2013 Reading: Swoop by Hailey Leithauser

swoopSwoop: Poems by Hailey Leithauser

Good poetry is usually edifying, but it isn’t always fun. I get the sense that this poet had a blast writing these poems, which take full advantage of word play, aggressive rhymes, and playful rhythms. In fact, I’ve never read another book quite like it.

Many of the poems have short lines (many just 3 syllables); the poet is fond of palindromes; the short lines tend to emphasize rhymes; and there are more than a few puns throughout this short book.

Plus, look at that cover. Even if the poems weren’t smart and fun (they are) you could by the book just for the beautiful cover (a 1918 painting by Paul Klee).

2013 Reading: Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

daring greatlyDaring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown

The fear of failure can be paralyzing, but so can the fear of already having failed–which is shame. So many people are immobilized by poor self-image, whether it is about appearance or performance. And we experience this sort of trauma from an early age, when people call us names, or parents/teachers/coaches belittle us for doing poorly in school or on the sports field. And the shame feeds on itself, making it harder to overcome.

On the other hand, if we can get past the shame and embrace vulnerability, we can achieve beyond our expectations. And, after all, you can’t win if you don’t play the game.

The title of the book comes from a wonderful quotation from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic.” And what I liked about the book is that it isn’t all about feeling better about yourself, which many pop-psychology books seem to be. This book actually offers suggestions for empowering others, including your students, colleagues, and children.

2013 Reading: The Civilized World by Susi Wyss

civilized worldThe Civilized World: A Novel in Stories by Susi Wyss

Even if the author were not a friend of mine, I would be writing about how wonderful this book is. I’m so sorry I didn’t read it when it first came out! But I’ve corrected that oversight now and I’m here to say you should read this book.

It says on the cover that it’s a “novel in stories.” After the first couple of stories–all wonderful–I wasn’t too sure about it being a novel. But soon the connections became clear and by the end there was no doubt. This is the story of Janice, an American woman who works on development projects in Africa after first going there in the Peace Corps. Her life intersects in Abidjan with Adjoa, a hair dresser from Accra. The stories give the reader several episodes from the lives of these women as well as a few others who play a role. The result is a completely satisfying whole.

This book won the Maria Thomas Fiction Award from Peace Corps Worldwide in 2011, the year after I won the same award for my book In an Uncharted Country.

Interested in Africa? Interested in Novels in Stories? Read this book.

2013 Reading: Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson

death by black holeDeath by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

This book was the September selection for my Reading Liberally Book Club. And while I guess there won’t be too much to discuss, I expect everyone will like it. I sure did.

The book was constructed from Tyson’s columns in Natural History. As a result, there is some repetition and there is no narrative thread that holds the book together. No matter, each chapter is a morsel of fascinating information about the cosmos. I still can’t say I really understand what a black hole is, and there were a number of other chapters that were difficult for me to comprehend, but on the whole (I almost said “hole”), Tyson’s approach makes this book valuable for anyone, no matter how limited your understanding of science is.

We recently also read Carl Sagan’s Varieties of Scientific Experience, which I also enjoyed. But this book is more up to date, and Tyson’s prose style is even clearer than Sagan’s.

A terrific read for anyone who wants to come closer to understanding the cosmos.

2013 Reading: Secure the Shadow by Claudia Emerson

secureSecure the Shadow: Poems by Claudia Emerson.

I would have read this collection even if it weren’t a finalist for the Library of Virginia Award in Poetry because Emerson, who has been on faculty at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference several times (maybe every time?) when I’ve been there, is a wonderful poet. I truly enjoyed one of her previous books, Late Wife, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

This is a melancholy collection, dealing as it does with death and memories, but as Kelly Cherry says in her endorsement, the poems are “graceful, sturdy, fiercely controlled, [and] profoundly imaged.”

The title of the book comes from an advertising slogan for postmortem images of the deceased: “Secure the shadow ‘ere the substance fade.” The title poem describes several such images. Other poems grapple with the the deaths of a sibling, a parent, pets, farm animals–it’s everywhere and unavoidable.

2013 Reading: Come August, Come Freedom by Gigi Amateau

come augustCome August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows, and The Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau

In this book for younger readers (12 and up), Gigi Amateau tells the beautiful story of a failed slave rebellion in 1800. The story is largely imagined, and yet it is clearly based on meticulous research, and it sheds light on a historical event with which I was not familiar.

I am not in the habit of reading books aimed at younger readers. This one I read, though, because I know Gigi and because the book is a finalist for the Library of Virginia’s People’s Choice Award.

Told mostly from the point of view of Gabriel, the leader of the failed rebellion, the story depicts his childhood on a Virginia plantation. It is often the story of betrayal–at the hands of his white playmate who becomes his “master” and his compatriots in the rebellion. But it’s also a love story. For me, primarily, it was a history lesson.

I would definitely recommend this book for young readers.

2013 Reading: Bones of an Inland Sea by Mary Akers

Bones_of_an_Inland_Sea_coverBones of an Inland Sea by Mary Akers

This is a wonderful collection of stories (linked thematically and with some character connections) by a good friend. In fact, most if not all of these stories I had seen in early drafts because Mary and I frequently exchange stories for critique. And I’m also please to say that I published one of the stories in Prime Number Magazine (“Treasures Few Have Ever Seen” in Issue 29, October 2012). And I was pleased to include an interview with Mary on this blog recently.

Individually, the stories are terrific, and they also make for an impressive book as they deal with environmental issues, especially, but also dramatic interpersonal relationships that color all of human existence. In one story, the protagonist is dealing with the both the ecological and human catastrophe that is the Boxing Day Tsunami in Southeast Asia. In another story the protagonist deals with the aftermath of choices she made long ago as a graduate student studying the “bones of an inland sea” when she had an affair with her professor. In yet another story, a character uses her knowledge of jelly fish to her advantage.

Andrea Barrett says of the book: “In Mary Akers’s stories, as complexly intertwined as the branches of a coral reef, her passionate characters engage both each other and a richly detailed vital physical world. An impressive achievment.” I wouldn’t normally quote a blurb from the book’s cover, but that pretty much sums up what this book is. So there you have it.

Also, check out Mary’s cool new website.

2013 Reading: The First Man by Albert Camus

firstmanThe First Man by Albert Camus

Unquestionably, Camus was one of the most influential writers and thinkers of the 20th Century. The Stranger is one of the most important books of the last 100 years, perhaps ever. So I was a bit intimidated to pick up The First Man, Camus’s posthumous autobiographical novel. (Apparently, the handwritten manuscript was in his possession when he died.)

There are two important aspects to the book. One is its very nature as an unfinished work. It includes mistakes and notes to himself, scribblings and unintelligible words. And yet, for all that, the prose is often quite beautiful. It’s clear that the finished product, if Camus had lived to complete the book (and revise and edit it) would have been amazing. The other important feature are the themes of the book and clear indications of the source of the writer’s alienation. We see his childhood in Algiers and his difficult life, but it’s also clear that he emerged from that background with distinct views.

It’s an important read for anyone who is interested in Camus.

2013 Reading: Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

snowhuntersSnow Hunters: A Novel by Paul Yoon

It’s not that I didn’t like this book. I did. It’s a short, quiet narrative that I was quite interested to follow. But I am puzzled by it, too. It is extremely quiet. Very little happens, at least not in the present, which is what forms the bulk of the story. And the language is surprisingly static, perhaps on purpose. (Start counting the instances of the verb “to be” and you’ll quickly lose track, there are so many.) There are also some odd shifts of point of view that I thought were unnecessary, and there’s not a whole lot of dialogue, either. In general, it’s a story that feels “told” as opposed to being “shown,” and as a result, I just can’t say that I love it.

On the other hand, it’s an intriguing story. Yohan is a North Korean who is captured during the Korean war and imprisoned in the South. Eventually, a year after the war, he chooses not to be repatriated and so, instead, is sent to Brazil where he becomes an apprentice to a Japanese tailor. (The story begins in 1954, and Yohan describes the hill town in Brazil, mentioning the television antennas. I thought this was odd. TV did come to Brazil before this date—although it probably was only in major cities—but would Yohan, who grew up in North Korea and was a prisoner in the South, where TV didn’t arrive until later, even know what the antennas were? We also get lots of flashbacks as we learn about Yohan’s friend Peng, and also Yohan’s father) He interacts with the local people, eventually learns Portuguese, and becomes attached to a couple of homeless children. Time passes . . .

I think the review of this book in the New York Times hits on my discomfort here. Yohan doesn’t seem to want anything. He is disconnected and seems content to remain so. As Tatiana Soli writes, “While this reticence might seem logical in the context of Yohan’s postwar trauma, it is mirrored to some extent in all the characters. Inaction, like happiness, is a form of narrative stasis that is difficult to write about. No matter how strikingly rendered, a series of moments and images ultimately needs causation rather than mere accumulation to move the story forward.” Soli lets him off easily, here, because I think this is a significant concern. Then again, in a novel this short, maybe readers aren’t expected to notice. Writers probably do.

I enjoyed the book, in the end, but it left me wanting more. Maybe that’s a good thing.

(I know Paul and have greatly admired his short stories in the past. I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work in the future!)

2013 Reading: Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

redmoonRed Moon: A Novel by Benjamin Percy

Great cover. But that’s pretty much where my fondness for this book ends. And that’s not really the book’s fault. I generally don’t read science fiction, and I stay away from werewolves and vampires (in fiction and real life). So I probably shouldn’t have even opened this book. But . . . I’ve met the author and I’ve liked his short stories and his previous novel, so I thought I’d give this a try.

As I say, werewolves are not my thing, and this book is so over-the-top with werewolves (“lycans,” technically) that it was a struggle to keep reading. But I did keep reading, and I’m glad I did, because werewolves notwithstanding, there are some important things to learn from this book.

Such as: Be bold. The book doesn’t worry much about realism, or contemporary history, or charges of obvious allegory. All of that is beside the point. We have larger-than-life characters (Chase, the Governor of Oregon, for example, and his sidekick “Buffalo”), we have an Osama bin Laden-like character in “the Master,” the leader of the rebellious lycans, and we have Miriam, a kickass lycan heroine.

Also: Be relentless. While there were a few slow moments, and gore is skippable, for the most part the story grabs you by the throat (with its teeth) and won’t let go. To be sure, it’s so far-fetched that it won’t create nightmares, but it kept me reading if only to find out what would happen to the young protagonists. (I had a pretty good idea, but there were some interesting twists along the way.)

So if werewolves are something you’re interested in, definitely read this book. Otherwise . . . maybe.