Susan Power on Reading in “Sacred Wilderness”

I am a longtime fan of the Native American writer Susan Power, whose debut novel The Grass Dancer won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Fiction in 1995.   And I am loving her third novel, Sacred Wilderness, published by Michigan State Press in the American Indian Studies series in 2014.

Power interweaves the stories of two women, Gladys Swan, an Ojibwe elder, and Candace Jensen, a wealthy woman who has lost herself in consumerism.   When Maryam, the Virgin Mary, arrives to help Candace reconnect with her Mohawk ancestors, Candace refuses to believe in her. Gladys, Candace’s new housekeeper, can also see Maryam, who is grateful when Gladys offers to let her stay in a luxurious room in the mansion.   Candace is so oblivious that she does not even sense the growing rage of a mask in her personal American Indian Museum, which is housed in a room in another wing of the mansion.  Candace is in crisis, though Gladys and Maryam do what they can to help.

Susan Power

But on to bookishness:  there are many literary bonds between the characters.  Even Maryam likes a good book, and Candace and Gladys  attend a reading  at Louise Erdrich’s bookstore, Birchback Books, in Minneapolis.

But I especially love this description of Candace’s love of reading.  To many of you, this will sound familiar.

Candace was a hungry reader who hoarded books and could not feel safe or relaxed unless a visible stack of waiting volumes perched on the table beside her favorite armchair–the only disorder allowed in her domain.  She favored women authors, though quite unconsciously; there was nothing political in her choices.  Louise Erdrich was the reigning queen of her literary heart, but she also pounced on every Alice Munro story she could find, for each one was a world onto itself, every bit as satisfying as a novel.  She’d read Byatt’s Possession and Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant so many times she’d had to buy replacement copies, for she’d read the originals to disintegrating rags.

She needed to hold a book in her hands, touch the pages that were warm in summer, damp with humidity, cool and slippery in frozen January.  No Kindle for her.  That would be like hiring a stiff robot to give one a deep massage.  Plus, she liked to breathe in the book, dip her nose toward the seam where the pages met and smell the sharp spice of a new book, the dusty paper of an old one.

I am still reading it, but it is one of the loveliest novels I’ve read this summer. I plan to recommend it to my “real-life” book club.

Bibliobits: Book Clubs & BookTube

I’m not unsociable. I am chatty.  Sure, I’m a bit prim.   My idea of fun is going to the library, or reading Juvenal in Latin with my husband at Cafe Diem, a coffeehouse in Ames.

I do think my diversions are comical.  Who in this day and age has a Latin club?

And I belong to many other book clubs, too, because I’m kind of geeky.

My “real-life” book club is currently reading Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now, Voyager (in the Femmes Fatales series at the Feminist Press).

I also love online book groups, and have read dozens (literally) of Trollope’s books for groups.  But for the next few months, many excellent groups are reading books I’ve already read.  For instance,

  1. Ellen Moody’s Trollope19thCStudies group at Yahoo Groups is reading Anna Karenina.  I love this brilliant novel, but have already reread it this year, and  have posted about it at this blog seven times.
  2. The Inimitable-Boz group at Yahoo Groups is reading Bleak House, my favorite Dickens novel, which I  have read at least seven times.
  3. The European Literature in Translation group at Goodreads recently read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualites, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.  Unfortunately, I joined too late.  They are currently reading Balzac’s Grand Illusions, which I have read three times and blogged about once.  And in October they’re reading Celine’s Journey into Night, which I’ve also read.
  4. Blogger readalongs are problematic for me, because so often they discuss books I’ve already read.  Several bloggers read Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, all three trilogies, a few years ago.  It’s not that I’m not crazy about Galsworthy, but I’ve read the saga three times.
  5. I do participate in Women in Translation Month (August), an annual event celebrated by booksellers, librarians, reviewers, publishers, bloggers, and journalists.  Only 30% of new books in English translation are by women.  And so we try to read women writers.

I wish I’d read this with the group!

But I may participate in Emily Asher-Perrin’s  Dune reread at Tor (the science fiction site).  I reread Dune last year (a  classic), and the group is now on the third book, Children of Dune.

Please let me know of other good online book groups.  The ones I mentioned are excellent.

Is BookTube the Next Worst Thing?

The very good blogger, I Prefer Reading, mentioned BookTube before  she went on break last spring.

Well, I love I Prefer Reading, but BookTube is not for me. I  couldn’t find anything!   My heart sank as I watched monotonous videos that make PBS look like action films.  BookTube is like very, very bad TV.  The “vloggers” ramble, there is often no script, and obviously no editing.  It’s Narcissist City!

The sincerity is evident, but the segments are too long:   eight to twelve minutes of  babbling. My advice: Cut the first three or four minutes and get straight to the books.  And, if you’re chatting about seven books (and seven is the magic number in “vlogs” about “Favorite Books of the Year So Far”),  limit the chat to 30 seconds per book.  Let your model be the PBS “Summer Reading” interview with writers and bookstore owners Louise Erdrich and Emma Straub, who recommend 19 books in eight minutes.  Sure, Jeffrey Brown asks a few questions, but both these writers are very well prepared.

Louise Erdrich at her bookstore, Birchbark Books.

Here’s an excerpt from the superb PBS transcript of this superb video, which you can watch here:

LOUISE ERDRICH:  I don’t think people usually take poetry to the beach to read, but this book has been sold by its cover for quite some time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we should say, it’s called “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” right, by Natalie Diaz.


Natalie Diaz is a powerhouse of a writer. And this book is a wild ride. It has headlong rushes of ecstatic, beautiful language, small details about life on Mojave Reservation. Natalie Diaz is Mojave.

And this is set in Arizona mainly, but it’s also, of course, set in her heart and her head. And there’s a sensibility that is so dark, but so funny. It’s just such a rich, compelling piece of literature. You know, it’s just the kind of book that you want to live with each poem for a while.

I’ve got it on reserve at the library.

A Genre-Mix Post: Louise Glück’s Averno & Louise Penny’s Still Life

Yes, it’s a genre-mix post.

I recently read Louise Glück’s collection of poems,  Averno, and Louise Penny’s award-winning  mystery, Still Life, the first in the Chief Inspector Gamache series.

Louise Glück, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollinger Award, often writes poetry based on myths.  The title of her 2006 collection, Averno, refers to a crater lake in Italy, which is the mythic gateway to the underworld of the dead, known as Avernus in Latinyou may remember it from Virgil’s Aeneid.

Glück’s  book is nothing like Virgil’s: it provides a woman’s view of the underworld.  The cycle of poems revolves around Persephone, the goddess of spring and summer, abducted and raped by Hades, her uncle, the god of the underworld.  Her mother, Demeter,  searches the earth for her daughter, and upon discovering her  whereabouts,  makes  a deal with Zeus,  Persephone’s father, to bring Persephone back.  Unfortunately,  Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds in the underworld;  thus she can return above ground only six months a year, in spring and summer.

In Averno, Gluck meditates on the soul, death, and winter.  Sometimes the observations are modern, from the perspective of the poet/artist, an older woman confronting the specter of death, and other times in the form of a narrative of Persephone and the dead.  The persona of the poem doubts the effectiveness of Persephone’s return from the dead, and the magic work with flowers and food.  She wonders if Persephone wouldn’t prefer to be dead. At one point, in “Persephone the Wanderer,” Glück writes that the rift in the human soul “should be read/as an argument between the mother and the lover–/the daughter is just meat.”

She does know the earth
is run by mothers, this much
is certain. She also knows
she is not what is called
a girl any longer. Regarding
incarceration, she believes

she has been a prisoner since she was a daughter.

In “A Myth of Devotion,” she writes about Hades’ creepy plot to abduct Persephone.  He built a duplicate of Earth below the ground, including the meadow where she picks flowers.  And he watched her for years before he took her.

Later in the book, there is a second version of “Persephone the Wanderer,”the emphasis on Demeter’s complicated relationship to her daugher.

In the second version, Persephone
is dead. She dies, her mother grieves–
problems of sexuality need not
trouble us here.

A powerful collection of poems, but very, very bleak.  Beneath the stark language, there is emotion.

Louise Penny’s Still Life.  For years I’ve been hearing about Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache novels. This summer it was a toss-up:   would I try Donna Leon’s mysteries, recommended by Louise Erdrich on NPR, or  Louise Penny’s mysteries, recommended by my friends?

Well, I opted for Penny and loved it:  Still Life, set in Quebec, in the mythical village of Three Pines, is mainly a police procedural, but there are elements of the cozy. The village is charming, hardly the place where you’d expect a murder. The residents are artists, poets, bookstore owners, bed-and-breakfast owners, and other entrepreneurs.

Chief inspector Gamache is philosophical in the manner of Simenon’s Maigret.  He listens very carefully, notes details, speaks little,and quotes poetry. And it all adds up to solving crimes.    Experienced detective though he is, he is shocked to see the body of Miss Jane Neal, a beloved retired teacher,  shot by an arrow in the woods.

Chief Inspector reacts with sorrow as he leans over the body.

The scent of mothballs, his grandmother’s perfume, met him halfway. Jane’s gentle and kindly eyes stared as though surprised to see him.

He was surprised to see her. That was his little secret. Not that he’d ever seen her before. No. His little secret was that in his mid-fifties, at the height of a long and now apparently stalled career, violent death still surprised him. Which was odd, for the head of homicide, and perhaps one of the reasons he hadn’t progressed further in the cynical world of the Sûreté. Gamache always hoped maybe someone had gotten it wrong, and there was no dead body. But there was no mistaking the increasingly rigid Miss Neal. Straightening up with the help of Inspector Beauvoir, he buttoned his lined Burberry against the October chill and wondered.

The mystery is  riveting.  Was it an accident? Was it murder?  There is an archery club in the village. So many opportunities. But oddly it happened only after Jane’s first painting was accepted in the local art show.  Was something stirred up by the painting?

It is well-written and great fun.  But it was very hard to get anything done until I finished it! And I do feel a need to read the second one. But I must be disciplined.  More Penny on the weekend!

Lyrical Book Reviews: No Adverbs with My Coffee, Please!

Here’s one thing I don’t need:  a lyrical book review.

The “lyrical book review” is on the rise, to judge from two recent book reviews in The New York Times and The L.A. Times.

I’d never read the work of Parul Sehgal, the new daily critic at The New York Times, until I metaphorically rustled the  book page (at the website)  and saw her review.  Here’s what I know about her:  She studied political science at Magill and got an MFA at Columbia.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have started with her review of Karl Knausgaard’s new book, Autumn, written in the form of a letter to his “unborn daughter.”  i.e., fetus. Under no circumstances would I read a letter by a man to a fetus. (Why are men obsessed with fetuses? Ian McEwan also wrote a novel from the point of view of a fetus, Nutshell. )

Although I don’t doubt Sehgal’s critical judgment of the book, I do doubt her editor’s line-editing.

The review begins,

How best to follow up a six-volume, 3,600-page, terrifically indiscreet autobiographical novel that cops to infidelity, self-mutilation, premature ejaculation, alcoholism, attraction to reactionary politics and ambivalence about fatherhood?

If you’re the author of “My Struggle,” the final installment of which will be published in English next year, it’s with a slightly penitential book-length letter to your unborn daughter.

Ye gods!  Is the first 28-word sentence a diary entry, or perhaps a poem? There is no subject or main verb.  “How best…?”  One wonders, does she mean, “How can one best follow up a …?”  or “How is it best to follow up…”  or “How could Knausgaard follow up?” And do we need “up”? And the verbosity goes on:  one adverb (“terrifically”) and six adjectives, two of them hypehnated  (“six-volume,” 3,600-page,” “indiscreet,” “autobiographical,” “premature,” and “reactionary”).  Whatever happened to the power of the verb?  What happened to Strunk and White?

And in the next sentence, let us delete the preposition “with.”  It’s not “with” a book-length letter, it is a book-length letter.

Mind you, people think very highly of Sehgal’s work.  In 2010 she received the National Book Critics Circle award, Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

I  think the piece was  badly edited.

Or is lyrical verbosity  a Millennial thing?

In the L.A. Times the other day, I read an incomprehensible opening paragraph of Ilana Mesad’s review of Paul Yoon’s ‘The Mountain.”   Mesad is an Israeli-American writer and critic.

Her review begins:

Paul Yoon’s new collection, “The Mountain,” is not what you’d call delightful — the stories are sober and the prose is quiet, yet in that is the howling of the human condition that makes the best short fiction stand out. Only six stories long, it is also a small collection and an almost unfailingly tight one from Yoon, author of the short story collection “Once the Shore” and the novel “Snow Hunters.”

Wow, “the howling of the human condition”– pseudo-lyrical, yes? What does “yet in that” refer to?  Instead of “only six stories long” and “it is also a small collection and unfailingly tight,”  the editor might have considered,  “Yoon’s six-story collection is unfailingly tight.”  “Unfailingly” is so eccentric he might consider another adverb, though.

The rest of the review is written in ordinary spare language, nothing to offend.  But that first paragraph was too much before coffee.  Whom can we blame?  Writer or editor?

I’m hoping these two reviews were a glitch in the system.

The lyricism hasn’t yet infected The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Review of Books, and the TLS.

Thank God!

The AmazonCrossing Imprint: Oksana Zabuzhko’s The Museum of Abandoned Secrets & Shion Miura’s The Great Passage

Fans of novels in translation may not know this literary secret:   AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s translation imprint, is the largest publisher of fiction in English translation.

According to statistics in 2015,  AmazonCrossing published 75 titles, while the second largest publisher, Dalkey Archive, published only  25.

I read these stats and immediately forgot them, of course, because when I read a book in translation it is likely to be by Balzac.

But AmazonCrossing is a little different, in that it publishes many genres, not just the literary fiction favored by small presses or best-sellers by the brilliant Haruki Murakami.

I recently read a review in the New York Times of a new AmazonCrossing novel, Shion Miura’s The Great Passage.  And the hero is a dictionary editor!  (How fun.)   I already appreciate the translator,  the award-winning Juliet Winters Carpenter.  Have you read her brilliant translation of  Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, a Japanese retelling of Wuthering Heights?   (One of my favorite books:  I posted about it here.)

I am reading another AmazonCrossing book at the moment, a 2009 Urkainian novel, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, by Oksana Zabuzhko. (The translator is Nina Shevchuck-Murray.)  It is the first  modern novel I have read set in Ukraine.  Zabuzhko, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy and has written 17 books of fiction, poetry, and essays, uses techniques like stream-of-consciousness and one-sided dialogues.  The narrative is complicated, but compelling.

Losses and secrets:  the heroine’s life is full of them.  Daryna Goshchynska,  a popular TV journalist, is always looking for new material.  When she finds a photo of Olena Dovgan, a member of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed by Stalin’s secret police in 1947, she decides to make a documentary about her.  Olena’s charming grand-nephew, Aidan, an antique dealer, comes forward, and they become lovers.   He has eerie dreams that seem to be the memories  of someone who knew Olena in the ’40s.

Daryna’s obsession with Elena may be partly because of her loss of other people:  her father, sentenced to years in a mental hospital for his views, finally died of cancer at home, and  her  best friend, Vlada, a famous artist who was ignored in her native country, died in a car crash, the paintings in her trunk stolen before the police found the car. Daryna is sure it was an accident, but Vlada’s politician husband thinks it was a hit.

I am still reading this novel, but here is a moving passage from an interview Daryna did with  Vlada, who describes a  collage inspired by a girl’s game of the 1960s.  The girls made “secrets,” which were very like folk art icons.

Vlada recalls,

“So you have this shiny silver or gold background, and you lay out your design—with leaves, pebbles, whatever junk you could find, as long as it’s brightly colored: Candy wrappers, pieces of glass, beads, buttons—there were lots of fun buttons back then, everyone sewed, knitted, crocheted, you had to be crafty. You could add flowers—marigolds, phlox, daisies—usually to make a kind of a decorative frame, a border, which is also a common practice in Ukrainian folk art. So you had a little collage piece of sorts, whatever struck your fancy, and then you took a bigger piece of glass, like the bottom of a bottle—remember that those factory-made icons also came framed and under glass—and set it on top of the hole and buried everything again. Then, when you came back later and brushed the dirt off that spot, you’d see a tiny magical window into the ground, like a peephole into Aladdin’s cave.”

Breathtaking, no?   I realize how much I am missing by not reading more modern fiction in translation.

I may write more about this later, when I’ve finished.

What’s on My TBR? To Be Read, to Be Reread, & Comfort Books

It’s not pretty…

I moved a bookcase into my bedroom.  It is the only way to cope with the TBR.

“Yup, that’s the TBR shelf,” I told my bookish friend, Suzy, a teacher who stopped by briefly in the middle of a literary road trip.   She has visited the American Writers Museum in Chicago, taken the Betsy-Tacy tour in Mankato, Minnesota, is on her way to Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and, against her better judgment, may swing by Mark Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, Missouri (a commercial nightmare), on the way home.

After a trip to Half Price Books, Suzy happily examined my shelves, but is not entirely sympathetic to the TBR concept. She thinks it’s internet-ish. “So what’s Aeschylus doing on the nightstand?  Where’s his shelf?”

“That’s a chest of drawers.  Aeschylus is bedtime reading.”

“Cozy, kind of like Stephen King.”

“Maybe less horrifying, like domestic noir.”

I explained I dropped Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil in the laundry basket so I’d remember to put it in the giveaway box in the laundry room.  It is his worst book.  The characters are like the Snopes.  Inger killed her baby who had a harelip.  And she just got out of prison.

“May I have it?”

Over ice cream with raspberries, we discussed the pros and cons of a TBR shelf.

I rarely read anything on my TBR, alas. Will I get back to Dostoevsky?  Not unless I acquire some name-brand antidepressants. (Impossible.)  I often dip into D. H. Lawrence’s short stories, but prefer his novels. I recommend Gissing’s The Odd Women, but should some  of Gissing’s other books before I return to my favorite.  Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, a series of fictional conversations about the virtues and conduct of the ideal courtier,  is a comfort read for the middle of the night.

So it’s really a comfort read shelf?

Suzy is reading Willa Cather’s  Collected Short Stories, because the autobiographical story “Old Mrs. Harris” is essential reading for the tour.

So what’s on your TBR?  And do you actually read it?

What I’ve Been Reading: Allende, Austen, Anders, & Literary Links

You may ask, Is Mirabile Dictu finally done with Ladies’ Greek?

Yes, I am reading, reading, and reading novels again!

Here are brief remarks on a South American masterpiece by Isabel Allende, Jane Austen’s first novel, and and Charlie Jane Ander’s acclaimed science fiction.

1. The Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende’s stunning  first novel, The House of the Spirits, was translated by Magda Bogin and published in the U.S.  in 1985. This lush, witty, poetic masterpiece is laced with magic realism, and  reminiscent of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Allende narrates the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trueba family in a politically unstable  country in South America.  The strong women of the family ignore Esteban Trueba, the volatile family patriarch, and live their own lives. I am especially fond of Clara, the  psychic matriarch who opens their enormous house to eccentrics and adds on rooms and staircases that go nowhere; her daughter, Blanca, a potter who teaches Mongoloids; and her radical granddaughter, Alba, who  feeds the homeless and hides refugees in the wake of a fascist coup. Even the tyrannical patriarch, Esteban Trueba, a landowner and far-right politician, is appalled in old age by violence of the new regime and begins to understand the women. Not only was I reminded of how very great Allende is, but I am eagerly looking forward to her new novel, In the Midst of Winter (October).

2. A rereading of Jane Austen’s Northanger AbbeyThe heroine, Catherine Morland, is one of Austen’s most comical characters, and I enjoyed my rereading of this charming little book.  Catherine, a fan of Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and other “horrid” Gothic novel, hopes to find a ghost or secret manuscript when she visits the Tilneys at the elegant  Northanger Abbey. Her witty boyfriend, Henry Tilney, one of the very few of Austen’s heroes I heartily approve, brings Catherine down to earth when she gets carried away.  He, too, is a novel reader, and has a good sense of humor.  He says,

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  I have read all Mrs. Radliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure.  The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again,–I remember finishing it in two days–my hair standing on end the whole time.”

3.  Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky.  A nominee for the Hugo Award, this  science fiction novel was highly lauded.   Parts are charming, parts are a bit awkward and rambling, but it should appeal to fans of Harry Potter and Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy.  The story of the relationship between Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a brilliant techie, includes lots of magic, science, sex, and global warming.  Though this novel seems to me very slight, it is a good weekend read.


AND NOW FOR TWO LITERARY LINKS.  When I spotted an online review at the TLS of Ann Hood’s bibliomemoir, Morningstar,I paid a month’s subscription fee to read the review.  Well, I will also benefit by reading other reviews for subscribers only.   I loved Hood’s memoir, and hope others will enjoy it, too.  (You can read my post on Morningstar here.)

Jenny Hendrix writes in the TLS,

…[Hood] credits her childhood bookishness with setting her on a path to the literary life of her dreams. Hood reflects on ten works of fiction that guided her through adolescence in the late 1960s and early 70s, and her discovery through them of how to live “the mysterious, unnam­able, big dream life I wanted”: “My parents learned about life from hardship”, she writes. “Me? I learned from books.”

In her blue-collar Rhode Island mill town, Hood was an oddity in a household of non-readers; in her hard-working Italian immigrant family, books were seen as a waste of time and money. But, after she had enjoyed a chance encounter with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, literature opened Hood’s eyes to possibilities beyond her immediate milieu. She learnt what it meant to be a writer from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; learnt to love language via the poet Rod McKuen; and credits John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath with teaching her how to write. There were other, extra-literary lessons as well, in subjects her family didn’t discuss. As the Vietnam War drew to a close, the novel Johnny Got His Gun sharpened her political thinking; the free-loving teens of The Harrad Experiment opened her eyes to the mechanics of sex. Together, these books built Hood an off-ramp from what she experienced as the dull and uninspiring trajectory of her peers: baptized in the church at one end of the town’s main street, married at the club in the middle, and buried by the funeral parlour at the same street’s far end.

The tough women criticizing women at the TLS always find a few negative things to say, and so Hendrix calls the book “heart-warming,” which is not the worst thing I’ve ever heard!  Overall, she liked the book.

If you like free reviews, and don’t we all, you can read the insightful review at  The Minneapolis Star Tribune .  Laurie Hertzel, the book page editor, aptly describes Hood’s graceful book.

In these 10 appealing essays, Hood deftly recounts pivotal moments in her early life, recalling not just what happened, but how she felt and how wonderful it was that the right book seemed to appear at the right time. “Once again,” she writes, “my world had been cracked open by a book.”

Hood’s book is actually one of my favorite books of the year.