How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson
(Dial Books, 2014, 112 pages)
I grabbed How I Discovered Poetry after reading A Wreath for Emmett Till. I was hoping to get more insight into Nelson as a poet and this book seemed like it would offer that. The book is slim and is comprised of 50 poems. We see Nelson progress to young adulthood as the United States is gradually progressing toward racial “equality.”
Born in the 1950s Nelson was the daughter of a military man and her family moved often so not only did she see a lot of the United States, she was regularly the new girl and often one of very few black faces in her classrooms. This memoir in poetry was well done but I came to it expecting a little more depth and detail about her life. I’d eagerly read a prose memoir if she ever chose to write one. I think it’s clear I think she has a way with words 🙂
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
(Penguin, 2017, 294 pages)
I was fortunate to see David Sedaris give a reading recently and one of the things he regularly does when he “performs” is highlight an author whose work he is enjoying. He did a spotlight on Homesick for Another World and the way he talked about it will undoubtedly lend itself to a boost in sales, especially for the audiobook (which he raved about). My reading of the stories was basically all dark, but Sedaris talked about the humor in the darkness and I honestly didn’t pick up on that while I was reading. When HE read a passage, however, you couldn’t help but laugh… I might need to revisit the stories with that type of reading in mind.
A talented writer, if you’re looking for a dark collection of short stories, Moshfegh delivers. I’m actually interested in reading her novel, Eileen, which was nominated for a number of awards when it was published. We’ll see when that moves up on my “to-read” list 🙂
A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson
(HMH Books for Young Readers, 2005, 48 pages)
This was the book that introduced me to the work of Marilyn Nelson. I was doing some research on the Coretta Scott King Awards and that is how I discovered this title which received an “Award for Author” Honor in 2006. Something about the way it was described compelled me to request it and I found it so incredibly heartbreaking and moving. The art that accompanies the piece was also very well done. At the end of the book there is an explanation of the poems (something Nelson does regularly and which is a feature I love) in addition to an explanation of the art.
This poem tells the story of Emmett Till’s murder while also reminding the reader of his humanity – it’s so easy to just hear the name, remember the story, and not think about him as a boy living in the world, as a son, as a man who didn’t get the chance to grow up. A Wreath for Emmett Till is aimed at younger readers and I think it powerfully combines history and poetry in a way that quickly captures the reader’s attention. This is one of those books that will find its way to my permanent book collection so I have it on hand when my daughter is old enough to read it. It’s hard to say I “enjoyed” it given the subject matter, but it was beautifully done and led me down a Marilyn Nelson path for which I am so grateful.
What is Not Yours is Not Yours: Stories by Helen Oyeyemi
(Riverhead Books, 2016, 325 pages)
I wanted to give this collection of short stories a chance since so many praise Oyeyemi’s writing. There’s no question she’s a talented writer, but as with Boy, Snow, Bird, I came away feeling like I didn’t appreciate the book anywhere near as much as the critics did. Oyeyemi is young and she has an authentic voice in her writing, there is a dark, mystical quality to her work.
What is Not Yours is Not Years is comprised of nine stories, all of which feature a key or lock which loosely connects them. Rather than me attempting to characterize her work, I’ll point you to two reviews, one from the New York Times and the other from NPR. You’ll see, pretty quickly, that this book was clearly appreciated.
I’m not saying I won’t read more of her work because I know that I will. Her way with words keeps me wanting to explore her writing… I’ll probably turn to Mr. Fox next, one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books in 2011.
If you haven’t read any Oyeyemi and you appreciate thoughtful, unique literary fiction I’d encourage you to pick up one of her books.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
(Harper, 2017, 263 pages)
I’m a devoted Erdrich fan and will read anything that she writes. Future Home of the Living God veers away from what you would typically expect from Louise Erdrich; it’s a dystopian novel with a different vibe from what she normally produces.
There’s a lot going on in this book so I pulled the following summary from Goodreads:
The world as we know it is ending. Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. Science cannot stop the world from running backwards, as woman after woman gives birth to infants that appear to be primitive species of humans. Twenty-six-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of a pair of big-hearted, open-minded Minneapolis liberals, is as disturbed and uncertain as the rest of America around her. But for Cedar, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant.
Though she wants to tell the adoptive parents who raised her from infancy, Cedar first feels compelled to find her birth mother, Mary Potts, an Ojibwe living on the reservation, to understand both her and her baby’s origins. As Cedar goes back to her own biological beginnings, society around her begins to disintegrate, fueled by a swelling panic about the end of humanity.
… a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time.
The novel comes across as a response to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been noted by a number of reviewers. I appreciated the story but this isn’t an Erdrich title I’d classify as a favorite. Unique and timely, given our political climate, I appreciate this different literary styling from an author that I love.
Portrait of a Nation: Men and Women Who Have Shaped America; 2nd edition
by the National Portrait Gallery
(Smithsonian Books, 2015, 312 pages)
After the unveiling of the Obama portraits I was inspired to learn more about the National Portrait Gallery and the works that are displayed there. Portrait of a Nation highlights men and women from many walks of life who have been influential in American life. This includes historical figures, presidents, performers, celebrities… Each portrait is partnered with a brief biographical blurb about the figure explaining what led them to be incorporated into the collection.
One of the main things I came away with when reading this book was a list of artists whose work I wanted to explore in greater depth and whose biographies piqued my interest. Even if you can’t make it to the National Portrait Gallery, it’s worthwhile to get a glimpse at some of the pieces in their collection.
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
(Harper, 2016, 356 pages)
This was the final selection for the spring 2018 Between the Covers book club. Girls on Fire is set in a small town in Pennsylvania in the 1990s; this is at a time when grunge is coming on the scene and the idea that kids are practicing Satanism is scaring parents everywhere. When a local teen is found dead in the woods this only leads parents to worry more about their kids. Hannah exists on the periphery of this apparent suicide. She knew the guy, but they didn’t really run in the same circles. What his death does lead her to is a friendship with Lacey. Lacey is the new girl at school who seems to exist in her own world; not caring what anyone else thinks.
As Lacey and Hannah grow closer we learn more about what happened in the woods. We also see Hannah distance herself from the quiet “oatmeal” life she had been living. With Lacey it’s like she can be a new person and operate more freely in the world. But with this freedom comes rebellion and unexpected jealousy. Not everyone is happy that Lacey and Hannah have found each other and secrets end up being divulged in ways no one could have expected.
Girls on Fire was most definitely a compelling read. Wasserman keeps you guessing where the book is going to go up to the very end. I knew it was going to be a dark read but I was surprised at how much it got into my head. I needed a literary palate cleanser after finishing this one. Graphic novels and romance quickly found their way to my nightstand. That being said, in spite of the darkness I enjoyed Wasserman’s literary talents.