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 mjudee 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 in 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?

noraNora 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 menplace 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-beastJews 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 communities. Reads like a thriller.arthur

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.)

POETRY

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

He That Presents Himself

Your dogs every one of them

wonderful, the best, but this the one

who loved me.

Cinnamon chow chow,

one of those things: in for bunny food,

out with a puppy.

He’d been five months in a cage;

he ducked, staggered beneath

the sky, tumbled on stairs.

One month later, little furball, he purged

a bear from our yard.

Two years on, that dog

would tree a lion for me.

First night in my house,

he laid himself across my bedroom

threshold. I looked it up.

Chows are bred for this.

Guardians of temples, palaces,

they close apertures against

the seen and the unseen.

It was what I needed at that time,

right after my divorce,

bears thick as thieves in the yard,

my halls infested with demons.

S S

Stephen (right), Dec 16, 1999-Dec 2, 2013. Thank you for your service.

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 

Pieces of Silver

 

No small thing, the shine

passing from one person

to another…

 

A poem I’m working on starts this way. It’s growing out of a conversation with a New York City taxi driver in which he offered small “advices” that wound up making a big difference in a terrible family crisis.

The other night I was hurrying to hospitalize a cat and had to stop to pay a toll. Generally I’m frustrated with tollbooths in the East—why do they have them? In Colorado they scan your license plate from under a bridge; you don’t even have to hit the brakes. And don’t say it’s because of antiquated infrastructure—there used to be tollbooths in Colorado, but when something better came along, they ripped the booths right out. People in the East just put up with stuff, I was thinking.

Anyway, the toll was 75 cents and as usual I’d forgotten about the whole stupid idea because back home they just ding your checking account and also parking meters are all credit cards now, so who needs actual money in your car? All I happened to have was this half roll of old dimes I’d been meaning to see about. Maybe some of them would fit into one of the collecting books I had. Somewhere. In one of the boxes packed up in the garage after the move. So that would be back in Colorado? Ish.

I handed over eight really silvery-looking dimes. Oh, hey! said the toll guy, lighting way up. What are these, old dimes? Give them to me.

Who could resist a gap-toothed grin like that? I handed them right over. All the forbearing Easterners behind me just waited while he happily counted them out. No honking or anything.

I’ll let you make some money, he said. Here’s $3 for $2.50 in dimes. This probably means the dimes were worth more than that, but here I’d neatly postponed the moment of reckoning with the boxes back in Colorado indefinitely. And I didn’t even pay the toll.

I was in a strange location with a sick pet. The dimes found someone who understood their worth. This random little exchange of money on the “free”way seemed to light the night for both of us.

I guess that wouldn’t have happened with a scanner.