Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, by Arisa White

youre-the-most-beautiful-thing-that-happened

You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened
by Arisa White

Augury Books
2016
100 pages 

Language is at the heart of poetry, with each word carefully considered for its meaning, cadence and place. In You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, the third poetry collection from Arisa White, language is elevated and emphasized in an innovative way.

As per the publisher’s description, “Arisa White’s newest collection takes its titles from words used internationally as hate speech against gays and lesbians, reworking, re-envisioning, and re-embodying language as a conduit for art, love, and understanding.” Because many of the titles are common words that may not be readily apparent as offensive in English (but are derogatory in other countries and cultures), White includes a glossary of the words’ disparaging connotations.

(“…how sexist the language was, the fear of the feminine, how domestic, how patriarchal, how imaginative, and the beauty I discovered when I paused to wonder about the humanity inside these words and phrases,” White writes in an Introduction to You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened. While reading these poems, beauty might not be the first descriptor readers conjure up.  Arisa White’s work is raw and searing, delving into topics many find difficult and perhaps even ugly.

And that’s exactly what makes You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened a touchstone collection, especially in these unprecedented times when our societal discourse, national rhetoric and political exchanges from the likes of the Republican candidate for President of the United States (and his entourage) divulge into demeaning and crass language about women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled, immigrants, and everyone who is perceived as different, flawed, “other” or “less than.”

If words could stick on people,
if spoken, they would become
a different creature.

Blinded and you’re turned
five times around. Nothing
in you knows what it knew.

It’s the best part of the game:
Prick the girls you like best
while pinning on the donkey’s tail.
(“Tail”) 

Arisa White’s poems are rooted in words that demean and belittle  — but their transformation is a product of the inherent beauty of humanity and love for each other.  We may feel your words but we are greater than them, Arisa White seems to be saying. We are more than your hurled venom, larger than your overpowering prejudice and stronger than strangers’ stigma.

We’re queer and you look too much boy good thinking
taking the rainbow off the plates in Maryland —
no one looked at us longer than was needed.
(“Strangers”)

As humans, as a people, we are encompassed by memory; we are love, we are our losses and life combined. (“I realized that the labels we use to name present us with a loss,” White explains in her introduction. “To name a person, an experience, or an object means we see it for that purpose, that utility, and gone to us is the ‘what else’ — the possibilities of everything the label can’t encompass.”)

Together since the year of my birth,
yet you are pantomime in the wings of our family’s speech
Why do you arch in shadows, 

accept the shade eclipsing her face? 
The holidays would be more gay 
if we didn’t ghost in dead air, 
in wooden boxes, letters folded over and over again, in locked rooms
where shames are secretly arranged— 
(“Auntie”)

Nestled within You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is an elegiac suite of poems titled “Effluvium.” (I needed to look up the definition; if you need a vocabulary lesson, too, dictionary.com tells us that it is “a slight or invisible exhalation or vapor, especially one that is disagreeable or noxious.”)  These poems, a remembrance “for Karen, 1963-2000,” focus on a loved one who died of AIDS. While several other offerings in this collection are slightly vague and indirect, this suite doesn’t need backstory.  The heartbreaking loss of a young mother in her late 30s is all we need to know.

For some, these will be difficult poems for their subject matter and the rawness of the language. It’s not a collection for everyone. But at the same time, it is for everyone because all of us have known pain and all of us have seen the ugly side that life can bring. And we’ve emerged through that experience changed by the way darkness can transform into light, and ugliness into beauty.

arisa-white

About Arisa White
Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, Sarah Lawrence College alumna, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of the poetry chapbooks Disposition for Shininess, Post Pardon, and Black Pearl. She was selected by the San Francisco Bay Guardian for the 2010 Hot Pink List and is a member of the PlayGround writers’ pool; her play Frigidare was staged for the 15th Annual Best of Play Ground Festival. Recipient of the inaugural Rose O’Neill Literary House summer residency at Washington College in Maryland, Arisa has also received residencies, fellowships, or scholarships from Juniper Summer Writing Institute, Headlands Center for the Arts, Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hedgebrook, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Prague Summer Program, Fine Arts Work Center, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in 2005 and 2014, her poetry has been published widely and is featured on the recording WORD with the Jessica Jones Quartet.

poetic-book-toursMany thanks to Augury Books for providing a free copy of You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened and to Poetic Book Tours for including me among the bloggers on this tour. No monetary compensation was exchanged for this review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Leave Me by Gayle Forman

Leave Me, by Gayle Forman

“But hearts are complicated and fragile things. They break for medical reasons, but frequently crack from the pain caused by unresolved questions and conflicts, changing friendships and devastating losses. Sometimes it’s necessary to leave everything we know behind, connect with others who are hurting, and cross a few bridges for our hearts to heal.”

That’s just one of my takeaways from Leave Me by Gayle Forman. For more of my thoughts, go here to read the rest of my review, which was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (10/9/2016). 

 

 

 

 

In the Unlikely Event You Meet Judy Blume (Yes, THE Judy Blume) and Have No Clue You’ve Been Blurbed in Her Book

The Girl:  “Mom, did you know you’re quoted in the new Judy Blume book?”

This announcement greets me as I’m preparing dinner, as I tend to do.

“Um … excuse me, what, sweetie?”

She holds out the paperback version of In the Unlikely Event and there it is.

blurb-in-the-unlikely-event

(As a friend pointed out, my blurb has MY NAME where all the others just list the publication. My name … in Judy Blume’s book!)

Here’s the best part about this.  Obviously, I read an ARC (advanced reader’s copy) of this one and wrote my review (from whence this blurb came) for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in June 2015.

judy-blume-paperback-of-in-the-unlikely-eventFast forward a year. This summer, Judy Blume visited Pittsburgh on her tour promoting the paperback edition. Of course The Girl and I were there, among a sold-out crowd. As part of our ticket price, we were given a copy of the book, which I had her sign. Little did I know, my review (and did I mention my name?!) was included!

Needless to say, I had no idea. I’m completely stunned. I’ve provided a blurb upon request, but to my knowledge I’ve never been blurbed like this before and certainly not in a novel by one of literature’s icons.

What an absolute thrill!

 

 

a few mini book reviews (95/99)

One of my purposes for doing this crazy 99 Days of Summer Blogging project was to try and clear out my extensive backlog of posts still in drafts.  I have — no lie — more than 200 such posts that need further development or a place in the trash bin.

There are quite a few sparse book reviews in those posts , some dating back as long as five years. I give those to you here, as mini reviews.

The Little SparkThe Little Spark: 30 Ways to Ignite Your Creativity, by Carrie Bloomston
C&T Publishing
128 pages
2014

Take some inspiration, a lot of pretty photographs, a few real-life stories, and a handful of reflective writing exercises and you have both a workbook and motivational guide to jump-start your creativity. Whether your creative urges involve crafty pursuits, writing, painting, cooking or something completely, uniquely your own, The Little Spark offers 30 suggestions of how to get started and sustain your passion.

The MaytreesThe Maytrees (audio), by Annie Dillard
Narrated by David Rasche
HarperAudio, 5 CDs
2007

“Falling in love, like having a baby, rubs against the current of our lives: separation, loss, and death. That is the joy of them.”

Love is the theme of this novel, which takes the reader to the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts and into the lives of poet Toby Maytree (referred to as simply Maytree throughout this story) and Lou Bigelow. The story spans several decades of the Maytrees’ marriage and how, over time, they change with it. The narrative felt disjointed at times, making for a confusing-at-times listen, but I liked the writing and David Rasche’s narration kept my attention.

The MiniaturistThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton 
Ecco Press
2014
400 pages

I was sold on this by cover, which so perfectly captures the very essence of Jessie Burton’s debut novel, set in 1686 Amsterdam. Petronella (who goes by Nella) is 18 when she marries a wealthy merchant named Johannes Brandt.

After moving into his mansion, Nella quickly learns that this is a house of secrets. Johannes spends a lot of time either at work or in his study and isn’t very affectionate to Nella. Her stern and unwelcoming sister-in-law Marin is clearly the head of the household, which also consists of Cornelia and Otto, two odd servants. With its themes of feeling trapped and discovering one’s power – and what we do with that power — The Miniaturist is an engrossing read.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #95 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project.

Book Review: Like Family by Paolo Giordano (92/99)

Like Family

Like Family
by Paolo Giordano
translated by Anne Milano Appel, 2015
Viking / Pamela Dorman Books
2014
146 pages

Like Family is one of those quiet novels, its lens focused on the nuances of married life and the erosion that can happen within a relationship. And it captures this dynamic brilliantly and succinctly in this 146-page novel, translated from Italian by Anne Milano Appel.

This is the story of a couple who hire a housekeeper during the wife’s difficult pregnancy; Mrs. A. (referred to affectionately as Babette) remains with the family as a nanny to their son until he is six.  During that time, she becomes their rock and (according to the publisher’s description), “the glue in their small household. She is the steady, maternal influence for both husband and wife, and their son, Emanuele, whom she protects from his parents’ expectations and disappointments.” When she is diagnosed with cancer, the couple is devastated.

Much of the story is told from some point in the future, a device that works well. The writing in this simple book is gorgeous.

“Mrs. A. was the only real witness of the enterprise we embarked on day after day, the sole observer of the bond that held us together, and when she talked about Renato, it was as if she wanted to suggest something that has to do with us, to pass along the instructions for a relationship that had been perfect and pure, albeit doomed and brief. In the long run, every love needs someone to witness and acknowledge it, to validate it, or it may turn out to be just a mirage. Without her gaze we felt at risk.” (pg. 17)

“But there are some conversations between people in love that, once you cross a certain threshold, inevitably draw you into their dark center.” (pg. 87)

“We live in anticipation, constantly waiting for something that will free us from the burden of the present, without taking into account new ones that will arise. If these really are our best years, I’m not satisfied with how we’re using them.” (pg. 87-88)

I loved Paolo Giordano’s previous book, The Solitude of Prime Numbers. As with that one, Like Family is one that will stay with me for some time.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #92 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

Weekend Cooking: The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood

The Edible Woman

Margaret Atwood, one of literature’s most beloved and prolific authors, is best known for her books such as The Handmaid’s Tale (one of my all-time favorite novels) as well as her nonfiction and poetry and so many other works in various genres.

Not many people seem to know about her first novel, The Edible Woman, published in 1969 but written several years earlier. I certainly didn’t until I spotted this at the library and was immediately intrigued.

Set in the 1960s, Marian is a 20-year-old professional woman living in Toronto.  She’s gainfully employed at Seymour Surveys, a market research/advertising firm. Early in the novel, she becomes eligible for being vested with a pension. Her ruminations upon completing the paperwork gives readers who are familiar with Atwood’s work a glimpse into the themes she is brilliantly developing in The Edible Woman.

“Somewhere in front of me a self was waiting, pre-formed, a self who had worked during innumerable years for Seymour Surveys and was now receiving her reward. A pension. I foresaw a bleak room with a plug-in electric heater. Perhaps I would have a hearing aid, like one of my great-aunts who had never married. I would talk to myself; children would throw snow balls at me. I told myself not to be silly, the world would probably blow up between now and then; I reminded myself I could walk out of there the next day and get a different job if I wanted to, but that didn’t help. I thought of my signature going into a file and the file going into a cabinet and the cabinet being shut away in a vault somewhere and locked.” (pg. 15)

There’s so much in just this one paragraph:  a self was waiting, pre-formed … perhaps I would have a hearing aid, like one of my great-aunts who had never married … the world would probably blow up between now and then … being shut away in a vault somewhere and locked. 

The Edible Woman continues along this path. Atwood’s writing is sharp and purposeful –especially when she cleverly uses food metaphors.

“–my mind was at first as empty as though someone had scooped out the inside of my skull like a cantaloupe and left me only the rind to think with.” (pg. 86)

Food becomes even more dominant when Marian becomes engaged to Peter. What should be a happy time becomes worrisome when, soon after the engagement, Marian gradually begins losing the ability to eat. No one can figure out why.  (Clearly, this was in a time before everyone graduated from the Medical School of Google.)

But it doesn’t take a physician or a prescription to know that the real issue eating away at Marian is the fear of being devoured by another person and being consumed, losing her sense of self in the process.

Suffice it to say if The Handmaid’s Tale resonated with you, chances are you will appreciate The Edible Woman for its similar messages of feminism, relationship issues, women in the workforce, male hierarchy — and, yes, for its innovative and timeless way of using food to bring these issues into our consciousness.

The Edible Woman
by Margaret Atwood 
Anchor 
1998 (first published in 1969) 
310 pages 

 

Weekend Cooking - NewWeekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog’s home page.

 

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #90 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project.

Book Review: Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer

Reliance, Illinois

Sometimes one discovers a novel that complements current events so perfectly that this literary serendipity only adds to the enjoyment of one’s reading experience. Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer is exactly that type of book. With its themes of women’s suffrage and reproductive rights, it’s a perfect read during this crazy election campaign.

It’s 1874 and politics are at the forefront of everyone’s mind in Reliance, Illinois. There’s an upcoming local election and the “woman question” (i.e., whether women should have the right to vote) is becoming part of many conversations in certain circles.

At 13 years old, Madelyn Branch knows all too well what it’s like to feel left out, unimportant and insignificant.  She arrives in Reliance with her single mother, Rebecca, who has answered an ad in the Matrimonial Times in hopes of a better life. But because Madelyn has a port-wine birthmark covering half of her face and continuing down one side of her body, Rebecca purposefully declines to mention Madelyn in her response to Mr. Lymon Dryfus, her future husband. Instead, she passes Madelyn off as her sister who needed to accompany her at the last minute. (“Mama decided. We both agreed. Better to make explanations as they became necessary.”) Although Madelyn agreed to this deception, that doesn’t lessen her hurt and shame — another main theme of this historical fiction novel — as well as her mother’s betrayal, which never quite leaves her.

Almost immediately upon arriving at Mr. Dryfus’ home, Madelyn becomes smitten with William, a photographer and veteran of the Civil War who has some complicated issues of his own.  He becomes fond of Madelyn and soon arranges for her to live with Miss Rose Werner, the town’s wealthiest woman and strident suffragette who needs someone to read to her ailing father, Old Man. (Seriously, that’s what everyone calls him.)  In exchange for her service, Madelyn (like several others who live in Miss Rose’s mansion, including Madelyn’s arch-nemesis Violet) will also receive room, board, access to Miss Rose’s extensive library, and — most importantly — an education.

Mary Volmer gives her reader more than a few characters to keep track of (but not too many that you get lost), several side stories that are connected, and a well-developed plot in her sophomore novel, with the second half being a bit stronger,  and more faster-paced. One of the highlights — and among the most amusing portions of the story — includes a cameo appearance from Samuel Clemens (yes, the Samuel Clemens) who visits when he is traveling along the Mississippi River. As one might expect, his are some of the best lines and conversations in the book, as evidenced by this scene with Madelyn, William, and Miss Rose, who are discussing how life has changed since Samuel Clemens met Old Man in 1857 or 1858 and how the near-centenarian once envisioned the town of Reliance as “a metropolis rising out of the bluffs … with steamboats and goods heading all ways of the compass.

“He didn’t count on the war, I guess,” said William.

“Or the panic,” said Miss Rose.  

“Or the railroad,” said Clemens.

The war, the railroad, the panic.  It was odd to hear talk of a time before these things, like hearing of a time before the moon and the sun and the stars.

“Not every visionary is a prophet, Mr. Clemens,” said Miss Rose.  “This country’s full of visionaries believing themselves prophets and demanding of others a great deal of misplaced faith.” 

(No, we don’t have any modern day references for that, do we?)

Samuel Clemens also has some ideas about the upcoming election that could sound as if they were straight from today’s headlines (or The Onion).

“Here’s what I would do… . Give men of education, merit, and property — give such men five, maybe ten votes to every one of your ignorant Joes. As of now, Joe can be made to vote for any cause by anyone who can persuade him through fear or profit to make his mark on the line, even if that cause does damage to him and his family.” 

“And women?” said Mrs. French. “Do you include women in the class of educated worthies?” 

“Well, now, that’s another issue.” 

“It is the same issue, Sam!” said Mrs. French. 

I spotted Reliance, Illinois on the new releases (May 2016) shelf at the library and picked it up on a whim without knowing anything about it or author Mary Volmer.  It pulled me in from the very beginning and it didn’t let go until the very end — which, without giving away any spoilers, I absolutely loved, loved, loved. Seriously, it is one of the most perfect endings I’ve ever read.

Yes, the politics and social issues of this period in history are an intriguing and important part of the novel (and Mary Volmer gives her reader an addendum with sources and references for many of the historical events and happenings) but make no mistake: the brilliance of Reliance, Illinois and the reader’s joy is found in watching Madelyn’s confidence, self-acceptance, and — as the title suggests, her self-reliance. This is a narrator who you can’t help but root for, because there’s a little bit of Madelyn in all of us.  We all have some aspect of ourselves that we’re ashamed of; each of us keeps part of our true selves hidden from the world, as Madelyn does with “her stain” by covering it with her bonnet.  Each of us has someone who wants to sabotage our happiness. Each of us wants to feel beautiful and worthy of being loved and accepted.

Madelyn’s struggles — and those of her contemporaries — are as real and relevant and timeless as those in our lives, making Reliance, Illinois a wonderful, highly-recommended read.

Reliance, Illinois
by Mary Volmer
Soho Press, Inc.
2016
354 pages