The Walmart Book of the Dead (Biederman)

In a scene from the movie Roxanne which of course I cannot find on YouTube right now, Steve Martin has a delightfully mocking scene in which he celebrates being present at a moment of genius. I was reminded of that scene (minus the mocking) when I picked up and read Lucy Biederman’s The Walmart Book of the Dead. In her acknowledgments, Biderman, a lecturer in English at Case Western Reserve University,  says she drew inspiration from a 1960 gloss on a museum’s holdings, a translation of the Papyrus of Ani and a book called  The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt. First of all, who reads those things? And who reads those things and comes up with this? Like Steve Martin in that scene I wish I could find, I wish I was there at that moment. Because what she’s come up with is brilliant.

Having never been a fan of genres, I love the visible struggle to define what this is. It’s referred to as a “series of librettos,” “a darkly comic incantation” and it won an award given to vignette collections. When I went to pick it up at a bookstore, I quickly realized that I had no idea where to look. It turns out it was in the Poetry section.

I can’t claim I understood every incantation or vignette, but the ones I did find my way into were funny and pointed and true. I relished the thought of Walmart executives meeting to discuss the book. Granted, I have my own opinions of Walmart and everything it seems to embody, so maybe I celebrated parts of this for that reason, but mostly I celebrated the genius of the idea and the wonderful execution of it. I absolutely guarantee you’ve read nothing like it. So go pick it up. But if you’re in a hurry, ask about where to find it. Who knows where it’ll be shelved?

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A House of My Own: Stories from My Life (Cisneros)

In Susan Shillinglaw’s On Reading The Grapes of Wrath, she advises readers to dip into her book for a bit and then the Steinbeck and to repeat the cycle. I probably should have done that with Cisneros’ extensive collection of short pieces and my recent re-read of The House on Mango Street. This is a much longer book than Mango, and this one, despite several apparent attempts to do otherwise, is in date order (and therefore in contrast with Mango). Hence, it becomes kind of long. At times, Cisneros comes off as arrogant, both in the pieces themselves and in the introductions she wrote for each for this collection. Still, there are enough gems to make the collection worthwhile. I am still not sure whether I can consider Cisneros more than a one-hit wonder (did anyone read and like Caramelo? I couldn’t get through it), but this collection does suggest she has more to contribute.

This Side of Brightness (McCann)

I love Colum McCann’s work, and this novel just deepened my appreciation. He’s a magician with words and story. From beginning to end, I was in the world he created, a world very far from my own time, place and experience. And, I think it’s worth noting, that he centers a story around Nathan Walker, a black man. This book was published in 1998. I’d like to think he’d be as bold now. He’s not showing off here, I don’t think, just reminding us with his main character and his fellow sandhogs that once upon a time, there were a lot of different groups that were not considered white. Aside from a moment that seemed like one coincidence too many, the plot and characters are compelling and the ending is even hopeful.

I look forward to seeing him in person in April.

Colum McCann at John Carroll

Great Tranquility: Questions and Answers (Amichai)

The title has to be ironic. Aside from some throwaway and, at times, icky poems, about women, these poems represent a mind that is anything but tranquil.  Here, Amichai (here translated by Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt) grapples with how, both personally and politically, we can balance history and memory with the need to move forward in life. In “In the Old City,” the battle seems lost. He writes, “We are weepers at feasts, carvers of names on every stone, / Smitten by hope, hostages of rulers and history.” The ‘we’ here is almost certainly Israel. In “Since Then,” he says, “I march against my memories / Like a man against the wind.” On the other hand, or, as he puts it in “People in the dark always see, “between darkness and light real life goes on.” This tension is represented most effectively in his poem, “Jerusalem is full of used Jews.” There are a handful to just skip here (and make me wonder what Amichai pays his editor for), but three quarters of the collection is incredibly compelling. Amichai seems to genuinely ask (in “An Attempt to Hold Back History”), “Do you think you can hold back history?”

Seeing the Better City (Wolfe)

I heard Mr. Wolfe talk before I picked up the book. At the talk, he seemed interesting enough for me to read the book both because of my interest in cities and because of my interest in looking at neighborhoods  as we study The House on Mango Street. It’s pretty good, a bit more extended than it needed to be, and a bit less revolutionary than the language would have you believe. Still, there are a few practical elements I’ll use moving forward for the purposes of school. I’d listen to him talk again, but I don’t think I’d read another one of his books. I do want to tell him to stay away from ridiculous comments about Charles Dickens, though.

Leaving Las Vegas (O’Brien)

I never really expected to read this. I saw the movie and feared it would be in the category of literary excess, but I was absolutely wrong. This is a great book, marked by gentle insightful portraits of troubled people whose lives intersect in Las Vegas. It’s atmospheric, without being overwhelming. It’s evocative, without relying on trying to shock its readers. And, because I know the ending, I found it very, very sad. I think the key to my change of heart was realizing that the story is more about Sera than Ben, and so much of her story is between and outside the lines.