I Have To Tell You
While reading Victoria Hetherington’s novel, I Have To Tell You, I occasionally found myself wanting to shake one or two of the characters for a host of self-destructive behaviors and dysfunctional relationships. And just as my frustration rose, inevitably one of Hetherington’s precisely crafted sentences would render her characters so vulnerable and relateable that I found myself willing if not to forgive, then to understand their infidelities, obsessions and shortcomings. This pattern in my reading experience is a powerful testament to Hetherington’s ability to create immensely engaging characters and shine kindness on the less admirable sides of our natures.Continue Reading
Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems James Baldwin Beacon Press, April 2014 120 pages $16.00 Buy: book | ebook
The cover of Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems features blurbs by none other than Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, telling the world to read this book. I’ll be honest; I feel like I can’t add much to that—just listen to Morrison and Angelou. But if you need a bit more convincing, here are some remarkable feats that Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems accomplishes.
Some of Baldwin’s poems are intensely political, and while much political poetry tends to read like an ideological statement veiled as poetry—which I admit I’m not a fan of—in Baldwin’s case he writes poetry first and foremost: lyrical, captivating, evocative, thought-provoking poems that also happen to be exploring the political climate of his time. In “Straggerlee wonders,” for example, the speaker claims that the U.S. government finds “a way around every treaty.”His tone is similarly critical when he writes that “[t]his flag has been planted on the moon:/ it will be interesting to see/ what steps the moon will take to be revenged.” What I found genuinely surprising and wonderful was his focus on creating narratives and characters against the background of political tensions, which make his poems relatable, accessible and not one bit outdated. Continue Reading
Lungs Full of Noise
University of Iowa Press, October 2013
Buy: book | ebook
In one of Tessa Mellas’s stories, a woman gives birth to a plant-baby. While everyone else is a little perplexed, the mother looks at the newborn—his green skin, leaves and buds—and thinks that “he is beautiful … like no one has ever thought to be beautiful before.” That phrasing is also a fitting description for Mellas’s debut short story collection, Lungs Full of Noise.
The book is filled with delightful and refreshing oddities that are captivating in their sheer unexpectedness, such as a roommate from Jupiter, a sky which has permanently turned to white, or a group of girls dyeing their skin purple. These elements are met with some resistance in their story worlds—a desire to explain and understand them—but ultimately they are always accepted by the surrounding characters. Continue Reading
Days in the History of Silence
Other Press, August 2013
Buy: book | ebook
I’m not very familiar with Norwegian literature, so I can’t comment on whether Merethe Lindstrom’s Days in the History of Silence follows the typical conventions of Norwegian novels. What I can say is that this award-winning work defies many of the conventions I tend to associate with novels written in English—foreshadowing, dialogue formatting, an eventual climax—and to surprisingly memorable effect.
The story is told by Eva, a relatively well-off, retired teacher who, faced with her aging husband’s complete silence, is compelled to dwell in memories of the other silences they’ve created in their lives. She remembers the son she had as a teenager and gave up for adoption; she remembers the fact that her husband, a Jew, survived WWII in hiding as a child; and she remembers the reason they fired Marija, their undocumented immigrant housekeeper and closest friend. These are all stories Eva and Simon never told anyone, not even their three daughters.
The Winged Seed
BOA Editions, April 2013
Reading Li-Young Lee’s The Winged Seed reminded me of an argument by economist Tyler Cowen. Cowen cautions against our propensity to impose narrative on everything. He claims that life is not a story but a mess, and that in insisting on making sense by giving it a storyline, we actually exclude and erase much of it. This may sound like a damning statement, especially for writers of nonfiction—and yet it seems that (over a decade before Cowen) Lee followed the same philosophy when writing this book.
The Winged Seed was first published in 1995 and won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. It is sometimes marketed as a memoir and sometimes as an autobiography, but if we have to put a genre label on it, I propose to call it by its subtitle: a remembrance. Lee presents the reader with a series of memories—his own as well as those that his parents shared with him about their own lives.
The Declarable Future
University of Wisconsin Press, May 2013
When I teach poetry, I often turn to Jennifer Boyden‘s work for startling images, masterfully paced tension and complicated, big subjects rendered accessible. The Declarable Future—Boyden’s second book of poems—not only showcases this signature voice I’d expected from it, but it moreover succeeds as a holistic, cohesive project.
With its connected themes, recurring characters and a hint of narrative arc in each of its four sections, The Declarable Future offers a vivid and disquieting vision. Here Boyden launches an inquiry into nothing less complex than humanity’s future, both as a species and for individuals existing in social structures. In the hands of a less skilled poet, the result might have ended up didactic, abstract or even predictable—but Boyden pulls the reader in and keeps her engrossed with every surprising turn.
The Shelter of Neighbours
Eilis Ni Dhuibhne
Blackstaff Press, September 2012
One page into Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s The Shelter of Neighbours I laughed out loud. And then, two stories later, with a carload of train passengers glancing my way, another audible chuckle. My laughing and grinning continued throughout the collection, but each time I was asked to describe what was so funny, I grew silent. Ni Dhuibhne’s stories at their core are about uncomfortable and painful struggles of our everyday, mundane lives—inadequacy, marital strife, ennui, fear of change, rejection. Even their tone is, for the most part, a matter-of-fact, nonsentimental one, at times gentle, but not really funny. For some reason, though, The Shelter of Neighbours is genuinely entertaining.Continue Reading