Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1875), translated by John Ashbery in 2011, is a wonderous thing. I love Ashbery’s word choices and the decision (always wise) to publish the French and English side by side, allowing me to test my rudimentary French skills and roll the words around in my mouth.

In part 5 of the prose poem, Childhood/Enfance, “I am the learned scholar in the dark armchair. Branches and the rain hurl themselves at teh library’s casement window. I am the walker on the great highway through dwarf woods; the murmur of sluices muffles my steps. I gaze for a long time at the melancholy gold laundry of the setting sun.” (la mélancolique lessive d’or du couchant– gorgeous!)

I confess most of my knowledge about Rimbaud comes from The Day on Fire: A Novel Suggested by the Life of Arthur Rimbaud which was excellent.


My Name Is Lucy Barton

Could anything be better than cozily reading Elizabeth Strout on a rainy morning? This delicious piece of fiction was so tender and intense and yet flitted away perfectly over a few hours, dropping me into the world of Lucy Barton. She’s recovering from a mysterious illness in a hospital room that has a view of the Chrysler building which is spectacular at night. Her husband hates hospitals and so leaves her alone most of the time, but does summon a visit from her mother. Lucy’s mother sits at the foot of the bed and tells stories and they reconnect over the five days she’s there. Strout weaves in other strands of Lucy’s life, her becoming a writer, her childhood struggles and poverty, staying late at school simply because it was warm, running into a published author at a clothing boutique and loving her style then taking her writing workshop. We all have one story, we can tell it a million different ways. Beautiful work, I can’t believe I haven’t read Strout before.

The Tempest

Just a quick dip into Shakespeare, flipping through the ultra-thin pages of my mom’s copy of the complete works. Appreciating the hijinx of Stephano pouring wine down Caliban’s throat when he thinks the four legs (one pair belonging to Caliban, one to Trinculo) are a monster, and the ensuing nonsense. “Here is that which will give language to you, cat.”

Prospero creates a storm to trap his brother, who has unfairly snatched up his dukedom and left him to die. He finally admits to daughter Miranda about the circumstances of their leaving Italy many years before, and arranges it so Miranda falls in love with her shipwrecked cousin Ferdinand. Ariel’s the spirit who earns his freedom from helping Prospero while Caliban is a spirit freed from a tree and then enslaved by Prospero, who turns his loyalty toward the sack of wine that drunken butler Stephano wields. As always, the fun characters are the most interesting.

In the Dream House: A Memoir

Carmen Maria Machado details an abusive relationship she had with her first girlfriend, a woman whose moods swung wildly and incomprehensibly, muttering threats and making Carmen weep. It’s a good reminder that bad relationships come in all shapes and sizes, including between same-sex partners. Many nights locking herself in the bathroom to escape the yelling, the verbal abuse, the manipulation. Oddly, there was a 3rd woman in the love triangle and this woman ultimately ended up marrying Carmen, so happily ever after? I wasn’t a fan of the style she chose for the book, each section a different flavor of literary device, riddled with folk tale elements. Definitely hated the choose your own adventure section, which seemed to just fluff up the page count. But decent writing on an important topic.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan

Yes, at the beginning Iyer has a “grains of salt” section wherein he explains he has no business writing about Japan and the “beginner” is both himself and the reader. I find it odd that he’s lived there for 30 years and hasn’t picked up any of the language (he claims to speak at the level of a 2-year-old). I guess his Japanese wife carries the burden of communication with the outside world for him. Mostly a bland book compared to his other great travel writing like Video Night in Kathmandu. Frequent quotations from Oscar Wilde and SF Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. Little bits of sentences, short paragraphs a concession to our evaporated attention spans?

Application for Release from the Dream

My wavering appreciation for Hoagland returned a bit stronger with this 2015 collection of poems. He’s still problematic, of course, but you can tell he’s trying to own up to his white male privilege, even if he gets to wink and nudge his way there: “I probably should not have called my class in feminist literature Books by Girls.” And his strange White Writer poem where he flips the designation, hating to be known as a white writer when he’s so much more.

“There is no single particular noun for the way a friendship, stretched over time, grows thin, then one day snaps with a popping sound.”

“The flaring force of this thing we call identity as if it were a message, a burning coal one carries in one’s mouth for sixty years, for delivery to whom, exactly; to where?”

My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education

Great collection of essays about growing up Cuban-American in Miami, being the first generation to go to college (and not knowing how long her parents were supposed to stay for orientation so they had booked a whole week of vacation expecting to go as a family to all the events), getting married and divorced, dealing with hurricanes and the end of rides at Disney World, living in a space that rented out for weddings on the weekend and hearing the same exact playlist every night, laying down truths at visiting colleges about how they needed to hire more people of color to teach and talking over the white woman’s tears in the front row who said that was racist.

Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream

I’ve been thinking about the G.I. Bill lately and its impact on the arts, giving people like Frank O’Hara and Robert Rauschenberg college educations that encouraged them into their artistic pursuits.

This book wasn’t great, but it did have a chapter focused on the impact of the G. I. Bill on the arts. Other chapters focused around various (white, male) veterans and how they came back and benefited from the education credit and housing loans. Humes does mention how this overwhelmingly benefited white men and how women and minorities were left out of the great post-WW2 handout.

Black Mountain College in NC appears to have been saved by the returning veterans, with their college-going population dwindling to the dozens during the war. “Schools on the brink of bankruptcy were soon overflowing, and Black Mountain, with a record enrollment approaching one hundred found itself restored to a modest but stable financial footing by those $500-per-student payments from the Veterans Administration, an unimaginably kingly tuition in that place and time.”

A stack of rejects

I gave up on these after reading lots or a little of them.

  • 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them. Somewhat interesting but the library book smelled like perfume and I couldn’t ever quite enjoy picking it up.
  • 4 books of poetry by Matthea Harvey. I thought I’d like her writing more than I actually did.
  • Flash Count Diary by Darcey Steinke. A book about menopause seemed packed with filler about how other animals (whales, primates) also go through the change. I couldn’t get on board with her “so with no real plan I flew down to Miami from New York” to watch a postmenopausal whale flop around her tank.
  • Van Gogh’s Ear by Bernadette Murphy. I made the mistake of watching the BBC documentary based on this book before opening the book itself and couldn’t stomach the re-enactment of Murphy’s “astonishing” discovery. The quibble over whether he cut off his lobe or the entire ear is not enough to sustain my interest.
  • Year of Yes by Shonda Rimes. I like the premise of this book and it’s been done before which is fine, but the execution of it made it seem like it was recorded as an audiobook first and then transcribed for text. Lots of one and two word sentences. “So.” “Ok.” “And yet.” “Deep.” “Rude.” “I’m happy.”
  • How to Date Men When You Hate Men by Blythe Roberson. Super catchy title and pretty great in parts, she melds feminist theory with philosophy and makes it fun the whole time. Only it’s a bit wandering, I don’t need to read pretend text messages or lists of things that are or aren’t flirty; basically this is her comedy bit written down in book form. Meh.
  • Josh Gondelman’s Nice Try, as discovered on his wife Maris’s podcast. I like Maris, with her intensely bookish conversations. Josh’s book had no good writing, nothing of merit to recommend it beyond its connection to her.
  • Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s by Malcolm Crowley. I stumbled over Crowley twice in an afternoon (in an intro to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, in an interview with Jack Kerouac who was complaining about Crowley adding unnecessary commas) so grabbed this and promptly fell asleep at the dull prose.

Three Paradoxes

Interesting shift in visual styles as the artist goes from drawing a comic, to depicting the reality of visiting his parents, to remembering childhood traumas, to Zeno presenting his paradoxes to an audience of Athenians, Socrates being the clown of the crowd. But the story was too bland for my taste. Recommended by way of an interview with poet Matthea Harvey.

The Beat Museum

Finally made it to the Beat Museum in North Beach this weekend—a clear labor of love by the museum founders sitting a stone’s throw from City Lights Bookstore. Filled with bric-a-brac mementos of a forgotten age, Neal Cassady’s referee jersey that he wore driving the Merry Pranksters, DVD of Pull My Daisy narrated by Kerouac, copies of drafts of Ginsberg poems, bookshelves of books, but mostly photos and information cards. It’s here that I learn of Shig Murao, the co-founder of City Lights who otherwise seems to have been obliterated from its history.

The poets would send carbon copies of their work around to friends who would suggest edits. Good to see my man Brautigan represented, with a quote from Tom McGuane that he was a “gently troubled, deeply odd guy.” Lew Welch is here, too, who helped me understand how to read Gertrude Stein. And I need to find out more about “poet, bartender, magician, wanderer, playwright, refugee and performer,” ruth weiss.

Mentioned: the 1990 Ginsberg interview, When the Muse Calls, Answer, which I just watched on the Tube. “So the question is, can you be consistently aware of the fact that the main task is to record your consciousness.”

The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice

Hoagland speaks from beyond the grave with this latest book of essays about poetry focusing on the voice of the writer. “When we hear a distinctive voice in a poem, our full attention is aroused and engaged, because we suspect that here, now, at last, we may learn how someone else does it—that is, how they live, breathe, think, feel, and talk.”

Great example poems in here and he seems to correct his gender imbalance a bit. Another reference to the Czselaw Milosz poem Ars Poetica? with this sentence: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person.”

I did not like the constant reminder after each essay to find corresponding writing exercises at the back of the book, it made it seem dumbed down.

The Family Fang

Wonderful, funny, well-written, well-paced book about a family of performance artists. The parents, rather, are performance artists who drag their children into their art. We meet the children as adults, dealing with repercussions of having been used as art objects for their entire childhood, fragile and broken but still making valiant attempts at life. Annie is a successful actor in the midst of a topless scandal, Buster a struggling writer who is immediately hit in the face with a high powered potato gun after we meet him on assignment as a freelance magazine writer. The plot hinges on them both returning home to recuperate from their respective disasters, and their parents then go missing. They assume it’s a performance, complete with real blood and an abandoned van, but months drag on before they discover a clue that leads them to a North Dakota door and their father. Each chapter that moves the plot forward is interspersed with a flashback to a particular performance piece.

Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft

My crush on Hoagland is crashing and burning, no surprise. I waded through these lectures/essays and noticed a faint whiff of the stench that ubiquitous white male arrogance brings to the table, invariably. At least he’s dead and so won’t be horrified by my change of heart. At one point he calls Mary Oliver “the Miss Manners of poetic convention,” which made my misogynistic spidey senses start tingling. Then I started noticing that most of his examples of poems in the essays were by men, a handful of women sprinkled in. Rage simmered once I reached his treatment of Gertrude Stein; no one is able to refrain from poking fun at her awareness of her own genius.

A few things I did take from slogging through this: fragment is the unit, juxtaposition is the method, collage is the result.

And an introduction to the wonderful Matthea Harvey, whose poem is here:


First Person fumed & fizzed under Third Person’s tongue while Third Person slumped at the diner counter, talking, as usual, to no one.Third Person thought First Person was the toilet paper trailing from Third Person’s shoe, the tiara Third Person once wore in a dream to a funeral. First Person thought Third Person was a layer of tar on a gorgeous pink nautilus, a foot on a fountain, a tin hiding the macaroons and First Person was that nautilus, that fountain, that pile of macaroons. Sometimes First Person broke free on first dates (with a Second Person) & then there was the delicious rush of “I this” and “I that” but then no phone call & for weeks Third Person wouldn’t let First Person near anyone. Poor First Person. Currently she was exiled to the world of postcards (having a lovely time)—& even then that beast of a Third Person used the implied “I” just to drive First Person crazy. She felt like a television staring at the remote, begging to be turned on. She had so many things she wanted to say. If only she could survive on her own, she’d make Third Person choke on herself & when the detectives arrived & all eyes were on her, she’d cry out, “I did it! I did it! Yes, dahlings, it was me!


What a relief to find that other reviewers are finding this less than readable. I usually like Nell Zink’s writing but this went off the rails. Luckily (?) I was noting down plot points of each chapter and I can actually tell you where it falls apart. The story is interesting when it’s about Pam and Daniel and Joe, thrashing about the Lower East Side in late 1980s NYC. Pam, a high school dropout, takes up computer coding quite successfully. Daniel does a series of late night proofreading at law firms and then temping. Joe is Joe is Joe, afflicted by the Williams syndrome and cheerfully accepting everyone, recording amazing tunes and inexplicably becoming a rock star. Then, tragically, Pam decides not to abort her pregnancy, and Flora is unleashed on the story, dragging it down behind her. It’s not too terrible until Chapter 14 when Flora takes over the story and everyone else is left behind. Before that, 9/11 happens, the family flees to DC, Joe is fed heroin by his worthless groupie girlfriend Gwen and dies; Gwen flees and leaves him there for days, dead. Naturally as the pages fly by, Zink resorts to the same old trick to spice up the story and now Flora is pregnant, only it’s by a fling she has while campaigning for Jill Stein instead of with her Clinton-advising boyfriend who’s had a vasectomy. It might sound interesting, but it’s not.