How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
By Charles Yu
Knopf Doubleday; 256 pp.
Yu's innovative metafictional twist on the science fiction genre replaces the ordinary laws of physics and chemistry with the laws of narration and genre cliché; in such a world nostalgia has the status of a cosmological force of nature, and "memory and regret" are the two crucial elements required to build a time machine.
Our hero, "Charles Yu," a former "independent affiliate contractor for Time Warner Time," lives in a stolen TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device with a flirtatious supercomputer named TAMMY and a dog named Ed, who technically no longer exists. Yu spends most of his time hiding out in Mirror Universe 31, which was damaged during its construction and is only half-finished—at least until a series of accidents forces him into a paradoxical search for his lost father in a version of his time machine stolen from his own future self. His only guide on this perplexing journey is a book called (what else?) How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which of course he hasn't written yet.
Despite the book's absurd premise and playful mood of ironic detachment, the sense of nostalgia and loss that haunts it will move you; this is an essential read for any fan of either literary science fiction or the postmodern novel. —Gerry Canavan
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales
Edited by Kate Bernheimer
Penguin; 608 pp.
This anthology of 40 new fairy tales features mainstream literary authors like Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike alongside more experimental, fantastical writers like Neil Gaiman and Aimee Bender. In a postscript, the writers reveal their source fairy tale and the way their twist on the old tale came into being (which can be fun to read beforehand, but is probably cheating).
The collection is quite diverse. Joyce Carol Oates' "Blue-Bearded Lover" occupies the same setting as the original Bluebeard fairy tale—the twist is that this time it features a woman who obeys her murderous husband, surprising him and gaining his favor and a child.
Some fairy tales are more modernized, like Neil LaBute's "With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold," which recasts Rumpelstiltskin as an angry ex whose baby was passed off as another man's; he takes his revenge by chatting with his daughter online under a pseudonym. Another modern story, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, sublimates the anxiety over getting a child into an exclusive private preschool into the story of the Erlking, who tempts a child with toys at a fair. This volume, which features writers from places ranging from Russia to Italy to Germany to Vietnam to Norway, is a perfect winter's read. —Jaimee Hills
The Glass Rainbow
By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster; 433 pp.
If you're a follower of James Lee Burke's novels featuring Louisiana lawman Dave Robicheaux, you know exactly what you're getting when a new entry hits shelves: conflict- and action-packed ruminations on morality and mortality. The tormented Robicheaux is prone to outbursts of violence; Robicheaux's running mate Clete Purcell is more damaged, but his loyalty trumps even his most damning missteps. Inevitably, though, the pair encounters someone whose corruption and wickedness put their actions in the proper context. As for mortality, Robicheaux has buried two wives and has been close enough to death on several well-documented occasions to smell its rank breath.
True to form, The Glass Rainbow balances on those twin pillars. This time evil arrives as a duo, with Robicheaux's adopted daughter, Alafair—who fans have seen grow from a rescued child to a beautiful, take-no-crap young woman (and gifted writer)—sucked into the middle. But something feels different on the mortality front in this book, with Burke pushing harder and farther than ever as the novel winds to a bullet-riddled climax. When the fog and gun smoke clears, Robicheaux's fate is left open-ended after a showdown at the river. Could it be time for him to cross over? —Rick Cornell
Cleopatra: A Life
By Stacy Schiff
Little, Brown and Company; 368 pp.
History through biography can be a thrilling ride to the heart of times past, and so it is in the hands of Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff, in her dazzling new life of Cleopatra. The legendary queen of Egypt, one of the most highly educated women of the ancient world and, for 20 blazing years, one of its power players, took her own life at age 39, in 30 B.C., and people have been giving her character and form ever since.
Yet until recently, her image, as Schiff says, remained "blurry." Despite the paucity of direct information from Cleopatra's lifetime, Schiff turns what there is inside out and amasses vivid life all around her subject; from these facts she draws shrewd conclusions about the daring character of the woman from Alexandria, her place and her times. Schiff is a marvelous writer, scrupulous with the facts and generous with her imagination. She observes with a wry and acerbic eye, and her asides on how history is written, and how to discover and convey the characters of those who made that history, are as interesting as her tapestry of startling information and images of a place that was once the richest and most learned in the Western world. Oh, and the story gallops along. —Kate Dobbs Ariail
Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe
Edited by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 239 pp.
"Sad, sweet trees—I wish for you—rest but you must be wakeful." So wrote a reflective Marilyn Monroe on Waldorf Astoria stationery in 1955. The world knew her as a breathy and seemingly dumb blonde, but the publication of this collection of Monroe's personal notes and poems reveals a deeper, introspective and melancholy side. This insecure yet charismatic young woman, born Norma Jean Mortenson, turned to prose and poetry to better understand herself and others. Monroe has suffered at the hands of biographers and memoirists in the past, but editors Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, both of whom claim ties to the actress, strive to portray her as she truly was: a gifted, insightful actress who was often forced to play the role of the oblivious bimbo in the public eye. One of the most haunting passages is one in which Monroe tells of a dream in which the celebrated Lee Strasberg, her drama coach, acts as a surgeon to remove the pain inside her, but after cutting her open he discovers that she is, in fact, empty.
The book contains beautifully rendered facsimiles of her journal entries, alongside transcriptions, interspersed with mesmerizing full-page photos of Monroe, particularly of her lounging while reading such weighty tomes as Ulysses and Leaves of Grass. The book has appeal for those interested in the woman behind the icon, as well as those interested in the human condition when placed under pressures of stardom. —Lauren Shute
Listen to This
By Alex Ross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 364 pp.
By his own admission, genius as a composer eluded New Yorker music writer Alex Ross. But genius as a critic did not. The title essay in his new collection, Listen to This, sums up his unique talent: "I have always wanted to talk about classical music as if it were popular music and popular music as if it were classical." Ross makes classical music seem accessible and visceral; pop, complex and cerebral. Writing with wit, insight, imagination and the gift of spinning musicology into poetry, he's the rare critic whose artistry can rival that of his subjects.
Ross' first book, The Rest is Noise, was an engrossing history of 20th-century musical revolutions. This one collects revised New Yorker columns alongside a new essay that chases a certain ostinato bass line through four centuries of music. Whether analyzing cultural phenomena like the effects of recording technology upon music or tackling deep profiles of musical titans from Schubert to Björk, Ross writes in an affable, elegant voice. Paired with his exacting ear and erudition, it sounds a confidently gracious note in a field rife with cantankerous, cloudy thinking. Like The Rest is Noise, Listen to This is required reading for anyone who wants to better understand the technical workings of music without suffering through dry, esoteric theoretical manuals. —Brian Howe
Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People
By Amy Sedaris
Grand Central Publishing; 304 pp.
Amy Sedaris latest crafting "guide" contains 64 pictures of pre- and post-crafting stretches, characters (such as an artist burdened with adult acne and a "Join the Chain Gang" iron-on patch on her jeans), thoughts (the question of rhythm is "Do da doodads flow?") and occasional instructions.
Filled with Sedaris' often grotesque, usually nonsensical, cleverly contradictory humor, Simple Times is a book that—apart from a handful of useful tips, such as how to repair a dented ping pong ball (put it in boiling water), and the "Confectioneries" section, which contains some seemingly legitimate recipes—contains very little useful information. And Sedaris fans will be just fine with that. Produced with the assistance of Paul Dinello, the book also contains ideas from guest contributors such as Stephen Colbert, who is credited with the "China Plate Piece Pin" craft (Find a piece of a china plate washed up on the beach from rich people houses and turn it into a pin).
As a Simple Times reader, you will almost certainly produce nothing of worth, or even use, in fact you will probably waste your time (see "Rusty Nail Wind Chime" in the "Crafting while Bipolar" section, which instructs a bipolar crafter to throw nails in the yard while down, find and pick them up during a manic high and then make a wind chime). But, you will likely enjoy your time spent, especially if the idea of doll wigs as doorknobs tickles you. —Meg Stein
Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968–2010
By Greil Marcus
Public Affairs; 512 pp.
Greil Marcus, the author of Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (1998) and Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (2005), continues his nearly 50-year exercise in bardolatry with this recently published collection.
A riveted witness and explicator since he shyly approached Dylan backstage in 1963, Marcus conceives Dylan as a comprehensive consciousness in which all the strands of the American myth meet and obscurely enact their meaning, and these dozens of short pieces infallibly revert to Dylan's almost mystic ability to compress the national experience. Marcus argues his notion while eschewing the usual baby boomer nostalgia and self-regard ("we are stardust, we are golden," etc.). His tale is postlapsarian and tough-minded. It chronicles Dylan's thorny, evasive middle years and astonishing self-redemption in old age.
The Dylan of these pages is not a poster child, but the lonesome hobo of his own song. Marcus has a bone-deep instinct for Dylan's odyssey of American prophecy, and yet Marcus' own experiment in cultural commentary is the book's particular fascination. In the pages of Rolling Stone and elsewhere, Marcus melded rock fandom, new journalism and academic analysis, creating what the university now calls "American studies." —David Ross
By Keith Richards with James Fox
Little, Brown & Company; 564 pp.
The memoirs of Keith Richards have the rough grace and unfailingly right tone of his best guitar licks, both the "sharp and hard and cutting" variety and the "warm, smooth, 'Beast of Burden' stuff." And there's plenty of both here. Richards recounts the hard-won wisdom gained from his life in rock and his long battle with addiction, but his epiphanies come via the guitar, whether it's finally learning how Jimmy Reed's B chord achieves its "melancholy dissonance," or the five-string open G tuning that birthed a creative awakening for the Stones in 1968.
As for the "sharp and hard and cutting" stuff: Mick Jagger gets the soundest thrashing, though Richards calls him a world-class blues harpist. Brian Jones, who died in 1967, is still recalled as an asshole; bassist Bill Wyman is taken to task for making weak tea and his Jaggeresque proclivity for bedding women for pure sport; and Ron Wood enters with promise but recedes in a haze of crack fumes. Only original Stones keyboardist Ian Stewart and Charlie Watts ("the bed I lie in") escape the whip strokes. The big stories are here, of course, but even the briefest recollections, like a walk-on cameo from George C. Scott, have, like the sifted hashish wafting through Achmed's den in Tangier, a curious potency. There's even a recipe for shepherd's pie. In short, this bacchanal between book covers adds up to a stocking stuffer of rare satisfaction for someone who knows how to rock as well as how to roll. —David Klein
Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America
By Matt Taibbi
Random House; 272 pp.
You may have first heard of Matt Taibbi when he called Goldman Sachs a "vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity." In Taibbi's latest book, Griftopia (a neologism that doesn't roll off the tongue but essentially translates to "thieves' paradise"), he expands this analysis to define the entire Wall Street elite as a "grifter class"—snake-oil salesmen who essentially run casinos, hailed as the smartest people on the planet by those who believe in the free-market Ayn Rand fairy tale (which unfortunately means almost everyone with any power).
In this story, no one comes out looking good. Griftopia explains (among other things) how Wall Street's commodities exchange made gas prices so high in 2008, why the legislators behind health care reform are best thought of as overgrown children and why an Arab nation has come to own the parking meters in Chicago and is able to dictate if the streets can be closed for a parade.
It is Taibbi's turn of phrase, his metaphors and his stunning use of profanity that make his informative search through this dense labyrinth readable and entertaining, if also maddening. Afterward, you may want to grab your pitchfork and head to Wall Street. —Jaimee Hills
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
By Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
Bloomsbury USA; 368 pp.
If you've ever wondered why you can't have a discussion with your right-wing uncle about climate change, this is the book for you. Oreskes and Conway impressively detail how a small group of free-market fundamentalists—literally the same handful of individuals—have for decades hijacked the national conversation on ecological and public health issues ranging from secondhand smoke to acid rain to DDT to the ozone layer to global warming. Using misleading statistics, outright lies and kill-the-messenger debate tactics, this loosely coordinated group creates the appearance of reasonable doubt in an effort to discredit peer-reviewed scientific consensus and thereby delay needed environmental legislation.
The first chapter takes its title from a 1969 tobacco-industry memo that laid this rhetorical strategy out for all to see: "Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public." Polling statistics show how well this industry-friendly strategy of denial works: Where once Democrats and Republicans had equivalent levels of belief in climate change, in 2008, 76 percent of Democrats believed in it, compared to only 34 percent of Republicans.
This is the eye-opening story of how the bad guys win. —Gerry Canavan
Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream
By William Powers
New World Library; 296 pp.
In 2007, William Powers, an international aid worker and conservationist based in New York City, was offered an unusual house-sitting opportunity: 40 days in a tiny rustic cabin near Siler City with no electricity or running water. He leaped at the chance to sample life in the North Carolina countryside, ultra-low-impact-style.
His account of his subsequent off-the-grid sojourn is far from a how-to. Early on, he answers questions readers would naturally be curious about, like how he washed dishes, bathed and, ahem, evacuated sans plumbing. (Water was collected in big rain barrels, outdoor showers were warm, thanks to a sun-heated, five-gallon black rubber bag, and the back porch hid a composting toilet.) But the rest of the book devotes as much space to Powers' past and his wide-ranging ruminations on such matters as consumerism and globalization as it does to describing life in the cabin.
Partly due to the brevity of his stay, the book feels padded-out and is no substitute for Walden. It comes most alive in his visits with his neighbors, a motley assortment of modern homesteaders whose strategies for subsistence and self-sufficiency are a revealing comment on life at the economic fringes. Also fascinating is the story of the cabin's owner (kept anonymous at her request), a political radical who's reduced her ecological footprint and her income as near to zero as she could manage. Twelve by Twelve shows that living close to the ground and shrinking one's needs can expand the spirit. —Marc Maximov
Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love
By Dave Zirin
Scribner; 240 pp.
Renegade Sportsman: Drunken Runners, Bike Polo Superstars, Roller Derby Rebels, Killer Birds, and Other Uncommon Thrills on the Wild Frontier of Sports
By Zach Dundas
Penguin Group; 304 pp.
Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and now Big Sports. Two new books offer critiques of the "athletic industrial complex," as Dave Zirin calls it in Bad Sports. For those who need some vicarious venting about franchise owners "ruining the games we love," Zirin's your man. Each chapter of his short, angry book boos a different culprit (Napoleonic Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, the Los Angeles Clippers' slimy Donald Sterling, the entire National Hockey League, etc.) for greed, despotic vanity, disloyalty, incompetence or some combination thereof. Zirin considers sports a public utility; he champions the nonprofit, community-owned Green Bay Packers as a model of stewardship and zings the National Football League for having since outlawed the Packers' grandfathered model.
Bad Sports appears to have been written hastily, its style falling somewhere between sports radio shock-jock and aggrieved blogger, both of which Zirin is—a bad sport himself, part curmudgeon complaining about $12 ballpark beers and part conspiracy theorist. He reminds me of music critic Robert Christgau's description of Billy Joel in 1978: "as likeable as your once-rebellious and still-tolerant uncle who has the quirk of believing that OPEC was designed to ruin his air-conditioning business." Zirin aims admirably high, and he's sincere, but Bad Sports has that sour whiff of nostalgia for good old days that never really were. It's no surprise, then, that he eventually stumbles on this buried lead: "Owners count upon our own short-term memory" for everything from steroids to stadium financing.
Zach Dundas TKOs Zirin, probably unwittingly, early in his Renegade Sportsman: "Indicting American sports for gross misconduct and moral bankruptcy is so easy, it pretty much amounts to cheating. Any sports columnist, pundit or blogger starved for copy can always tap the nation's nostalgia for the mythical days when They Played for the Love of the Game." Dundas instead heads for the lunatic fringe of American sports—and not only as a reporter. In addition to covering the Roller Derby national championship in Austin, falconry and an extreme-endurance cyclists' ultramarathon called the Trans-Iowa, Dundas himself suits up to run with the Hash House Harriers (a global cabal of drunken urban foot racers, in costume and incognito), and later learns to fence.
Dundas' foray into barely legal sports takes him into a new, weird America populated by paradoxically old-fashioned romantics, wild livers, rugged individualists and kooky artisans, networks of undergroundlings connected by iPhones. (He also discovers some serious athletes, compared to whom "the average pro jock would wonder where his or her personal masseuse had gone.") Dundas' cheerful, arch, beer-carbonated voice belies sober analysis. Comparing Big Sports to agribusiness—"eliminating diversity in favor of a few big cash crops"—he gets at something perhaps more pernicious than anything in Bad Sports: homogenization. In response, The Renegade Sportsman practices an intrepid, good-sport rewrite of an old adage, "If you can't beat 'em, join someone else's—or start your own." —Adam Sobsey
Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon
By Jonathan Stroud
Disney/Hyperion; 398 pp.; $17.99
Fans of Jonathan Stroud's first three Bartimaeus books will rejoice as the smart-aleck djinni returns in The Ring of Solomon, a gripping prequel that should keep upper elementary and middle school kids—and their Harry Potter-weary parents—turning pages into the new year.
All of the political intrigue, power-mad magicians and shape-shifting demons of the earlier books come alive through Stroud's scintillating description, alternating narrators and trademark acerbic footnotes—from Bartimaeus himself, a 5,000-year-old spirit with a wit to match.
In 950 B.C., Bartimaeus is enslaved in Jerusalem by the cruel King Solomon to maintain his vast empire. Solomon's despised by his court magicians, who would love nothing more than to dethrone him in the most unsavory way possible, if only he did not have that pesky all-powerful ring ...
Sorcerer Nathaniel—Bartimaeus' human foil in the earlier books—is not in this story, but Asmira, a ninja-like palace guard for the Queen of Sheba, falls short of him in neither ambition nor ferocity. Her mission is to steal Solomon's ring for her queen.
Stroud's characterization is always spot-on; the people and magical entities in Solomon leap, soar, burrow and rumble off the page. It's a great changeup for Potter fans, but be warned: The grisly battles are more Tolkien than Rowling. —Chris Vitiello
The Wolf Tree
By John Claude Bemis
Random House Children's Books; 400 pp.
Respect the middle book. It needs to maintain momentum without the benefit of all the unveiling that occurs in the initial installment, and without the final book's promise of a grand wrap-up. This second entry in Hillsborough author John Claude Bemis' The Clockwork Dark trilogy, a page-flipping combination of American mythology, steampunk nightmare and light-handed environmentalism aimed at the middle school set, succeeds in advancing the overarching defeat-the-darkness story. It also artfully weaves together the three quests central to this volume, including that of Ray Cobb, the budding Rambler at the center of opener The Nine Pound Hammer, and that of his sister Sally, fledgling healer and The Wolf Tree's breakout character.
The third quest answers the question, "What happened to the hammer-wielding Conker and the siren Jolie in the aftermath of the first book's heroic, climactic explosion?" And stealing his few scenes is new villain Stacker Lee, who is literally heartless evil.
Bemis' work moves along with its own rustic rhythm: If The Lord of the Rings, the series by which all others are measured, is the sound of lutes and heralding trumpets, and Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books (a target-audience peer) feel a bit like indie rock, then The Wolf Tree is country blues. —Rick Cornell
Superman: Earth One
By J. Michael Straczynski (writer) and Shane Davis (artist)
DC Comics; 136 pp.
The hottest graphic novel of the fall, Superman: Earth One offers a new, stand-alone entry point to the Superman mythos that is independent of decades of confusing comics continuity—a new origin story perfect for new and returning fans of the legend.
Straczynski and Shane's Superman is a reluctant 20-something superhero, angst-ridden in a hoodie and jeans; more Marvel than DC, this version of Clark Kent just wishes he were normal. But circumstances conspire against poor Clark; when the aliens who destroyed his home planet of Krypton arrive to finish the job, he's forced to don the cape and tights despite himself. By the end of the story, nearly all of the classic elements of the Superman story, from Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen to the goofy glasses disguise, are in place. Only Lex Luthor is missing, presumably being saved for the inevitable sequel.
Approachable for younger readers but with subtleties suitable for teenagers, and a nostalgic glow that will resonate with adults, Superman: Earth One offers a fresh take on comics' oldest story, from one of the genre's most creative writers. Pick it up while you can still find it—it's selling out faster than a speeding bullet. —Gerry Canavan
Cursed Pirate Girl
By Jeremy Bastian
Olympian Publishing; 115 pp.
I have met Jeremy Bastian three times, and he has always come off as a normal, humble fellow. And yet there is nothing ordinary about his art. In an age of Photoshop and countless other digital tools, Bastian resorts to the old-school style of pen and ink, illustrating scenes in brush with detail so minute that it borders on an illuminated manuscript.
Bastian took about three years to create three issues of his comic Cursed Pirate Girl, and the effort comes through on every page. The title character, a rebellious young lass living in a fantastic, alternate 1728 Jamaica, is charming enough, but it's the little touches that make her adventures pop. If the wind blows at sea, you'll see a giant cloud with a face hovering over the pirate ship, and you'll be able to catch details of every fish in the sea and every citizen on land. The characters assume the absurdist qualities of classic fairy tales, from a pair of swordfish brothers who resemble suits of armor to the many pirates Cursed Pirate Girl encounters.
Available through local comic shops, Cursed Pirate Girl is very small press, but as word gets out, it won't be. Younger readers are the target audience here, but it's the adults who will stare at the page and wonder, how does he draw that? —Zack Smith
Beasts of Burden
By Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson (artist)
Dark Horse Comics; 184 pp.
Animals and supernatural mysteries have gone well together since Scooby-Doo or, if you want to dig, James Howe's Bunnicula books about a vampire rabbit. Writer Evan Dorkin and artist Jill Thompson (Scary Godmother) take this idea to a new and chilling level with Beasts of Burden.
Originating as a series of short stories in various Dark Horse anthologies, the titular beasts are a group of dogs—and a cat—in the town of Burden Hill, who discover many mysterious events linked to various supernatural phenomena—be it a haunted doghouse or monstrous creatures. And this is hardly child's play: Many of the cases involve genuinely chilling incidents, such as when the ghost of a murdered dog possesses the dogs to take horrifying revenge on a local animal abuser.
This isn't to say Beasts is without a sense of humor. Dorkin, the creator of the underground favorite Milk and Cheese and a writer on the kids' show Yo Gabba Gabba!, writes some of the wittiest dialogue in comics, and Thompson's lush artwork carries a sense of whimsy with its menace. But there's a reason the Beasts recently teamed up with Mike Mignola's Hellboy—for them, supernatural mysteries are about more than a guy in a rubber mask, cursing "You meddling kids!" —Zack Smith
By Daniel Clowes
Drawn & Quarterly; 80 pp.
It's not hard to see why director Alexander Payne recently optioned Daniel Clowes' graphic novel Wilson. It's full of the sort of misanthropy, self-induced misery and bitter laughs that have characterized such Payne films as About Schmidt and Sideways. It's even easy to see the title character being portrayed by, say, Paul Giamatti or Philip Seymour Hoffman.
But what makes Wilson work is, in large part, the format. Clowes, who summed up several generations' worth of teenage boredom and cynicism with Ghost World, tells Wilson in a series of one-page vignettes modeled after Sunday newspaper comics, complete with distortions of the human form. Clowes' rendering of Wilson changes from strip to strip (in one, he's presented with relatively normal proportions; in others, his head is twice the size of his tiny body), but his endless ranting remains intact. The format also creates an impression similar to a comic strip you only read once a week, with events going on in between the pages. How Wilson comes to meet his long-lost daughter, and what happens after that, makes for a hilarious gag that will take a few moments to click in your head.
Clowes remains a master of disaffected quips; Wilson's irritation at the world makes Ghost World's Enid seem positively chipper. But Wilson is still weirdly likeable in how he sticks to his guns, and readers might find themselves nodding along, and then becoming horrified with themselves for agreeing. —Zack Smith
By Duriel Harris
Sheep Meadow Press; 90 pp.
With the 2002 release of Drag, Duriel Harris and linear convention became nemeses. She writes in poetry what an avant jazz player improvises in organized noise. Harris, an assistant professor of English at Illinois State University, is also a member of a free jazz ensemble and former editor of N.C. State's African-American literary journal Obsidian. With Amnesiac, her second full-length collection, she continues her exploration of dissonant and unorthodox verse while delivering to the page an adept literary perception.
The poems in Amnesiac are dark and true histories, personal and textbook accounts of memories you'd rather forget. As you enter works like 'black hand side,' think of artists who jolt you into another reality: Archie Shepp's tenor, Howlin' Wolf's growl and 1970s funk vocalist Betty Davis' raw desire:
"jagged habit/ grit grist to static/ spastic graphic/ grapple/ grasp at it/ sling shot pragmatic—"
Harris writes as a raconteur of black musical and chattel history with such pieces as "specimen," in which she voices the transatlantic slave trade in three relative but distinctive "movements."
"Wishing Well" is divided into a chorus, solo and duet, and accompanied by musical notation. In these variant voices, Harris is dynamic. Her images, which reckon with the trespasses perpetrated against her and her characters, are well lit by her vivid command of back-to-the-blues narration.
If you're of the ilk that demands a studied and inventive idiolect, expect Harris' Amnesiac to leave you eager to name where in our musical and literary legacy she belongs. —Shirlette Ammons
Anterooms: New Poems and Translations
By Richard Wilbur
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 63 pp.
Since his first volume appeared in 1947, Richard Wilbur has shunned both the mazes of modernism and the pranks of postmodernism. His virtues—fundamental sobriety, unerring self-knowledge, graceful erudition, technical mastery—were never in step with his febrile era, and yet, like the proverbial tortoise, he has won out by trusting his own unpretentious humanity. The legacy of his spectacular near-contemporary Norman Mailer is halfway to oblivion by now, while Wilbur continues to gather new readers and ripen into deeper meaning.
Wilbur's latest volume is characteristic of his preoccupations: a work of autumnal self-reckoning with meadow, tree and wood as governing metaphors. Among the 17 new poems, three or four—"A Measuring Worm," "Terza Rima," "Soon"—are joined and sealed tightly enough to keep at bay any number of winters, while the enormously poignant epigraphic poem "The House" will be reread purposefully and searchingly—the definition of a classic—by those who want to organize or measure their own thoughts of love. Its 12 lines compress so much: the psychology of a marriage, a notion of beauty, a theory of heaven, an intimation of the last and hardest quest. —David Ross