This is a catch-up post on books and journals I’ve read or been looking at but have not read straight through in the past month. I’ve tried to get out of my usual lanes now that I have more time for reading. That’s easier said than done when long-standing interests tend to pull one into the default lanes. I’ll cross-post this on Facebook for anyone who wants to comment for a larger audience.
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose, 2017). I didn’t know this writer until Doug Sparks, editor of Merrimack Valley Magazine and the new Bean Magazine, asked me to interview the author for the On Coffee feature in Bean’s second issue. The inaugural issue had Henry Rollins interviewed by Dave Perry (UMass Lowell, Vinyl Destination). Doug raved about Myers’ latest novel. It’s a rough tale set in northeast England in the 18th century involving counterfeit coin-makers in a local push-back against the crown and capitalists who want to mechanize weaving in particular—the early stage of an industrial revolution in Britain. While the story is a grabber, you could read this book for the language itself because Myers is a virtuoso composer of sentences. He took a deep dive into the thick stew of lingo from the period and employs that to great effect. Myers was easy to work with across the ocean, tending his email promptly and being a friendly spirit. He’s a music writer and poet whose latest book is Under the Rock: The Poetry of Place, more evidence of his hyperlocal and bioregional leanings. I’ve only dipped into this one, but from what I’ve seen it will be a good read. Watch for the new issue of The Bean in January to learn more about the author’s coffee and tea preferences and thoughts at large about writing.
North American Stadiums by Grady Chambers (2018, Milkweed Editions, winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize). Chalk this one up to Facebook and the recommendation of Mary Karr, well known for her memoirs and poems. I’m encouraged in my social media use when I see authors and thinkers like her, Garrett Hongo, Robert Reich, Roland Merullo, and others who use the FB tool to talk to people. Chambers is a graduate of the MFA Program at Syracuse University, where he studied with Karr. I would have bought this book for the title itself, which made me think of Whitman and Sandburg. This feels like a first book, loaded with strong poems that he had been stockpiling. Poems move easily down the page, the lines not straining against the reader’s breath. The wide view of the country fits the moment. I’d like to see more writers going bigger with their work. Poets ought to be more central to the massive national conversation provoked by recent political developments. Chambers’ poem “Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1966” is worth the price of admission here. “It was midnight in July./I was just a young man. And I walked home over the bridge.”
These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore (2018, WW Norton & Co). Well, this one is 789 pages, and I have not read the whole book. I enjoy and admire Lepore’s writing, which I see most often in the New Yorker magazine. I like her stance as an historian. To me, she’s an old-fashioned public intellectual, doing her work in the push and pull of the public marketplace as much as in professional academic circles. I remember her coming to the Visitor Center at Lowell National Historical Park, maybe with the Parker Lectures series, many years ago when she had a new book, her first I think: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. It was a good topic for the Lowell area, whose colonial towns were in the fight. I read an interview with Lepore in the Chronicle of Higher Education that is a good preparation for cracking the new history book.
Colorado Review edited by Stephanie G/Schwind (Fall/Winter 2018, Center for Literary Publishing, Colorado State University). I don’t have as many journal subscriptions as I once had, but I’m glad when the new issue of CR arrives. I got the subscription when I submitted a book manuscript for consideration for an annual prize at the university. I enjoy this one because most of the story and poem writers are new to me. I find the work to be a mixed bag, which is my typical response to literary magazines. Just today, I read that the new editor of The Paris Review expects to find one or two stories that she’ll publish in every 100 that she reads. The odds for poetry are worse, I’m sure. The set up is Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, which is not the way I’d organize the contents. My eyes blur when I see 67 pages of poetry in a run with one poem each by most of the contributors. I was glad to see a range of forms in the poems. Toby Altman’s prose poems matched with two architectural photographs showed me something fresh in form, although he’s not the first to do this. But I liked the deviation. This issue starts with Shannon Sweetnam’s prize-winning story “Aisha and the Good for Nothing Cat.”
The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz [photographs] (1996, Random House). I don’t remember where I got this book, but it popped out on a shelf in an upstairs bookcase a few weeks ago and I’ve been leafing through it some mornings. Krementz got access to the inner sanctums of more than 50 writers to make photographs of their work spaces or preferred writing spots. The range of authors is fantastic, from Stephen King and Eudora Welty to Nikki Giovanni and Tennessee Williams. Each black-and-white environmental portrait is accompanied by a statement about the author’s creative process or the place where he or she writes most often. Krementz creates windows into the lives behind the books that go public. I like William F. Buckley, Jr., in the back seat of his car with his dog. There are several younger writers of the day, like Rita Dove and Edwidge Dandicat, but most of the subjects are giants, near-giants, or well-established figures. Ross McDonald, John Cheever, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, and others.
Outport: The Soul of Newfoundland by Candace Cochrane [photographs] (2008, Flanker Press Ltd). I got this from the photographer herself at Cedar Street Studios in Amesbury, Mass., where she has a work space in a renovated three-story commercial building. There are more than 50 tenants in the building—artists, food entrepreneurs, professionals, and others. Looking at her images of Newfoundland on one wall, I said to her, “The only thing I know about Newfoundland is that it’s the setting for The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.” To which she replied, “One of my photographs is on the cover of the original edition of the novel.” File that under Small World. Turns out that Annie Proulx had seen her photos and suggested that one be used on the cover. Outport documents the Newfoundland that Cochrane encountered between 1967 and 1980 when she was working and living in the province. An outport is a small fishing village, of which there were once more than 1,400. She made the black-and-white photographs during a time when the fishing industry declined and many people left their communities. The pictures are accompanied by spare commentary and helpful captions. There’s a folklife quality to the material because of the focus on work traditions. The larger story is about a longstanding way of life that was mostly unchanged to that point. I don’t know what brought Cochrane to Amesbury. Next time I’m at the studio I will ask.