#28 Look by Solmaz Sharif

26114310.jpgLook was a birthday gift from my dear friend Anna, and like most books of poems, I’ve dipped in and out of it for months, savoring a poem here and there, letting the collection sink in over time.

The personal and political fuse in this strong and fiercely elegant book. In it, Sharif takes on war and terror, the effects of the violence on family, on the body, on the mind, on a people.

Sharif’s poems hold an electric, combustible power, the pages light up with the friction, a language of conflict; windmills straddle poems with bombers, fascism shares space with dinner party waltzes, strawberries mingle with grenade pins.

In an attempt to find the words, better words, to write about this collection, I opened to a random page, and was struck once again. This is what I read, from a poem called “Drone:”

: I say Hello NSA when I place a call

: somewhere a file details my sexual habits

: some tribunal may read it all back to me

: Golsorkhi, I know the cell they will put me in

: they put me onto a crooked pile of others to rot

: is this what happens to a brain born into war

: a city of broken teeth

: the thuds of falling

: we have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter

: I am singing to her still

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#27 Moonglow by Michael Chabon

26795307Michael Chabon was the first contemporary fiction author I read as a teenager. At 15 or 16, after reading mostly classics up until that point, I grabbed The Mysteries of Pittsburgh off my mom’s bookcase. I loved it. I was hooked. I went on, through the years, to read Wonderboys: Again, loved it. Werewolves in their Youth: Great. The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay: Epic, again, loved it. I skipped The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, though I’m not sure why. And then Telegraph Avenue… Couldn’t finish it. I found the writing too forcefully “writerly.” I stumbled on overly wordy sentences and visuals that jarred me out of the book. I experienced some of this jarring, this lack of flow, with Moonglow. It took me four long days to get through, and I never fully lost myself in the story.

The story itself is a patchwork, with Chabon using his grandfather’s own history (growing up Jewish in Philadelphia, his experiences during WWII, meeting and marrying Chabon’s grandmother, his time in prison, his last years) as the foundation of the plot. As with any narrative of this kind, to tell it requires embellishment and the personal story is woven with fictions.

Moonglow is a dense, multi-layered book, and there’s so much I could write about it here: the wealth of moon/space references and allusions, the fascinating/frightening WWII passages, the function of memory in familial narrative and the stories we tell to survive, the effect of war and violence on the psyche… So while I didn’t lose myself in the story, while I struggled at times with the punchy oddness of word choice and felt like I had to work to reach the end, I give Moonglow high marks for evocative scenes, narrative structure, and historical scope.

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#26 Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

20170404I don’t usually go for dystopian fiction. Oryx and Crake? Couldn’t get past page 30… In general, I just don’t love end-of-the-world hopelessness, desolate landscapes, and the constant fear that accompanies being one of the few survivors of an apocalyptic change, be it viral or chemical or other.

After so many recommendations and great reviews, however, I decided to pick up Station Eleven. Set in the lead-up and 20-year aftermath of a cataclysmic flu that wipes out much of Earth’s population, it follows various characters as they scatter and attempt to survive in the hours, days, and years after a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear in Toronto.

In the years after the flu pandemic, we get visions of what the world is like from the perspective of Kirsten, one of the children in that production of King Lear in Toronto, who is now an adult player in a traveling symphony/theater that treks from one small enclave of survivors to another bringing music and Shakespearean theater. Post-pandemic, what used to be the U.S. is a place without electricity, planes, phones, the internet, without laws; cities are creepy monuments to a past civilization, full of skeletons, acres of abandoned cars on highways, looted stores and houses, and the echoes of half-realized lives. The visuals that Emily St. John Mandel creates of this world are memorable and terrifying, and it’s a fascinating, compulsive read.

The middle flagged a bit and I kept thinking move it along, move it along. I figured out the reveal pretty early on, and the ending was a bit too tidy and unrealistic for my taste, but overall I give it high marks for story, and character development… and for making me stay up, wide-eyed, two nights in a row imagining what it would be like to live in a Station Eleven world.

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#25 Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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Holy shit. This book. THIS BOOK! Lincoln in the Bardo just might be my favorite book of 2017 thus far.

The story takes place in the space of one night in 1862, a year after the start of the Civil War. President Lincoln’s son Willie, dead from typhoid fever, has just been buried in a cemetery in Georgetown. Lincoln, heartbroken over the death of his son, visits Willie’s tomb throughout the night and takes his son’s body out of the coffin so he that might see and hold him once more. He mourns his son, all the while carrying the knowledge and weight of all the deaths accumulating on the battlefields of the war.

Told by a chorus of graveyard inhabitants, and other voices of the period, Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike any other book I’ve read. The graveyard ensemble inhabits this Bardo (a Tibetan concept/word for a “transitional state”), where they welcome new arrivals like Willie, long for the lives they’ve left behind, mourn those they loved and lost, make friends, squabble, and linger with the souls interned around them. At the beginning I thought, is he really going to pull narrative structure off? And yes, he does. George Saunders has managed, brilliantly, to write a book about history, death, and letting go, that is hilarious, strange, and poignant, and that celebrates the smells, tastes, desires, and emotions of life. Bravo.

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