shiny things in messy little piles

Category: #FridayReads (Page 1 of 5)

Books of June

This month in nonfiction:

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior — Catherine Johnson and Temple Grandin (2006)

Ms. Grandin has a unique per­spec­tive on ani­mal behav­ior that is informed by her own autism. She is very opin­ion­at­ed but you have to trust the opin­ion of a woman who has spent so many years care­ful­ly watch­ing ani­mals. It is inter­est­ing to see some of the folk­lore  of ani­mal train­ers and man­agers (such as the loca­tion of hair whorls on the faces of hors­es and cat­tle cor­re­lat­ing with flight­i­ness) backed up by expe­ri­ence and exper­i­ment. The ref­er­ences are some­what dat­ed but the book is full of insights that are now being proven in sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ments. I will be very inter­est­ed to see how she expand on these ideas in her lat­er book “Ani­mals Make Us Human.”
* shift your per­spec­tive for a while *



Train the Dog in Front of You — Denise Fenzi (2016)

The best piece of dog train­ing advice I’ve got­ten this year. Maybe ever. Train the dog you have. In order to do that you have to pay atten­tion to your dog’s par­tic­u­lar per­son­al­i­ty and learn­ing styles. Fen­zi offers a hand­ful of modes/aspects/facets that you can use to begin to orga­nize your thoughts as you observe your dog. Well worth the rather steep price.
* there is no point in wait­ing for the per­fect dog *

This month in essays:

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life — Samantha Irby (2017)

Ah, this one caused me a good deal of grief as I tried to for­mu­late an opin­ion. Angry POC women are a com­mon essay buck­et at the book store these days. It’s about time that they got a chance for their voic­es to be heard and yet. And yet. POC, queer, and dis­abled is no guar­an­tee of interesting.

A lot of peo­ple loved this book. I just did­n’t find it that fun­ny; fun­ny requires orig­i­nal and a glimpse of human­i­ty that is tru­ly dar­ing. There is a guard­ed­ness about her rev­e­la­tions — a sense that she is dar­ing me to not find the sit­u­a­tions fun­ny that –under­cuts these essays. Her overeat­ing, pover­ty dri­ven mon­ey fetishiz­ing, trash tele­vi­sion lov­ing life does­n’t speaks to me of larg­er human con­cerns in a new way.
* TMI isn’t the same as imi­tate — it just isn’t *

This month in fiction:

The Shipping News — Annie Proulx (1993)

Yeah, late to the par­ty. I’d nev­er read it. The Ship­ping News is much more dark­ly com­ic than I was led to believe. I enjoyed it, even the weird writ­ing style. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of all those frag­ments with the long lists of things. I was also impressed by how much she knew or learned about New­found­land, fish­ing, and boats — espe­cial­ly build­ing boats. The excerpts from the knot book at the begin­ning of the chap­ters were inter­est­ing on their own and added nice­ly the sto­ry. All in all I found this rather to my taste even though I hat­ed Broke­back Moun­tain. So, do I dare to read anoth­er of her books?
* Weird, eerie, and dark­ly comic *



Camino Island — John Grisham (2017)

Great engag­ing plot. A caper involv­ing the theft of F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s man­u­scripts and a block­er writer recruit­ed very much against her will to entrap the man who may have bought the man­u­scripts from the thieves. Grisham’s prose is dry and thin. Lakes are pret­ty. Girls are tall. Build­ings are old. Some peo­ple claim that it’s taut; I think it’s just unimag­i­na­tive. The char­ac­ters aren’t all that well-rounded either. The woman from the insur­ance group who recruits the pro­tag­o­nist is such a stick fig­ure that I can have torn her out of a fash­ion mag­a­zine. Wide­ly reviled by the Grisham faith­ful. But as a non-Grisham read­ing fan of both the capers and that genre of mys­tery known as the cozy it worked well enough for me.
* a beach book for the fan of both capers and cozies *


Gwendy’s Button Box — Steven King and Richard Chizmar (2017)

This novel­la about of a girl giv­en a gift by a mys­te­ri­ous man in a bowler hat cir­cles the rim of out­right hor­ror but nev­er quite dips into the whirlpool. The man in the bowler hat gives Gwendy a box that will deliv­er two gifts (choco­lates and sil­ver dol­lars) when­ev­er she asks. But there oth­er but­tons on the top whose use is left unex­plained. As time goes on Gwendy begins to devel­op a the­o­ry about their pur­pose. Only once does she use one of the but­tons on the box and at the same time an ene­my is van­quished in a prop­er­ly hor­ri­fy­ing man­ner. Did Gwendy cause this or was it coin­ci­dence? She nev­er quite sure but becomes con­vinced that the box is dan­ger­ous and its actions fraught with unin­tend­ed con­se­quences. How should Gwendy deal with the box and it’s pow­ers? Can she stay on the right side of good and evil?
* what if some­one gave you Pan­do­ra’s box with­out an instruc­tion manual? *


The Book of Polly — Kathy Hepinstall (2017)

Anoth­er child nar­ra­tor — as the book begins the 10 year-old Wil­low is pre­oc­cu­pied with the idea that her moth­er Pol­ly will die. As well as telling out­ra­geous lies about her moth­er, she is obsessed with a secret that her moth­er is keep­ing. The rela­tion­ship between moth­ers and daugh­ters is explored in the con­text of an old­er moth­er, well estab­lished in her sar­cas­tic know every­thing per­son­al­i­ty, and her equal­ly uncon­ven­tion­al late-in-life child. As Wil­low turns 16, Pol­ly is indeed dying. With the help of her miss­ing broth­er’s odd ball friend , Wil­low sets out to get a mir­a­cle for her moth­er and in the process to dis­cov­er her secrets. I am par­tic­u­lar­ly impres­sive is Hep­in­stal­l’s cre­ation of a unique voice for the teenage Willow.
* south­ern goth­ic with a heap­ing side of humor *

The Books of April

Cutting for Stone — Abraham Verghese (2009)

The book is very long. I start­ed it in March and it took me most of April to fin­ish it.
The twins (Mar­i­on and Shi­va Stone) at the cen­ter of Cut­ting for Stone come into the world in a messy and pecu­liar way. Their moth­er, a shy Indi­an nun, dies giv­ing birth to them and their father, and Amer­i­can doc­tor, runs off in a pan­ic. So the boys are left to be raised by the doc­tors and matron of the Miss­ing Hos­pi­tal in Addis Aba­ba. The two boys act and think as if they were a sin­gle enti­ty for much of their child­hoods. It is as if they were born (con­joined at the head) and then agreed to split up the world and their reac­tions to the world. Mar­i­on tak­ing on the out­go­ing, pleas­ant, social per­son­al­i­ty and Shi­va tak­ing on all of the dark, moody, and anti-social bits.
I’m a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ed with how it ends, I mean it had to go some­where — I get that. and… it seemed inevitable that the twins were not going to have a hap­py res­o­lu­tion. That some­how there hav­ing been two of them, sep­a­rat­ed but still act­ing as one — that in the end there could­n’t be two of them in the world. And is that their indi­vid­ual faults or the fault of being born twins? I liked the book, but I’m not sure that I am encour­aged to read oth­ers by the same author. It’s a kind of fun­ny thing when it comes to read­ing such “oth­er” expe­ri­ences — I rarely want to expe­ri­ence them a sec­ond or third time from the same point of view. I, mag­pie like, want to go on to col­lect anoth­er point of view. That is in cas­es where the writ­ing does­n’t make me swoon. And here the writ­ing does not make me swoon. It is com­pe­tent and in places quite pleas­ant but its noth­ing special.

Rules of Civility — Amor Towles (2011)

Not as nifty as The Gen­tle­man of Moscow. But the his­toric back­ground does­n’t play near­ly as big a part. Here we have a young woman in NYC on New Year’s Eve 1937 sit­ting with her pal in a second-rate club wait­ing for some­thing to hap­pen. That some­thing is Tin­ker Grey. Katey Kon­tent (hate the last name it tripped me up every sin­gle time I read it) is an okay nar­ra­tor. She’s a bit bland around the edges but I think that’s part of the point, she’s Every Girl mak­ing her way in the big city. The peo­ple who sur­round her for the year of the sto­ry are the inter­est­ing points and in fact the writer via Katey as much as admits that it’s the case that some­times we find our­selves sur­round­ed by peo­ple and events that will catch us up in their swirl with­out actu­al­ly hav­ing much effect on our­selves. They whirl around us and then leave us to go on in anoth­er direc­tion with oth­er peo­ple. (It’s some­thing that I’ve thought about a bunch myself — how we seem to be so inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed with peo­ple as we are in a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion but so eas­i­ly lose them when the cir­cum­stances change and we are no longer thrown togeth­er by some­thing larg­er than our­selves.) The whole thing is a bit like Fitzger­ald — who I don’t actu­al­ly like. I find him dry and his char­ac­ters off-puttingly shal­low. This book comes close to being that shallow.
The title is tak­en from the young George Wash­ing­ton’s list of Rules for him­self. And the rules are includ­ed at the end of the book. Young GW was a pris­sy lit­tle shit.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk — Kathleen Rooney (2017)

Lil­lian Box­fish is 85, it’s New Year’s Eve and she’s decid­ed to take a walk across Man­hat­tan. First to Del­moni­co’s and then to a par­ty host­ed by a young pho­tog­ra­ph­er that she met in the park. It’s a long walk and we are treat­ed to not only Lil­lian’s ver­sion of Man­hat­tan in 1985 but along the way to her life sto­ry. And it’s a pret­ty crack­er jack sto­ry. Run­ning from her first days in Man­hat­tan to her reign as the high­est paid adver­tis­ing woman in Amer­i­ca (writ­ing copy for Macy’s in its glo­ry days) through a mar­riage a birth, a break­down, a divorce, a free­lance career, and now as a woman of a cer­tain age liv­ing on her own in a city that she dear­ly loves but that has changed in unpleas­ant ways. Lil­lian and the book are both wit­ty, wise, and a bit wicked.


Everybody’s Fool — Richard Russo (2016)

Sul­ly is back and with a mild bit of good for­tune in his wake and a not so hot report from the car­di­ol­o­gist at the VA mar­ring his future he’s not sure how the world is sup­posed to work this week. And then there’s Police Chief Raymer whose grief at the loss of his wife is tem­pered by the sus­pi­cion that she was intend­ing to leave him the day she fell down the stairs and the stray garage door remote that he found in her car. The rest of the crowd is here too. There are some snakes (both the hiss­ing kind and the human kind) and whole lot of peo­ple try­ing to make sense of their lives and cir­cum­stances. Rus­so writes with humor and deep insight into the ways in which we all flit­ter and flus­ter our ways through life. (Read Nobody’s Fool first.)

Books of March


The Bear and The Nightingale: A Novel — Katherine Arden (2017)

Best fairy tale I’ve read in a long time. I was skep­ti­cal at first. But the hero­ine is more than a pret­ty face with an inter­est­ing fate. I can’t be sure, as I am no expert, but the sto­ry seems to be more Russ­ian than most set in that fairy tale world. The author was a Russ­ian major in col­lege. Well writ­ten, you won’t find your­self con­stant­ly thrown out of the sto­ry by a bad turn of phrase as you are so often in fairy tales.



Minding the Muse — Priscilla Long (2016)

Bet­ter than the aver­age book on cre­ativ­i­ty — it allows for indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. And it’s a reminder about the need for dai­ly (near­ly) work that I need to hear.



300 Arguments — Sarah Manguso (2017)

Don’t both­er. I like books of frag­ments (99 God and Bluets are exam­ples) but this one does­n’t hang togeth­er as any sort of nuanced state­ment on the world. It got a lot of praise but I just did­n’t find the thread that was sup­posed to link the apho­risms to make them some­thing oth­er than a jum­ble. There are a few that cut to the quick though. The best being:

There will come a time when peo­ple decide you’ve had enough of your grief, and they’ll try to take it away from you.”


All of this mon­th’s poet­ry books are con­cerned with the domes­tic — but what dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences of home the poets bring.

The Day Before: Poems — Dick Allen (2003)

I remem­ber lik­ing these poems while I was read­ing them but a month lat­er I don’t remem­ber any­thing spe­cif­ic about them. What’s up with that? I don’t know what to think of poems that I like but that don’t leave a sol­id mark on me. I had to go and look at them again to write this review. These poems are pedes­tri­an — in a good way — the way in which some­one with­out anoth­er des­ti­na­tion in mind wan­ders down the street in a mid­size town just look­ing and won­der­ing about every­thing they see. They are root­ed in times and places and peo­ple and above all the lit­tle bits of nature that exist for us in every set­ting. But they did­n’t stick. Hmmm.



Bright Dead Things: Poems — Ada Limón (2015)

When she writes about her expe­ri­ences of being dis­lo­cat­ed from the city to rur­al Ken­tucky, Limon writes with humor and appre­ci­a­tion of both envi­ron­ments . Her descrip­tions of Ken­tucky horse coun­try from the point of view of a non-rural, non-horsey per­son are delight­ful­ly vivid. She also brings her fresh per­spec­tive to her rela­tion­ships and the loss of her step-mother. There is a won­der­ful imme­di­a­cy and hon­esty in these poems. Very down to earth, even when she’s being man­i­cal­ly unrealistic.




The Nerve of It: Poems New and Selected ‑Lynn Emanuel (2015)

Lynn Emmanuel is one of my favorite poets. I am always tak­en with her bit­ing, clear-eyed look at the places and peo­ple who make up her life. This vol­ume includes a cou­ple of my favorite old poems and some new favorites as well.

The Books of February

Slade House — David Mitchell (2015)

Fans of Mitchel­l’s recent work will enjoy the lit­tle bumps against his Bone Clocks. I won’t spoil it by telling you how it ends but you’ll enjoy the fris­son of recog­ni­tion. Once every nine years a house appears in Slade Alley and one spe­cial per­son is allowed to enter. Except that entry might not be the best thing to hap­pen to you. Mitchel writes a tight book in four parts. Each part stand­ing alone as a nice­ly creepy short sto­ry and the whole mak­ing a part of the uni­verse estab­lished in the The Bone Clocks. Worth­while for fans of Mitchell and the milder forms of horror.


Swing Time — Zadie Smith (2016)

We start with an unnamed nar­ra­tor (why that choice? and why did­n’t I notice), her self-educating moth­er and lov­ing if unam­bi­tious father. The arc of the book fol­lows the nar­ra­tor’s child­hood friend­ship with Tracey, root­ed in a love of dance and old musi­cals, through the end of the girls’ friend­ship in high school. Though they go their sep­a­rate ways there is a link between the two girls that con­tin­ues to influ­ence their lives. After col­lege our unnamed nar­ra­tor begins to work for a pop mega-star as a PA. She los­es much of her own life — sub­sumed by the require­ment that she ded­i­cate all her time and ener­gy to par­tic­i­pat­ing in the star’s life. Even­tu­al­ly com­ing to dis­cov­er that she has no life of her own. That rev­e­la­tion — that she has no life of her own and that she has thus not man­aged the dif­fi­cult work of matur­ing from a twenty-something free spir­it. (Was she ever real­ly free?) into the sort of direct­ed thirty-three year old that her edu­ca­tion and intel­li­gence sug­gest that she could have been. She los­es her job at thirty-three and must begin again at the stage most of us reach three or four years out of col­lege when our first jobs give way to a career.
This a book that has gar­nered mixed reviews. I did­n’t find the scene switch­ing (loca­tion and time) to be dif­fi­cult to fol­low. Smith’s writ­ing is quite clear enough to make her leaps per­fect­ly obvi­ous. And in gen­er­al I liked the writ­ing. I do wish that Smith had either come down hard­er on the ques­tion of west­ern “med­dling,” espe­cial­ly by the famous but igno­rant, in poor­er regions of the world or that she has stuck to the theme of dance and had actu­al­ly done some­thing with the title musi­cal. Swing Time.
I also thing that the book did­n’t need all that wrap­ping up. I was will­ing to let the sto­ry wind down to the denoue­ment of the nar­ra­tor being set adrift to find her­self at a late age. Rather than see­ing the mess unwinding.
Any­way — did I like the book? Yes. Did I like that char­ac­ters — sev­er­al of them no. Did I like the writ­ing — yes. So go read it and don’t be a wee­nie because the nar­ra­tor (hero­ine) isn’t a full per­son — she’s not meant to be.

A Thousand Splendid Suns — Khaled Hosseini (2007)

I liked A Thou­sand Splen­did Suns but it was a ter­ri­ble strug­gle to deal with at moments. It is at its core the sto­ry of two women (Miri­am and Laila) — a gen­er­a­tion apart — who have to deal with life shit­ting on them. And the shit is awful. There are some tru­ly awful human beings here. Not the trag­i­cal­ly flawed ones like Jalil (Miri­am’s father) but the hus­band Rasheed is despi­ca­ble. Any­way — it’s a heart stop­ping book. You keep think­ing that things must work out, or that they can’t get worse and yet in a war-torn Kab­ul things can always get worse. Insights into the Afghan soul per­haps, but the things described are so uni­ver­sal that you nev­er feel left out or alien­at­ed. And you’ll cheer like mad when kar­ma and Rasheed final­ly run into one anoth­er head on, even if it is at great cost to all the oth­er char­ac­ters in the book.


The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper — Phaedra Patrick (2016)

Light weight, not too fill­ing, not even well writ­ten but if you liked Back­man’s Ove and sim­i­lar grumpy old men then you may like Arthur Pep­per and his predica­ment. The premise — the find­ing of a mys­te­ri­ous charm bracelet that belonged to his late wife is promis­ing and yet, the charms and their sto­ries don’t add up and the con­trivances of how Arthur man­ages to find out about most of the charms are far too “con­ve­nient.” None the less Arthur is kind of endear­ing and so you read on.


A Gentleman in Moscow — Amor Towles (2016)

The sto­ry of what hap­pens to an aris­to­crat, Count Alexan­der Ros­tov, who returns (you might think unwise­ly) to Rus­sia after the rev­o­lu­tion and finds him­self not up against a wall offered a final cig­a­rette but, because of piece of rev­o­lu­tion­ary poet­ry that he wrote, turned into a For­mer Per­son and sen­tenced to house arrest in the famous Metropol hotel. Span­ning more than 30 years of the Coun­t’s life and fea­tur­ing two young ladies who inter­sect with and utter­ly alter his life, this is an engag­ing book with inter­est­ing char­ac­ters and a lot of per­son­al action on a large his­toric back­ground. Per­fect beach book.


Daring Greatly — Brené Brown (2012)

Self help book by a researcher who is best known for her work on shame. I’ve read her before and things here stain that odd­ly mushy feel­ing. There’s real­ly noth­ing here that you haven’t heard and seen a dozen times. Though I did find her explic­it­ly call­ing out of the set of gen­der expec­ta­tions that men car­ry around to be a refresh­ing change from the usu­al focus only on wom­en’s expe­ri­ence of gen­der roles. I’m just not sure I buy that val­ue she places on vul­ner­a­ble. Brav­ery I get and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty in rela­tion­ships I get but vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to the whole world. No — I think not. That’s how you get tak­en advan­tage of. Basi­cal­ly you can sum up the con­tri­bu­tion of this book as “be brave even when you’re scared.
Any­way — much of a much­ness with her oth­er books and oth­ers in the genre. I’m sor­ry I both­ered with it.

Caraval — Stephanie Garber (2017)

The pro­tag­o­nist sees col­ors to go with her emo­tions. Which gives you a pret­ty good idea of how the writ­ing is going to go. There is a fairy tale begin­ning — evil father, lov­ing sis­ters and a dia­bol­i­cal regime of con­trol and pun­ish­ment. Sis­ters Scar­lett and Donatel­la must some­how escape their ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion. (It would­n’t be a fairy tale oth­er­wise) The girls run away (or are kid­napped it sort of depends on who you’re talk­ing to at the moment) to Car­aval, a 5‑night fan­ta­sy game with an impres­sive prize at the end. It’s all a bit The Night Cir­cus with­out the great and imag­i­na­tive writ­ing. The end works well and the twist isn’t one that I saw com­ing but once revealed it all made per­fect sense. Real­ly if the habit of explain­ing every sin­gle one of Scar­let­t’s emo­tion­al respons­es (com­plete with col­or) had­n’t got­ten in the so often way I might be rec­om­mend­ing this book much more high­ly. Also the dress­es — way too much time is spent describ­ing a round of fan­ta­sy dress­es that all sound exact­ly the same except for the colors.

Bad Feminist — Roxane Gray (2014)

The star­ring essay on nature of priv­i­lege car­ries a reminder that lack of/possession of priv­i­lege must not be used as means of silenc­ing oth­ers voic­es. A reminder that we need giv­en the hot and heavy rhetoric in the cur­rent cli­mate of resistance.
The essays on real­i­ty TV and a hand­ful of books that I haven’t read aren’t inter­est­ing. None of them makes me want to expe­ri­ence what­ev­er (TV or book) she’s talk­ing about. If cri­tique does­n’t intrigue with its insights then what is the point?
Sev­er­al of her essays reflect on the need to be care­ful and pre­cise with lan­guage. Not in a pris­sy way. She’d be all for being pre­cise­ly hor­ri­ble if that was your inten­tion. As long as you are match­ing lan­guage to inten­tion it’s all good. There is some­thing to be said for an atti­tude that removes the “nice” and puts the empha­sis on con­ci­sion and inten­tion­al­i­ty. Be true, even if your truth is harsh or unpopular.
I also liked her on trig­ger warn­ings. She points out that they are in the end, point­less because the world isn’t safe, but there are places where the illu­sion of safe­ty is nec­es­sary and trig­ger warn­ings have their place in them. The argu­ment is lit­tle more nuanced that just this but it basi­cal­ly comes down to you can keep your trig­ger warn­ings in your safe spaces to pro­mote a sense of safe­ty (illu­so­ry) but don’t expect me to cre­ate safe spaces in my spaces. My spaces aren’t safe. Nev­er will be, so don’t come here if you need an illu­sion of safety.
Isn’t that just the rub — so much safe­ty vs dan­ger. and where is the dan­ger? One won­ders. Is it nec­es­sary to use some­one else’s def­i­n­i­tion of dan­ger? Inter­est­ing ques­tion. Is it like that vol­ume of Best Amer­i­can Essays that I did­n’t like where the edi­tor’s main cri­te­ri­on was risk. Risk as defined by whom was the first ques­tion I want­ed to ask. Risk as the main cri­te­ri­on for judg­ing the val­ue of work seems shal­low. I think that the same applies to dan­ger­ous ideas. If the only thing that your work has going for it is dan­ger, then what have you actu­al­ly got?
(No this para­graph length aside does­n’t belong in a book review — but hey they’re my reviews for my pur­pos­es so it stays.)
Any­way — there are a cou­ple of good essays here and a whole lot of bor­ing pop-culture gush­ing. Read it or don’t. It’s not that impor­tant of a book. (Sigh — I was hop­ing that it might be.)

Books of January

More book reviews. I know you’re excit­ed about that!

Best American Essays 2016 — Jonathon Franzen ed. (2016)

Franzen’s stat­ed cri­te­ria for choos­ing the essays was whether or not the writer was tak­ing a risk. Okay — risky writ­ing is often good writ­ing but I don’t think it makes a sound cri­te­ria for choos­ing the best essays. It leaves out too much of human expe­ri­ence and rewards sen­sa­tion­al­ism. That said…
Sebas­t­ian Junger’s “The Bonds of Bat­tle” (from Van­i­ty Fair) on PTSD in par­tic­u­lar seems to be more con­fronta­tion­al than infor­ma­tive. . He con­tends that sol­diers return­ing from bat­tle in old­er, more con­nect­ed soci­eties did not suf­fer from PTDS. While it is inter­est­ing to pit the anthro­pol­o­gy of old­er more con­nect­ed soci­eties against our mod­ern dis­con­nect­ed soci­ety and then use that con­trast to com­ment on PTSD, he presents a lot of num­bers with­out cita­tions (I hate to be a pen­dant in a book review, but real­ly — if you’re going to chal­lenge the exist­ing nar­ra­tive around PTSD you’d bet­ter look like you’ve done some cred­i­ble back­ground research.) Yes, I will con­cede that the dis­con­nect­ed nature of much of mod­ern soci­ety makes the caus­es and “cures” for PTSD more dif­fi­cult, this essay did­n’t con­vince me that PTSD is an arti­fact sole­ly of the mod­ern age and the poor qual­i­ty of the research pre­vents this con­tribut­ing much to the dis­cus­sions sur­round­ing the issues.
The oth­er essay the par­tic­u­lar­ly struck me was Jor­dan Kisner’s “Thin Places.” She writes about her expe­ri­ence of OCD and the mod­els of men­tal ill­ness as they relate to the self. There are, she con­tends, thin bound­aries between the self and the ill­ness. These bound­aries are much thin­ner than are pop­u­lar­ly described in the cur­rent mod­els of men­tal ill­ness. This essay is trou­bling in a good way. I’ve had to look at my own def­i­n­i­tions of “self”, “ill­ness”, and the con­trast between claim­ing that this things is “I” and that this oth­er thing is “not‑I”. Well worth the time for the larg­er philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions that it raises.

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy — Mark Doty (2002)

I read this because Doty is one of the poets teach­ing in Port Townsend next sum­mer. A short (80 page) essay on the nature of things and our rela­tion­ships to them. And by exten­sion on the nature of art and it’s rela­tion­ship to us. The main sub­ject is the tit­u­lar still life paint­ed by Jan Davids de Heem. Along the way he dips into and out of mem­o­ry and reflects on the objects that have inhab­it­ed his life. He touch­es on his lovers, past and present and the hous­es that he has lived in as well as his grand­moth­er’s purse and the pep­per­mint can­dy that came out of it and the objec­tive­ly ugly chipped turkey plat­ter that he keeps above the man­tel piece. He inter­ro­gates our often com­plex rela­tion­ship with objects, how they are medi­at­ed by the peo­ple, places, and events that we asso­ciate with the objects and how once that con­text is removed (or for objects for which we don’t have con­text like the items in a still life) they take on a dif­fer­ent kind of mean­ing — a more uni­ver­sal one but with­out the degree of inti­ma­cy that we can bring to the objects that we hold as our own.

Whipsmart — Melissa Febos (2010)

I had an unex­pect­ed reac­tion to this book. I don’t trust the nar­ra­tor to be telling the truth. Part­ly because I don’t believe that addicts ever get over the habit of telling the not-truth. And part­ly because I don’t trust the end of the book.
A lot of the book is about Febos fronting. Keep­ing up appear­ances. Keep­ing one life away from the oth­ers and con­trol­ling any over­lap with humor and brava­do. All the while hid­ing from every­one the com­plete mess that she mak­ing of her life with drugs.
In her recov­ery from her life in the sex trade (which comes after her recov­ery from her life in drugs) the insights come too eas­i­ly and stick too well. Basi­cal­ly I think that at the end of the book — once she’s talked about all the dis­as­ters of her life, she’s still fronting — this time with the per­fec­tion of her new life.
It’s a young book and prone to the black and white rea­son­ing of youth. And I don’t trust that.

White is for Witching — Helen Oyeyemi (2009)

I love ghost sto­ries. This is ghost sto­ry, it’s just not clear who the ghosts are.
Like many of Oyeyemi’s books this one is told by sev­er­al nar­ra­tors. It is nec­es­sary to pay atten­tion. Miri, her twin Eliot, a friend of Mir­i’s called Ore, and the house — haunt­ed by four gen­er­a­tions of women, all have speak­ing parts. The house in par­tic­u­lar is an impor­tant voice. The house says things that the rest of the char­ac­ters either won’t or can’t say.
There is a witch­i­ness to all of the women involved in the sto­ry. Four gen­er­a­tions of the Sil­ver women, two house­keep­ers, (the first who runs away, and the sec­ond who stays for rea­sons of her own), even Mir­i’s col­lege friend Ore has some mag­ic in her.
It’s all very witchy and haunt­ed and ghost­ly and won­der­ful. (I found this book not as hard to fol­low as Mr. Fox which I reviewed in Novem­ber. But this time I was bet­ter pre­pared for the task of care­ful­ly track­ing who the speak­ers are.)

Glitter in the Blood: A Poet’s Manifesto for Better, Braver Writing — Mindy Nettifee (2012)

Much of a much­ness with all the oth­er “craft” books that are real­ly about psy­chol­o­gy, unblock­ing inspi­ra­tion, etc. Net­tifee writes in a kind of fun voice with lots of ran­dom asides. (She admires Kurt Von­negut’s essay style which led me to Wampeters, Foma, and Gal­lafoons. A very worth­while dis­cov­ery reviewed below. )
The sec­ond half of the book claims to address the mat­ter of edit­ing. Like most books that address edit­ing it is pret­ty use­less, for me, at least. The only way that I can under­stand edit­ing is to watch the process. It’s not enough to say — look for mixed metaphors. I need to see exam­ples of the “crimes” I am sup­posed to be avoid­ing and ways to “fix” them, whether I agree or not. Per­haps it is impos­si­ble to teach revision?
It does­n’t help that I don’t par­tic­u­lar­ly like Net­tifee’s poet­ry. Maybe I should have read some before I bought the book. But I review most of the poet­ry craft books that pass along my notice. It’s a pub­lic ser­vice to the rest of you ;)
There is one fab­u­lous game bor­rowed from Rachel McK­ibbens. Make a list of ten inan­i­mate objects, then make a list of ten ani­mals, then make a list of char­ac­ter­is­tics and habits of those ani­mals. Remove the mid­dle list and apply the char­ac­ter­is­tics and habits of the ani­mals to the inan­i­mate objects Voila inter­est­ing bits of poet­ic lan­guage that you can use as jump­ing off places.

Caramelo — Sandra Cisneros (2003)

The explo­ration of the sto­ry­teller’s role in fam­i­ly life comes to the fore as the young Mex­i­can ‑Amer­i­can Ceyala Reyes begins to dig into and then tell the sto­ry of her Awful Grand­moth­er and how she came to be just that Awful, despite her grand­moth­er’s ghost­ly objec­tions. There is, as in most fam­i­ly books, a moment of redemp­tion at the end. But here it is not spoiled by being too easy. The fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships remain uneasy as all fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships do.
I love read­ing Cis­neros for her descrip­tions of things. Though occa­sion­al­ly the lists of objects can get to be too long. Her descrip­tion of all the things seen on a walk down street in Mex­i­co City, while accu­rate, goes on just enough to long to break the fab­u­lous spell of being over­whelmed. Still her abil­i­ty to inject a bit of poet­ry and invoke the emo­tion of a time and place with per­fect­ly cho­sen descrip­tive ele­ments points to her poet­’s training.

Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons — Kurt Vonnegut (1999)

Just for your information:

Wampeters–An object around which the lives of oth­er­wise unre­lat­ed peo­ple revolve, e.g., The Holy Grail.
Foma–Harm­less, com­fort­ing untruths, e.g., “Pros­per­i­ty is just around the corner.”
Gran­fal­loons–A proud and mean­ing­less asso­ci­a­tion of human beings, e.g., The Vet­er­ans of Future Wars

A col­lec­tion of essays, book reviews, a cou­ple of com­mence­ment speech­es, and a longish inter­view with play­boy mag­a­zine. It’s inter­est­ing to see Von­negut at the height of his fame look­ing back­ward and for­ward. Many peo­ple speak of the great pes­simism of these pieces but I would argue that any­one who holds to true a moral code and the belief in the pow­er of human com­mu­ni­ties (lack­ing though they may be at this moment) can­not be con­sid­ered a true blood­ed pes­simist but only a sit­u­a­tion­al one. Pieces not to miss include: Bifra: A Peo­ple Betrayed, which gives back­ground to a con­flict that I was only vague­ly aware of at the time and ren­ders what is now his­to­ry heart­break­ing­ly, acute­ly clear. The Play­boy Inter­view — wide-ranging and a fine exam­ple of why we used to read the mag­a­zine. But per­haps most impor­tant­ly — In the Man­ner that God Must Shame Him­self. Pub­lished in Harper’s Mag­a­zine in Novem­ber 1972 — in respons­es to the Repub­li­can Nation­al Con­ven­tion which nom­i­nat­ed Richard Nixon. In which Von­negut (right­ly) divides our polit­i­cal sys­tem not into Demo­c­rat and Repub­li­can but into Win­ners and Losers. A painful­ly accu­rate recast­ing of the polit­i­cal dis­course. It seems to me that Von­negut owes the world (no, he does­n’t owe us shit, real­ly) to put this one out there in an eas­i­ly find­able, read­able form. Or maybe Harpers should ask for reprint rights.

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