A Stranger in Olondria

stranger in olondriaJevick is from Tyom, a small village in the Tea Islands. He has lived here all his childhood, learning the delicate art of pepper-growing from his father, hardly understanding his own isolation, until one day his father brings back something new from the mainland: an Olondrian tutor named Lunre. Lunre teaches Jevick to read, to love the printed word, to see it as immortality; and he teaches him to long for the country the books come from, as well. Upon his father’s death, Jevick leaves for Olondria and the fabled city of Bain, believing that now, his real life can begin.

Despite his  brief encounter with a red-headed island girl dying from kyitna, an inherited wasting disease, Jevick dives into his new life in Bain, noticing every lush detail.

Housed on the site of ancient horse and cattle auctions, the vast covered markets, with their arched leather roofs made to keep out the rain, form a jumbled labyrinth that stretches almost to the harbor. Here in the shadows the lavish, open sacks display their contents: the dark cumin redolent of mountains, the dried, crushed red pepper colored richly as iron ore, and turmeric, “the element of weddings.”… There are herbs, fresh and dried — mint, marjoram, and basil; there are dark cones and mud-like blocks of incense; there are odors in the air that seem to speak to one another, as though the market were filled with violent ghosts.

Jevick pays less and less attention to his pepper trade and more and more to wandering in Bain, until one feast day, walking in the streets, he is caught up in the frenzied cult-worship of the ancient goddess Avalei. In the aftermath, his head aching, in desperate need of a shower, he has a deeply frightening experience he can’t explain. Then another. And another. And finally he comes to a conclusion he can neither believe nor deny: he is being haunted by the red-headed girl he met on the boat. And the ghost (referred to in Olondria as an angel) wants him to write a book.

You know how these things sometimes happen — I’ve read three books in a row now that deal with books and immortality. A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar, is certainly the most complex of them. If the written word promises eternal life, as Jevick has been taught to believe, then what happens when he is haunted by the ghost of an illiterate girl? What are we to make of the many examples of oral culture in the book — stories within the story — epics, fairy tales, ballads, songs, myths? What happens if libraries are destroyed? Is there such a thing as the tyranny of the written word? What arises when a previously oral culture gains an alphabet and someone writes it down? What about barriers of language, culture, class? What happens to memory and tradition in a culture without books?

Stylistically, A Stranger in Olondria is different than most contemporary novels you’ll read. A lot happens in this book, but it feels slow and measured. There are long passages of description and not a lot of dialogue, and while it’s a ghost story, it’s also a story about power dynamics and belief systems. It’s a book that takes more of its storytelling tradition from Africa and the Middle East than from northern Europe — and that, too, is unusual, for the landscape of most fantasy novels.

I found myself thinking about this book long after I’d finished it. I was still digesting it: thinking about the different religions in it, the structures that had decreed that the “cult of angels” (i.e. being haunted by a ghost”) was mental illness and was outlawed. It’s a book that keeps on at you. It’s highly recommended. Here, if you like, is a short story of Samatar’s that I also enjoyed: “Selkie Stories Are for Losers.” Try it and see what you think, and let me know.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | Leave a comment

The Likeness

the likenessLast year, my mystery book club (we read mysteries, rather than being shrouded in mystery ourselves) read Tana French’s In the Woods. I admit that I was a bit prejudiced against it from the beginning, since it’s a) about a child’s murder, b) contemporary, and c) popular. But it pulled me in, suckered me, made me love it. French’s prose is very good, her plotting is excellent, and her sense for human relationships — the places in our psychology that make us long for connection and then screw that connection all to hell — is absolutely unerring. I had one or two reservations about In the Woods, but I had the strong feeling that those might be debut-novel problems, so I put her second novel on my TBR.

The Likeness begins with an absolutely preposterous premise — right up front! It doesn’t spring anything on you! — and builds an amazing mystery-thriller out of it. For this book, French brings back detective Cassie Maddox, who was one of the partners who solved the case in In the Woods. This time, the novel is from her point of view, as she goes undercover to solve the murder of Lexie Madison. The catch? Lexie Madison isn’t — or wasn’t — a real person; she was a former undercover identity of Cassie’s. Now, she’s shown up as a real dead body, and she looks as if she could be Cassie’s identical twin. (Cassie was an only child.) Cassie steps into Lexie’s life (only who is she really?) in the tight-knit group of housemates at Whitethorn House, to try to find out where all the tangled threads may lead.

You see what I mean, right? The doppelgänger thing is right out of Wilkie Collins or somewhere; I expected mesmerism next; and at first, the group of housemates, all postgrad students at Trinity College in Dublin, leaned a little too heavily on Donna Tartt. But French is too talented to let it stay that way. Cassie’s fierce love of the freedom of undercover work, and the fuse that lights in her; the interweaving personalities of the four housemates; the undercurrent of Lexie’s life and the actions leading to her death — all this is done with vividness and delicacy. French lets us see the beauty of those friendships, but also the way people can know each other so well that they drown each other. I mentioned that she’s good at the fragility of human relationships, and this book reinforces that in more ways than one.

This was a very satisfying mystery, beautifully written and breathlessly suspenseful. It was dark, but not because the detective was hopelessly depressed (*cough* Henning Mankell *cough*). To my own surprise, I think I’ve found a new favorite mystery author, huzzah!

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Mysteries | 16 Comments

The Nursing-Home Murder

nursing home murderThis novel is the third of Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries. I know I blaspheme by saying this, but I have never been that fond of most of Agatha Christie’s novels; with a few exceptions I find them too formulaic and two-dimensional to be enjoyable. The best of Christie’s, though, have interesting suspects and exceptional puzzle-making, lifting them out of the common run. The Nursing-Home Murder gives me all of that, and Roderick Alleyn besides.

This book runs along fairly familiar lines. The victim (this time the Home Secretary!) turns out to have at least five or six people with very good reason to kill him, and indeed three who’d recently expressed a formal desire to do so. Easy pickings for the police, you’d think, but in fact it’s more complicated, and in the end a complete reconstruction of the crime, which took place in an operating theatre, is necessary to jog the memories of the witnesses. The book was originally published in 1935, and I think the solution to the crime is especially interesting in that light. But you’ll have to read it yourself to see if you agree with me!

Alleyn is a curiosity to me. Christie, of course, had two private detectives (Poirot having left a career in the Brussels police because of the war.) Campion is a high-born hobbyist and an adventurer. Wimsey, similarly, is of noble blood; others see his crime-solving as mere dilettantism. Alleyn, by contrast, is a gentleman — the right schools, the right family — but he’s gainfully employed by Scotland Yard. This gives him entree into two worlds: upper-class people won’t dismiss him as a servant, but he still has the power to put his very own handcuffs on them if he likes. What was Marsh doing, exactly? It looks as if she was pushing back against a notion that it was a bit low to be part of the police force (see Sherlock Holmes.) Alleyn smartens the place up a bit.

I’m thoroughly enjoying Marsh’s novels. They’re not Dorothy Sayers, but they’re great Golden Age reads. Have you read these? Do you have a favorite?

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 18 Comments

Thomas Hardy

Thomas HardyI was irrationally worried when I started reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy. You see, Hardy is my favorite writer, and I didn’t want to find out he was terrible, that he kicked puppies or something. Generally, I don’t mind reading books my people I don’t like much, but still, the idea that my favorite author could be a puppy-kicker … it made me nervous.

In Tomalin’s telling, I’m happy to report, Hardy is not a perfect man, but he was a generally decent man. The UK edition has the subtitle, “The Time-Torn Man,” a phrase the speaker uses to describe himself in Hardy’s poem “A Broken Appointment.” The poem refers to a lovers’ meeting that didn’t happen, and Tomalin says that it is commonly believed to be about his love for a woman named Florence Henniker. Henniker is one of several women for whom Hardy suffered love or lack of it. And, in a way, all of his love affairs seem “time-torn” because there is often love, but it is torn away by time or the time when it could be shared is torn away.

Tomalin begins her biography with the death of one of the principal women in Thomas Hardy’s life, his first wife, Emma, before moving back to tell his story from the beginning. Thomas and Emma’s marriage had been troubled toward the end, with Emma moving into the attic and having no more to do with Thomas than she had to. Tomalin writes with compassion about the growing discontent that followed what seemed a lively and romantic courtship in which the couple held strong to their love despite their families’ disapproval. She notes the reasons each one might have had to be unhappy and never quite comes down on one side or the other. But she does show that there was love there—or something like love.

Other women are part of the reason for the marriage’s faltering. Hardy enjoyed flirting with the pretty women who loved his books, yet he also seemed to continue to seem attached to Emma. After her death, he wrote poem after poem expressing his regrets and sadness, yet, as Tomalin tells it, Emma rejected him as much as he rejected her. His second marriage is tainted by his memory of Emma, although, again, there is love, both before and after the marriage.

Tomalin’s ability to see more than one point of view is one of the strengths of this biography. Tomalin does an admirable job of sticking to the known facts as much as possible, even including a robust notes section (with endnote numbers in the text!). Her choice of facts will perhaps reveal her biases to those more aware of whatever controversies exist surrounding Hardy’s life story, but she doesn’t appear to have an agenda, and it’s clear when she’s speculating. Speculation of the type Tomalin engages in, considering why Emma might have been unhappy, for example, can be useful in a biography, but I don’t have much interest in biographies built entirely on speculation. With Tomalin, I always felt I was in good hands.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book were the chapters describing the novels—I think I just like thinking about Hardy’s novels! Tomalin puts his books in context of the time, commenting on how he compared to his literary peers and how his work was received. It’s clear that she loves his novels, and her insights reminded me of love much I love these books, even though I take issue with her complaints about the final words of Jude the Obscure, which I think are meant to convey a feeling experienced by this character in this moment, not a universal fact.

The trouble with reading this book is that now I want to continue in my project of reading all Hardy’s novels—and I want to reread Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge. A steady diet of Thomas Hardy couldn’t possibly be a bad thing, could it?

Posted in Biography, Nonfiction | 8 Comments

Which Witch?

which witchJenny at Reading the End has been recommending Eva Ibbotson for years and years, and particularly as a comfort read. While I recognize that comfort reads work better if you’re re-reading, I thought that since I was in need of something of that sort myself, I’d give it a try. What could it possibly hurt? Our library has half a shelf of her books, so I picked Which Witch? almost at random, and took it home. It begins:

As soon as he was born, Mr. and Mrs. Canker knew that their baby was not like other people’s children.

For one thing, he was born with a full set of teeth and would lie in his pram for hours, chewing huge mutton bones to shreds or snapping at the noses of old ladies fool enough to kiss him. For another, though he screamed with temper when they changed his nappies, his eyes never actually filled with tears. Also — and perhaps this was strangest of all — as soon as they brought him home from the hospital and lit a nice, bright fire in the sitting room, the smoke from their chimney began to blow against the wind.

Of course, the baby is a wizard, and grows up to be Arriman the Awful, smiting and blighting wherever he goes. Eventually, however, all this begins to pall, and he wants to pass on his heritage to a son — which, unfortunately, necessitates a wife. Arriman decides that the best way to find a wife is to have a contest: the witches of Todcaster will vie for his hand by casting their blackest spells. Too bad the witch who is most in love with him is a white witch…

About three chapters into this book, I began to feel a little outraged. Why on earth had I never heard of this author? This is exactly the kind of book I’d have loved as a child. It’s both clever and funny, with references to things children might have heard of but could figure out if they hadn’t, like the Kraken. It’s well-written and well-plotted, with lots of interesting characters (I particularly loved a genie in a bottle called Mr. Chatterjee.) It’s got quite genuinely scary bits in it, but nothing so overwhelming that the target audience would have nightmares (I’m looking at you, John Bellairs.) The ending is so satisfying and lovely that it actually brought a warm glow to my jaded, cinder-blackened heart. So why was this the first book of Eva Ibbotson’s I’d ever read? Ridiculous! I blame, in this order, my parents, Nature, the Will of God, and the Burke Branch Public Library.

Now, however, it’s my job to read more of her work, and I think I’ll do it by reading it aloud to my children before bedtime. They’re just the right age for it (7 and 9) and that way, no one will have to explain to their therapists how I never introduced them to Eva Ibbotson…

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 12 Comments

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket

jarrell.2Over the past few years, I’ve made it a point to read as much of Randall Jarrell’s poetry criticism as I can. He was a very good poet himself (although maybe not absolutely top-tier), and he was, maybe, the most astute critic of his time. His work established or resuscitated the reputations of certain poets: Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell. Try reading some of his essays, like “To the Laodiceans,” his profound appreciation of the greatness of Robert Frost, when all that is Yankee-hokeyness has been wiped away. He is generous and eager, and his criticism always points, not to himself as critic, and not to criticism as an end in itself, but to the work. You always leave Jarrell wanting to read. Perhaps most astonishing of all is the way he was always right. Many critics fit in with the taste of their age. It is one critic in thousands who is still showing us the truth of poetry a couple of generations later.

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket is a collection of Jarrell’s essays on a pretty fair variety of topics, though not quite as diverse as they were in the marvelous Poetry and the Age. The first few (“The Intellectual in America,” “The Taste of the Age,” “The Schools of Yesteryear,” and “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket,”) are wry accounts of how literary matters are going to hell in a handbasket in America today (that would be 1962.) Jarrell points out from different angles that literature, and perhaps particularly the reading of poetry, is now considered “over-intellectual” or “too difficult,” though just a few years ago schoolchildren did it all the time. One of my favorite passages compares our unhappy state to that of Queen Victoria:

If the young Queen Victoria had said the Duke of Wellington: “Sir, the Bureau of Public Relations is in a deplorable state,” he would have answered, “What is a Bureau of Public Relations, ma’am?” When he and his generals wanted to tell lies, they had to tell them themselves; there was no organized institution set up to do it for them….People gossiped about her, but not in gossip columns; she had never heard a commentator, a soap opera, a quiz program. Queen Victoria — think of it! — had never heard a singing commercial, never seen an advertisement beginning: Science says… When Disraeli and Gladstone made speeches for her government, the speeches weren’t written for them by ghost-writers; when Disraeli and Gladstone sent her lovingly or respectfully inscribed copies of their new books, they had written the books themselves. …

Queen Victoria never went to the movies and had an epic costing eight million dollars injected into her veins — she never went to the movies. She never read a drugstore book by Mickey Spillane; even if she had had a moral breakdown and had read a Bad Book, it would just have been Under Two Flags or something by Marie Corelli. She had never been interviewed by, or read the findings of, a Gallup Poll….

And all the other people in the world were just like Queen Victoria.

Jarrell puts a humorous cast on the state of affairs, but he is quite serious about the effects a consumerist society may have on poetry and on literature more generally — on writers, on readers, and on critics.

There are also some blessed critical essays in this book. They are all wonderful, but my favorite is “On Preparing to Read Kipling.” Kipling enjoys much the same reputation today that he did in Jarrell’s time: either people consider him a writer for children (The Jungle Book, Kim) or they veer away from the straw man they’ve made of his colonialist opinions. He’s one of the people We Are Too Virtuous to Read.

Randall Jarrell wants to change your mind. In fact, he wants to stoppeth one of three, and take you by the lapels, and explain to you at great length, while you miss the wedding, why you ought to love Kipling: because Kipling is one of the world’s great story-writers, that’s why. Henry James thought Kipling was a genius, he says, by way of support, but most of the essay is dissection: look at the piles of proof that show what a master storyteller he was. I grew up on Kipling, from the children’s books to Stalky & Co. to the poetry to the many astonishing short stories. I couldn’t agree more with Jarrell. But his essay left me wanting to go straight back and begin again, the morrow morn.

And now, sadly, I’ve reached the end of Jarrell’s criticism: I’ve read all the essays that good-humored, passionate, fascinating, accurate essayist had to write. What critic should I try now? Who will give me sharp insight on literature, and make me want to read more? All suggestions welcome.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 12 Comments

Elsewhere

TheRavenCyclebyMaggieStiefvater_zpsc4df7303Some of you may remember that last year I read and enjoyed the first of Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle novels, The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves. The fourth book in the quartet, Blue Lily, Lily Blue is being published in the U.S. tomorrow, and in anticipation, Ana, Aarti, Memory, Jenny, and I swapped theories (and hopes) about where the story might go. Check out our conversation at Lady Business.

And Jenny has a review of the new book up at Reading the End. I hope to get my own copy this weekend, when Maggie Stiefvater is in town for a signing at One More Page Books.

If you’re a fan of Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence, you should check these out. They’re more mature books (Young Adult rather than Middle Grade), but they draw from the same Welsh mythology.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

The Secret History

secret historyOne of the great mysteries of the book world (to me, anyway) is how books get sorted into categories. Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novels are general fiction, but Octavia Butler’s are science fiction. Emily St. John Mandel’s zombie and contagion novel gets nominated for a National Book Award, but Stephen King still gets dismissed as just a horror novelist. And Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a literary darling, while Ruth Rendell’s novels are often noticed only by readers of crime fiction.

I read Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend when it first came out and liked it more than most seemed to (although I didn’t love it). People kept telling me that her debut, The Secret History, is so much better, and it certainly seemed like the kind of book I liked. It’s a crime novel in which the murderer confesses right up front and the book shows why and how the murder was done. This is one of my favorite kinds of crime novel. And that’s what The Secret History is, a very good crime novel.

I say this not to cast aspersions on crime novels (I love them!) or on The Secret History  (which I enjoyed) but to express my puzzlement at why this book got so much widespread praise when really excellent taut psychological thrillers get tucked away in crime fiction, read only by fans of the genre. This plot could come straight out of a Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) novel. (Rendell, in fact, provided a blurb for The Secret History.) If Rendell wrote it, the book would be at least 100 pages shorter, which would probably improve it. (Read A Fatal Inversion, which she wrote as Barbara Vine. You’ll see what I mean.)

The Secret History is the story of a tight-knit group of classics students at a small New England college. Our narrator, Richard Papen, has transferred into the college and managed to wheedle his way into the exclusive classics program, which includes only five students and the professor Julian Morrow. We know from the beginning that somehow Richard and his classmates will end up killing another classmate, Bunny, but it takes a few hundred pages to learn why or how. As we journey to the conclusion we know is coming,  we’re immersed in a world of alcohol, drugs, class consciousness, and 20-somethings’ quests for identity, put in a pressure cooker and set on high.

One of the things I enjoyed about the book was the angle on class and how much the characters’ desire to belong affected their actions. These people egg each other on toward actions that become increasingly destructive. The specific actions that lead to their first fatal error are presented as part of a pursuit of knowledge, but that’s just how they set their violence apart from what might arise at the less academically inclined bacchanals going on all over campus. When Richard breaks off from the group and goes to more typical university parties, what happens seems somehow healthier and less sordid, perhaps because it’s more honest. They’re kids, goofing around—irresponsibly but less destructively than the toxic classics coterie.

I read the book in a day and enjoyed it, but the plot did get preposterous at times. There were times when the characters’ secrecy (and lack of it) seemed not just over the top, but implausible. Some of their actions could be chalked up to being young and arrogant and under stress, but I wonder if I read more slowly and took time to think about it whether the plot might fall apart. But as I was reading, I was having too much fun watching the story come together to do anything other than shake off my reservations and just let myself be entertained.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 22 Comments

The Readathon Approacheth

deweys-readathonbuttonAs I write this on Friday night, the fall edition of Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-Thon is just a few hours (or “one sleep”) away. I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to participate in all but a few Read-a-Thons since my first in Fall 2009, just two years after Dewey began the event. Today, a team of bloggers have carried on the event in her memory, and it’s been exciting to see it evolve and grow.

I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to join in this time because I had several things going on, and I find I don’t enjoy participating much when I’m squeezing reading in between multiple other commitments. But most of my plans got shifted, and I’m left with almost a full day. Hooray!

Whenever I can, I like to take a day off before the Read-a-Thon to clean, prepare or purchase some snacks, gather my books, and generally take care of responsibilities and distractions. For some reason my Friday cleaning turned into a thorough going over of the house, including picking stuff up and wiping underneath! So my house feels like the orderly oasis I want for a day of reading.

2014-10-17 21.31.46Lots of folks build tall stacks of books to read on Read-a-Thon day, but many of you know that I like to use the Read-a-Thon to tackle a long, but absorbing book–what I call the “one-book Read-a-Thon stack.” I was stewing all week over whether to read The Quick by Lauren Owen or The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The Tartt has come more highly recommended (The Quick has the potential to be terrible), but the little type in my mass market paperback of The Secret History was giving me pause. Well, it turns out that The Quick was due at the library today, and I couldn’t renew it, so I took that as a sign. I also have Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy bio on hand if I want some larger type for a while, and I’ve not gotten around to the latest issues of Ms Marvel and Fables. Plus, of course, I have about a million books in the house. So I’m not lacking in choices if I finish the Tartt—or if it just doesn’t pan out.

As usual, I plan to read for charity, giving 10 cents per page read to a literacy project at Donors Choose. The option to do this is something that makes the Read-a-Thon really special for me.

Aside from a break for a yoga class, I expect to spend all day reading, with cooking and eating and internetting and moving around breaks as needed. I’ve got the supplies on hand for a Crock Pot Apple Crumble, so I can enjoy the scent of that cooking as I read. And I’m expecting a Blue Apron box tomorrow with the materials to make calzones, which seems like an ideal Read-a-Thon dinner.

I may pop in and add some updates on this post during the day, but in the past I’ve found that posts are too time-consuming and feel less like fun and more like work. So most of my updates are likely to be on Twitter and/or Instagram. I don’t ever stay up all night—that leads nowhere good, but I’ll stay up until I’m sleepy and maybe read a little more when I wake up.

I’m looking forward to a fun day of geeky bookishness. How about you? Are you Read-a-Thonning? Or doing something equally fun? What would you read if you had a whole day for reading?

Opening Meme

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today? Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC.
2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to? The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
3) Which snack are you most looking forward to? Crock Pot Apple Pumpkin Pudding
4) Tell us a little something about yourself! I’ve been blogging for more than 6 years, which I guess makes me an old-timer. I’m a magazine editor in my day job, I volunteer at a couple of DC theatres so I get to see lots of plays for free, I’m active in my church, and I recently took up yoga.
5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to? No big changes for me. I’ve worked out a pretty good system for myself. I going to try to eat healthier snacks than usual–I tend to load up on junk and order pizza, which is great, but I end up feeling more tired than if I ate better food.

Post Read-a-Thon Update

The Read-a-Thon came to its official end just over half an hour ago. I read most of the day yesterday, with a long break to go to yoga class and shorter breaks for online chat, cooking dinner, and such. And I went to bed just a little later than my usual hour. It was a good day.

2014-10-18 19.33.31I read a couple of chapters of Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy biography and all of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I should have a review for The Secret History up later today, but I’ll say now that it was a good choice for the Read-a-Thon. There was plenty of suspense to keep me interested, and it wasn’t particularly challenging. (It was not, however, not a ridiculously amazing book. Just a solid crime thriller, which is no small thing.) My page count was 536 pages, which means I’ll be giving $53.60 to a classroom library project on Donors Choose.

All in all, it was a good day.

Posted in Uncategorized | 22 Comments

One Art: Letters

one artYears ago, I bought a copy of One Art: Letters for my husband. How many years? I’m not sure: it came out in 1994, but it was probably not quite so long ago as that. Ten years ago? Twelve? Anyway, he never read it, and it sat there, looking imposing, on our shelf. Last month, I took it down, all 650 pages of it, and started reading.

Elizabeth Bishop is one of the truly great American poets. She is an undisputed master of form (see “One Art” or “Sestina”) and lived by advice she got early from her friend Marianne Moore: no matter how long it took her, she never published a poem until she felt she had perfected it. (Her long poem about Nova Scotia, “The Moose,” was begun when she was in her early twenties and completed when she was in her sixties.) Her brilliant, subtle impressions of the physical world are not confessional or autobiographical, yet as Randall Jarrell says in one of his astute reviews of her work, they could all say under them: I saw it.

Bishop’s letters are her second great art. This book, edited by Robert Giroux, is far from being a complete collection, even at this length: not only was she prolific, not only did she have many friends and a passion and talent for correspondence, but she lived in Brazil for fifteen years with her partner Lota Soares, and could keep in touch with the poetry world only by letter. She had a talent for long, deep friendships with other poets, with whom she could be completely frank about her own work and about theirs. (To be honest, she talks smack about other poets, too — what fun that is to read!) Some of her closest friends were Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, and May Swenson. She knew dozens of other poets, musicians, and literary people, along with less rarefied friends; she was private and shy, but with a strong sense of connection.

Bishop’s voice is lively and engaging, even when — maybe especially when — she’s not talking about much. I loved the years when she was writing in Brazil, dealing with day-to-day events, restoring the house she lived in with Lota, worrying about the servants’ babies, enjoying the scenery. She struggled with her health her entire life, from allergies and asthma to debilitating alcoholism, and this crops up in many of her letters to friends and doctors. Her eye for brilliant bits of detail is unerring: the color of a fruit, or a snatch of dialogue, or exactly what a toucan said. Not a surprise for someone who’s read much of her poetry.

Every once in a while come letters that are purely about poetry: explaining her own poems, very rarely, or more often appreciating someone else’s. There are long letters going through a new book of Robert Lowell’s, for instance, criticizing a word here or there, or confessing confusion about a line; saying what’s done well. There are letters talking about poetry as an art, too: what sacrifices is it worth? What can, and can’t, an artist do with poetry? What is e.e. cummings, or Frost, or Eliot, doing these days? These letters show Bishop as absolutely uncompromising. She wants her poetry taken on its merits, with exactitude, with no admixture of personality or pity or malice, as if the poems are carved from quartz. Yet she herself is generous, loyal, hungry, funny, sad and difficult. It’s revealing and lovely.

I’d never read a book of letters like this before. The oddest thing about it was reading only half of the conversation: hearing what Bishop says to Marianne Moore, for instance, but not hearing what she says back. The best thing about it was reading Bishop’s poems as she wrote them. When she mentioned publishing a poem, I went and read it, or if she mentioned publishing a book, I read the book. Questions of Travel was particularly good along those lines, with all the references to Brazil — I could almost see it before my eyes. I loved exploring this, and all the poetry, and the brilliance. I’d like to do it again, with someone else.

Posted in Biography, Poetry | 17 Comments