Anyone who’s eternally time-strapped will treasure Kenneth C. Davis’ Great Short Books. This nifty volume highlights 58 works of fiction chosen by Davis for their size (small) and impact (enormous). Each brisk read weighs in at around 200 pages but has the oomph of an epic.
“Short novels,” Davis writes in the book’s introduction, “have been shortchanged. They occupy the place of the neglected middle child of the literary world.” With its eclectic roster of authors (Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King, James Joyce, Nella Larsen—the list goes on), his volume challenges this perception.
Davis’ picks include something for every reader. Classic selections such as James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway are spotlighted alongside contemporary offerings like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. The entry for each title consists of a plot summary, an author bio, suggestions on what to read next and—the perfect bait for hooking book lovers—the work’s first lines.
Davis, the bestselling author of the Don’t Know Much About series, delivers readerly insights and plenty of literary trivia in this handy guide. Outside of extra time, it’s the perfect gift for busy bibliophiles.
Reading the Stars
Readers in need of a little inspiration should try tapping into the power of the zodiac. That’s the premise behind Reading the Stars, the new release from the literary website Book Riot.
This quirky title encourages readers to connect with their astrological signs as a way to deepen and enrich their relationships with books. Astrology, according to Book Riot, can “give you some hints about what kind of books you like to read, what books can help you grow as a person, and how you engage with the reading world.”
The volume covers the basics of astrology and provides an intriguing profile of every sign in the chart, with details on the characteristics and reading styles of each. Aries readers, for instance, focus on meeting their reading goals, while Virgos read to destress and love getting lost in a good fantasy. Cancers savor extended story arcs and happily ever after endings.
Filled with atmospheric illustrations, Reading the Stars offers sign-specific reading recommendations and reveals which signs are compatible with one another—from a literary standpoint. Sure to pique the interest of bibliophiles, this delightful title will give them a whole new way to think about books.
Here’s a merry surprise for mystery fans: Miss Jane Marple is back. Marple is a collection of new stories featuring Agatha Christie’s widely hailed detective written by some of today’s top thriller writers. Ruth Ware, Lucy Foley, Dreda Say Mitchell and Alyssa Cole are among the dozen authors who salute the sleuth in this spine-tingling anthology.
Christie introduced Jane Marple in the 1927 story “The Tuesday Night Club.” An elderly spinster and first-rate cracker of crimes from the quiet village of St. Mary Mead, England, Miss Marple appeared in 12 Christie novels, becoming one of the most beloved figures in detective fiction.
In the new volume, fresh mysteries take Miss Marple to far-flung locales. A cruise ship headed for Hong Kong is the setting for Jean Kwok’s “The Jade Empress,” which finds Miss Marple investigating the death of a fellow passenger. In Alyssa Cole’s “Miss Marple Takes Manhattan,” sinister events plague a Broadway rehearsal, where the lady detective is providentially in attendance.
Miss Marple logs many a mile in these new adventures, and fans will be elated to find that she remains a redoubtable force when faced with a case. The new stories are suspenseful and—of course—deliciously cozy. What’s not to love about more Miss Marple?
★ Revenge of the Librarians
Bibliophiles will find a kindred spirit in cartoonist Tom Gauld, whose clever new collection, Revenge of the Librarians, is all about books and the literary life.
The setting of the volume’s opening strip is a world taken over by librarians—a what-if tale of terrific proportions compactly recounted in five panels. “With superior organizational skills, they quickly seized power,” Gauld writes. “Opponents were mercilessly shushed. Every building was converted into a library.”
Gauld’s perfectly pithy cartoons feature soft background colors and emphatic silhouettes. Arch humor abounds as he drops amusing author allusions, spoofs the literary establishment and plays with writer stereotypes. Ardent memoirist and precious poet, tormented novelist and cutthroat critic—none are exempt from his pen. Gauld also lampoons hallowed literary traditions. The titles in the cartoon “Summer Reading for Conspiracy Theorists” include Slaughterhouse 5G and The Old Man and the CIA. In “Waiting for Godot to Join the Zoom Meeting,” Vladimir and Estragon sit expectantly before their computers, but alas: “Nobody comes. Nobody goes.”
Gauld, whose work has appeared in The Believer and the New York Times, gets up to all manner of literary mischief in this quick-witted, must-have collection for book buffs.
If you’re shopping for someone who always has books on the brain, we’ve got your gift needs all wrapped up.
In Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers, Oxford University Shakespeare studies professor Emma Smith offers a lively and engaging survey of the history of the book, focusing on the “material combination of form and content” she calls “bookhood.” It’s a “book about books, rather than words,” that describes with both insight and affection the enduring power of the book as a physical object.
Organized thematically (Smith even suggests the self-contained chapters can be read in any order), Portable Magic covers an impressive amount of ground with efficiency. The opening essay, on Gutenberg’s “invention” of movable type in the 15th century, sets the book’s often iconoclastic tone. Pointing out that this method was used in Asia almost a century before Gutenberg, Smith argues that the idea that print is a Western innovation is a myth, invoked primarily in the service of European colonization.
In subsequent chapters, Smith ranges widely across literary history, unafraid to express strong opinions without dogmatism. Some of the topics she takes on include the history of paperback books and the practices of giving books as gifts and book collecting. In the latter, she tells the story of Harry Elkins Widener, a well-known book collector from Philadelphia who sank to the bottom of the ocean with the Titanic, carrying a 1598 collection of Francis Bacon’s essays in his pocket. Other essays consider the depiction of books in works of art and the central role of religious scriptures, as well as oddities like books bound in human skin and the 17th-century Venetian book containing a small pistol that could be fired using its silk bookmark.
Smith devotes a chapter to the subject of the destruction of books, too, noting that book burning is “powerfully symbolic and practically almost entirely ineffectual.” The publishing business’s practice of pulping books returned from retailers (some 30% to 40% of those shipped), she explains, has eliminated far more books than any conflagration. In two chapters, one centered entirely on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Smith reviews some of the contentious, and not always unambiguous, issues surrounding free expression and censorship.
Though Portable Magic reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight the thoughtful general reader. Any bibliophile will come away from it with a renewed appreciation for books and the central role they still play in our lives.
Though Emma Smith’s lively and engaging history of the book reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight general readers and bibliophiles everywhere.
Using the well-worn adjectives elusive and idiosyncratic to describe Haruki Murakami may be clichéd, but if ever a writer embodied these sobriquets, it is certainly the internationally beloved Japanese author. His fiction can be hard to classify—is it science fiction? dystopian? satire?—so it stands to reason that a nonfiction work wherein he shares his thoughts on writing would be equally hard to categorize. Novelist as a Vocation, part memoir and part informal advice guide, offers a glimpse into a personal life Murakami has long kept guarded. Originally published in Japanese in 2015, it has now been translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen into straightforward English prose that captures Murakami’s unadorned, conversational style and self-deprecating wit.
Murakami declares up front that he should be viewed as a regular man who happens to write hugely popular novels. “If I do say so myself, I’m the type of ordinary guy you’ll find anywhere,” he writes. “Not the type to stand out when I stroll around town, the type who’s always shown to the worst tables at restaurants. I doubt that if I didn’t write novels, anyone would ever have noticed me.” In his telling, his path to writing was accidental. While in his late 20s, working long days and nights running a jazz club, he went to a baseball game one day (jazz, baseball and running, we learn, are his three great passions) where he spontaneously decided to write a novel. In six months he produced Hear the Wind Sing, which went on to win a prestigious Japanese prize, launching his literary career.
Such fairy-tale serendipity, sadly, does not supply the magic formula aspiring writers might be seeking, but it does underscore the unpredictability of success. Murakami makes many good points, especially as he praises the welcoming embrace of the writing community, where novices can take up a pen or laptop and call themselves a writer without much resentment from established practitioners. But he is quick to emphasize that long-term durability as a writer is more challenging than that initial success, requiring not only discipline and luck but continuing inspiration and originality.
Is Murakami’s claim at ordinariness genuine? Certainly, the everyday details he reveals in Novelist as a Vocation seem pretty conventional. Meanwhile, the advice he doles out to acolytes is—here’s that word again—idiosyncratic and highly personal, methods that work for him but probably won’t for everyone (which he would be the first to admit). But you don’t become an international literary superstar by being ordinary, no matter how “mundane” your daily life is. A deeper dive into Murakami’s singular mind would be devoured by his millions of readers, but one senses he is not willing to fully breach the wall of privacy he has carefully erected. Still, fans will come away from Novelist as a Vocation with a clearer idea of what makes this elusive writer tick.
Haruki Murakami’s collection of essays about his life and writing provides a tantalizing peek into the famously secretive writer’s world.
American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide exists at the intersection of two important movements: the protection of native plant populations from climate change and shortsighted development, and the decolonization of literature. Editor Susan Barba has gathered a captivating bouquet of plant-inspired writings, with prose and poetry from contemporary greats like Jericho Brown, Lydia Davis and Aimee Nezhukumatathil alongside the words of perennial canon-dwellers like Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. “The best writers closely observe not only the plant but our words in relation to it, and in doing so they focus our attention and clarify our intentions,” writes Barba. What first drew me to this book were Leanne Shapton’s atmospheric watercolors of pressed flowers, which are as ephemeral as the specimens they interpret. A significant addition to the tradition of writing about plants, this anthology urges us to notice the lessons offered by the tiniest bluet.
The United States of Cryptids
Speaking of overlooked (possibly) living things, I can’t get enough of the names of creatures featured in The United States of Cryptids. Snarly Yow? Snallygaster? Woodbooger? Wait, back up. What, you ask, is a cryptid? It’s “a creature or species whose existence is scientifically unproven,” and that right there is a freakishly wide net, folks. But author J.W. Ocker’s emphasis is on the lively lore surrounding Bigfoot creatures, et al., and how these tales both shape and are shaped by the animals’ supposed stomping grounds. “Wherever cryptids are celebrated, the story is so much more important than the science,” he writes, and boy does he have a lot of fun telling said stories. There’s even a “world’s largest chainsaw-carved bigfoot” in a state otherwise light on cryptids (looking at you, South Dakota), a wooden beast born of idle hands during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seems about right for a contemporary cryptid.
Toil and Trouble
Toil and Trouble examines the ways in which women throughout history have found agency, self-expression, financial gain and political influence in witchcraft, tarot and other practices with a spiritual element. Remember Joan Quigley, astrologer to Nancy Reagan? She’s among the fabulous cast of characters included here, along with the witches who hexed Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler, spiritualist Achsa Sprague, Voodoo queen Marie Laveau and so many more. Ultimately, authors Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson (Monster, She Wrote) argue that the occult offers women a way to rebel against the patriarchal Christian constructs of womanhood. Anyone who has dabbled in the craft by way of #witchtok will deepen their knowledge immensely by reading this book, which is as historically thorough as it is fueled by the modern ascendance of the occult in popular culture. With a final chapter titled “100% That Witch,” you know you’re going to learn a lot and have some fun.
This month’s lifestyles column runs the gamut from nature-inspired beauty to straight-up monsters. Brush up on your preferred form of magic with the help of these three enchanting books.
In How to Read Now, Elaine Castillo models how to read not just books but also history, culture and the world with an eye toward understanding how the ideas that inform our reading lives came to be.
You write that your book’s title, How to Read Now, is both a comment and a question. Can you say more about that? Like I say in the introduction, there’s some real ambivalence on my part in the title: a reluctance, a resistance even, to writing a book about the racial politics of our reading culture that might be assumed to serve as essentially a CliffsNotes on anti-racism for the edification of white readers. That being said, as a chronically bossy Virgo and an elder sister in an immigrant family, my love language, unsurprisingly, is 24/7 critique. (To paraphrase a favorite T-shirt I once bought from The Cut, which quotes art critic Jerry Saltz, “Criticism Never Sleeps,” lol.)
But at its core, the title feels most of all like the beginning of an investigation, an exploration. Someone once asked me if I felt that writing books was therapeutic, and—if we’re staying within the realm of clinical metaphors—I don’t feel that the relationship I have to the books I write is a therapeutic one exactly. By which I mean that I know the curative capacities of writing are possible, of course, but in my experience, they’ve always been unpredictable, unreliable, idiosyncratic; personal and fragile. What feels truer to me is that writing books feels laparoscopic, like exploratory surgery. Something’s going on; you’re not entirely sure what. You have to go in to find out.
You write that books were a waypoint on your journey to becoming a reader. Why is reading bigger than books? While I was lucky enough to have one parent who was a voracious, mostly self-taught reader who passed his love of reading down to me, the majority of the people in my family would never characterize themselves as readers. In fact, in a larger immigrant family, the older generation’s confidence in reading either Tagalog or English is shaky. That said, those same people were some of the best readers of the world I ever knew or will ever know. They taught me by example how to read my way through the world: how they gauged interactions with a boss, how they sighed after a film, what places in the world they built internal altars to, what losses in the world they mourned. Like I say in the book, I don’t want a book called How to Read Now to speak only to people who had the largely middle-class benefit of the education and leisure space that allows people to become not just literate but literary-minded; but equally, I don’t want it to let off the hook the people (like those I love and come from) who say that books aren’t for them, that reading culture isn’t for them. The truth is, we read and are being read by the world every day, in a million languages, in a million minute ways. But How to Read Now is a slightly easier title than How to Dismantle Your Entire Critical Apparatus.
What’s one characteristic of a really good reader? I think expecting that you could distill the essence of a really good reader to one characteristic is probably characteristic of a . . . not . . . great reader? I’m mostly kidding, but there’s some truth to the cheek. It’s a little like Logan Roy in “Succession,” which I just started watching (culturally I’m generally three to five years late on things), demanding his people tell him what the “protein” is in any given memo, discussion or article. That instinct to say, “Well, what’s the One Takeaway I can get from this?” is the driving force of reading under neoliberal capitalism: reading as a form of market competition and resource extraction, collecting pedagogical or ethnographic data—which is how so many writers of color, in particular, are typically read by white readers in this industry—as opposed to reading as a carving out of a uniquely intimate, uniquely vulnerable space in the world, in which a reader is as laid bare to a book as the world of a book is laid bare to her.
What’s one way that you have changed as a reader over time? I think the most stark way I’ve changed is that I try to read more slowly—which, for someone who was the proverbial bookworm, a real devourer of literary worlds, hasn’t been easy. For my entire life, I’ve been someone who’ll read anywhere; most of my books as a kid had food stains on them from reading while I ate. Family members used to make fun of how they’d never see my face because it was always behind a book. And now, of course, with the advent of reading on your phone, it never ends. You’re always reading an article, falling asleep in bed reading The Age of Innocence on the Kindle, reading a friend’s PDF proof, reading a Reddit thread on how to find a Legendary Animal in Red Dead Redemption 2 or how to get through the Yiga Clan Hideout in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, reading another article on post-radiation care for senior dogs. (I adopted a senior German Shepherd a year and a half ago, my beloved Xena. She just underwent surgery and radiation, so that takes up a lot of my reading at the moment.) I’ve also never had strict taste boundaries when it came to reading. There was never highbrow or lowbrow; everything was on the table, everything was there to be read. So trying to read more slowly has been the great ongoing failure of my adult life.
“As a chronically bossy Virgo and an elder sister in an immigrant family, my love language, unsurprisingly, is 24/7 critique.”
You write that white supremacy is the “rot at the core” of the publishing industry and position this book as a reckoning. This reminds me of the book’s cover, which features a bomb in the O of the word Now; in the acknowledgements, you call the cover “tough, bold, and literally incendiary.” What’s one conversation that you hope blows up because of this book? Going back to resisting the practice of reduction to the One, I’m going to say that for every essay in the book, there’s a conversation—and yes, potentially an incendiary conversation, as the best ones can be—to be had. A conversation about the hypocrisies of reading as an empathy machine, when we demand the safari treatment—translations, glossaries, maps—from writers of color yet bestow full artistic impunity on white artists. A conversation about the national myths we ask our monuments, our parks, our land to tell us, and the fury that erupts when people who’ve been expunged from those myths tell their own stories about how those monuments, those parks, that land came to be. A conversation about whiteness in the world of science fiction and fantasy, especially with respect to fables of oppression, difference and dystopia, inspired by the marginalized experiences of people of color, who are then erased from the tale. A conversation about the great presumed oracles of California, such as Joan Didion, and the settler colonial history that inescapably makes up the foundation of her work and worldview, not to mention the readers who venerate her. A conversation about writing pedagogy in an academic institution, especially one that will not protect its students from sexual harassment and assault, and its connection to other forms of silencing, intellectual and otherwise, in the power dynamics of a classroom. A conversation about the paucity of Representation Matters Art, and the failures of the drive toward positive representation generally. A conversation about our classics, and how they become so, and just what incursions we might make into the future of those classics.
Most of these questions do have a common thread, of course: Why do we read the way we do? How on earth did we get here? And how can we imagine—creatively, culturally, sensually, politically—an elsewhere; an otherwise?
You write that acknowledging politics in literature—such as the everyday presence of colonialism in fairy tales like “Cinderella”—is an act of expansion that opens up conversations rather than shutting them down. Why do you think some readers are so resistant to these kinds of conversations, especially when dealing with works by white authors? This isn’t a great mystery, is it? Why do we think some people are resistant to critical race theory, an utterly benign label—much like “antifa”—that has been deformed and fetishized into demonic proportions by a politically successful and financially rewarded far-right white supremacist cultural lobby? Why do we think those same people are perfectly accepting of the white supremacist paranoia of espousing White Replacement Theory? The discussion makes me think of Jamaica Kincaid’s great line from Lucy, when the narrator wonders about her white employer who (in a familiar move) dubiously claims to have Native ancestry: “How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?”
Ultimately we can’t keep rehashing—re-diagnosing, to go back to the clinical metaphors—the whys of white supremacy, white fragility, white grievance. It’s asking people of color to waste their time getting embroiled in bad faith process arguments.
People don’t like to talk about the history of empire and enslaved labor that underpins the Regency world either, including the work of Jane Austen, because it interrupts their romantic fantasy of white gentility and interrupts their ability to project themselves apolitically into that world. So we come up with arguments like “applying postcolonial theory to Austen is anachronistic!” despite the fact that Regency scholars like Patricia A. Matthews have shown us that abolition was a widely known topic of debate in Austen’s era and that Austen’s peers wrote abolition literature, wrote about interracial relationships in their fiction, etc. It’s not unlike how the white marble statues of Greek gods were fetishized by English and German classicists to corroborate stories about antiquity as a romanticized vision of pure, noble whiteness, conveniently leaving out the fact that all of those statues had, in their time, been painted a riot of colors. So what are people really invested in when they resist acknowledging these historical facts? Is it really Austen? Is it really Greek myth? Or is it, rather, the story they’ve been allowed to believe about themselves, and their world, through these deliberate interpretations and elisions?
“Trying to read more slowly has been the great ongoing failure of my adult life.”
You are best known for writing fiction, especially your acclaimed novel America Is Not the Heart. How to Read Now is your first nonfiction book, and there’s a narrative quality to these essays, a feeling of following an ever-developing line of thought. Which of your skills as a fiction writer did you bring to crafting these essays? I was just joking to someone—they were asking if writing a second book was easier, having already written a first—that I don’t know if any book helps you write the next one, really. With each book, what you learn is how to write that book, and that book specifically. The next is a new world, all over again. But if there is a narrative throughline to the book, an ever-developing line of thought, then it’s probably because, like I said earlier, I don’t really have fixed boundaries around my writing; much of what I bring to bear in a novel is also what I bring to bear as a critical thinker.
But it’s also just how the book came about. I wanted it to feel like entering into the personal history of someone’s reading life, while also following along as they think, ruminate, go deeper, swim in the dark, resurface again to take a breath. Some of my favorite nonfiction books read like that, like Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, or Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, or John Berger’s many essays on art and politics. The critical thinking in those works often feels like narrative storytelling, not only because all those writers are also fiction writers themselves but also because the voices in their books are so singular, because the urgency in them is so alive, so intimate, so to the bone.
In your concluding essay, you talk about Homer’s “The Odyssey,” particularly the scene with the monster Polyphemus. Readers are taught to identify with Odysseus, but what would it mean to identify instead with Polyphemus? Well, besides pushing back against the idea that Polyphemus is a monster at all—isn’t Odysseus, in the end, also a monster? Or is that just dependent on who’s telling the story?—I’m resistant to the impulse of identification as the rhyme and reason for reading. Parsing the characters we’re tacitly meant to view as heroic, parsing the characters we’re implicitly assumed to identify with, and parsing them in ways that include discussions of their power in relation to others—their class, their race, their logics of violence—asks us to go beyond identification. To make a reference to the title of my essay on Joan Didion, “Main Character Syndrome,” the need to identify with Odysseus or Polyphemus is ultimately still part of that main character syndrome logic of fiction, part of the heroic impulse or, alternately, what Ursula K. Le Guin called “the killer story” in her essay “The Carrier Bag of Fiction”: “Lest there be no more telling of stories at all, some of us out here in the wild oats, amid the alien corn, think we’d better start telling another [story], which maybe people can go on with when the old one’s finished. Maybe. The trouble is, we’ve all let ourselves become part of the killer story, and so we may get finished along with it.”
Getting out of the killer story, getting out of the bind of identification, getting out of the heroic impulse, lets us enter into the much thornier realm of intimacy, and even recognition—especially unforeseen intimacy and unforeseen recognition. The truth is, I think most of us recognize parts of ourselves in both Odysseus and Polyphemus. The parts of ourselves that are charismatic, that love to tell stories; the parts of ourselves that are adventurers, or unfaithful, or great thinkers, or irresponsible leaders, or distracted by our lusts, our ego. The parts of ourselves that know what it means to have one’s home invaded, exploited, rendered unlivable; the parts of ourselves that have sought revenge, that have chosen violence, that long for retribution; the parts of us that have never been the hero. It’s easy to say, “Well, let’s just switch and identify with Polyphemus instead.” But that way lies more killer stories. Instead, to read Polyphemus’ story with the same attention that we read Odysseus’ means we might actually be able to understand a story like his—might give it the time and space that we otherwise lavish upon the stories of characters like Odysseus. And in doing so, we might be able to read both stories more truly, more fully. If we stop looking for heroes, we might actually find people.
How to Read Now takes our most aspirational notions about reading—that it builds empathy, that it combats prejudice—and turns them on their heads.
Like his acolytes Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell is remembered today as much for his mental illness as for his remarkable poetry. This legacy is an understandable, if regrettable, consequence of our fascination with the tortured and tragic in art. By the mid-1950s, Lowell’s bipolar disorder had reached a crisis point. While committed to Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, he began a therapeutic regimen that helped him attain a measure of equilibrium. One element of that therapy was a writing project, which Lowell continued over the next three years by working on an autobiography of his family roots and childhood. This narrative, unfinished and unpolished, composes the first part of Memoirs, a gathering of Lowell’s unpublished writings about his life, edited by Steve Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc.
For better or worse, Lowell could not escape his lineage, which dated back on both sides to the founding of New England. His dominant mother, Charlotte, put particular stock in this background, and when his father’s naval career dragged the family away from Boston, Charlotte was never silent about her dissatisfaction. Conversely, in Lowell’s words, his father was “a gentle, faithful and dim man.” That ruthless paternal appraisal comes from the second section of the writings collected in Memoirs, which the editors call “Crisis and Aftermath.” These pieces are anchored by an essay, “The Balanced Aquarium,” that recounts Lowell’s time at Payne Whitney. Written in the wake of his mother’s death, the essay also recalls the earlier circumstances of his father’s final days. Shifting seamlessly back and forth in time—to childhood, to the recent past and back to the time of his ancestors—Lowell attempts to make sense of these threads with customary biting observations wrapped in elegant phrases, as he watches the traffic far below the window of his hospital room.
Lowell, of course, mined this material a few years later in one of his finest (one might even say iconic) poetry collections, Life Studies, turning the anarchy of his mind into clear-cut verse. Indeed, the best approach to “My Autobiography,” “The Balanced Aquarium” and the other pieces here is perhaps to view them as dry runs for something far greater and enduring yet to come. These writings give us added glimpses into the life of a poet who made a new art form out of baring the soul, even while expertly keeping his words measured and precise.
The final section of Memoirs collects short pieces Lowell wrote about poets he knew: Plath, Sexton, William Carlos Williams, Allen Tate, John Berryman, Ezra Pound and others. The often sordid specifics of his complicated marriages and romances are skirted, but those coals have been well raked elsewhere. Memoirs should not serve as an introduction to Lowell and his work as much as a supplement, inviting us to discover or revisit his peerless poems.
The writings collected in Memoirs give us glimpses into the life of Robert Lowell, a poet who made baring one’s soul into an art form.
Elaine Castillo’s How to Read Now is both a directive and a question. Castillo, a Filipinx American novelist (America Is Not the Heart), calls for readers to recognize and resist the ways that texts of all kinds center whiteness. But the book isn’t only a polemic; it’s also an investigation. How should we read now?
In critical essays that examine everything from fantasy novels to award-winning classic literature, Castillo outlines the limitations of America’s reading culture. Her voice is eviscerating, dramatic and funny as she lays out the ways that universalizing the white experience reduces writers of color to teachers of historical trauma and nonwhite cultures. What would it mean for publishing to be open to something new, to what Castillo calls “the unexpected reader”?
In each essay, Castillo offers a specific and persuasive diagnosis of a problem and a sense of what the treatment might be. For example, the essay “Main Character Syndrome” explores how centering whiteness plays out in the work of recently deceased cultural icon Joan Didion, noting how Didion’s famous essays about California focus on the perspective of a settler, including her obsession with the ruts caused by wagon wheels. Castillo then counters with the work of Tommy Pico, showing what this Indigenous writer sees in the California landscape that Didion missed.
The effects of centuries of colonialism are dangerous and wide-ranging, as Castillo documents throughout How to Read Now. It’s important to make small ruptures in the system, she says—small acts of resistance through everyday decisions, including which stories we tell and value. In this book, Castillo argues that being a good reader means learning how to interrogate and interpret the stories all around us.
In How to Read Now, Elaine Castillo brilliantly argues that being a good reader means learning how to interrogate and interpret the stories all around us.
A scream in the night. A tangle of clues. Befuddled police being led by the nose as a sharp-eyed and unlikely detective examines the evidence. The drawing room denouement. All these are, of course, well-known tropes of the classic murder mystery—a genre made famous in part by the queen of the sleuthing story herself, Agatha Christie.
Christie’s works are so engrossing, and enduring, because they manage to tread that thin line where the cozy mystery and the high-stakes whodunit meet. While readers are wrapped up in the fantasy of an English country home or hamlet, the imminent danger is truly spine-tingling. Somewhat less examined, however, are Christie’s reputation as a meticulous researcher of forensics, a field that was newly developing in the early 20th century, and her medical and pharmacological background. A perfectionist who volunteered as a nurse and pharmacist during World War I, Christie was businesslike about blood and gore, more than aware of the effects of certain chemicals on the body and keenly curious about the new scientific methods being used to investigate real-life murders. Her appetite for the crossroads of science and crime was so great, in fact, that she co-founded the Detection Club, a social club of crime writers who gathered for supper and lively discussions on murder.
In The Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha Christie, Carla Valentine, a longtime mortician, curator of a museum of Victorian pathology and voracious Christie reader, expertly moves through the study of fingerprints, toxicology, ballistics, blood spatter and wounds. (A memorable example: The practice of “gloving” involves the autopsist wearing the skin of the deceased’s hand like a glove in order to collect fingerprints.) Christie ignited Valentine’s own curiosity about the forensic sciences, and with the enthusiasm of the true fan, Valentine illuminates Christie’s meticulous genius by dissecting some of her most famous fictional murders and illustrating how both the crime and the solution are supported by science. It’s an engrossing read for any Christie lover, or simply any true-crime obsessive. However, a strong stomach is recommended; Valentine, like Christie, has no qualms about gore.
Of all the ways there are to kill a person, poison is the one most inextricably associated with Christie. Dispatching over 30 of her victims in this way, Christie was well versed in toxins from her wartime days in a pharmacy. In fact, she wielded her toxic substances with such descriptive accuracy that her novels have been used to detect symptoms of poisoning in real murder attempts. Author and toxicologist Neil Bradbury pays homage to this fact in his book A Taste for Poison: Eleven Deadly Molecules and the Killers Who Used Them by opening three of his chapters with excerpts from Christie’s novels. All together, this is a book that Christie herself would have found excellent fireside reading material, as Bradbury devotes a chapter each to 11 major poisons used throughout history, including real-life murder cases in which they were used and, sometimes gruesomely, how they work on a molecular level to kill their victims.
Bradbury’s poisons run the gamut from the unexpected (insulin) to the gothically romantic (belladonna and wolfsbane). There’s even a section on polonium, the radioactive poison carrying a very famous victim count of one. Far from being dry molecular science, A Taste for Poison makes the reader horrifyingly aware of the devastating effects these substances have on the body’from corroding their organs to interrupting their essential electrical impulses to death. Yet it is with an excitement and love for his subject matter that Bradbury discusses these baneful materials, frequently reminding us that they are themselves blameless and often used in smaller doses to heal.
Christie’s murder mysteries were so steeped in science and so brilliantly complex that some think her novels were used as manuals to carry out attempts at the perfect murder. (Note: The would-be criminal masterminds failed in every known case.) Both Bradbury and Valentine seem to nod at this with their own warnings to readers who might use the knowledge their books impart to nefarious purposes. Forensic science will catch you, warns Valentine. Bradbury absolves himself in the appendix with a note informing us that his book is educational in nature and strictly not for the encouragement of murder. However, as Christie knew, the best murder is the well-researched murder. Happy reading.
Poison, fingerprints and toxicology—oh my! Carla Valentine and Neil Bradbury reveal how murderers have wielded chemistry and biology.
Every childhood is unique, but Ada Calhoun’s, as portrayed in her fearless new memoir, Also a Poet, stands out for its blend of adolescent freedom and paternal neglect. The daughter of art critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl, Calhoun grew up at the vortex of New York City’s East Village bohemia, a world she wrote about in the history St. Marks Is Dead. Young Calhoun, eager and precocious, craved nothing more than the approbation of her father, a complicated, emotionally distant man famously given to saying the wrong thing—a trait from which his daughter was never spared. One piece of common ground that Calhoun and her father shared, however, was a love of the work of Frank O’Hara, the legendary New York School poet who died in a freak accident in 1966.
One day in 2018, Calhoun was searching for something in the basement storage of her parents’ apartment building when she found dozens of loose cassette tapes from the 1970s, labeled with the names of famous artists like Willem de Kooning, Edward Gorey and Larry Rivers. Her father said they were interviews he had conducted with O’Hara’s friends because he’d intended to write a biography of the poet. Circumstances—not least of all a roadblock erected by O’Hara’s sister, Maureen—had killed the project. Schjeldahl told his daughter she could use the interviews for her own purposes, and Calhoun envisioned a new biography of the iconic poet based on these priceless recollections. But the book took on a new shape as she proceeded—in part, again, because of the obstruction of Maureen, who serves as her brother’s literary executor.
As Calhoun began to delve into the interviews, short portions of which she shares in Also a Poet, she began piecing together a multifaceted portrait of O’Hara, greatly loved by friends who painted him as gregarious, whip-smart, generous, sexually fluid and happily promiscuous. (The latter two assessments are most likely at the core of his sister’s posthumous protectiveness.) But the interviews also provided Calhoun with insight into the interviewer: her father.
Frustrated by the ways Schjeldahl had sabotaged his own project, Calhoun plunged back into their often difficult father-daughter relationship with fresh eyes. Lifelong resentments resurfaced as she viewed her father with redoubled awareness. When the aging Schjeldahl, who had smoked three packs a day for decades, was diagnosed with lung cancer, his solipsistic reaction to his illness rankled Calhoun, even as she dutifully stepped in to help.
The unexpected convergence of the challenging O’Hara book project and her father’s sudden decline provide Calhoun with a singular perspective on the timeless issues of family relationships, most especially the vulnerabilities of following in a father’s eminent footsteps and the elusive possibility of ever fully understanding our parents. Calhoun’s honesty and willingness to push beyond her own resentments make Also a Poet a potent account of a daughter reaching out to a perhaps unreachable father before it’s too late.
Ada Calhoun’s literary biography of the poet Frank O’Hara unexpectedly transformed into an absorbing and insightful personal memoir about her father.
We tend to believe that some things get lost in translation, but perhaps, as Jhumpa Lahiri suggests in her absorbing new collection of essays, Translating Myself and Others, some things are also gained. Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, and has subsequently enraptured readers with her penetrating novels and stories. She famously moved to Rome in 2015 and began writing in Italian, publishing in Italian and translating the work of Italian novelist Domenico Starnone into English.
This linguistically bifurcated existence has inspired much thought on the art of translation, which Lahiri says has always been a controversial literary form. The short essays she collects here—some written in English and some translated into English from Italian—explore her passion for translation, a subject she previously taught at Princeton. Yet interwoven with some of the more arcane nuts-and-bolts issues that face the literary translator are other things that Lahiri, as a writer of fiction, has learned from the process of rendering the words of other writers, as well as her own, into a new tongue. “Now that I have become a translator in addition to remaining a writer, I am struck by how many people regard what I am doing as ‘secondary’ and thus creatively inferior in nature,” she writes. “Readers who react with suspicion to a work in translation reinforce a perceived hierarchy in literature between an original work and its imitation.” Indeed, translators rarely even get recognition on a book’s jacket, or enduring recognition outside of academic circles. And yet, so much of the world’s literature would be inaccessible to us without their intensive work. Throughout these essays, Lahiri shows how painstaking and full of care the process of translation is.
Essays on translation might seem an unlikely conduit for a writer’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, but Lahiri is an engaging guide, and her pensive ruminations provide a window into her soul. In “Why Italian?” she ponders the longstanding connection that she, a woman who was already fluent in English and Bengali, felt to Italian even before learning it and why she was compelled to write in it. “Where I Find Myself,” fulfilling the clever double meaning of its title, examines how Lahiri finds new intentions when she translates her own work from Italian into English (something she long avoided doing but has now embraced), sometimes revising the original Italian in the process in a kind of reverse engineering that she compares to a tennis game. In a very moving afterword, “Translating Transformation,” she reconsiders her mother’s recent death through the prism of Ovid, whose masterwork she is currently co-translating. “In the face of death,” she writes, “the Metamorphoses had completely altered my perspective.”
Translating Myself and Others is a subtle yet ultimately engrossing work, somewhat academic at times, yet infused with the kind of understated, often startling capacity for observation that has always been Lahiri’s literary superpower.
Master storyteller Jhumpa Lahiri spins thoughtful and personal essays on the unsung art of literary translation.
John Keats exists in many minds as an effete, epigraphic nature lover (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”) rather than the spirited, earthy man he was. The profile that historian and literary critic Lucasta Miller assembles in her engrossing Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph is a welcome corrective that seeks a truer understanding of the life and work of the iconic British poet.
Keats’ life was short (he died in 1821 at 25), and some of its details are scant (the exact day and place of his birth, for example, are sketchy), but as in her previous literary study The Brontë Myth, Miller doesn’t offer a full-fledged biography in Keats. Instead, as the subtitle plainly states, she looks closely at nine of his most representative works in chronological order, threading in literary analysis as she unspools the pertinent life events that may have inspired or unconsciously influenced each piece.
Miller is an avowed Keatsian, but one of the strengths of this study is her refreshing willingness to call out the poet for some inferior writing just as often as she extols the brilliance of his more enduring masterworks. The Keats she presents here was a work in progress, cut off in his prime (or perhaps before), and Miller is quick to point out the peculiarities, and sometimes failures, of even his most revered poems. This candor adds to rather than detracts from the affectionate picture she paints of a young man who alternated between ambition and insecurity: a poet who routinely compared his own work to Shakespeare’s yet wrote his own self-effacing epitaph as, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
Keats embraced the pleasures of life and art while wrestling with childhood demons. He was born in the waning years of the 18th century, into England’s newly formed middle class, and his father died under suspicious circumstances when the future poet was 8. He was fully orphaned by 14 but was effectively abandoned by his mother years earlier, when she ran off with a much younger man. Keats may have been somewhat emotionally crippled by parental longing, Miller suggests, but he was also a full participant in day-to-day life, devoted to his brothers and sister as well as to a passel of equally devoted friends.
The extraordinary language with which Keats fashioned his then-radical poetry percolates with striking neologisms and is laced with coded sexuality. Indeed, Keats himself could be profligate in matters of sex, drugs and money (he abandoned an apprenticeship to a doctor), and Miller sharply centers his life in the context of its time, detailing the moral ambiguities and excesses of the Regency period that would later be whitewashed by the Victorians.
While the U.S. publication of this superb volume misses the 200th anniversary of Keats’ death by a year, it is never a bad time to revisit a poetic genius. Miller has given us a thing of beauty, indeed.
Historian and critic Lucasta Miller assembles a candid yet affectionate portrait of poet John Keats in this creative blend of literary analysis and biography.
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