Initially, many of these poems, most of them ekphrastic (see, for example, Enlightenment), felt fragile. Perfectly constructed, but not ones I could find my way into. There were no lines that stood out; everything depended on everything else.
Slowly, as I begin to get some sense of the rhythm of the pieces and recurring motifs started to appear (her father, being mixed race, etc.), I found them more accessible and those poems opened up the whole collection for me. For example, from “The Book of Castas,” on being of mixed race:
what do you call // that space between / the dark geographies of sex? // Call it the taint – as in / T’aint one and t’aint the other – // illicit and yet naming still / what is between.
I’m not doing Trethewey’s spacing justice, but you can see how those lines would have to be unpacked carefully. The same is true for the whole collection.
If you infer a religious motif from the number 7, you are right. There’s a plot twist here, too, but I don’t want to spoil it, other than to say Myla Goldberg did it better in Bee Season. And that wasn’t the only time I wondered about Pearsall’s, ahem, influences.
The characters are pretty much cardboard, and the plot is fairly predictable.
And I sincerely regret Pearsall’s use of the “magical Negro” character, so ably spoofed by Key & Peele here, even if it was based on an actual artwork and artist.
I enjoyed Pearsall’s, All of the Above, but this one – not so much.
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.
You will not be surprised to learn of the religious motif running through this book, but it runs deeper and stranger than you might expect. Stripped of its details, this is the story of a young girl coming of age. But, depending on what cliche you like, you know how important the details are. From the first sentence – “Please help me say the unsayable: My first life ended when my brother Sam committed suicide” – to the 11th-hour reveal, Cuba kept me off-engaged. Her protagonist, Sarah Pelton, becomes a “truth scavenger,” and I felt the same way as I read the book. This is a many-layered tale, and given my skimpy understanding of Mexican culture, I am sure there are even more layers than I recognized.
If an author’s first book has been successful, the second book always makes me nervous. Has it been rushed out to capitalize on the publicity? Was it, in fact, the failed first book?
And when the second book is a collection of short stories, I am extremely wary. Were these the stories with which the writer sought to establish himself (and failed to do so), but now rushed to print to capitalize on the success of the first book?
Marra’s novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is amazing. Marra, Anisfield-Wolf award winner, combines tragedy and comedy in sentences that make you think he has access to a different alphabet.
This collection of stories affirms his greatness. There’s no sophomore slump here. These interrelated stories explore questions about memory, family and art with both poignancy and humor. When I finished “The Grozny Tourist Bureau,” I had to stop for a moment of silence in appreciation. It is one of the finest stories I’ve ever read.
After two amazing books, I am prepared to pay Marra the highest compliment I have. When his next book comes out, not only will all of my apprehensiveness be gone, I will buy it in hardback, an honor I bestow on only my favorite authors.
It seemed important to include the subtitle. Apparently, in earlier versions, the final word of the title was ‘aliens’ – a positive switch, I think.
I wanted to like this more than I did. I think the trouble stems from Conover’s uncertainty about where to locate himself in the story. In the Foreword, he writes, “This is not the whole story, but I have tried to make it their story.” I don’t think he accomplishes this. He is central to the narrative, a constant threat and sometimes boon to the Mexicans he accompanies. He also says, early on, that a Mexican farmer told him, “It is better to see once than to listen many times.” I’m not sure that was very sound advice. Though Conover reports trying very hard to fit in, he is, in the end, a tourist of sorts. More than once, his American-ness saves him. Sometimes, he uses it to (try to) benefit the Mexicans, but it is always present. It may have been useful for him to see, but I think it would have served him and this book well for him to have listened more.
I also think it would have been more engaging if had moved between his own experiences and commentary on immigration policy. His narrative does not exactly pop off the page. Perhaps shorter pieces of it, combined with policy reporting, would have made this book more engaging. It also would have made it a different book.
Still, Conover accomplishes something we need now – to stop talking about immigration as an issue and to start talking about how it involves human beings. To the extent that he humanized border crossings, Conover does exactly that.
It took me some time to find my way into this book, “one of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century” (Modern Library). Troubled by economic difficulties and natural disasters in Jamaica, two generally clueless parents decide to send their young children back to England. Their ship is captured by a scraggly group of pirates, who make their living less by violence than deception. The children are generally too young to know what’s happening, and it’s only the interior monologue of one of the older girls, Emily, that began to draw me in, to make me wonder about the impact of this, well, “kidnapping,” on the children, on the parents, on the ends of eras (piracy, colonialism), on stories, and on innocence.
I don’t know enough to comment on its inclusion on any sort of list, but it’s definitely intriguing novel, unlike anything else I’ve read. I wish I knew someone else who had read it, so we could discuss it.