I have read many, many stunning books this summer. In July it was so hot that I did very little bicycling or hiking: I stayed indoors and read 13 books. Did I write about all 13? No.
Here are brief reviews of two great reads: Jill Bialosky’s Poetry Will Save Your Life and Janwillem van de Wetering’s The Mind-Murders. And look later this week for short reviews of Ann Beattie’s The Accomplished Guest and Victoria Redel’s After Everything.
A POIGNANT MEMOIR OF POETRY. In Poetry Will Save Your Life, the poet Jill Bialosky refines the popular biblio-memoir and takes it in a new direction. Instead of describing her favorite fiction, Bialosky is in love with poetry. She pairs her beautifully-detailed personal vignettes with poems that help her parse emotions and experiences. Each poem is followed by a short literary analysis. And it is a joy to discover or rediscover poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Denis Johnson, and many more.
Bialosky, who has also written novels and a memoir of her sister’s suicide, is a master of lyricism. Her imagery is crystalline and perfectly-wrought, and yet her style manages to be both evocative and earthy. She writes about her girlhood, college days, building a life in New York, and her compassion for her aging mother. Many of the short chapters are almost novelistic. I told my husband, “If Betty Smith had been a poet, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn would read like this.” (Only in Bialosky’s case, the tree would have grown in Cleveland. And in my husband’s case, he didn’t care where the tree grew.)
Bialosky grew up in the Midwest with her beautiful, warm widowed mother and two affectionate sisters, one of whom tragically committed suicide. She discovered poetry “when my fourth grade teacher, Miss Hudson read us Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’.” Later, poetry helped her cope with her move to New York, her doubts that she would ever marry, and her difficulty in starting a family. Poetry is the constant in her life.
In the preface, she says poems are “like a map to an unknown city.”
For years I’ve flagged poems in individual volumes or anthologies with paper clips and Post-its. I have xeroxed poems and stuck them on my refrigerator or on bulletin boards. I have collected poems as someone else might collect stamps or coins or works of art—amazed by the many human experiences, large and small, that find their meeting place in poems.
As she walks on the beach alone in December, feeling lonely because her son is away at college, she thinks of William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud.” In the early ’80s, when she is overwhelmed by the anonymity of New York City, she remembers a poem by Gerard Stern, “The Red Coal,” which tells the story of two poets in Pairs who are walking and talking about Hart Crane and Apollinaire. When she loses hope that she will fall in love, she recites Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed and Where, and Why.”
I was moved by her description in “Legacy” of her disappointed mother, who had thought she would be a happily married housewife and was disoriented by widowhood. In the chapter “Legacy,” Bialosky writes,
After my mother’s divorce from her second husband, my sisters and I try to push my mother. We urge her to take classes, find a job, and for a time she works as a receptionist, sells real estate, then works in retail, but there is a layer of fatigue and resentment underneath it all. It’s as if she feels she’s still entitled to the life she was meant, but there’s no husband at home taking care of her.
I wept, because I was thinking about my mother, who died four years ago. She too lost her dream after my father divorced her. She lived a full life, but was alone. She never remarried. She once told me the best days of her life were when my siblings and I were small and we were all together. It was heartbreaking. She worked at menial jobs and office jobs (I was very upset when I saw her working as a cashier at a drugstore) even though she had a bachelor’s degree. Bialosky compares our mothers expectations in the ’60s of staying home with our own generations’ assumptions that we would work. Strange how just a few decades can make a difference. Reading Lucille Clifton’s “Fury” and Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” empowers us in that chapter.
A very moving book, with something for everybody. It could be read for comfort, or as a textbook for a comp class or a poetry class.
I will certainly reread it.
A BRILLIANT MYSTERY. The Dutch crime fiction writer Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008) is famous for his Amsterdam Cops series. He had the ideal background for writing quirky novels: for many years he was a police officer in Amsterdam, and he was also a Zen Buddhist monk.
In his Amsterdam Cops series, there is often a hint of Zen: Detective-Adjutant Grijpstra, an overweight, middle-aged, unhappily married man, makes improbable connections between seemingly unrelated events. His mind works differently from those of other cops. And Sergeant de Gier, his dapper, moody, contemplative, sexy younger partner, is also a gifted cop, who is of an age that he always gets a girl.
The Mind-Murders is one of the strangest in the series, a police procedural with a nod to Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop. What happens if a murder has been committed, but no laws have been broken? Durings a disturbance at a bar, the inebriated Mr. Fortune, a publisher, attacks two overzealous young cops with his cane. They throw him in the river, and he fends them off with a cane, preferring drowning to being saved. Grijpstra rebukes the cops for harrassing an invalid but soon learns from the bar owner that Mr. Fortune had his reasons for getting drunk. All of the furniture in his house, down to the nuts and bolts, have disappeared, and Mrs. Fortune with it. Fjrijpstra has a hunch that Mr. Fortune murdered his wife, and soon learns of a money motive that could just as easily have inspired the reverse. And they do find a corpse in the trunk of a German businessman’s Mercedes? Are the crimes connected? Yes, by a couple of details that could easily elude the police.