Wyoming to spend a month at a writing residency, and that’s where I started writing The Lobster Kings. I’d been planning the novel for a while, however. I tend to brood on a story for months or years, until I’m ready to write it, but starting it in rural Wyoming was a bit odd, because so much of the inception of the novel came from the landscape down east. I was struck by the rugged beauty of the coast, and wanted to, at least partially, capture that. But a lot of the struggle of writing the book came from understanding who Cordelia was and capturing her voice, and once I had that a lot of the rest of the book followed.

The novel is inspired by King Lear, and in it myth and realism are tangled together. Did other contemporary retellings of folktales and fairy stories inform your writing? Do you have any favorite contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare?

AZThe Lobster Kings mixes common myths, like that of the selkie, with myths that are particular to Loosewood Island, where the novel is set, and while I used King Lear as a jumping off point, the novel is very much its own thing. It’s a riff on Lear rather than a retelling; I was more interested in the question of what does it mean for Cordelia to inherit the island than the question of what it means for the father to give it away. I’m fascinated by the way that certain aspects of folktales and fairy stories get tangled up in contemporary stories, and I’m more preoccupied with how to move those stories forward than how to retell them. And there are so many contemporary versions of Shakespearean plays – we see them in the movies, television, books. The Disney movie, The Lion King, is a version of Hamlet, and the television show, House of Cards, borrows from Macbeth.

Did you conduct research for The Lobster Kings? If so, how did you go about it?

photo (5)AZ: My goal as a fiction writer is to do as little research as possible. What I mean by that, is that I need to do enough research to make it feel real, without doing so much research that I end up writing some sort of a book report. I spent a fair amount of time in the area, talked to lobstermen, and did my research. But part of the reason I set it on Loosewood Island, which is fictional, is that I wasn’t trying to hold up a mirror to the life of a lobsterman. Fiction isn’t about the facts so much as it is about the truth, and I wanted to give a person, a family, an island, that felt real, and to do that, I had to base it in the truth but also imagine it fully.

The Lobster Kings is set about ten years ago; why did you choose a setting in the recent past?

AZ: I’m a big believer in the idea that it is easier to see where you were more clearly than where you are. I wanted to write a contemporary novel, one that deals with the questions we are dealing with now, but setting it just a few years ago – it’s set in 2005, and it was 2009 when I started writing it – gave me enough distance that I was able to capture some of the larger questions of the novel. I think if I’d set it right now, I would have missed some of those things. We often realize only later what was the important issue of the day.

The novel tackles weighty subjects — the pull of history (personal and otherwise), sibling rivalry, the incursion of meth into vulnerable communities, attitudes toward aging and work, just to name a few — but does so with a kick of humor. How did you find that balance?

AZ: So much of the humor comes from Cordelia herself. She’s tough and determined and can hold her own, but she’s also her father’s daughter, and her father – as traditional as he was in so many ways – was a bit of an odd duck. I think, for Cordelia, who is a woman in a job that has traditionally been a man’s, she’s had to have a slightly different way of looking at things. She’s the engine that drives the story, and though a lot of tough things happen, she’s not the kind of person for whom that can dampen things.

What kinds of projects are you working on now?

AZ:  I’m working on a story collection and a pair of novels. One of the novels is probably more in the literary vein, while the other is, I think, more toward the mainstream. The mainstream one is pretty scary. But it’s fun.

My thanks again to Mr. Zentner for his time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about The Lobster Kings and Alexi Zentner’s work at


An Interview with Rachel Pastan, Author of Alena

Yesterday I reviewed Alena, Rachel Pastan’s latest novel. Ms. Pastan graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the novel and her writing. 

Rachel Pastan  (c) Carina Romano

Rachel Pastan
(c) Carina Romano

When and how did you conceive of writing a book that responds to Rebecca? Was the writing process long?

RP: I had taken a nine-to-five office job—a different kind of job than I’d ever had before. The woman who’d worked there before me, Elysa, had left months before, so I didn’t have anyone to train to me, and I kept making mistakes. People would say, “Elysa used to do it this way.” I felt inadequate, and a little in awe of this unknown Elysa. And then I thought: It’s just like Rebecca, only in the workplace! And then I thought: That’s a good idea for a novel. I wasn’t able to start writing it for a while, but once I did, it went quickly. It took me only about eighteen months to finish a draft.

Much of Alena‘s action takes place on Cape Cod. Was there a particular reason (or reasons) for this choice? 

RP: My family used to spend a month in Cape Cod every summer when I was little, and the landscape has always stayed with me. For years I used to have dreams about the ocean there. Rebecca takes place on a coast—probably of Cornwall. The atmosphere of Cape Cod seemed like a good parallel to me, and I was happy to revisit its beaches in my imagination.

Was it challenging to avoid giving the narrator a name?

RP: Actually I gave her a name while I was writing—I figured I just wouldn’t be faithful to that part of Rebecca. But afterwards I saw I could take the name out. Du Maurier had a few advantages; people could call her narrator “Mrs. de Winter.” After I took out the name, I did go back and make one of the characters call my narrator Cara—Italian for “darling.” That helped.

AlenaHow did you go about learning about contemporary art, which is so critical to Alena? Did you discover a favorite contemporary artist along the way?

RP: For last few years I have worked at the ICA—the Institute of Contemporary Art—in Philadelphia, writing and editing. This has been a fabulous immersion course in contemporary art. I don’t have a favorite contemporary artist—any more than I have a favorite contemporary writer—but the discovery of Anne Truitt was a wonderful and memorable moment. She made very simple, tall sculptures that are somehow incredibly moving and evocative. She wrote a terrific memoir, too, called Daybook, The Journal of an Artist, which talks about her struggles in her work, and with trying to combine work and family life.

Which writers do you read while you’re writing, if any? Do they change from book to book?

RP: I often read a little every morning before I start working, a few pages by someone whose sentences I love. Alice Munro is a favorite, as is Margaret Drabble. Other than that, I might read books that address a subject I’m writing about to see how other people handle it. When I was writing Alena I read a bunch of novels that deal with contemporary art in one way or another: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham and “A Thing of Beauty” by Steve Martin were a couple.

What kinds of projects are you planning next?

RP: I have a very different project in mind: a novel based on the life of a real person, which is something I’ve never done before. It’s exciting—and daunting—to think about how to shape a real life into a compelling narrative.

Many thanks to Ms. Pastan for her time and thoughtful answers!

November News

Winner-180x180Hiya folks. This November, I’m going to act like a crazy person and do NaNoWriMo again. Let me know if you’re on board too, and then we can commiserate about word counts like a couple of college sophomores during finals week.

I have the usual array of posts stacked up for the month, but I’ll be a bit slower on the uptake with comments and reading your lovely blogs, so please do forgive.

Also, if anyone has a spare plot lying around . . . ?


Notes and Asides