Standout Reads 2016

Late again… But you were probably needing some books to read this summer. In case you’re bored, here’s the best of what I read last year:

Fiction

The Sport of Kings, CE Morgan. Ha. After the exquisite gem of Morgan’s first novel, what did her readers expect? It’s always difficult to come out with the career-defining second book. Will it meet expectations? Be too ambitious and fail? Be more of the same and therefore be boring? Ha, again. Morgan goes for it and writes an old-fashioned but updated Great American Novel that draws from but transcends Faulkner and the rest. Ballsy. She pulls it off and then some.

Power, Linda Hogan. A native American girls and the woman she adores come of age through terrible tradeoffs? What is power? Authenticity? Extinction? What IS an endangered species?

Any Deadly Thing, Roy Kesey. Stories. I’ve said before this guy should be the literary toast of the country. Make it so.

The Door, Magda Szabo. Atmospheric, oblique narration, post-War Eastern Europe. What’s not to brood over here?

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen. One view of the other side of the Vietnam war.

Wolfhound Century; Truth and Fear; and Radiant State. Trilogy by Peter Higgins. Intriguing and beautifully written triller/fantasy/alt-history/steam-punk mashup based on Soviet Russia.

The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra. The guy who brought you A Constellation of Vital Phenomena returns with this more authentic-feeling story collection exploring different dimensions of post-Soviet society.

Fives and Twenty-fives, Michael Pitre. The strongest of the Iraq or Afghanistan war novels I’ve read so far.

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton. If it weren’t for the horses and the dresses, she could have been writing about us, right now, today.

A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay. Tremblay is a pretty exciting writing to come along lately and bust up some genres.

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, Paul Tremblay. See above, though while A Head Full of Ghosts is more meant to be horror, only is it, Disappearance is more literary, or is it horror?

The Night Guest, Fiona MacFarlane. Eventually we will all be trapped in webs spun by our night guests, and we will invite those guests in to spin those webs. How this happens to the elderly character in this novel is a tale told with beauty and wisdom by this younger writer.

Eleven Hours, Pamela Erens. What could be more dilated, more engrossing, more internally focused than the last few hours in which we are creating and bringing forth an entire life? Talk about poetics…

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. This is so often mentioned that I might have skipped it, but I can’t stop thinking about it a year later, so here it is.

 

Nonfiction

Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone, Scott Shane. Everyone should read this, or you should, if you want to understand the drone program and what’s behind today’s headlines. Also how we got to be a country that executes citizens without trial.

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Michael Snyder. This is a Big Think about the Holocaust that many may not be ready for. That is, a lot of what you learned in school is not true, or not true exactly. Most of the Jews were not killed in Germany, and were not killed by Germans. The Holocaust mostly took place in Eastern Europe or in the Ukraine, in what Snyder calls the “homeland” of European Jews, given that they’d been living there in many cases for over 2000 years. Most of the murders happened by bullet, not gas, which was a last resort at the very end of the war. This is not to excuse any of it, but to look at the conditions under which this was allowed and encouraged to occur, and the failure of the states leading to the collapse of the political rights they’d backed that then allowed such chaos and hatred to flourish where for a time in many cases there had been some form of balance, however uneasy. The upshot: it is statehood and citizenship that protects minorities. Where Jews maintained citizenship, such as in Denmark or Sweden, they were not surrendered (refugees, lacking documentation, were). When Austria and other East European countries lost independent statehood, they had no power to protect the Jews. In Poland, the Ukraine, and the other Soviet republics where statehood had long been disputed, Jews and other ethnic groups simply went under the wheel. It was Hitler’s long-term goal to remove everyone, including all the Slavs. In fact, he was less interested in the Jews than in killing off the Slavs. The original plan had been to liquidate the Slavs while sending the Jews to Siberia. It was only when the Slavs began killing the Jews on their own that Hitler & Co seized the opportunity, Snyder argues. But these are tech-weenies. The target was the black earth of the Ukraine, and Germany’s control of it and resettlement there.

I’m simplifying a good deal.

 

 

 

Standout Reads 2015

Finally! Just squeaking by before the end of the first quarter… here’s my list of the best books I came across LAST year. As always, this list has nothing to do with release dates. Honestly, I was a little disappointed with what I read in 2015. I pulled in a couple from 2014, because there were SO MANY I loved from that year I couldn’t fit them all in. The good news is that 2016 is already looking great.

I’ll start with my top pick; after that, totally random order.

FICTION


A
Little Life, Hanya Yanigahara. I won’t say I enjoyed it, but it was the most thought-a little lifeprovoking, chewy novel I read all year. I’m still thinking about it. I’ll think about it forever I bet. Like those great books we read in high school. One of which was…

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy. I read this twice and it bummed m
e out totally both times while feeling absolutely true. I swore I’d never read it again, but after reading A Little Life, I felt I had to revisit it. Yanagihara never says anywhere that she was writing judein counterpoint to Hardy, and neither do any of the reviewers I read, but it seems obvious to me.

The Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante. There are four. Read them in order, starting with My Brilliant Friend. Weep because they are so good, so right, so rightly done, and how did she do it?

Nora Webster, Colm Toibin. Another novel looking at a woman in a small impoverished community, in a country where women’s lives are tightly controlled by said community and by Catholicism, and where poverty is also strictly enforced by social mores. Yet, the narrative is handled very differently. Beautiful book.

Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. Perhaps not as polished as some of Haruf’s other books, but it was his last, and I figure he ran out of time. Much to think about here, and to be moved by, as is usual with Haruf. With this story, I found myself considering how wrapped uwatsonp with their own lives adults become, how insensitive to the needs of their children and parents, how insensate to the fact that their children and parents HAVE interior lives.

Let Him Go, Larry Watson. If you’re missing Kent Haruf, go read Watson.


The Blazing World
, Siri Hutsvedt. Can never go wrong with Hutsvedt. She blazingworldshould win everything. An outsized, unfashionable, and rather shrill woman, gifted as an artist, but overshadowed by her art-critic husband, may have gone a little crazy by the way she’s been marginalized, and by
the way her work has been stolen (at first with her blessing as part of her performance art, as part of her POINT about the way women artists are not taken seriously, but later, actually stolen), but then again maybe not, as her final work unequivocally shows her genius.

dark room


The Dark Room
, Rachel Seiffert. Three ways of looking at the Holocaust from the POVs of ordinary Germans, including leading up to it, during the war, and from long after. The middle novella was made into the Canadian movie Lore, also worth watching.

Day of the Oprichnik, Victor Sorokin. A Russian writer has recently made a list: the 10 best books for understanding contemporary Russia. This little oprichnikhorror of a novel, though set in the not-so-distant future, should have been on it.

Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner. First novels have become so workshopped and polished these days. Here is one that may have serious flaws but that also pays off big. This novel takes huge risks. It’s vivid and daring—well worth the read.

gardenSomeone Else’s Garden, Dipika Rai. Stands out among Indian novels for its emphasis on lower-caste women. Beautifully written.

Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum. I didn’t actually rate this novel very highly on Goodreads, but it still stands out for certain reasons. The question of mental health vs. personality disorders for one thing. What the hell was WRONG with that woman?

Girl girlwarat War, by Sara Novic. Another very interesting first novel. This book came under fire for getting some of the details wrong about what may have happened in Zagreb, but I maintain it stays true to what a 10-year-old girl may have remembered. The war in the title stands for a lot of different struggles, both external and internal. Perhaps the ending was a bit too clean, but the book stays with me, and that’s what I look for.

einsteinEinstein’s Beach House, Jacob Appel. It’s hard for a short story collection to make this list, because often some stories really rock and others seem just blah, but this collection shone all the way through. Appel is one of those writers who has published hundreds of stories and won dozens of prizes but only recently has begun seeing his books published. I hope he soon gets the broader recognition he deserves.

NONFICTION

Men We Reaped, Jessmyn Ward. A grief memoir, as Ward gives us the backstory of the young men she grew up with, including a brother, who died violently in her neighborhood, sometimes as a result of their own misdeeds, or just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Structural poverty is the main culprit.

Madam Secretary, Madeleine Albright. No matter what quote you think you’ve heard and why you believe you hate her, you should still read this book. You should read all the books by the secretaries of state. It’s no easy job, and maybe you’ll find out about the deals and the trades and why it’s impossible not zealotto do some harm in this role, and maybe you’ll stop armchair quarterbacking.

Zealot, Reza Aslan. Makes a good case that Jesus was crusader who wanted all non-
Jews out of Israel. That is, he may have been the Jewish equivalent of a jihadist.

The Beast in the Garden, David Baron. How mountain lions changed their ways and came to threaten suburban beastcommunities. Reads like a thriller.

Worlds of Arthur, Guy Halsall. While it’s extremely unlikely that there was ever a King Arthur, here’s a great window into the era in which he would have lived, if he had. (And there are a few assumptions Halsall dismisses out of hand that I’m not sure he should, so maybe there’s a teeny bit of hope, still, though not for a King.)

arthurPOETRY

Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey. What I admire about Trethewey is the precise way she combines the narrative and the lyric… a good chunk of this collection looks at a company of black soldiers who held an island off Louisiana for the North during the Civil War. Trethewey was recently the U.S. Poet Laureate.

Nox, Anne Carson. Designed like a scrapbook, the  book” emphasizes the hopeless nature of trying to reassemble our memory of a person who has committed suicide.

Hard Love Province, Marilyn Chin. This collection is also chasing something ephemeral, a “beautiful boyfriend” who has died.

Many Parishes, Adrian Koesters. One of the best collections I’ve read in years, this debut approaches childhood abuse, sequesterdom (is that a word?), deep religious inquiry, and spiritual emergence with fortitude and tenderness.

JOURNALS

Once in a while I come across journals that I actually read from cover to cover, so I go ahead and recommend them (on top of other journals I’ve mentioned in past years, and my standards, such as Beloit Poetry Journal, The American Poetry Review, Tin House, and that lot):

bosque

Spillway

Tar River Poetry

Iron Horse Literary Review

Ploughshares Solos Omnibus 3

Standout Reads 2012

This year I had more time to read than usual and so I have a lot to say. Again, I’m listing the books that popped for me of those I read in 2012; they may or may not have been published in the last year. Also, as usual, I probably forgot to OneNote several striking books as the year unfolded; on the other hand, this post can’t go on forever.

 

Fiction

winter's boneWinter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. The movie mapped pretty closely to the book, but this is well worth reading for details and a kind of inner beauty no movie could capture. My sister, who has trouble believing in fiction, posted a request on Facebook for a list of books that were realistic. This book is full of characters we grew up with in New Hampshire, even if it’s set in the Ozarks. And I see them in meth-land a little west of me in Colorado, too. The main character Woodrell chooses to follow is the older sister in a family torn by drugs and mental illness. She’s the one, appearing in so many dysfunctional families, who holds it together. How she does so is poignantly drawn.

The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon. I’ve yet to find a piece of Hemon’s, shortlazarus or long, fiction or non-, that I haven’t loved. This novel takes us back to a time when the only desired immigrants in America were northern European ones, ideally speaking English, though German and Scandinavian Protestants were tolerated. Jews and those of Eastern European and Mediterranean descent were viewed as are many view Latino and Middle Eastern immigrants today. Good citizens were terrified of anarchists, and political cartoons often caricatured bearded men with bombs. Sound familiar? This wasn’t so long ago, round about 1900, 1910.

friend familyhottest dishesA Friend of the Family, Lauren Grodstein. Just a good, hypnotic read. Extremely well plotted, crafted, with a lot to think about in terms of motivation and psychology. Moves fast—an escape read with a literary level of characterization and writing.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, Alina Bronsky. Another fast-mover, psychologically taunting and haunting. Psychopathic narrator you can’t look away from, one of the worst mothers and grandmothers you’ve ever met. Also hilarious.

Little Children, Tom Perrotta. For some reason, this is the first Perrotta novel I’ve ever read, and I plan to read a lot more. I don’t typically like novels about suburbia, but this manages to dig so deeply into male/female roles and expectations in our society right now—his sense of how women view men, their disappointments and desires is so dead on. And his explication of the confusion some men feel about the redefinition of their roles his interesting too.

engineerThe Engineer of Human Souls, Josef Skvorecky. Stalin gave himself this title, and Skvorecky, an exiled Czech writer, appropriated it for his grimly humorous novel. One takeaway: rednecks are everywhere, and Hitler and Stalin took advantage of the ignorance of the peasantry. It wouldn’t take much in our country, either.

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides. Nothing original in recommending this one. I’m not sure why, of the three smart kids at Brown who make up the main characters, it’s the girl who is the lesser light and the boys who are the geniuses, but let’s let that slide. I also would have liked more discussion of the marriage plot itself—i.e., what Madeleine was actually arguing in her paper. It seems odd to me that this wasn’t directly discussed. However, the insight into Leonard’s bipolar disease is exquisite, and not adequately credited, IMO, among reviewers. I found the book engrossing overall and stayed up late reading it.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Again, a first for me from an accomplished author. Mitchell’s books are said to be so diverse I wasn’t sure where to start, but with the movie coming out I decided to read this one. I thought the book was strong for the first third or so, but I wasn’t sure why he was considered to be SO great. Until about halfway through the book. Then I realized I was in the hands of a genius. So hang in there; it’s well worth it. There’s a pivot point after which you are not coming back.

The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers. Yes, there were places where I thought he should have let a metaphor stand and not explained it. It’s still a powerful book. I hope there are more to come, both from this author and from other writers with something to say about Iraq and Afghanistan.

Canada, Richard Ford. Another strong book by one of my favorite writers. Reviewer Ron Charles said he thought this one should have won either the NBA or the Pulitzer, I forget which, and I agree, whichever it was. A few annoying quirks, but overall an engrossing book.

The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver. I’d been putting this off for yearspost birthday because I didn’t think it could measure up to We Need to Talk About Kevin. It probably doesn’t, but it’s still a complex, fascinating book. What Shriver does well is put you inside the heads of women you don’t really like being inside the heads of, and yet they are very interesting heads to be in.

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes. I didn’t find this book as confusing as many people seemed to. Like The Marriage Plot, it’s a reexamination of a collegiate triangle that included at least one unbalanced person. The narrator isn’t reliable, but he’s aware of this fact and trying to face up to it. I hardly think it’s worth mentioning that a narrator is unreliable anyway. Isn’t that something postmodernism established? Isn’t that irrefutable? I don’t think we can ever return to the concept of a reliable storyteller. Anyone who thinks they know the whole story is either deluded or lying. Anyone who believes them is either naïve or an idiot. That goes for movies and news stories and presidential speeches and everything.

 

Non-Fiction

Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. This speaks to what I just said about the Barnes book. An essay by D’Agata, which appeared in McSweeney’s (I think, or else The Believer), surrounded by arguments between the author and his fact-checker. Since the essay is a work of creative non-fiction, sometimes you agree with the author that the fact-checker is being a bit ridiculous about every little thing. On the other hand, is it really a matter of the rhythm of the sentence whether a town has twenty or twenty-one bars? (I don’t remember if this was an exact item of dispute, but it was something like this.) It seems to me that creative non-fiction shouldn’t stretch matters of actual fact, or should stop and discuss it, reflexively, when it does. Or, as in gonzo journalism, it should just be clear from the nature of the piece that it’s totally out of bounds from the start. The point is not that you tell the truth or don’t, or that there is no truth (I actually think there is, but that it’s hard to know all of it), but that you discuss what you do and do not know. And THEN—it turns out that Fingal and D’Agata ramped up their original argument, or so I read somewhere, in order to make this book more “interesting.” So it too is a bunch of bullshit. If you’re interested in matters of this sort, this book is worth reading on a number of levels, and with lots of salt. I’ve got Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point on my shelf, as it seems to be a similar exploration, only a lot more personal and more honest. But I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t recommend it.

legacyLegacy of Conquest, Patricia Nelson Limerick. I’m way late to the party with this one. Limerick got a MacArthur award partly on the strength of this work. A revisionist look at the history of the American West that’s now foundational. And anything but reductionist. In a different way, it’s also a meditation on truth and how we access it.

The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon. Who wouldn’t kill for this title? If I recall correctly (read this early in the year) it comes from one of the Desert Fathers, trying to manage despair while meditating in the wilderness in the early days of Christianity. About as comprehensive, compassionate, and personal a look at depression as you can hope to find.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, DT Max. Another unbeatable title—came love storyfrom the subject’s, David Foster Wallace’s work. I’m sure this is the first of many biographies of Wallace, but it’s a hell of a start.

line breakLine Break: Poetry as Social Practice, James Scully. Maybe if you grow up with a poet in your family you don’t get around to reading enough of his work. For some reason I just read this book this year and found it riveting. Also helpful, especially the title essay, which is about shaking up poetry in form as well as function. Like Adrienne Rich and others, Scully argues that poetry ought to be a form of activism. His life and writing have often mirrored that belief.

Into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginsberg. One of the finer accounts of life in the maelstrom of the Stalin purges. Ended in a weird place. I just learned there’s a sequel, which I intend to read soon. I’m dark that way.

A God in the House, Poets Talk About Faith, Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler. I wound up giving this book as a gift quite frequently in the past year. Kaminsky and Towler interviewed a diverse group of renowned poets. Not all of them specifically believe in God or in a monotheistic God/Western God. Each segment ends with a poem on the subject of faith or the search for faith. It’s a powerful book; not predictable or schmaltzy.

Poetry

Every Riven Thing, Christian Wiman. There are some pieces in this book that make you think, okay, this guy (the editor of Poetry magazine) doesn’t need to write another thing if he doesn’t want to.

Nightworks, Marvin Bell. This was a re-read. But it’s amazing to look through a collection that spans a lot of an author’s career and think, wow. What strength, going all the way back to the beginning.

Angel in Flames, James Scully. What I just said, though not a re-read—this collection representing a lifetime of work and translation came out recently. As a young poet, Scully won the Lamont Award. He taught at the University of Connecticut. He was invited to come to Chile by President Allende. When Allende was deposed in a coup, Scully and his young family went anyway, working to assist guerillas who opposed the brutal (and US-supported) dictator Pinochet. There’s an underground worldliness to Scully’s work that a lot of US poetry just doesn’t have.

Plume, Kathleen Flenniken. This book is thematically integrated based on the author’s experience growing up in a community where everyone worked at a nuclear plant and then becoming a scientist working at the Hanford nuclear plant herself.

Riven      Angel in Flames Selected Poems & Translations 1967-2011     Plume

Advice from a Master

Some years ago I took a master class with the poet Marvin Bell. I’d beennightworks galvanized by an interview I read in American Poetry Review. The interview (not linked) was accompanied by a selection of Bell’s Resurrected Dead Man poems. I was only starting to take myself seriously as a poet—i.e., to give myself permission to call myself one. Many people who write fiction regard poetry as something sacred that they have either failed at or “could never do.” And it’s often the case that a poet has tried to write fiction and was told by some teacher that he or she sucked at it, and wound up writing poetry instead.

And some poets and teachers of poetry have strong feelings about the division of art forms. Bell himself has said that writers of prose and poetry do very different things. Novelists must put stuff in, while poets leave things out.

Yet, here I was, writing stories and piling up pages that I thought might one day turn out to be novels. And here were these poems, or things that might be worked into poems, dropping into the various piles on my desk. Was I supposed to cut them up and flush them down the toilet like unwanted children? Bury them in the backyard in the dark of the moon?

I didn’t think so.

deadmanI found the Dead Man poems and their sequels so exciting because of the way they related to sentences. Every line was a sentence, and every sentence was a line. The narrative drive, the energy gripped me—I paced, I talked to myself on walks in the woods—and yet many of the poems talked about the end of things, they discussed what happened when you emptied (after considerable agony) the possibilities.

An MFA was logistically and financially out of reach, so I promised myself I would take a workshop with Bell if I could find one. I did, at Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop.

Some key advice I encountered there, not included below: Examine the strength of the line. If you had to pull a line out of the poem, what would it sound like on its own? Sometimes you need a crappy line just to get to the next one, and sometimes bad sections help the great ones stand out, IMO—a too-polished workshop piece can sometimes be bland. But on the other hand what good are lines like these:

 

or were

 

is to see

 

over and of

 

All from a recent collection of a highly respected American poet (the collection also contains work so stunning I don’t care if he never writes another poem).

Anyway, Bell recently sent me a list of 32 points of advice he likes to give to writers. He says he was asked to write an essay, but he was too lazy and came up with this list instead. I was going to write a blog on an entirely different topic, but I was too lazy. So I’ll post this list instead, with his permission. I may not agree with every point, but this guy has been at this for a long time and has work to his name that I look to again and again. Here’s the core of his philosophy about writing.

 

32 Statements About Writing Poetry

(Work-in-Progress)

1. Every poet is an experimentalist.

2. Learning to write is a simple process: read something, then write something; read something else, then write something else. And show in your writing what you have read.

3. There is no one way to write and no right way to write.

4. The good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff.

5. Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.

6. You do not learn from work like yours as much as you learn from work unlike yours.

7. Originality is a new amalgam of influences.

8. Try to write poems at least one person in the room will hate.

9. The I in the poem is not you but someone who knows a lot about you.

10. Autobiography rots. The life ends, the vision remains.

11. A poem listens to itself as it goes.

12. It’s not what one begins with that matters; it’s the quality of attention paid to it thereafter.

13. Language is subjective and relative, but it also overlaps; get on with it.

14. Every free verse writer must reinvent free verse.

15. Prose is prose because of what it includes; poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.

16. A short poem need not be small.

17. Rhyme and meter, too, can be experimental.

18. Poetry has content but is not strictly about its contents. A poem containing a tree may not be about a tree.

19. You need nothing more to write poems than bits of string and thread and some dust from under the bed.

20. At heart, poetic beauty is tautological: it defines its terms and exhausts them.

21. The penalty for education is self-consciousness. But it is too late for ignorance.

22. What they say "there are no words for"–that’s what poetry is for. Poetry uses words to go beyond words.

23. One does not learn by having a teacher do the work.

24. The dictionary is beautiful; for some poets, it’s enough.

25. Writing poetry is its own reward and needs no certification. Poetry, like water, seeks its own level.

26. A finished poem is also the draft of a later poem.

27. A poet sees the differences between his or her poems but a reader sees the similarities.

28. Poetry is a manifestation of more important things. On the one hand, it’s poetry! On the other, it’s just poetry.

29. Viewed in perspective, Parnassus is a very short mountain.

30. A good workshop continually signals that we are all in this together, teacher too.

31. This Depression Era jingle could be about writing poetry:

Use it up / wear it out / make it do / or do without.

32. Art is a way of life, not a career.

– Marvin Bell

 

Used by permission.

Standout Reads of 2011

Once again these are the books that stood out for me among those I read this past year. They were not necessarily published in 2011; many of them appeared decades ago, in fact.

 

Fiction

  • Native, by William Haywood Henderson. Henderson’s gorgeous, delicate, but also ripping first novel explores some themes similar to those in “Brokeback Mountain.” This novel came out several years earlier. And it’s better, IMO. Not that there isn’t room for lots of this kind of thing in a big state like Wyoming. 
  • The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak. So many American novels are about personal anomie, with characters suffering from what the DSM-III used to call schizoid personality disorder. I’m left wondering, why should I care about characters who don’t care? This main character has every reason to be in this situation. He’s an immigrant three times over, having come to America, returned to Austria, and ultimately coming back to America. That is to say, he has no home. Yet, he fights for the Habsburgs in WWI, among so many tribal groups it’s hard to say why they’re fighting. It’s a time in history when close personal bonds are not always present. However, there is no narrative distance in this story. Great trick, Krivak.
  • City of Light, by Lauren Belfer. A little soapboxy, or a lot, at times, but so interesting in terms of the industrialization of electricity and the social movements it either spawned or was coincident with. Take a trip to Buffalo, which once, like Pittsburgh, had a shot at being one of the centers of wannabe old-money American society (ie, robber barons aping blue-bloods…the ridiculousness goes on and on, but it’s worth reading about). What keeps this book out of mere book club classification is Belfer’s refusal to give her heroine a neat ending. She doesn’t wind up unhappy, exactly, but it’s a tough time in history to be a woman and there’s no real way out of that.
  • Collected Stories of Frank O’Connor. Yeah, should have read these a long time ago. Thanks to author Thomas Powers for pointing this out after I mentioned a book of his in my blog last year.
  • Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner. I’ve read lots of Stegner’s longer works, but am only now working through the stories.
  • The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin. Actually I’m not sure I liked this one, but I recommend it so someone else will have suffered.
  • The Good Son, by Michael Gruber. I recommend anything by Gruber, no matter what’s wrong with it. His books are so interesting and engrossing that you come away satisfied even if the plot made no sense or the characters were slightly impossible. They’re supposed to be thrillers, but he takes his time building place and character, and it’s always worth it. His writing is pretty high-quality. Every once in a while, it’s as if he says to himself, oh, crap, I’m supposed to be writing a thriller, better stick in a sex scene on a kitchen counter. And so you have this awkward sex scene on a kitchen counter (nothing against kitchen sex, just awkward kitchen sex). In the end, though, you learn so much about whatever it is he’s writing about, plus the setting, that you don’t care. Okay, I don’t. The Good Son is about Afghanistan.
  • Sworn Before Cranes, by Merrill Gilfillan. I went back to this book after reading Great Plains (see below), to see if I liked it as much as I remembered. I had initially reviewed it for the Boulder Daily Camera backimage in the 90s. Yeah, baby, it’s still beautiful. This may be one of the most under-noted and –appreciated story collections of the last century. Maybe that’s because they’re almost more like long prose poems than stories. Today, this form would be welcomed, perhaps even elevated over a conventional story. But then it was fairly radical to call this a short story. James Galvin’s novel-or-whatever-it-was, The Meadow, was out, and people were excited, but they weren’t sure what to do. What I like about Sworn before Cranes is the way he’s unafraid to delight in what he sees down in the pockets and folds in the plains. He’s a magic man. Where Frazier is at pains to show the braided glory and seaminess surrounding Native Americans since the Conquest, Gilfillan as a poet and naturalists has interests in sound and imagery. It’s good to read them both in the same year.

Nonfiction

  • The Tiger, by John Vaillant. About a tiger who began stalking and killing some of the particular poachers who had wounded it. About Siberian Tigers in general. About Siberia. About the history of human-tiger interactions. About why poachers poach. About the few people in Russia who are trying to protect the environment and why. And about how not just dead tigers but also the whole Siberian ecosystem is getting smuggled to China and made into stuff we’re buying in Home Depot. With the personality and menace of This Particular Tiger on every page.
  • Great Plains, by Ian Frazier. I hadn’t got around to this for some reason. I remember Frazier sitting in the Boulder Book Store back when it was a one-storey, one-slot place. He wasn’t giving a reading, just sitting behind a table with his ponytail, waiting for people to ask him questions and ask him to sign his book. I didn’t know who he was, but I like guys with ponytails. I kind of felt sorry for him. I thought, Oh another guy who drove across the country and wrote a book about it. It’s a great book.
  • On the Rez, by Ian Frazier. Not sure who else could pull this off. At first you’re not sure who this book is about. Indians? Frazier? Frazier’s kids? The contents of his household? But Frazier is a good, entertaining writer and it’s no skin off your nose to keep reading, so do it. In the end it comes together with a big, WHOA, holy shit that was intense. Nose skinned.
  • The 4% Universe, by Richard Panek. It’s not even wrong, according to some reviews I read by math and physics majors! A user-friendly way to find out a little about dark matter by getting the dirt on how the scientists fought each other to discover it. I particularly liked learning about Vera Rubin, who did some of the important early calculations and pursued her Ph.D. (but not at Princeton, her first choice, because women were not admitted to the graduate school then) despite nursing four children. At one point concessions had to be made in a key telescope regarding the only bathroom…. For pete’s sake, as if we don’t all pee in one place inside our homes.
  • Murder in the High Himalaya, by Jonathan Green. Not the greatest writing but a gripping story. Tibet is the weirdest place to read about because you might as well be in the middle of the Lord of the Rings, the references are so medieval and mystical. At the heart of the book is a moral dilemma that should not have been one—a community of climbers witnessed Chinese border guards shoot unarmed refugees—mostly women and children. A 17-year-girl was killed. The event was filmed. The people who filmed it knew what to do—release it to the press. But most of the climbing community wanted to keep it under wraps so that they could stay on China’s good side and keep climbing in the area. The book digs into the story of the refugees, gives the official Chinese version, and explores the different climbers’ opinions. But overall you wind up thinking a lot about relative versus absolute morality. This isn’t even the Holocaust, where you might have to choose between your life and someone else’s, or between your child’s life and someone else’s. This is about whether you get a sponsorship for a being a jock.
  • Leaping Poetry, by Robert Bly. I saw this referenced in an interview with Bly in American Poetry Review and asked the library here at Phillips Exeter to get it. Bly argues, here and elsewhere, that American poetry has moved too far away from the great associative leaps that characterized romantic poetry as well as the work of many of the Spanish and South American poets, such as Lorca and Neruda. We’re too much stuck in our heads. He’s not arguing for the stream-of-consciousness stuff that we’re starting to see all over the place in MFA poetry now. Bigger leaps, more stream-of-SUB-consciousness stuff that requires a broader base of reading and experience.
  • The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, by Alexandra Fuller. Drawn to the beauty of Western Wyoming, Fuller moved to the area near Pinedale and found herself caught up in the conflict associated with the industrialization of that landscape for gas and oil development. In the life story of a young cowboy and roughneck, she epitomizes this tension. It’s not unlike The Tiger (above) in some respects. Fuller’s controlled but essentially gonzo journalistic style makes these characters sympathetic and gives the lie to narratives offered up by writers like Annie Proulx, which make the same landscapes look ugly and the same people bestial. One question is what are we going to do about the fact that we are turning our last wildernesses into grids full of drilling rigs, powerlines, switching stations, dusty dirt roads, and tanker trucks going up and down all day long? With little concern for worker safety as we go…
  • No Life for a Lady, by Agnes Morley Cleaveland. Memoir of ranching in New Mexico in the late 1800s. Interesting to compare her life with the one depicted in City of Light, above. Cleaveland went East for her schooling and it must have been a shock to deal with the routines and proprieties people in the East were bothering with. Something I’d never heard before: there was a messianic figure who came to Denver, walking out of the Mohave desert. Francis Schlatter was so charismatic that special trains were sent to Denver full of people who wanted to see him and be healed by him. He disappeared, only to show up on the Morley ranch in New Mexico, where he dictated his life story to Agnes’s mother. The title he chose is wonderful: The Life of the Harp in the Hand of the Harper. However, although she recounts this tale about Schlatter, I’m struck by how little personal reflection on God comes through in these memoirs I’m reading about life in the American West around this time.
  • The Victorians, by Thomas J Schlereth. Actually reads pretty well. Packed with interesting facts and figures about this transformative time in our culture. Good stationary bike or elliptical reading.

 

Poetry

  • Way More West, by Ed Dorn. I wanted to reread Gunslinger, but this was what was on my shelf here in my Exeter apartment, and it’s got parts. Never gets old.
  • Morning Poems, by Robert Bly. Okay, I’m on a Bly kick. The stuff that’s coming out right now from him just rocks. So I looked on my shelf and found this, which I hadn’t got around to reading for some reason. Lots of strong pieces here. My only real objection, and it’s a big one, to Bly is that although he means to honor the feminine it’s always as he defines it, and his definition is always in terms of the male. Boring. But almost any poem that stays clear of that stuff, I love.
  • From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, by Charles W. Pratt. Each quiet piece will make you think. Pratt’s had some airtime in 2011 courtesy of Garrison Keillor. Here’s a sample from my blog earlier in the yeimagear.
  • Three Russian Women Poets: Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva, Bella Akhmadulina, by Mary Maddock. I was feeling so unsatisfied with certain Akhmatova translations by Kunitz and Kenyon that I thought I might have to try my own hand at them. Luckily, I went looking for other versions, and after reading what was in this book, I decided I could sleep. I also discovered Akhmadulina, who is possibly a better poet (gasp). While I was at it, I read Feinstein’s biography of Akhmatova. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
  • Perennial Fall, by Maggie Dietz. Just read it. If you find anything in there you don’t like, let’s discuss.
  • When I received my fellowship, the identities of the fellowship committee members were revealed, I found out about their significant publication credits and awards. So I went out and bought their books. What an enriching and humbling experience to read them:
    • Evidence of the Journey, by Ralph Sneeden
    • Cameo Diner, by Matt Miller
    • Strange Land, by Todd Hearon

    cameo 

Broken

Walking nurtures an open mind… The sky is like an upturned plate—a big platter of openness filled with thoughts.” –Liz Caile, A Life at Treeline

 

Deep SurvivalIn Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales writes that people who are lost in the wilderness and survive often have in common that they prayed. Those who are found but only in the nick of time and only by good luck have in common that that they failed to recognize or refused to admit that they were lost.

Whether or not one believes in God or a god, exactly, it seems to me that the act of praying is, fundamentally, admitting that you’re lost. That you’re a small person in a big landscape and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing there. You don’t have to be a literal believer to recognize that.

According to Gonzales, the mere fact of acknowledging this existential reality can be the difference between life and death.

In one of her more recent posts, the eloquent blogger Andi O’Conor wrote about the woo-woo factor in her life, and how her intuition had guided her to pack her birth certificate and a couple of other key possessions before she took off on a vacation. While she was gone, her house was destroyed in a wildfire.

When you live in a place like Boulder, CO, you become familiar with stories like this, and you don’t feel that self-conscious talking about “the woo-woo.” In fact, it’s only when publishing, say, blog posts for a broader audience, that you would even refer to it by something as facetious as “the woo-woo.”

But as Andi was pushing her post live, I’d been struggling myself with a post on my own relationship to the mysterious, and have only now got around to writing it. Because it’s painful for me. I used to live fairly well immersed in the woo-woo. But for several years now, I’ve felt like my connection to it has been broken. Like I, too, have had to refer to it facetiously, because what I used to see as patterns and significance now seemed possibly random.

This winter I’ve been laid up with a broken ankle and I’ve had a lot of time to think. Also, no ability to walk. But really, over the past few years, I haven’t had a lot of time for walking and reflection in general, due to a lot of factors. And I realized for me, walking really is praying. As a child I wandered around in the woods, exploring Indian trails and roads established by American colonists. After college I found myself in Eldora, CO, hiking mining roads and Arapaho pathways, and something settled in me, a recognition. We know these ways, my body said to my soul. I’m a small person in a large landscape. As long I know how to be lost, I’ll know how to find my way.

Once, when I was housesitting for the singer-songwriters Cosy Sheridan and TR Ritchie, I hiked up on the Moab Rim Trail. It was later in the afternoon and I misjudged how quickly night would fall in the desert. It was stupid of me. I didn’t have a warm enough jacket, a headlamp, or matches. I was the last person out. Because it was a slickrock trail, it was hard to tell where the path went. As the twilight bled into night, I got lost. I picked my way across a couple of ravines to peer over the cliff to the Colorado River. There was a shelf below me and I thought that might be the trail. But if I climbed down to it, I wasn’t sure I’d get back up, if I was wrong. It was getting cold, and darker by the minute. I knew that if I tried to get back to where I’d been earlier, I might fall into one of the ravines I’d passed. I called out, but there was no one to hear.

I prayed. I am not exact about God. Assuming the term “woo-woo” is a little too loose, let’s call God the numinous, for now. I decided to try to reach a promontory outlined against the stars. Just as I attained it, a car was backing out of the trailhead parking lot below me. Its headlights illuminated my own car. I could then estimate the angle of the trail and tell that it was above me. I was able to climb to the trail and carefully make my way down.

Had I not reached the outcrop exactly when I did, the car would not have have backing out just then, and I would not have had the orientation I needed. Was it my prayer? I don’t know. I asked for help.

I was a small person in a large landscape who found a way.

I want to end this post right here. But I can’t. Because for the past few years I haven’t been able to feel this connection, to feel that there was anyone or anything paying attention, that if I prayed, or was lost, it would matter. Everything felt drained of significance. Even if I had an intuition or felt guided, it just seemed like it would add up to nothing in the end. So what if I packed a birth certificate? My house would burn down with many things I valued more inside. Last week I was talking to a trauma specialist about how it felt to watch the Highline—this special trail where I would jog and hike several times each week before the broken ankle—about how it felt to watch it burn during the Fourmile Fire. I said it felt like a psychic attack.

Perhaps, though, it occurs to me as I write, feeling attacked by nature is still a way to sense a connection. And I know fires are part of the landscape. I know they’re natural. But there will come a time when I will get lost and there will be no way out.

ButalaIn her stunning memoir, Perfection of the Morning, the otherwise stolid Sharon Butala writes of mystical experiences that occur while walking around on her ranch in Saskatchewan. In To Kill an Eagle, members of the Lakota tribe describe sacred visions as rising out of the land.

That’s what usually happens for me, with my writing. Creativity comes from being outside. From moving in landscape. This ability to easily tap into the sacred, the mysterious, is what I’ve been missing. I don’t know exactly what broke my connection to the woo-woo, but I hope some walking around brings it back.

Standout Reads of 2010

Not necessarily written this year, just the ones that popped for me of those I read.

Fiction:

  • Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada (a German couple find a way to resist the Nazis) 
  • The Informers, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (the legacy of Nazi Germany tears apart a modern-day Bogota family)     
  • Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman (I blogged about this earlier)
  • The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt (not summed up well in the jacket copy; it’s about the role of fantasy in the Victorian/Edwardian era)
  • The Outlander, by Gil Adamson (a woman flees across the frontier…it could have been better, but it was startling and beautifully written)
  • Lightning, by Fred Stenson (another gorgeous, literary western with plenty of action)
  • The White Mary, by Kira Salak (Heart of Darkness in Papua New Guinea, only without the racism, with a female protagonist)
  • The Fall of a Sparrow, by Robert Hellenga (beautiful, philosophical novel, the kind we used to read in high school and didn’t think was being written anymore, only without the ponderous style)
  • Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (gripping, moving portrait of a singular woman, drawn via linked short stories)
  • The Stone Gods, by Jeannette Winterson (as it has been, so it will be…talk about the wheel of fate…thought-provoking and darkly amusing)
  • Castings Trilogy, by Pamela Freeman (not your run-of-the mill fantasy series…explores the question of how an indigenous population, much abused, might rise up and reclaim its continent after having been conquered, um, about 500 years ago)
  • The Steel Remains, by Richard K. Morgan (another in-your-face fantasy novel—totally macho Aragorn-like character who is flamingly gay… terrific pathos) 
  • Parable of the Sower, and Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler (re-read… visionary novels about climate change/economic collapse and what it might take to guide people to adapt; you can’t go wrong with Butler)

 

9781935554042  9781553655374  9780345493040  9780061491344

 

Nonfiction:

  • The Black Hole War, My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the Universe Safe for Quantum Mechanics, by Leonard Susskind
  • War, by Sebastian Junger
  • Acedia & Me, A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, by Kathleen Norris
  • The Killing of Crazy Horse, by Thomas Powers
  • The Bipolar Child, by Demitri Papolos M.D. and Janice Papolos
  • I’m Looking Through You, Growing Up Haunted, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
  • Trotsky, by Robert Service (sure puts the lie to Barbara Kingsolver’s simplistic and trite treatment in Lacuna)
  • The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter 
  • The Unthinkable, Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why, by Amanda Ripley
  • Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton (re-visited after about 15 years…funny that 15 years ago I wouldn’t have hesitated to try to get a personal essay published reflecting on this work. Now, in the age of the Internet, I’d be worried about how speaking so honestly might affect my professional relationships and even some of my friendships. It’s kind of weird. Maybe it’s because back then I was more financially secure as an at-home mom and a writer, whereas now I need my day job. Perhaps in another five years I won’t care again. Let’s hope.) 

 

9780393309287  9780393049343  9780674036154

 

Poetry

  • New Collected Poems, by Eavan Boland
  • Birth is Farewell, by Dilys Bennett Laing (I admit I’d never heard of her, though she was extremely well published in her day…found this in a used bookstore in Olympia. I’m guessing Plath was trying, not too successfully, to be Laing, early-on.)
  • The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart, by Deborah Digges (though I read it years ago, I also recommend Digges’s memoir about raising a challenging son as a single mom, The Stardust Lounge)
  • “Bad Mood on Earth Day” (chapbook available from Imaginary Friend Press) by Harriet O. Leach

 

I’m probably missing a couple of great reads because I’ve loaned them out or I got them from the library, so they aren’t on my shelves, triggering my memory. Sorry about that.