Peter and the Starcatchers (Barry & Pearson)

Perhaps because we’ve all gotten a bit busier (and we have a rule that we can’t read the family book unless everyone is there) and perhaps because the co-authors have created too many characters, this one, a prequel of sorts to Barrie’s Peter Pan books, took a while to finish. It’s entertaining enough – pirates, flying and all that – but there’s so much exposition. Reading a book out loud really compels you to notice the dialogue, and I found that Alf was the only with a distinct voice. The generic nature of the dialogue, particularly the pirate talk, made it easy to forget who was who and a little bit hard to care. Greg Call’s illustrations are cool, but the writing itself does not create too many images.


A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

I was searching for books to read about Maine (an upcoming vacation destination), and it caught my attention because of its uniqueness. A book based on the diary of a midwife shortly after the American Revolution. Also, it became a movie –

I am glad I found it at the remarkable King Bookstore in Detroit ( I found it remarkably engaging and was impressed by Ulrich’s research and analysis. She presents 2 dozen or so diary entries at the start of each chapter. They are short and feature what we might call inventive spelling. From this extract of the diary (as well as other sources), she narrates a key late 18th / early 19th century theme – the role of women, the economy, etc.. She had to have been remarkably tenacious to undercover the details from which her themes emerge. In doing so, she manages to paint a compelling and vivid picture of Maine shortly after the Revolution.

I’m sure it’s a kind of history – social, cultural, something. But her writing, along with the maps, gave me a thoughtful picture of the evolution of one remarkable woman, her family, and her town during the 27 years of her diary.

The Jazz Palace (Morris)

I have a soft spot for all things Chicago, and I enjoy period pieces and jazz, so I was very much looking forward to this book. And Morris has some writing flair. And she knows Chicago, and she has clearly done her research – about history, about jazz. And yet this does not add up to a very good book. It comes off as superficial – kind of cultural tourism. The characters end up being predictable types – the wise black man, the sexually precocious teenager, the gruff father who is truly misunderstood. I’m not sure why this book merited the Anisfield-Wolf book award. I don’t know how this book has challenged or opened minds about racism or cultural diversity. Perhaps I’ll figure it out on June 13th.


70 Poems (Celan, trans. by Hamburger)

I came to Celan by way of Anselm Kiefer, who artwork I admire. I read somewhere that Kiefer was inspired by the poet. I am glad he was because I wasn’t. I had a hard time finding my way into these poems – an occasional like or moment worked for me – but mostly I just turned the pages in search of something that resonated with me. This one did —

The Poles
are within us,
while Awake,
we sleep across, to the Gate
of Mercy,

I lose you to you, that
is my Snow-Comfort,

say, that Jerusalem is,

say, as if I were this
your Whiteness,
as if you were

as if without us we could be we,

I open your leaves, forever,

you bless, you bed
us free.

Come, Thief (Hirshfield)

How come no one told me about her before? I really enjoyed this collection. Though there seem to be a few throwaways (“Three-Legged Blues” is a great throwaway) and perhaps a bit too much attention to rhyme, these poems, often reflections on mortality, are insightful, entertaining and wise. Some samples –

“How fragile we are, between the few good moments.” – from “Vinegar and Oil”

“The feeling heart does not tire of carrying ballast.”  – from “Big-Leaf Maple Standing Over Its Own Reflection”

“Let reason flow like water around a stone, the stone remains.” – from “Critique of Pure Reason” (ha!)

“Increase of reach extends reach, / but not what comes then to fill it.” – from “Heat and Desperation”

“The familiar is not safety. // Yet a horse unblinded runs back to the shape it knows burning.” – from “Red Wine is Fined by Adding Broken Eggshells”

I could continue. Highlights include, “Building and Earthquake,” “Washing Doorknobs,” “Sheep,” (a self in exile is still a self, / as a bell unstuck for years / is still a bell.) “Fifteen Pebbles,” and “When Your Life Looks Back.”

Zero K (DeLillo)

For me, a DeLillo book is an event. I have a visceral memory of my first DeLillo – White Noise – where I was walking when I read it, laughing out loud. Since then, I’ve been hooked. Aside from Libra – which other people seem to like more than me – I find his work compelling, precise, and original. Some complain about the dialogue, but he – like the participants in the Convergence and like Mamet (another favorite) – has his own language. It’s both completely precise and incredibly ambiguous. Words surround ideas. The main character, Jeffrey, seeks to define and name things. It’s a form of control, perhaps, one that ultimately eludes him.

The title, riffing I think on the apocalyptic associations of Y2K, is about nothing less than the end of the world. More specifically, death and when it chooses you and whether you can choose it. Love – husband and second wife, father and son, boyfriend and girlfriend. There is a DeLillo art exhibit. The world and the technological world intersect. What is seen and unseen, said and unsaid.

I don’t want it to be made into a movie, but I could really see this one. It’s visual, evocative, haunting. I’ve been to this story. I couldn’t avoid thinking of Ted Williams. Ross, at home, with his painting. Jeffrey doesn’t know how to live in his house. I know that feeling.  Tremendous.

Bad Feminist (Gay)

I don’t know the circumstances of these essays. Were they written for various publications and then just compiled here? So many of them are of such similar length and that, by the end, became one of my objections. But more to that point later.

Though Gay explains why she thinks she’s a ‘bad’ feminist, I think she’s more in love with the connotations of ‘bad’ than being precise. In the end, it seems like she’s an incomplete feminist – aware of some of her blind spots, but not necessarily ready to remedy them.

There’s a lot to agree with here. I do believe Gay is right when she says that popular culture both promotes and reflects a misogynistic, rape culture. And I do agree with a line that struck me as a useful refrain for this book. We have become careless – with our language, with our choices, with our actions.

That said, some of the reactions I had here were similar to ones when I read something (I’ve blanked on the title) by Chuck Klosterman, maybe Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs. Why would someone with such obvious talent and insight spend so much time on the surface of things? As I said, I think popular culture matters. But these essays lack depth. They seem to be written for the Twitter world Gay professes to admire. Just when she’s approaching a powerful question or contradiction, she stops – abruptly. She regularly tries for the final sentence as exclamation point approach, and she regularly fails. Given the overlap of so many of the essays, what would have happened if she’d dug in a bit deeper? So much of the research seemed based one-click – a news story, a statistic. There’s not much of an attempt to synthesize, well, anything.