April 4, 2013
Every year on Easter weekend, I travel with friends to Akron, Ohio, for the Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society’s Antiquarian Book Fair, otherwise known as the NOBS fair. Booksellers from the tristate area and beyond (Wisconsin, New York, Kentucky and, one year, Montreal, Quebec) bring their rare and used books to display in booths organized in one big room. This year, there were a little more than 35 exhibitors, which is almost half of what it used to be in better economic times. Nevertheless, it was a bonanza of new discoveries for book collectors and readers, and for me a budget-busting challenge. Accessibility to so many booksellers in one room for a limited time eliminates any chance for my preferred “peruse and think about it” style that allows me to buy carefully. In Akron, in that one-room mecca, I shop like I’ve got Warren Buffett as a Sugar Daddy. Fueling the frenzy is the reality that every time I walk away from a booth to think about a book, I have to be prepared someone else, right behind me, might buy it.
That happened one year with a 1929 edition of Robert Graves Good-bye to All That. No dust jacket and nothing really collectible about it. What I liked were the black-and-white photographs. It was $40, and I don’t collect Graves, so I walked away. But as my friends and I were getting ready to leave for dinner, I rushed back to buy it, giving in to my impulse. The bookseller saw me looking for it on the shelf and said it was gone. He then casually mentioned the book was the first he’d seen in that edition in his 30 years as a bookseller. By those very words, I became afflicted with the haunting of “the one that got away.”
I began to search for the book online that same night, after I got home, at midnight. It had to have all the same parameters — no dust jacket, 1929, $40, first edition, sixth impression — and true to what the bookseller said, the book didn’t show up anywhere. But a few weeks later it did, in England, and I purchased it online, and then a day or two later the British bookseller sent me an email saying he couldn’t find it.
The one rare-books merchant I look for every year at the Akron fair is Booklegger’s Books from Chicago. His modern first editions are in beautiful condition, and his selections never fail to hook me because they are the novelists and poets whose first editions I want on my shelves. Over the years, they have included a first edition of Jean Genet’s 1954 The Thief’s Journal; a signed first edition limited to 250 copies of Diane Wakoski’s poem Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons; and a signed first of Tim O’Brien’s 1978 Vietnam classic Going After Cacciato. One year, there was The Three Cornered Hat, published in 1928. I’d never heard of it, let alone seen it before, and yet I was drawn to it for the construct of the dust jacket, with the edges cut out like a paper hat.
This year, leaving NOBS, I felt the hint of anxiety that comes with the realization I’ve once again so easily, without question, ignored my budget. It keeps happening, despite my proven ability to control myself and honor limits at other book venues. Had I time to think about all the books I wanted to buy — lay them out in front of me and determine which ones I could put back for another time (or forever) — I’d have faired better. But that’s not how this works. At Booklegger’s, as I wrote my check for the beautiful Pulitzer Prize Edition of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, gorgeously illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, a man approached and asked Larry, the bookseller, if he had anything illustrated by Wyeth.
There are two books from other booksellers I did indeed walk away from to think about. I guess I felt I wouldn’t miss them, if I went back and they were gone. In fact, I didn’t go back for them. One, The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, is a common find, although this first edition was in perfect condition — “very fine,” as described by the trade. The other, a novel by R. F. Delderfield, who wrote God Is an Englishman, holds nostalgic strings over me from my youth, and that one, A Horseman Riding By, I admit, I was looking for online at midnight, after I got home.
June 22, 2012
Imagine everything you’ve done in your life — all the activities you’ve pursued that didn’t seem to have any significance beyond daily life — evolving into your finest work at the end of your life: beautifully, miraculously, unbidden and without purpose.
That is the story of Britain’s Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700 – 1788). Although she moved in aristocratic circles, she lived as many ordinary people live today, making choices that determine a life, such as her marriages to Alexander Pendarves (a slobbering, rich old man) and later to Dean Delany (a Protestant Irish clergyman). Her choices also included designing dresses, crewelwork, painting, gardening and a full social life. She didn’t have children but had a long, devoted relationship with her sister and a deep connection with her second husband. “She wasn’t an expert at anything except observing,” Molly Peacock writes in The Paper Garden. “And then she did something no one had ever done before.”
After the death of Mr. Delany, Mary took refuge at Bulstrode, the Buckinghamshire estate of her long-time friend, Margaret Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland. Laid up with a foot injury, the 72-year-old widow sat beside her table of art supplies and noticed the color of a piece of paper matched that of a nearby geranium petal. She cut out the petal shape from the paper, “commencing the most remarkable work of her life.”
Over the next ten years, Mary Delany created 985 intricate, botanically accurate “flower mosaicks,” as she called them, precursors to today’s mixed media art form. They are composed of “the tiniest dots, squiggles, scoops, moons, slivers, islands and loops of brightly colored paper” placed on deep black backgrounds. For Mary Delany, the floral concoctions were just another one of the many projects she’d pursued over the decades, this time assembling a personal, visual memoir she named Flora Delanica. The results, though, now reside in the British Museum.
Last year, when The Paper Garden was first published, I hesitated to read it, thinking it would be filled more with botanical discussions than storytelling. It is such a gorgeous book, though — a stunning design with 35 full-color illustrations — I couldn’t forget it. So for months I engaged in a ridiculous biblio-nerd’s courtship with the book, borrowing it from the library, asking for it in bookstores (sold-out at New York’s Three Lives & Co.) and searching for it online. I wanted to own it more than I wanted to read it.
The book repeatedly drew me toward it, and I repeatedly pushed it away. It insistently held on, so I surrendered to the paperback released this year. When I read it, I found myself delightfully absorbed in Molly Peacock’s unforgettable search for answers among Delany’s cut-out flowers about aging and life work. Molly Peacock is an award-winning author of six volumes of poetry. Her insights, beautiful writing and poetic leaps make The Paper Garden an unforgettable, winning combination of biography and life philosophy. And let me be clear, The Paper Garden is not at all the intimidating botanical complexity I thought it would be, rather an extraordinary narrative and visual treasure for everyone.
Hound’s Tongue, Damask Rose, Nodding Thistle, Opium Poppy, Magnolia and Everlasting Pea (above), are some of the flowers illustrated in this fascinating book that explores how a life blooms. Molly Peacock engages with the flowers as metaphors that open the door into Mrs. Delany’s relationships with her sister and husbands, social activities and independent life between marriages. Also, in brief interludes, Peacock draws parallels between her life and Delany’s, bringing warmth and 21st century relevance to the 18th century story. Indeed, often this gifted author writes powerful sentences loaded with fodder for the examined life, such as when she casually remarks, “But in life our routines are the signposts of destiny.”
“Seventy-two years old. It gives a person hope,” Molly Peacock writes. “Who doesn’t hold out the hope of starting a memorable project at a grand old age?”
You can hear her joy and astonishment in these sentences, as well as when she writes about her discovery trips to England and Ireland, visiting the mosaicks in the British Museum and Mrs. Delany’s 86-year-old relative, Ruth Hayden, outside Bath. I could feel it — the uplifting hope that life can still surprise us in our last decades with an unknown gift that’s been percolating throughout the years. “Some things take living long enough to do,” Molly Peacock tells us several times at the end of the book, with more of that joy and astonishment.
April 5, 2012
I recently re-read John Gardner’s Grendel, the 1971 novel that re-tells the first part of the epic medieval poem Beowulf from the monster’s viewpoint. The willingness to give reading time to a book I’ve already read, when there’s not enough time to read all the books I haven’t read, got triggered by an advanced reading copy of Grendel inscribed by the publisher to the intended receiver, “Please read. You will love this.” The ARC is a rare acquisition for my library that took me back to the time one of my college English literature professors gave me his copy of Grendel, thinking, I suppose, I’d appreciate Gardner’s extraordinary imagination and lyric monster writing. It was not an assignment, rather something Mr. Parks enjoyed and wanted to share with the student (me) who was interning with him that quarter. I read the book, but the story and all its meaning sailed right over my head.
So here, decades later, I’m reading Grendel out loud and walking around the room at the same time because one cannot sit still under that sheer magic created by Gardner, a narrative of such magnificent lyric words and insights you can’t help but to dramatically read the story out loud to hear them. I relished the rhythms of the lonely, philosophical monster’s fretting and roaring as he struggles to understand the purpose of his existence. Grendel doesn’t see himself as people see him, a violent fiend from hell, and Gardner skillfully brings to life the monster’s sweet, emotional confusion.
Grendel lurks outside King Hrothgar’s magnificent mead hall, spying on the drunken feasts and listening to the poetry of the harpist, known as the Shaper, who sings of goodness and hope. One day, the Shaper tells the story of Cain and Abel, “an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light.” Grendel learns he’s from the darkness, “the terrible race God cursed.” Filled with scorn and doubt, he seeks the counsel of a gold-hording dragon, who dismisses the idea there’s any meaning in life, light or dark, and claims the Shaper creates illusions. The dragon casts a spell on Grendel, making him invulnerable to any weapon. “I could walk up to the meadhall [sic] whenever I pleased, and they were powerless. My heart became darker because of that.”
Grendel rampages through the mead hall, savagely killing Hrothgar’s men night after night, seeing no worth in any life, especially because he can so easily take it. When he decides not to kill Hrothgar’s wife, he says:
“It would be meaningless, killing her. As meaningless as letting her live. It would be, for me, mere pointless pleasure, an illusion of order for this one frail, foolish flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity.”
He’s a horrible creature, but Gardner gives him humanity, and you can’t help but love Grendel — he’s intelligent, funny, self-loathing and monstrously witty. He knows what he’s doing isn’t right, and yet he can’t stop because he can’t reconcile the senselessness he sees in the world. He’s a beastly creature capable of love and sympathy — desiring it, actually — who transforms into evil because no one gave him a chance to be anything but evil. There’s a great life message here, and many more like it in this classic, right up to the end when Grendel finally is overcome by the hero Beowulf.
One doesn’t need to have read the original medieval poem to enjoy Gardner’s spin-off, but there’s so much more to Grendel’s story after his death, when Gardner’s novel ends, that it’s worth reading Beowulf either again or for the first time. I did (again). I picked up the wonderful translation by poet and Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney. Published in 2000, Heaney’s version became a national best-seller, which says it all – how often do you see translated medieval poetry described as a best-seller?
As for Gardner’s Grendel, it’s poignant, spiritually and psychologically rich, and delightful to read. I understand now why Mr. Parks wanted to share it.
Update: The title to this post was slightly modified after publication.
December 21, 2011
The Conference of the Birds is being referred to as the perfect gift book this season. It definitely fits that pocket, being the book is beautifully illustrated and tells a meaningful story about the human journey to make sense of our lives. It sheds light on the arduousness of the journey, the obstacles encountered and the reason why, as Winston Churchill proclaimed during World War II, one should “never, never, never, never give up.”
I don’t like the gift-book designation for The Conference of the Birds because it makes me think of relegating it to the coffee table for public display, and the story is one that should be kept more intimately near, at the bedside or in a personal drawer at the office. Its philosophies are worth revisiting to help us keep sight of life’s higher purpose, beyond the minutiae on our iPhones and Blackberries.
Peter Sís’ is a seven-time winner of The New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year award. He’s also a MacArthur Fellow (2003). The Conference of the Birds is an adaptation of Sufi poet Farid Ud-Din Attar’s masterpiece with the same title about one’s search for divine truth. Attar lived in northeastern Persia between the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, according to the book’s end pages.
Sís’ version opens with the poet Attar waking one Kafkaesque morning and realizing he’s a hoopoe bird. He gathers together all the birds of the world and rallies them to search for King Simorgh, hidden behind a veil of clouds, who has the answers to the world’s troubles. Some of the birds are reluctant to embark on the journey because they don’t want to leave their comfortable lives, and they’re not sure the king exists.
Nevertheless, off they go, filling the skies, soaring high and far. On their journey to find King Simorgh, who lives on the Mountain of Kaf, the birds must pass through seven valleys: quest, love, understanding, detachment, unity, amazement and death.
Some perish in these valleys; some lose hope; some get confused. In the Valley of Unity, “All who enter here are bound at the neck by one rope.” In the Valley of Detachment, “It is here that all curiosity and desire expire.” Most perplexing is the Valley of Amazement, “place of constant pain and gnawing bewilderment.”
Valleys are typical representations of challenges in a journey. Sís, however, keeps his storytelling unique and vibrant not alone with the colorful, abstract illustrations but also with the experiences of the feathered characters. Throughout, he reminds us the birds’ long flight is a pathway to wisdom by frequently incorporating into the artwork the symbol of a labyrinth, that circular path one walks to find the way to the center.
The most powerful and direct messages come toward the end with the explanation of why many birds don’t make the full journey. That is, why they give up. It’s a piercing reality check about human weakness, and one of those reasons I suggest the book be kept near. The power of fear and discouragement can be overwhelming, and that’s not only on spiritual journeys, but also the personal journeys one takes when following the heart or pursuing a dream.
Layers of new meaning reveal themselves with each new reading of the text. As I work on this post, I recognize for the first time, after two readings, the foreshadowing behind a statement the hoopoe makes in the beginning, pointing the birds toward a truth that will be revealed regarding the king on the Mountain of Kaf: “He is as close to us as we are far from him.” When you read the book, you’ll understand why.
June 7, 2011
I received a copy of Gaylord Brewer’s new poetry collection in March via a friend who’s a poet and university professor. He recommended the title and also procured a signed copy for me (love that!). I read several of the poems at that time and experienced subjects, philosophy and use of words that seduced my senses. By ‘use of words’ I mean how they’re conjoined and phrased, in a way I want to read out loud or repeat to enjoy a textured rhythm or cleverness.
But it wasn’t until these summer days arrived that I read Give Over, Graymalkin from beginning to end, during early dawn hours, and in so doing, “reclined in a therapy of summer morning.” That phrase is a beginning line in a poem about the dead metaphor of clouds. It appears in a section devoted to the banality of such overused metaphors, including the post-divorce Harley and the “old guy on that hog.” As Brewer confirms in this interview, the 15 poems with their “ribald humor and literary cynicism” are a thematic detour from the other, more reflective poems in the book.
The majority of the poems were written in India, Spain and France, and it’s the section from the time in India that’s my favorite. In one of those poems, Brewer makes a phone call to his mother in Kentucky in which he tries to express his experiences through “the echoes, stalls, hollows” of the long distance connection that “make joking difficult./ I hear my voice, stiff and loud.” In another he speaks of the spiritual guidance of a Swami who instructs him to laugh first thing in the morning – a laughing meditation – and so “I part curtains, lock doors and windows,/and start laughing my ass off.” It’s a brilliant poem carefully balanced between the humor of what seems ridiculous and the hope of a seeker.
Brewer’s writing invites pensive engagement without getting too heavy. Indeed, his reasoning, meditative voice in this terrific collection gets under your skin. Consider in “Jungle Appetites” how he reaches the point of recognizing “All the easy,/mournful luck of my life, announcing to the wild.”
November 18, 2010
Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule won the 2010 National Book Award (NBA) for fiction. The book’s publisher, McPherson & Company, released the book just days ago (November 15), so few have read and/or reviewed this astonishing winner. That’s not the big news, though, rather that once again a surprise unknown from a small press took a huge fiction award.
At the beginning of 2010, the year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded to Tinkers by Paul Harding, published by the small Bellevue Literary Press. During the years Harding tried to get his book published, New York agents and editors sent rejections and this laughable advice: “Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book.” (via The New York Times)
These two awards may well be the harbinger of small independent presses assuming the helm of literary fiction. They’re giving hope to readers and authors of this genre that small plus literary no longer equals obscure. Bruce McPherson, owner and publisher of McPherson & Co., said he usually prints 2,000 copies of a new book. When the Lord of Misrule was nominated as an NBA finalist, he took a chance and printed 8,000 (via WSJ Speakeasy).
I’d wager he’s going back for a second printing.
Here’s the list of winners for the 2010 National Book Award:
- Fiction: Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co.)
- Non-fiction: Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
- Poetry: Terrance Hayes, Lighthead (Penguin Books)
- Young People’s Literature: Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird (Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group)
November 12, 2010
Now here’s a book title that screams bad-boy poet Charles Bukowski. Beerspit Night and Cursing collects the correspondence between him and Sheri Martinelli from 1960 to 1967.
I don’t remember where I came across a mention of it this week, and the librarian who helped me find it couldn’t say how the book got lost in the stacks. No matter. It sits in front of me now, and I like the look and feel of this apparently much used library edition. Beat up and repaired, as the drinking, gambling, whoring, “laureate of lowlife” Bukowski would like it. (via Wikipedia)
Their correspondence began with a letter Martinelli sent Bukowski rejecting his poetry submission to her San Francisco literary magazine Anagogic & Paideumic Review. She said “i don’t find a ‘thump’ in yr work” and suggested he:
“go to the old boys–the greeks/latins/a good translation in library & discover that life has never been any different… then awakens in the soul… a desire to leave a message of help for those who come after us/ & not to list what life does & is doing to us/ maestro ezra pound kept telling me ‘now don’t dump yr garbage can on my head…’ so I learned this lesson the hard way…”
Bukowski was in fact well-read, having spent much of his youth in libraries. And so he informs Martinelli:
“I have read your classics, I have wasted a life in libraries, turning pages, looking for blood. It seems to me that there has not been ENOUGH garbage dumped, the pages do not scream; always the effected dignity and know-all and dry page sunburned and listless as wheat.”
You just gotta love the blunt-speaking Bukowski. The reason his poetry claims devoted fans, including this one.
Martinelli is not well-known today, but she was high-profile during her time, especially among the Beats. According to the book’s introduction, she was a protégée of Anaïs Nin and the muse and mistress of Ezra Pound. E. E. Cummings and Rod Steiger collected her art, which is now in collections around the world.
November 8, 2010
This photo of W. S. Merwin signing a book was taken after his reading at The Kenyon Review Literary Festival last Saturday night. The audience packed into Rosse Hall, putting me — delayed by traffic congestion on I-71 – in likely the worst seat in the house: the first row, smack up against the stage, in front of the podium that stood at the edge of the stage.
Imagine sitting in the first row of a movie theater, and you’ll get the idea of my crooked neck. All I could see was this U.S. Poet Laureate’s brilliant blue eyes and thick white hair. But what did it matter? One attends these events to listen.
W. S. Merwin read first from his collection The Vixen: Poems, published by Knopf in 1996, and later from The Shadow of Sirius, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. In between and among his readings of poems, he talked about his role as poet laureate, his love of dogs and our human connection to the natural world, which he said we should neither ignore nor exploit.
There was no Q&A after the reading. W. S. Merwin was escorted to a desk on stage where he signed one book per person. That’s his signature below on my first edition of The Shadow of Sirius. I also got another take-away from this event – curiosity to investigate, perhaps re-read, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame. Merwin invoked the satirist when he quoted from the Miscellanies: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”
Merwin’s first collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus, was published in 1952. From The New York Times: “Mr. Merwin came to wider attention for his hard-edged political allegories that condemned the Vietnam War and environmental destruction, starting with his 1967 collection, The Lice.” He’s written more than 30 books of poetry and prose as well as many translations. The Poetry Foundation provides a comprehensive list of his work.
William Stanley Merwin is the nation’s 17th poet laureate.
October 14, 2010
Two major literary awards –the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award – announced some unexpected results this week.
On Tuesday, Man Booker judges gave the coveted British award to 68-year-old Howard Jacobson for The Finkler Question. It’s the first comic novel to win the Man Booker since the inception of the prize 42 years ago. While many believe the award for Jacobson has been long in coming, The Finkler Question didn’t get as much “predicted winner” buzz as did Emma Donoghue’s Room and Tom McCarthy’s C.
On Wednesday, the National Book Foundation listed its 20 finalists for the 2010 National Book Awards (NBA), and guess who’s missing among the fiction finalists? “National Book Awards Snub Jonathan Franzen,” reports the Guardian.
Author Pat Conroy announced the Freedom-less 20 finalists in Flannery O’Connor’s Savannah, Georgia, childhood home. They include so many books I haven’t read, which is my big sigh every year when the finalists are announced. But that’s the beauty of the National Book Award selections: They’re unpredictable, bringing to the forefront impressive books deserving a wider audience. Last year, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story collection American Salvage published by Wayne State University Press rose into the literary limelight as an NBA fiction candidate. This year, Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel about Asian-Americans published by Coffee House Press, I Hotel, similarly rises.
Here is the full list of 2010 National Book Award finalists in the four categories. Two of the books aren’t available yet: James Richardson’s By the Numbers is set for publication November 1, and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule is to be published November 15. Unless the publishing houses release them earlier, the reading public doesn’t have access to them until a few days before the winner is announced, which will be November 17.
Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America
Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule
Nicole Krauss, Great House
Lionel Shriver, So Much for That
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel
Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq
Patti Smith, Just Kids
Justin Spring, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward
Megan K. Stack, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War
Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City
Terrance Hayes, Lighthead
James Richardson, By the Numbers
CD Wright, One With Others
Monica Youn, Ignatz
Young people’s literature
Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker
Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird
Laura McNeal, Dark Water
Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown
Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer
September 24, 2010
Here’s a handful of books that caught my interest this week. These are neither recommendations — I haven’t read them — nor forecasts, rather encounters that took me down a path to learn more about the books. All part of the ongoing discovery of what’s out there for us to read and enjoy.
How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Blackwell. This book sounds like a great way to be introduced to Montaigne, not only his life but the answers in his famous essays about how one best lives a life. Blackwell’s biography of the 16th century philosopher was first released in Britain. The Guardian’s review written by Ruth Scurr says this: “Central as the essays are to [Blackwell's] own approach to his life, it is ultimately his life-loving vivacity that she succeeds in communicating to her readers: ‘What he left behind was all the better for being imperfect, ambiguous, inadequate and vulnerable to distortion. Oh Lord, one might imagine Montaigne exclaiming, by all means let me be misunderstood.’”
Piano Lessons: A Memoir by Anna Goldsworthy. I’m a fan of life stories about piano lessons, being one who studied the piano many years and still plays my Yamaha U3. Goldsworthy is an Australian pianist who performs internationally and records with the ABC Classics label. She is also a teacher and on the Liszt list. That means she studied with a teacher who’s in a lineage of teachers who studied with composer Franz Liszt. From the book’s website: “With wit and affection, Goldsworthy captures the hopes and uncertainties of youth, the fear and exhilaration of performing and the complex bonds between teacher and student.”
Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye. A first novel in which a man returns home to Duluth, MN, to take care of his estranged, dying father. At the heart of their 35-year broken relationship is a shipwreck the father survived. From the publisher’s website: “When his father for the first time finally tells the story of the horrific disaster he has carried with him so long, it leads the two men to reconsider each other.” Geye’s debut is listed in Publishers Weekly’s Rousing the Sleepers: Top 20 hand-sells from independent presses this fall.
The Isabella Breviary. According to the publisher’s website, this is an exact replica of the 15th century illuminated manuscript given to Isabella of Castille to commemorate the double marriage of her children. (The original is owned by the British Museum.) Isabella is the queen who sponsored Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Publishing company Moleiro specializes in the reproduction of codices, maps and works of art between the 13th and 16th centuries. Fun to peruse online, not only this breviary but the several illuminated texts offered by Moleiro. 987 numbered copies being sold.
One with Others [a little book of her days] by C. D. Wright. Several years ago I discovered C. D. Wright via her poem “More Blues and the Abstract Truth.” It remains one of my favorite poems. Her poetry doesn’t consistently work for me, yet I always check it out because when it does, it’s terrific. In October, her new collection published by Copper Canyon Press finds its center in a civil rights incident that happened in her native Arkansas. From the publisher’s website: “This history leaps howling off the page.”
July 16, 2010
I recently contributed a guest post to the National Book Critics Circle blog, Critical Mass, on the topic “How do you decide what to read next?” In writing about my ongoing hunt for books and where that hunt takes me, it occurred to me to share on TLC some of what I encounter along the way. Books that catch my eye. Books I may acknowledge, but then move on. They could be from reviews or an auction of rare books or a reference in another book I’m reading. And so, a few from this week:
On the Spartacus Road: A Journey Through Ancient Italy by Peter Stothard
From the publisher’s website: “He was the Thracian gladiator who rose up from slavery in 73 B.C. to defeat every Roman army sent to destroy him—before his defeat and crucifixion. Trained at the gladiatorial school, Spartacus escaped. Joined by approximately seventy followers, his army increased to allegedly 140,000 slaves.” In a recent All Things Considered interview, host Guy Raz talks with Stothard about his battle with cancer and how it lead him to write about this slave uprising over 2,000 years ago.
Other People’s Rejection Letters: Relationship Enders, Career Killers, and 150 Other Letters You’ll Be Glad You Didn’t Receive by Bill Shapiro
Published in May this year, Shapiro’s collection of rejection letters come from all sides of life. Check out the preview on the publisher’s website (turn off your pop-up blocker) or the “see inside” from online sellers to get an idea of the book. While this may be a collection of dreaded nasty-grams, Shapiro’s outlook from what he learned is uplifting: “I saw all these people taking beautiful chances with their lives.”
In Parenthesis by David Jones
Originally published in 1937, this prose/poetry work is currently in print thanks to the New York Review of Books Classics editions. From the NYRB website: “… a work that is among the most powerful imaginative efforts to grapple with the carnage of the First World War, a book celebrated by W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot as one of the masterpieces of modern literature. Fusing poetry and prose, gutter talk and high music, wartime terror and ancient myth, Jones, who served as an infantryman on the Western Front, presents a picture at once panoramic and intimate of a world of interminable waiting and unforeseen death.”
Edward II by J.R.S. Phillips
Published this year by Yale University Press, a biography of this King of England who “was the object of ignominy during his lifetime and calumny since it.” The book’s website also says the biography ”tackles the contentious issue of whether Edward II did not die in 1327, murdered under barbaric circumstances, but lived on as a captive in England and then a wanderer on the Continent.” Part of Yale’s English Monarchs Series.
Mud: Stories of Sex and Love by Michèle Roberts
A paperback published this year by Virago in the U.K. From the June 25, 2010 print Times Literary Supplement: “The power of these short stories lies in the moments where they describe distress. Michele Roberts draws emotional pain with precision, describing confusion with a limpid finesse. As stories about women in love, they have a refreshingly broad sense of what that can mean.”
From The Guardian June 26,2010: “The short story is an intimate, subtle and enigmatic form: Michèle Roberts reminds us in this virtuoso collection that she is one of our foremost practitioners of the art.”
June 16, 2010
Oh that great American pastime. What The New Oxford American Dictionary defines as an intense and selfish desire for something. We usually associate greed with money and the things that money buys, but when I discovered Diane Wakoski’s take on this component of the seven deadly sins, I found a definition I couldn’t forget. In her series of poems The Collected Greed: Parts 1 – 13 Wakoski casts a broad net that catches all of us:
“Greed, I keep reminding you,
is the failure to choose. The unwillingness to pick one thing over
another. Wealth or simplicity; you cannot have both. Accord,
agreement, harmonious relations with others or your honesty; you
cannot have both. The
telling of the truth
is not beautiful; does not make people feel good.
I do not think any alternative is absolutely right or wrong.
I do know that it is absolutely wrong not to commit yourself
to one alternative or the other.”
Wakoski started her Greed poetry series in 1968 and then added to it through the years. Number 13 was completed in 1984. (She has since published #14 in 2000 within another collection, The Butcher’s Apron.) The poems read like diary entries, confessional, complaining, judging and, for the most part, laying out in plain, unmistakable view what we chose to ignore – that which motivates our desires. Her rants and raves are refreshingly honest and come from the poetry confessions of the 1960s and early ’70s (à la Anne Sexton), a time when poets expressed confessional anger, angst and sin way before writers began dumping them into memoirs. You can hear Wakoski’s unique strong and plaintive voice in these poems, and I relished all of her emotions about self and others because they felt alive and real.
She’s been writing for decades — her first poetry book published in 1962 — and there are many poetry books to show for it. Along with the Greed collection, I’ve read the slim volume/poem Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons (1969), a signed copy published by Perishable Press in 1969 (see below) that I purchased at an antiquarian book fair. (You can read the poem here.) It’s more of that unforgettable autobiographical voice and a beautiful poem, and it later became part of Wakoski’s well-known collection, The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems (1971).
That’s where I am with Wakoski — in discovery. All of her books except for three new collections, published during the last 10 years, are out of print, and I like finding them by chance in used bookshops and at antiquarian fairs. I’ve purchased Cap of Darkness (1980) and Waiting for the King of Spain (1976), two collections sitting on the bookshelf for someday reading. I must get ahold of those motorcycle betrayals.
Updated 5.16.11 with a new image of The Collected Greed Parts 1-13.
April 14, 2010
You can spot the book collectors at an author’s reading. They’re the ones carrying not just one or two but a stack of books to be signed. At last night’s poetry reading by Mary Oliver in Cleveland, my friend LS and I were the only two with those stacks, and Ms. Oliver’s efficient handler didn’t appreciate them. When I approached the signing table, she grimaced and barked a firm NO at the sight of my handful and instructed “only two.” (I handed over three.) She wouldn’t allow me to take a photo, either, so what you see here is Mary Oliver in a 2008 magazine article taped to my office bookshelf.
Such was the tone for this event, a show handled well. It took place in downtown Cleveland’s Ohio Theatre Playhouse Square. I must admit, I was surprised to see such a crowd for a poetry reading; however, it was Mary Oliver, a very accessible poet who through the ages has spoken to many about life’s meaning and beauty, asking urgent questions in her poems, such as, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” Indeed, the young man introducing Ms. Oliver described her work as accessible, poignant and transformational, teaching us to slow down and make decisions with greater care.
I also was surprised by Mary Oliver’s humor. This was not the inspirational Mary Oliver whose poems I’d read all these years, a humble poet who never gave interviews, letting her work stand for whatever needed to be said. This was not the contemplative poet who through her poems speaks thoughtfully, reverentially, spiritually about our connection to nature, lifting our weaknesses into light. Instead, Mary Oliver at the podium was a delightful, funny woman entertaining us. She was downright jocular. Her salty, endearing, unorganized self kept the crowd laughing ,and then she’d read a poem and they’d sigh. Or maybe they’d laugh again.
Yes, it was all very entertaining, but who is Mary Oliver? Why is she, in her 70s, on the road and funny at the podium? All that humor cadenced between the reading of random poems unsettled me. I wanted to experience her passion. I wanted to hear her story. She told little about herself that would provide context for her poems, such as growing up in Maple Heights, Ohio, or living her adult years by the ocean in Provincetown, Mass.
During the question and answer period — questions asked about her writing and life — she remarked, “Doesn’t anyone have funny questions?” And so we got them. “Do you have a sweet tooth? What do you wear on your feet during your strolls?” When asked what books she read as a child, she quipped, “I’m still a child.” Everyone loved that. It allowed her then to answer, “Harry Potter.” Everyone loved that, too, and while I laughed right along, I yearned for the real answer.
“What does it mean that the world is beautiful?” someone asked. Ms. Oliver replied loosely, saying, essentially,that it means everything. I just wish the in-depth answer had been more present last night, elaborate and giving as I have known that answer to be in her books on my bookshelf, three of them now signed.
April 6, 2010
I like stories about unsung heroes who win the spotlight. In the book world, that would be the literary authors and poets who persistently produce exquisite work that typically falls into the remainder bins and obscurity but then, finally, gets big recognition. Such success happened for Christopher Reid, author of A Scattering. The poetry collection had sold less than 1,000 copies when it won the 2009 Costa Book Award in Britain. This was not a poetry award — A Scattering won Costa’s “book of the year” award. Rarely does poetry trump fiction.
Several weeks ago on TLC, I complained about spending money on poetry collections that ended up unread on my bookshelf, due to a poor fit with what I like to read in poetry. A Scattering shortly after came to my attention, a deeply satisfying discovery. Dedicated to Reid’s wife, Lucinda, the poems mourn her death in 2005. It’s not a plaintive collection of elegiac sadness, rather an admirable rendering of loss and grief.
A Scattering is told in four sequences that begin with a vacation in Crete, when they are aware of her illness, and then Lucinda’s time in hospice, Reid’s identity as a widow and finally reflections about “Lucinda’s Way.” Reid speaks to his wife in these verses, processing his experience. One cannot help but be drawn into this profoundly moving intimacy.
Having had the good fortune to live in the roman fleuve
of your life, my darling,
playing no small part, but — that’s not my name on the cover –
second always to you, the dashing heroine,
I have hesitated, havered too long, to compose
this necessary footnote.
You would have understood why.
(Read the rest of the poem here.)
BTW, a reminder that April is National Poetry Month. It’s a good time to support these heroes of literature. Regarding A Scattering, I don’t see evidence of U.S. publication; however, you can read more about the book on The Guardian’s website and purchase it from their bookshop, or from dealers on AbeBooks.com.