Aminata Forna’s The Hired Man
While on Christmas vacation in Houston, Texas, I wandered into a Barnes and Noble jonesing for a new read. I have the bad and awful habit of being a bibliophile. I can’t go too long without touching or holding or considering a new book. Aminata Forna’s The Hired Man sat on the new fiction shelf about abdomen high. Originally, I became interested in the book because of its feel—the paper, the book jacket. However, what really drew into the book and has kept me from finishing the last forty pages of the book, which I am wont to do when enjoying a book, is the narrator, Duro and Aminata’s handling of voice. So often writers are told to write what they know. That adage gets translated into writing home, writing about people that look and talk like you. I find the adage important. But, I am also equally interested when writers write against that expectation. For instance, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Forna takes up a similar task in The Hired Man; she, an African-descended writer born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain, writing a first-person narrative in the voice of a Croatian man named Duro. And not just writing it, writing him and the town of Gost exceptionally well. I am quite interested in this type of writing in drag, writing in other’s skin and with other’s kin. The Hired Man does tension under the surface of the story very well. You’re wondering the whole story: what’s the deal with the mosaic and the blue house, and little by little she reveals the tension that everyone in Gost can no longer avoid. If you’re a fan of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, you will love this book.
John Berryman’s Collected Poems: 1937 -1971
John Berryman revels in the scandal and seduction of irrevocable sadness. And I am willingly and enthusiastically a co-conspirator and enjoyer of these scandals. As a lover of The Dream Songs and acolyte of Berryman’s sometimes clipped but always beautiful melodies and elegies, I decided to venture off the well-trod path of The Dream Songs into his other work like Sonnets to Chris, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, and Love and Fame. And Berryman has not disappointed. In Sonnets for Chris, Berryman does the elegant, magic metaphor-making without losing edge and intensity. For example in “57,” he writes: “Our love conducted as in a tropic rain / Develops hair and then lowers its head: lash…” Again: classic Berryman syntax, which is an updating or remixing of Elizabethan syntax, classic Berryman defamiliarizing of the familiarity of love, classic Berryman quickly shifting or maneuvering within the space or field of the line (i.e. “lash” as the last word on the line). In fact, while reading the 100 sonnets that comprise Sonnets for Chris, I couldn’t help but think that Berryman was in conversation with Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. For instance, Berryman plays with the dark mistress motif found in Shakespeare’s sonnets throughout the sequence. But that’s for another scholarly conversation on another planet. What I would like to impress upon you, Dear Reader, is that Berryman’s Collected offers a better range of his poetic gifts. Rather than reveling in the abjection of loss (which I love; don’t get me wrong), Collected makes us aware that Berryman often thought and conceived in terms of form as a type of project. For Berryman, there’s something in the occupying or residing in a form over a time as a type of revelation.
Emmanuel Carrère’s Lives Other Than My Own (translated by Linda Coverdale)
I just recently finished this book because I could not finish it back in October. I had but forty pages left in this amazing memoir when I sat it down. I don’t find the coach sections of airplanes particularly amenable spaces to sobbing, and I knew that as I watched Juliette, Carrère’s sister-in-law who’s succumbing to cancer die, that I would become a mess. And sure enough, in the comfort of my home, I became a mess this week. However, what made this memoir amazing wasn’t merely its cathartic possibilities, but that Carrère is an amazing story-teller of lives that only tangentially and briefly touch his own. And, he doesn’t tell one story; he tells two without the book seeming disjointed or uneven. The first story recounts a tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004 and sweeps a little girl out to sea. The second story, as aforementioned, is about a woman dying of cancer and the family members that are left in the wake. As the book jacket copy correctly asserts, what links these two events is Carrère. However, Carrère doesn’t appropriate the stories for purposes of meditating on catastrophe and courage. Quite the opposite; the reader receives “an intimate look at the beauty of ordinary lives.” ALSO, and this is a big also; the book compelled me to write. As a writing reader, I am often looking for books then send me tearing through the hallways and crash landing into my writing chair. While reading this book, I kept a bookmark of several folded sheets of computer paper because every other paragraph fragments of poems were coming to me. Also, Carrère knows his way around an image, which is the lifeblood and fodder of my own poetry and imagination. I live by the adage: good writers borrow; great writers steal. A lot of larceny for those inclined in this book.
Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey
I am only six essays in, and I love this book. Ruefle’s wit, wisdom, intelligence, and iconoclastic repartee reminds me of an aunt who allows you to take a drag from a cigarette at eight then when you cough tells you she hates the things too then takes another drag. And then, just as you are about to head inside feeling queasy reminds you not to tell your mother, her sister. What I mean to say is that this book reveals secrets and derisively questions why they were even secrets. Her essays on poetry, like “On Sentimentality,” “On Secrets: Eight Beginnings and Two Ends,” and “On Theme,” are not your traditional craft essay. While the poetic line, image, metaphor, associative movement, and various other sundry poetry terms are discussed, Madness, Rack, and Honey is not interested in teaching you that you need ten penny nails for the roof rather than forty penny nails. The book seeks to engage poetry, the reader, and the reading-poet at the level of conversation. While this might seem a bit obvious or abstract, what I mean to say is that the book seeks to send you away buzzing, singed, and into writing a new poem. The book asks you to consider what is being said by continuing the conversation. The essays deform and transmogrify what it is the reader thinks they know about writing secrets, revelation, theme, poetry. And concomitantly, they, the essays, have already made their way into my poems.
Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
I never get tired of teaching and reading this book. Since coming to the University of Illinois in 2011, I have had the opportunity to teach a course called American Literature 1980 to the Present. Sometimes, I teach it as greatest hits of the 80s, 90s, and now. Or, I teach the course with a hyper-specificity. However, I always like to destabilize the title of courses and terms like “American” right away in my courses. And that’s why Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an amazing book. I can destabilize what it means to be American through the characters and Diaz himself; the novel destabilizes and upends itself often, calling into question what exactly is a novel; the political and historical concerns of Diaz subvert the smooth separation of art and politics that many younger students would like to hold onto; the narrative also exemplifies the distrust of big “H” history and big “T” truth; and lastly, I promise, it refuses to traffic in murky waters of the universal. And besides all of those highfalutin academic concerns, Oscar’s particularities and the particularities of his family make for a great story. Diaz undercuts our expectations of the machismo of a Latin American men by telling the story of a “failed” or underperforming machismo, Oscar.
This post was only supposed to be one hundred words. I will have to stop here.
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