I’ve had the good fortune to see a great deal of theatre in my time and one of the first playwrights I swore off of was Chekhov. (The second was Noel Coward.) I just felt like, “Okay, I got this. Enough already.”

Then along came my book club with the suggestion that we consider him first as a short story writer because he’s known as “the greatest short story writer who has ever lived.” And this, from Raymond Carver, not a bad one himself.

I think I only knew of one story before I started in on this collection and that was “The Bet,” which I like. This collection? Not so much. A recipe emerges –

  1. Two people, sometimes known to each other, sometimes not, meet
  2. They talk. A lot.
  3. They talk about Russia, religion, how to live. They tell stories.
  4. End.

I’m not obsessed with plot, but I think something has to happen. Whatever it is people are seeing in this guy, I’m just not getting it.

I am no chemist. My efforts in high school were absurd (and so was my teacher). But I understood enough to see the chemistry here not just as chemistry – because it was still that. Levi clearly has a high regard for his own vocation as a chemist. But it’s also (and this element was more accessible to me) chemistry as metaphor. The ability to control, transform, analyze, indeed to be rational, when all around you is anything but (i.e., WW2). Science, here, in contrast perhaps to any sense of a deity, is dependable, both in the form of its sometimes monotonous practice and in content. There are rules, laws here – not even a fascist can deny them. Therefore, there is freedom, at least in the mind.

It’s a tough book to classify, which is okay by me. Levi considered it a “micro-history.” I don’t have that category, and since I don’t think it would fit anything else, I did the best I could.

What’s amazing here is not that this is a great book. I pretty much love everything Doctorow did, with The March being the one exception (so far). What’s amazing is where this book falls in Doctorow’s  chronology of publications – third. I’m so grateful that someone had the vision to see this novel, based on the lives of the Rosenberg children, for the shape-shifting, vicious, incisive masterwork it is. Doctorow shifts tenses and points of view in the middle of paragraphs. He’s got something to say here about America, something that comes off more polished in my memory of his next novel, Ragtime, and there are no heroes here. Nor, really, are there victims. Or perhaps everyone is – most especially the sister, Susan. I have never read such a precise dissection of something so clearly (and deliberately?) a mess. This book is a lesson, too, on how writers can avoid the traps of showing off their research and getting bogged down by exposition. The plot doesn’t move, it careens. Violently. A pinball that has taken on a life of its own. And, as any story of government overreach and citizen rebellion will likely do these days, it resonates, reminds. And warns.

Some poetry books are collections; this one is a book. Odum’s versatility is amazing. Whether the poems are vulnerable, as in “For Straight Men with Bi Friends Pt. 3” and “Suicide,” or more direct, as in “Lessons” and “Redshift,” the intensity and insight are always present. “Masculinity be like. . .” is a master class, and a poem I will use with my students. “Poplar Tree” is a worthy companion of “Strange Fruit” and also worth closer examination.

There’s a lot of wisdom here. You’ll read this one with a pencil in hand and want to punch the page often when you find things that are true. I’ve heard Mr. Odum read a few of these out loud; that’s the only thing better than reading them yourself.

Odum’s website

That was a hard word to type; it’s a word I will not say. But Gregory wanted that title. so I figure I shouldn’t shy away from typing it. And I stand completely with Gregory here –

Gregory responds to students protesting the Dean who recommended his book

Gregory is a terrific writer. He moves between detail and big picture smoothly and effectively. There were more than a few passages that just blew me away.

And there was so much here I just did not know about him and his involvement in the Civil Rights Revolution – revolution is the word he thinks is more apt than ‘movement.’ If at times, he attributes a bit too much to his intuition, well, that’s okay. But the treatment of his wife after a personal tragedy? Not okay.

I appreciated how Gregory was able to explain his own entry into the Revolution, whether it was forcing a prison audience to be integrated before he performed or marching with Medgar Evers. I also appreciated that he was willing to turn down an opportunity to speak at the March on Washington – at least initially. And his comments are very powerful when he connects the events in the United States with those around the world. I’m not sure the word Vietnam is ever mentioned; but it’s always there.

I remain puzzled as to why he called his need or instinct to become involved in Civil Rights his “monster.” It’s likely limiting to say that the monster was just that – he needed to speak and be heard like most of us need to breathe.

But from beginning to end, the title makes sense. Gregory makes it clear what’s at stake. And by his measure, indeed by almost every measure, we aren’t there yet.

I was challenged to get over my “mental block” about sci-fi (or whatever genre this is) and read this. After all, I’d loved her two Western books – Doc and Epitaph. For a while, I didn’t think I was really engaged in it. I was appreciating Russell’s skill with character, structure, and detail, but then two things happened.

First, when I was in the world of Rakhat in the book, someone interrupted me. I was not just surprised, but shocked; my mind rocketed back to earth. So that shattered any belief that I was reading this as an intellectual exercise. Still, I thought I knew what was coming. In fact, I began to be concerned that Russell hadn’t left herself enough pages to do the ending justice.

I was wrong. On both counts. The ending is absolutely devastating and perfectly handled. Everything makes sense and, as with the main character, nothing makes sense. I am still reeling.

Am I a sci-fi / speculative fiction / fantasy convert? No, but I may finally pick up a book my wife has been urging me to read for a while – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Mary Doria Russell’s website

Go ahead. Say that title 10 times fast. I’m not sure what it’s about. A celebration of the quotidian, perhaps. More likely, I think it’s a catalog of words that Wright enjoyed (she died about a year ago). This collection has joy just oozing out of it. The recurring poem, “In a Word, a World,” is Wright digging in with pure relish to celebrate words in all of their shapes, sizes, and syllables. There is not only joy in her poetry, there is urgency, a reminder of its urgency. “I propose,” she writes, “we all keep looking. I propose it is an unyielding imperative for the poet to do so.” The poem, “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal Than the World’s Biggest Retailer,” is as funny as its title and a call to not arms, but words, for any poet. Poets are responsible, in Wright’s words, for “trueing what is seen.” This is an inspiring and urgent collection. If you are no fan of prose poetry, you may want to sample before you buy. Everyone else should buy it, read it, and be reminded.

C.D. Wright – Poetry Foundation

Buy it here!