Friday, December 29, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Marianne Moore


Before Marianne Moore became a poet, she was a teacher, then an assistant at the New York Public Library, where she began to meet other Imagist poets. Imagism was a movement in early 20th-century poetry that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language. Moore drew much inspiration from the natural world, especially animals. A new collected edition of her poetry was released this year.
by Marianne Moore (1887-1972)
Under a splintered mast,
torn from ship and cast
              near her hull,

a stumbling shepherd found
embedded in the ground,
              a sea-gull

of lapis lazuli,
a scarab of the sea,
            with wings spread—

curling its coral feet,
parting its beak to greet
            men long dead.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Favorite Reads, 2017

Another year, another (smallish) dent made in the to-read pile. I read 44 books this year, up slightly from last year's 40 but continuing the cooling trend due to, probably, the time I spend watching singing and dancing reality television. But I managed to read 29 novels, 13 short story collections and 2 memoirs. And because I'm a giver, here's a list of my favorite 10. It's interesting to note that 6 of the 10 are story collections, which probably signifies some other sort of trend I could analyze if I were competent in math (I'm not). Also, I find myself feeling defensive now about the novels...I will say that I read many VERY good ones. But only a few earned my highest rating. So, without further qualifications, the ten best things I read this year (in categories!!):

The Overdue Favorites

First on my list are two books that I've seen, from time to time, listed as someone's favorite. After you see a book referred to enough times amongst a circle of writers, I figure it's time to take notice.

So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) by William Maxwell

Fifty years after a death in a small town, one man tries to reconstruct the past and reconcile his memories. An elegy of a book, full of life and sadness, written in a straightforward, lyrical style that cuts straight through to the heart. Worth every penny and all of the accolades it continues to get.

Jesus' Son (1992) by Denis Johnson

The first story of this collection, "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," is a fitting introduction to the impact Johnson's style has on a reader. Straightforward, always surprising, with a dash of poeticism at moments you may least expect it. The narrator is a drug user of questionable judgment and motive, and yet, there's no qualification in it. I suspect some of the influence this book has had is due to its form--interconnected stories--and certainly, from the unique style, which has opened doorways of imagination for many writers. Either way, it deserves its status as a classic.

The Maverick

Transit (2017) by Rachel Cusk

This book gets its own category because there are none like it, this, my very favorite read of the year. When writing strikes so close, it's difficult to explain sometimes. The second in Cusk's Outline trilogy, this novel follows the same narrator, who has relocated to London with her two sons after a divorce. There, she purchases a dilapidated flat and tries to make renovations. So, that's the plot. But what this book is, and can do, is something else. Like all of the best fiction, it's about love and loss and memory and pain, about identity and relationships and what, if anything, we can count on to be real. The first two books in this series have left a mark on me, and I expect to lose sleep waiting for the third.


This year, I read several authors for the first time, not because they are new authors but because our paths finally crossed.

What the Thunder Said (2007) by Janet Peery

Peery is the writer of novels and short stories, and the recipient of numerous awards; most notably, she was a National Book Award finalist in 1996. So, not a new writer at all, but one I'm lucky to be able to explore now. Set during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, this novel follows the progress of the Spoon family through a range of perspectives and voices. A uniquely American story, with themes of perseverance and the bonds of family. Oh, and it's beautifully written.

Eveningland: Stories (2017) by Michael Knight

Another author I probably should have read earlier but at least I can pillage his previous writings--both stories and novels--now. Knight is one of those writers who seem to have a spotlight on the human condition. All of the stories are set in and around Mobile, Alabama, and highlight the everyday concerns of people carrying on despite the best the outside world can throw at them: home intruders, oil spills, hurricanes. An immersive read, full of treasures.

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (2014) by Tove Jansson

The date of 2014 refers to the translation published in the United States. Jansson was a renowned Swedish-speaking Finnish writer who passed away in 2001. She was also a painter, illustrator, and comic strip author, and her varied artistic leanings come through in these original stories. Many of Jansson's characters face isolation and the complicated pull of artistic creation. A dark undercurrent runs through and yet, I found the stories, ultimately, hopeful. Sidenote: any time you're looking to shake up your reading routine, New York Review of Books Classics is always a solid bet.

The Masters

Living in the Weather of the World (2017) by Richard Bausch

I've been playing catch-up with this prolific writer, having come to him too late a few years ago. And every year, something of his seems to make my favorites list. As implied in the title, these stories are about weathering storms, the varied ways we press on. Through a diverse host of characters, Bausch always seems to be able to hit the chords that resonate most deeply, reminding us of our shared humanity. Truly a heartfelt and masterful collection of stories.

Runaway (2004) by Alice Munro

Another writer I return to, again and again, to remind myself how good writing can be. Like Bausch, she's a master of character and feeling, and illuminating the "small" things that make up a life. Bonus: afterwards, you can watch the Pedro Almodóvar film Julieta, which was inspired by this collection. I found it to be a spirited and intriguing interpretation that I enjoyed very much.

The Indies

Disclaimer: I have the distinct pleasure of knowing both of the following authors, either online and/or in person, and I may have been lucky enough to read these books in earlier forms. So I'm doubly pleased to include their wonderful novels which were, truly, among my favorite reads of 2017.

Blood & Water (2017) by Katie O'Rourke

I'll share with you what I've already written about this novel because yes, I've been yammering about it for a while already:

"Delilah is leaving her cheating boyfriend and she has nowhere to go except the home of her brother, whom she hasn’t seen since their mother’s funeral five years before. David is a single father trying to manage his teenage daughter, and he’s not exactly pleased when his wayward sister shows up. From the opening of this absorbing novel, as Delilah nurses a black eye and ransacks her apartment, trying to decide what she can’t leave behind, I was fully along for the ride. Blood & Water is Katie O'Rourke’s most compelling and heartfelt novel to date, a story about family—past and present, predetermined and chosen—and the deep veins that keep them connected."

Now go and buy it, and support a talented indie author!

Course of Mirrors: An Odyssey (2017) by Ashen Venema

In the author's own words:

"Course of Mirrors is a gripping and enchanting story of a young woman’s odyssey. Its overriding theme of a quest for belonging has a universal recognisability and appeal, and will be continued in Ashen’s sequel, Shapers, in which Ana’s journey continues into future worlds.

Inspired by 1001 Nights, and writers like Ursula Le Guin, Ashen Venema’s debut novel will appeal to fans of fantasy novels and those who enjoy coming-of-age mysteries."

This was new and intriguing terrain for me, a story unlike anything I've read. The execution of this multi-levelled, wholly unique novel was amazing to watch unfold. A truly inspiring accomplishment, which you should buy now!

Thanks for reading my list, and for reading, in general! Here's to many more discoveries of new worlds in the new year. Please tell me your favorites from 2017, particularly that one book that won't let go...

Friday, December 1, 2017

Poem for the Weekend: Frank Bidart

The poet Frank Bidart's career has spanned almost fifty years. He's the recipient of many accolades and awards, most recently, this year's National Book Award. More about his writing here and here.
Visions at 74
by Frank Bidart 
The planet turns there without you, beautiful.
Exiled by death you cannot
touch it. Weird joy to watch postulates

lived out and discarded, something crowded
inside us always craving to become something
glistening outside us, the relentless planet

showing itself the logic of what is
buried inside it. To love existence
is to love what is indifferent to you

you think, as you watch it turn there, beautiful.
World that can know itself only by
world, soon it must colonize and infect the stars.

You are an hypothesis made of flesh.
What you will teach the stars is constant
rage at the constant prospect of not-being.                        

Sometimes when I wake it's because I hear
a knock. Knock,
Knock. Two
knocks, quite clear.

I wake and listen. It's nothing.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka