Sev­er­al books in this issues point to a trend: writ­ers seem to be los­ing the mag­ic in their work. Is it age, too much writ­ing, or the unbe­liev­ably car­toon­ish real­i­ty of the times? What­ev­er, the mag­ic is gone from a lot of writ­ing at the moment.

* Mag­i­cal Real­ism can’t keep up with the zeitgeist. *


Dust: La Belle Sauvage — Philip Pullman (2017)

This is a (pr)equel (that’s Pullman’s term) to the His Dark Mate­ri­als books. La Bell Sauvage describes how the young Lrya came to be at Jor­dan Col­lege Oxford. This book lacks the sur­pris­ing grandeur of the Gold­en Com­pass but will that ever be topped? If you’re will­ing to set your sights lit­tle low­er, then you’re in for enjoy­able ride down the flood­ed, mud­dy, treach­er­ous Thames river.
LBS is set up in a small vil­lage on the Thames above Oxford were we meet Mal­colm a mild-mannered, curi­ous child who lives and works in his par­ents pub. Mal­colm meets the infant Lrya while run­ning errands for the sis­ters at the God­stow nun­nery. Known for his curios­i­ty and frankly a bit of a busy­body, Mal­colm is recruit­ed by an Oxford schol­ar who is study­ing the alei­theme­ter and who works with a secret orga­ni­za­tion that oppos­es the Mages­teri­um to use his friend­ship with the sis­ters to keep an eye on the com­ing and goings near Lyra. As things devel­op the Magestri­um, in light of a mys­te­ri­ous prophe­cy, wants to take con­trol of the infant Lyra.
Just as the Mager­steri­um gets Lyra in to their clutch­es, a flood of pos­si­bly super­nat­ur­al ori­gin occurs and Mal­colm and Alice (the pot wash­er at his par­ents pub) by hap­pen­stance find them­selves rac­ing down the flood­ed riv­er in Mal­com’s lit­tle boat (the Belle Sauvage of the title) with the baby Lyra. There’s thrills and spills and fairies and the scari­est vil­lain so far with a hideous maimed hye­na daemon.
There were parts of the end of the book that left me lit­er­al­ly breath­less and made me seri­ous­ly recon­sid­er what I was read­ing at bed­time. There were images that I did­n’t just need in my brain as I was drift­ing off to sleep. But I per­sist­ed as do Mal­colm and Alice and in the end Lyra is safe­ty deliv­ered to Jor­dan College.
The main char­ac­ters Mal­colm and Alice are com­fort­able drawn children/teenagers. One thing that did con­fuse me a bit was the age gap between Mal­colm and Alice. At the begin­ning of the book Mal­colm is pre­sent­ed as 12(ish) and Alice as 16. That’s a big gap for kids. Giv­en the age dif­fer­ence, some the lat­er mate­r­i­al bor­ders on creepy as they interact.
In the end while it’s a nice book and had some love­ly light moments and some real moments of ter­ror. It’s very pre­quel and the end­ing is only sat­is­fy­ing because I know how things work out in lat­er books.

* Lyra as MacGuffin *

Practical Magic — Alice Hoffman (2003)

What hap­pens when your sis­ter shows up with a dead body in the trunk of her boyfriend’s car? You help her bury it in the back yard of course. At least I’m pret­ty sure that’s what I would do. And that’s what Sal­ly Owen does when her sis­ter Gillam shows up with the very dead Jimmy.
The main char­ac­ters are the Owens sis­ters Sal­ly and Gillian. Daugh­ters of the witchy Owens fam­i­ly, as chil­dren they were alter­nate­ly shunned and tor­ment­ed by their class­mates. Once old enough they both run as far as they could from the lega­cy of their moth­ers, grand­moth­er, and aun­ties. Sal­ly and Gillian are a bit pre­dictable as the good sis­ter who set­tles down and strives for nor­mal­cy and the bad sis­ter who runs around and has lousy taste in men. Though this pre­dictabil­i­ty leads to the fun of watch­ing sol­id, sta­ble, des­per­ate­ly nor­mal Sal­ly com­plete­ly lose her abil­i­ty to con­trol her world when a cer­tain inves­ti­ga­tor from Ari­zona appears look­ing for Jim­my the back­yard denizen.
The char­ac­ters of the Sal­ly’s two daugh­ters are much more real­is­tic than most por­tray­als of teenagers as sec­ondary char­ac­ters. This makes me hap­py. The end­ing isn’t as scary as I had hoped it would be.

* Do I remem­ber the movie cor­rect­ly? Was­n’t Jim­my a zom­bie in the movie? *

The Refrigerator Monologues — Catherine M. Valente (2017)

Valente takes Gail Simone’s 1999 explo­ration of the misog­y­ny of the world of com­ic books and super heroes and builds her own world around it. Simone point­ed out that the female char­ac­ters in most (near­ly all) of the world of comics and super heroes are mere plot points, facil­i­ta­tors for the sto­ry arc of the male super heroes. This book is a col­lec­tion of self-narrated sto­ries of these “refrig­er­at­ed” females. In Valente’s book each of the mem­bers of the Hell Hath No club tells her sto­ry. There is the plucky hero­ine who dis­cov­ers (acci­den­tal­ly of course) the secret for­mu­la that trans­forms the hero from a every­man to a super­man and then gets her­self killed by the vil­lain look­ing for the for­mu­la for his own uses. The girl whose child is killed so that the hero can shout “for the death of my son” every time he goes onto bat­tle with the vil­lain who killed his son. The girl is of course for­got­ten as soon as the child is ripped from her arms.
There are the female (semi)villains. A cou­ple of girls who serve as keys — lit­er­al­ly — they most­ly let/get the real male vil­lains out of some sort of con­fine­ment. And the super girl whose fab­u­lous pow­er out strips the guys but who lacks con­trol, turns to evil, and must be destroyed for the greater good. The sub­text being that, of course, a male would be able to con­trol these pow­ers but being a girl she can’t.
Each of the tellers of these sto­ries is dis­guised ver­sion of a female char­ac­ter in the world of comics and super­heroes. It can be a bit of a par­ty game to name them all.

The sto­ries have Valen­te’s usu­al facil­i­ty with lan­guage and the point is well made.

(Though am I the only one who miss­es her less com­mer­cial for­ays — those bril­liant mythopoe­ic con­struc­tions that made up Palimpsest and the Orphans Tales?)

* an Alexan­der DeWitt festschrift *

In the Midst of Winter — Isabel Allende (2017)

Every year on Jan­u­ary 8th Allende starts a new book. One recent year she was a bit behind in com­ing up with an idea for a book and so she and her fam­i­ly brain­stormed the ideas that would become this book. It’s got a bit of the feel of a TV show with indi­vid­ual episodes with the life sto­ries of the char­ac­ters hang­ing on the loose over­ar­ch­ing plot line of the dis­cov­ery of a dead woman in the trunk of a “bor­rowed” car dur­ing a NYC blizzard.
There are three char­ac­ters — Richard Bow­man, a stul­ti­fied 60-something pro­fes­sor, the viva­cious old­er Chilean col­lege instruc­tor, Lucia Maraz, who is liv­ing in his base­ment apart­ment, and Eve­lyn Orte­ga an undoc­u­ment­ed Guatemalan immi­grant. When Bow­man runs into the back of Orte­ga’s employ­er’s Lexus dur­ing a bliz­zard, the three char­ac­ters are thrown togeth­er and a caper begins. Each character’s back sto­ry is effect­ing and pro­vides a glimpse into the immi­grant or ex-pat expe­ri­ence from a very dif­fer­ent perspective.
The Guatemalan girl — as effect­ing as her per­son­al sto­ry is — is just the mute don­key that car­ries the two old­er pro­tag­o­nists towards each oth­er as the sto­ry winds down to its inevitable con­clu­sion the old folks fall in love at long last.

* you nev­er know what you’re gong to find in the trunk *


Poetry Toolkit: The Essential Guide to Studying Poetry, 2nd Ed. — Rhian Willimas (2013)

One of the bet­ter poet­ry text books. This is all the stuff about poet­ry that you need to know to write that essay your instruc­tor asked for. It includes a wider selec­tion of poet­ry exam­ples than many of its sort.
I still can’t man­age the bull­shit lev­el nec­es­sary for “close read­ing” in the aca­d­e­m­ic sense. Too much imput­ing inten­tion to poets for every lit­tle thing that the read­er can find in a poem. Don’t get me start­ed on how many close read­ings strait­jack­et a poem into the read­er’s pet set of lit­er­ary theories.
Still. If you need a back­up text to make the one you’ve been assigned this isn’t a bad place to start. It’s hel­la cheap­er than Fussel and lacks some of his more objec­tion­able attitudes.

* log­i­cal­ly orga­nized and not too painful *

Rag Pickers Guide to Poetry — eds: Eleanor Wilner and Maurice Manning (2013)

A col­lec­tion of small essays and sam­ples of poet­ry from folks who have taught at the War­ren Wil­son MFA pro­gram. Most of these essays con­sist of: here’s a poem or three and here’s what I think about my own work with­out propos­ing a larg­er idea. There are a hand­ful of good essays here. Among the more worth­while essays — Chris Forhan sug­gests remov­ing words like because and although from your vocab­u­lary and see­ing where the more declar­a­tive and defin­i­tive take you. Rick Bar­dot has inter­est­ing ideas on step­ping away from the visu­al. And final­ly there is this love­ly quote from Heather McHugh which I am tak­ing entire­ly out of context:
“The poem engages in a sort of net­work’s plea­sure, mak­ing its cat’s cra­dle, using the odd­est threads it could find, in the spool-rooms or yam­mer and yarn.”
It is, I think, the truest thing I have read about poet­ry in quite a while.

* poets talk­ing to them­selves about themselves *

The Cuckoo — Peter Streckfus (2004)

One of the poets that I dis­cov­ered via the Lousie Gluck intro­duc­tions in her Amer­i­can Orig­i­nal­i­ty. These poems are chewy and thick and not at all sweet. There are strands drawn from sev­er­al tra­di­tions, includ­ing Chi­nese leg­end and the Old West. All woven cun­ning­ly into nar­ra­tives that almost make sense and leave you won­der­ing how you can put in the few miss­ing pieces.

* poems that invite your imag­i­na­tion in. 


Innocents Abroad: Or the New Pilgrim’s Progress — Mark Twain, Narrated by: Grover Gardner (2011)

Clas­sic Twain — long, detailed, and alter­nate­ly broad­ly and sly­ly fun­ny. Twain’s reports from a 6 month round trip voy­age from New York to the Lev­ant. It’s Twain. It’s a clas­sic and many of the atti­tudes that Twain makes fun of still grate on the soul.
The nar­ra­tion is pitch per­fect. The very slight drawl that one asso­ciates with Twain’s dic­tion is here. And the thing is read “straight” which makes the satire all that much sharp­er. There is no wink­ing at the lis­ten­er on the part of the read­er. At least no winks that aren’t in Twain’s orig­i­nal. Good job.

* real­ly, real trip recount­ed in seri­ous­ly unre­al episodes *

Heartburn — Norah Ephron Narrator: Meryl Streep (2013)

An oldie that stands up well enough oth­er that a cou­ple of anachro­nisms. ($50 shut­tle flights between NYC and DC.) It’s kind of light and has a love­ly bit­ter bite to it. The end­ing is hap­pi­ly ambigu­ous. Meryl Streep is the per­fect nar­ra­tor. Her slight accent (from where I’ve nev­er fig­ured out) lends just the right upper class touch to the sto­ry. Streep can do bitchy like no one’s busi­ness and she applies that perfectly- just a hint in the sto­ry of mar­riage gone com­i­cal­ly wrong. Noth­ing deep here. Just the banal things of mar­riage and betray­al and cook­ing. I like hav­ing Meryl Streep read to me and I won­dered what else she’s read. Answer: a lot of chil­dren’s book includ­ing Beat­rix Potter.

* the recipes aren’t all that, but who reads fic­tion for the recipes? *

Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood — Trevor Noah narrated by the author (2016)

The sto­ries are effect­ing and some­times very fun­ny. The author is after all a come­di­an. There is no self-pity and no self-aggrandizement. Just the hon­est sto­ries of one boy/young man grow­ing up in a par­tic­u­lar his­toric time and place. I laughed a lot in that know­ing way that lives some­where between fun­ny and poignant.
Aside from all the rest, (and you can look up any num­ber of deserved­ly glow­ing reviews else­where) Noah’s take on trib­al­ism and how tribe, race, and lan­guage are used to manip­u­late the emo­tions and actions of peo­ple who is root­ed in the work­ings a com­plex soci­ety formed around many lit­er­al tribes. This book gave me much to think about with regards to our own coun­try and it’s issues of race and class.

* maybe I should start watch­ing late night television *