H Is For Hawk (Macdonald)

In all of the sparkling and well-deserved reviews of this book, I haven’t come across anyone who has mentioned the title. Why did Macdonald want to do anything to associate her book with Sue Grafton? Aside from that, this might be the most perfectly written and compelling book I’ve encountered in a while. Macdonald, having just lost her father, interweaves three stories – her memories of her father, the life of T.H. White, and her efforts to overcome her father’s loss by training her goshawk, Mabel.

There is not a missed step here. In tightly compacted prose, Macdonald searches within herself and within White as she mourns her father’s death. She is adept at taking us through the technical language of falconry and the internal struggles of a person (herself, White) pulled in many directions. From beginning to end, Macdonald is honest and true. Her writing reminded me of Annie Dillard’s. In certain places, I could sense that she might have had more to say -for example, about the cross-pollination of nature over time – but that she was wise enough to restrain herself in order to maintain the focus where it needed to be.

I found it kind of amazing that what seemed to me to be a grief memoir was so popular and well-received. Now I understand why.


Bastards of the Reagan Era (Betts)

I am also a child of the Reagan era, albeit in a very (VERY) different way than the way Mr. Betts presents what I am presuming is his own life in this excellent collection. When I tell you that 11 of the poems here are called, “For the City that Nearly Broke Me,” that should give you some idea of the territory of these powerful poems.  Replete with cultural allusions, Betts’ poems, individually and together, speak of both the personal and political with language that creates its own kind of music. This book is a kind of historical document and should be read and savored as such.

links to 5 of Betts’ poems

Betts’ own site

Delicious Foods (Hannaham)

This one almost got by me. If not for the reviews of a couple of Facebook friends, I think I would have missed it. What a remarkable writer and what a remarkable story. The story is told from the point of view of three characters, Darlene (the mother), Eddie (the son), and Scotty (not going to spoil this). In addition to Hannaham’s powerful yet understated writing (I may just copy the passage in which Eddie recalls earlier memories of his mother, Darlene, and give it to my mother as a mother’s day card), Hannaham has created a plot that both reaches back in time to slavery era and illustrates the contemporary plight of farmworkers. Several of these farmworkers mention thinking about the path the food takes from when they picked it to when someone eats it. How often do we think about that path in reverse? The novel is not just about being enslaved by someone who physically exploits you, it is also about debt slavery and the way we enslave ourselves. Though the prose is often lyrical, Hannaham does not shy away from or sugarcoat the physical realities of the setting. The scene that finally explains why Eddie is driving the way he is in the opening of the book is both precise and gruesome. I am going to look for his first novel, God Says No, and wonder what he’s going to do next.

God Loves Haiti (Leger)

I wanted to like this. I’ve been looking for another voice out of Haiti since I’ve pretty much devoured all of Danticat. There are sparks here, moments of flair with the writing and an occasional insight. Overall, though, this book falls flat. There was no problem with selecting the immediate aftermath of the recent earthquake, but I am not sure that focusing on the Haitian president, his wife and her lover was ever going to yield a good novel. From that premise, Leger does what he can – moving backwards and forwards, from the UN to the emergency camps established in the wake of the earthquake. But the dialogue is wooden, the minor characters underdeveloped, and the prose itself is extremely uneven.

Dancing in Odessa (Kaminsky)

Having never heard of him before, I have now read two collections recently that allude to Osip Mandelstam. If these two collections are any indications, he must be a pretty good influence. Kaminsky seems to more painting than writing – but not a still life – a world in motion. His lines are quietly effective. In “Musica Humana,” someone is “weaving days into knots.” The poem also features “a romantic boy with a barefoot heart.”

One of my favorites —

A Toast

If you will it, it is no dream.
— Theodore Herzl

October: grapes hung like the fists of a girl
gassed in her prayer. Memory,
I whisper, stay awake.

In my veins
long syllables tighten their ropes, rains come
right out of the eighteenth century
Yiddish or a darker language in which imagination
is the only word.

Imagination! a young girl dancing polka,
unafraid, betrayed by the Lord’s death
(or his hiding under the bed when the Messiah
was postponed).

In my country, evenings bring the rain water, turning
poplars bronze in a light that sparkles on these pages
where I, my fathers,
unable to describe your dreams, drink
my silence from a cup.

The prose poem, “Joseph Brodsky,” is sharp as is its companion, “An Elegy for Joseph Brodsky.” In the first “Marina Tsvetaeva,” Kaminsky writes, “[A]ll  I want is a human window/ in a house whose roof is my life.” In this collection, Kaminsky has provided his own much needed window.

The Girl on the Train (Hawkins)

Awful. Ridiculous. What is all of the excitement about? It’s not a mystery if you just withhold details. She’s drunk and can’t be trusted and can’t remember. No one is what s/he seems. Banal. Written with all eyes on the goal of getting it to the screen. There’s nothing here. At least with something like Gone, Girl there was an interesting authorial move. I suppose we’re meant to question our main protagonist here because she, well, drink a lot and therefore we must not like her. I think I’ve overstepped my “no spoiler” rule. So what? Don’t read this. Don’t see it. What a waste of ink.

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (Ward, editor)

They say that every generation gets the artist it needs. Currently, we seem to be realizing that we already have the artist we need and we should have paid more attention to him the first time – James Baldwin. Like Ra Washington, Jesmyn Ward and her new generation pay tribute to Baldwin’s stunning collection, The Fire Next Time.

Pretty much all of these essays take their own angle into the prompt they received from Ward. I admired Wendy S. Walters’ “Lonely in America,” for its thought-provoking research into the way we treat our dead. Honoree Fanonne Jeffers’ piece on Phillis Wheatley’s husband reminds us to be wary of who tells whose stories. The form and content of Kevin Young’s “Blacker Than Thou” is amazing. Kiese Laymon’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (a Prequel)” sent me to listen to OutKast. “Black and Blue” by Garnette Cadogan and “Know Your Rights!” by Emily Raboteau work well together since their focus is on walking. Claudia Rankine’s “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” is the star of the show, with its careful consideration of the treatment of black bodies.

I will definitely use a few of these in class. An important, timely and well-written book. And a good reminder to (re)read Baldwin.