Poor White (Anderson)

I tried Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio once, a while back, and could not find my way into it. After reading this one, though, I think I should try again. This is a straightforward story of change. People try to change themselves. The nature of work changes around them. Money changes people. Women struggle with their changing roles and ideas. All of this change collides in one small town. People are hurt and, Anderson implies, something important is not just lost, but forever lost. The prose moves well here, and the passages in which Anderson pulls the camera back, as it were, and comments on the changing country are stirring and true. I am so glad that Belt Publishing brought this one back.


American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Hayes)

This is quite an ambitious project. I like that Hayes, here and elsewhere, is attentive to form. And there are many, many amazing pieces here. There are also some that seemed more clever than anything else. And then there are – and this is okay – some I just didn’t get. As for who his assassin is, I’m not sure, but it might just be people who look like me.

I wish Hayes had at least numbered the sonnets so I could refer to the ones I liked, but no luck.

So, this analogy will date me, but here goes: Do I think it’s worth buying the whole album (book) if only about half of the songs (sonnets) are good? Yep. I think so.

Here is one of my favorites —

“I lock you in an American sonnet. . .”

Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary (Jackson)

What a remarkably layered biography of a man who comes across as incredibly complex and perhaps not ever very or truly knowable. I’ve had a copy of Black Elk Speaks on my shelf for a while, but I’ve never really thought I was ready to approach it. I think I am now. Black Elk’s collaboration with John Niehardt by no means dominates this book; instead, it adds still more layers. After all of the steps of translation and editing, whose story is it?

Black Elk’s life intersected with so much history, both American and First American – even European, he definitely merited an excellent biography and this is definitely it. Jackson’s prose is well-paced and his research drives the narrative, but never overwhelms it.

And the reader adds another layer here. What, I wondered, do I believe about all of this? Then again, what do I really know about it? Jackson definitely seems to admire Black Elk, and I land in that same place too. Whether he was using others or being used, whether he was a success or failure, his persistence, his passion for trying to negotiate a world (for himself and for his tribe) that was changing so rapidly deserves a great deal of respect. Jackson definitely gives him that. And he definitely gave me a lot to consider.

Salt Houses (Alyan)

This is a debut novel? Wow. What comes next? With a remarkably sure hand, Alyan guides us through the generations of a Palestinian family. Time moves on, people may switch locations, but some things remain still and some things remain stuck. With all of the violence that surrounds this extended family, which provides an ever-present backdrop, it is the violence that they do to each other and themselves that is Alyan’s topic. This book just makes you want to reach out to each character and gently say, “Stop. You don’t mean that. Be kind to X. Be kind to yourself.” But time keeps going. People get old; people get older. The description of one character looking up and realizing that she’s 32 is both gorgeous and painfully true. And everywhere there is food and everywhere there is family. And it was wonderful to be with them for 310 pages.

A debut novel? My, my.

author’s site

and she writes poetry too

An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio (Cofer)

I once filmed a segment of a documentary with Ms. Cofer. If you have insomnia and a lot of TV stations and live on the East Coast, you may be able to catch it one day, likely between 2-3 in the morning. She was so nervous and so nice that I instantly liked her. Colleagues recommended one of her stories to me, but I don’t think I ever followed up. So when, in search of generally untold stories, someone recommended this book to me, I was eager to try it. I thought it might be a nice companion to Naomi Klein’s The Battle for Paradise.

I was wrong.

The writing here is just not very good. There are some clumsy mistakes. The plots of these interconnected stories are mawkish. There are glimpses of possibilities in a few of them, ones I’d want to encourage if these came from a student, but for use in the classroom. . . no.

Enemy Women (Jiles)

I really love Jiles’ ability to combine research with narrative. Here, she includes excerpts from primary documents as epigraphs for each chapter. And these epigraphs are not just window dressing. They remind us that the events she describes – primarily Adair’s efforts to get home – are real and that the stories of the so-called “enemy women” need to be told. As with WW2, I wonder if we romanticize the conflicts too much, think of things in strokes that are too broad. Jiles will have none of it. Turn to this for a story that needs to be told and is very well-told.

Footsteps in the Order of Disappearance (Joudah)

I just didn’t get it. Joudah, a doctor, has vocabulary I lack. Often, the poems seemed like shorthand to me, either references to ideas I didn’t understand or an example of making poetry by what is left out. There were a few poems I could find my way into, like, “I, The Sole Witness to My Despair, Declare” (both versions), “An Algebra Come Home” and “Horses.” Mostly, though, I spent my time banging my head against the wall of this collection.