This posting lists some recent fiction, nonfiction and poetry titles, some of which I enjoyed, some I didn’t. Still, amongst these 12 titles I encountered some very special books that appear on my list of 2023 favourites (*)
DAY: A Novel by Michael Cunningham
This novel is presented in three parts, a single day (April 5th) in 2019, 2020, 2021. Though never explicitly articulated it is a time before, during and in the aftermath of COVID-19. The story centres on husband and wife, Dan and wife and Isabell’s brother Robbie, a gay man who has been living as a cherished family member in the loft of the Brooklyn brownstone. Circumstances that force Robbie move out and find a place of his own threatens to break the family apart. During lockdown, Robbie is stranded in Iceland, alone with his thoughts and living with the secrets of an Instagram life that give him hope and possibilities, even though the relationship he experiences is fictional. In the third part, the family must deal with loss and work towards moving on. The children in the story, Violet and Nathan are moving towards independence. Dan’s brother, Garth, also struggles to find a place to be a good father to an independent woman who as a sperm donor. I’m not sure I loved this story of unhappy characters. I wanted Loretta Castorini (Cher’s character from Moonlighting) to come along with a slap “Snap out of it” to the characters. The quest to be satisfied with our lot and choices in life seems to be one of the essential themes of Day and it takes a much introspection for these folks to ‘snap out of it.’ The cover of the book is quite striking in its simplicity in an image of a clear-blue sky, with a wisp of floating cloud interrupting the brightness of the day. Perhaps the cloud is a metaphor (things aren’t always perfect!), but a darker grey cloud might have better captured the intent of the novel. I’ve enjoyed books by this prize-winning author (A Home at the End of the World: Flesh and Blood, The Hours) who does indeed write beautiful sentences but wasn’t as enthralled as many critics were with Michael Cunningham’s new release.
FRIENDS, LOVERS and THE BIG TERRIBLE THING by Matthew Perry (memoir) *
Matthew’s story of his struggles with addiction, is undoubtedly, the most harrowing read of the year. The actor candidly documents the actor’s childhood ambition to fame and his devastating journey with addiction, health scares, hospital and rehab visits. This is a laid-bare, no holds barred account of struggles with excessive booze and drug binge and the peace found in sobriety . It is also the story of dealing with fame, family and friends. The opening lines of the book read “Hi, my name is Matthew, although you know me by another name. My friends call me Matthy. And I should be dead.” When reading about Perry’s addictions, his loneliness and his workaholic lifestyle, one wonders how he didn’t in fact succumb to ‘the big terrible thing’. But Matthew Perry’s life was one of Courage, with a capital C. He will forever be know as the very funny guy on Friends, but writes that he hopes his legacy will be that of a person who gave hope and resilience to others who have lived the way he did. The book was published in 2022. and knowing that 54 year-old Matthew Perry died ion October 18, 2023, makes this an especially riveting reading experience.
I REMEMBER by Joe Brainard *
First published in 1975, I Remember is an extended list poem in which author, artist Joe Brainard records declarative sentences (mostly single statements) of 1000+ things he remembers. I hadn’t heard of this book before (it was referenced in The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez) but I sought out a copy. What an entertaining read. The book demands text to self connections (particularly those who group up in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s). There will be a load of “Yes, I remember that too moments.” when reading about fashions, fads, friendships and daydream fantasies (often sexual in nature). The premise absolutely ignites readers to conjure up their own memories of artifacts and life experiences that shape our cognitive, emotional and cultural souls. Perhaps, it will inspire readers to write their own ‘I Remember’ poems. I loved this book a lot and bought a batch of copies as gifts for friends. I’m sure they will be as delighted – and pensive – as I was. Absolutely one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I had this year. (Sequels: More I Remember (1972); More I Remember More (1973), I Remember Chrsitmas (1973)
I remember candles in wine bottles.
I remember bright orange canned peaches.
I remember ‘a white sports coat and a pink carnation.”
I remember sweaters thrown over our shoulders and sunglasses propped up on our heads.
I remember “this is the last time I’m going to tell you.”
THE LOVE OF SINGULAR MEN by Victor Heringer, Translated from the Portuguese by James Young
The setting of this novel is the suburbs of Rio De Janeiro. Camillo is a crippled middle-aged man looks back at the days of his youth, especially the love he had for Cosme, an orphan who was taken in by his family. When he returns to his hometown as an adult, Camillo is haunted by the memories of being happy with Cosme until an act of violence shatters their world. The past is over and nothing can be done about it. The back and forth perspectives frame the narrative but alas, I found myself wandering and wondering (and confused) about story events, the relationships and Brazilian politics and wasn’t as enamoured with this book as some critics were.
MINOR DETAIL Adania Shibli; translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. (first published in 2017/ translation 2020)
At 111 pages this novella , translated from the that is powerful narrative of Israeli / Arab conflict. The book is divided into two parts, each of equal length. The first part, written in the third person, tells the story of a 1949 gang rape and murder of a young Arab Bedouin-Palestinian girl by Israeli soldiers. The protagonist is an Israeli officer who oversees the clearing of the Negev desert and the establishment of the borders with Egypt. The book then shifts into a first person telling of a modern day account of a Palestinian woman (unnamed) who tries to investigate this 25 year old incident. The woman decides to travel to the area where the crime occorued and to pay visits to local archives and museums in the hope of finding some evidence of what happened. Minor Detail is a piercing account of borders erected to define who belongs and who doesn’t. It is also an unsettling account of as every day life for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. NOTE An awards ceremony at the Frankfort Book Fair, due to honour the novel by a Palestinian author was called off due to the war in Israel. Controversy arose when an open letter from over 350 international authors stated that the world’s largest book fair of its kind has a “responsibility to be creating spaces for Palestinian writers to share their thoughts, feelings, reflections on literature through these terrible, cruel times, not shutting them down.”
SO LATE IN THE DAY by Claire Keegan (short stories) *
This is a slim volume of three short stories by Irish Writer, Claire Keegan who whose writing, breathtaking in its clarity and poignancy, wakes up the heart. So Late in the Day is the story of a lenoy Irish civil servant who almost married a woman that he might have been happy with – but it’s a good thing he didn’t. A writer arrives in the retreat for a two-week writing residency, but the appearance – and disturbance – of a German academic interrupts – and yet, inspires – her writing in a story entitled A Long and Painful Death. In Antarctica, a woman experiences lust (and danger) when she leaves her family for a weekend to seek out the adventure of sleeping with another man. This book is subtitled “Stories of men and women” and each tale does indeed depict the dynamics and longing and betrayal of relationships between a man and woman.
STUDY FOR OBEDIENCE by Sarah Bernstein
In the novel, Yellowface by R.F. Kuang there is a sentence that struck me” Reading should be an enjoyable experience, not a chore. Yellowface was the book I chose to read after finishing the Giller Prize and Booker nominee Study for Obedience and it was a reading chore that I didn’t particularly enjoy. Awards do not a great book make. I’m fine with Sarah Bernstein getting praise for this work. The story is centred on a young woman who leaves her birthplace to a remote northern country (unidentified) to be hosekeeper to her brother who’s wife recently left him. I didn’t have much sympathy for this sister who chose to serve her demanding brother. When a series of inexplicable events (i.e. bovine hysteria, the death of an ewe, a local dog’s phantom pregnancy) the community becomes suspicious of the sister, a newcomer to the village. Ostracizing the outsider seems to be the central issue of the book (antisemitism) but I had to dig deep to stay (and ‘get’) the story. Though rather short (189 pages) I wanted to abandon Study for Obedience but kept going because of the praise (and awards) the book has received. I did not agree with back cover testimonies ‘beautiful’ (Angel-Ajani), ‘fully absorbing’ (D. Hayden) with ‘perfectly weight prose’ (F. Mozley) and that’s ok.
THE VULNERABLES by Sigred Nunez
I’m sure there are – and will be – many books written about living through the Pandemic experience. In this novel, a female author considers her past as she comments on current realities. It is the time of the pandemic and when the narrator is a ‘vulnerable’ in the face of Covid.finds herself to be responsible for taking care of a parrot named Eureka. When she encounters a Gen Z stranger< Vetch,together the two characters help each to confront their distresses and learn about the meaning of being a caring person. Nunez (National Book Award The Friend (2018) is one fine writer. I love the way she recounts somewhat quirky events and makes them seem ordinary. She is a wise, perceptive and funny writer. I love the way she weaves in precepts from a range literary works.
I like taht Virginia Woolf said, Everything I read these days, including my own work, seems to me too long. That Borges said, Unlike the novel a short story may be, for all purposes, essential. But thtat Jeanette Winterson siad, I think long books are rude. Not that Celine said Novels are something like lace, an art that went out of the convent.” (page 141)
YELLOWFACE by R. F. Kuang
When she witnesses the death of noteworthy Asian author, Athena Liu, the struggling white author, June Hayward steals Liu’s unfinished manuscript about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers during World War I. How does Hayword (now known as Juniper Song) think she will get away with this plagiarism and what makes this a fascinating story, is that readers will wonder how she this white woman will get away with the deceit. R. F. Kuang takes us into the world of publishing that includes editing, marketing, publicity a social media. Moreover, the author raises deep questions about diversity, authenticity, racism and cultural appropriation. Knowing that Juniper Song is a liar certainly smothers any sympathy we have for the deceitful author and yet Yellowface provides a reading experience that is quite addictive as it digs deep into the psychology of a twisted creative mind. A great novel of our now times of diversity and authenticity and power
SHOUT OUT: POETRY
“Happiness and heartbreak, expressed in a stanza that takes as long to read as sipping a cup of tea or drinking a glass of water.” ~ Marilyn Lightstone, Introduction to Nocturne
“Poetry has always been there for us in times of need and in times of love… poetry has the power to comfort and speak truth to what yearns to be awakened inside.” ~ Georgia Heard and Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Introduction to A Field Guide to the Heart.)
Read any good poetry lately? KUDOS to Plumleaf Press for publishing two exquisite poetry collections. In truth, it doesn’t take much time to read a one or two page poem. Some poems we linger over. A poem can surprise us, puzzle us, connect us, awaken us, comfort us, remind us, confound us A poem can stretch the mind, massage the heart or just be.
When embarking on a poetry anthology, I tend to read the poems chronologically in the order they are presented. If truth be told, I don’t always ‘get’ the poem, but I’m not stressed out like I was when being tested by a high school teacher who had us work to unlock ‘the meaning’. I wonder and wander through the sea of words page by page. I might pause, linger, reread, or scratch my head. Whether “Huh?” or “Wow!” I know that I have had a good experience with this special art form.
A FIELD GUIDE TO THE HEART: Poems of love, comfort & hope by Georgia Heard and Rebecca Kai Dotlich (2021)
It is the time of the Pandemic and two poet friends recognized the need to write poetry to put hearts to paper for wisdom and peace. Georgia Heard and Rebecca Kai Dotlich felt a strong need to reach out to each other (and who didn’t we all have the urge to reach out and connect with others when COVID-19 struck?- to need and be needed. And so this book came to be “not a field guide to identify and name things of this universe – birds, stars, flowers – but a field guide to explore and name what we’ve lost, what we’ve found, and what fills us with love, comfort and hope.” (Georgia Heard and Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Introduction, p. 7). The poems are organized into three sections: How Fragile the Heart Is; The Morning of My Choosing, A Quivering of Wings, each section serving as a map for the time lived during and through 2020/ 2021)
Bonus: Throughout the publication, blank, faintly-lined pages appear – an invetiation for words -hoping that the poems inspire response, reflection, and creativity. I shall re-read the poems someday and take pencil in hand to write words to help find the ‘solace and joy’ that the two poets felt in creating these poems of love, comfort and hope.
Fragment: “There Will Always Be” by Rebecca Kai Dotlich (p 70)
There will always be the waves
rushing in and tumbling out;
The promise of the moon, the bronze
of the morning sun.
Sadness is forever.
But let hope be.
Poem: “An Invitation for Words by Georgia Heard (p. 84)
Treat them like a guest in your own house.
Tell them to make themselves at home.
Light a candle.
Leave the door unlocked,
the porch light on.
NOCTURNE: Poems to Linger Over selected by Marilyn Lightstonen (2023)
Marilyn Lightstone is a celebrated Canadian artist who has appeared in movies, televisions shows and on stage. She’s the signature voice of ZoomerMedia’s Vision TV and the New Classical FM, as well as Marilyn Lightstone Reads, a popular audiobook podcast. Thousands of listeners have tuned connected with Marilyn on The New Classical FM where to listen to her read poetry and listen to music This publication is inspired by favourte poems she has shared with her fans. And oh yes, Marilyn Lightstone is also a painter and each of the six sections of this anthology features one of her paintings in vibrant colour plates. Readers might recognize the names of celebrated poets (Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson, Robert Browling, A.E. Housman, Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats) but they’ll also be introduced to pieces international poets that invite readers “to reflect, and to savour these stirring words that couse us to ponder the meaning of life in so many ways,” (Charles Pachter, Foreward, p. 8). These 60+ poems (mostly one or two pages) are one’s that might recall or perhaps meetg for the first time. They are poems to linger over as you sip a cup of tea, or latte or other beverage of choice.
Fragment from “Alone” by Maya Angelou (pages 64-65)
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
SHOUT OUT! SHOUT OUT! SHOUT OUT! ***
I AM FULL: Stories for Jacob by Dan Yashinsky
Jacob Evan Yashinsky-Zavitz lived a life of courage and resilience in dealing with a genetic condition known as Prader-Willi Syndrom (PWS) which forces those with the disease to deal ewith intense hunger known as hyperphagia. But what a rich life and full life Jacob created for himself especially as a fisherman, a photographer, a jewellery maker, a poet, and a crossing-guard. A tragic death, at the age of 26, as a result of a car accident put his father, family and friends on a journey to deal with grief.
In the Prologue to the book, Dan Yashinsky writes: “I started writing this chronicle about six month’s after Jacob’s death trying to find a way to remember, to grieve, perhaps to find a shred of meaning in this unspeakable loss.” Dan Yashinsky, master professional storyteller, began gathered texts that make up this requiem. The ongoing journal that Dan kept recording his son’s adventures and misadventures, the unforgettable expressions Jacob uttered at all stages of his life, the trials and triumphs he experienced provided the a rich source for the author to pay tribute to his son by presenting narratives in Jacob’s imagined voice as his guide. The anecdotes and reflections are written in the first person. A collection of poems, speeches, letters, notes and photographs are compiled to paint a mighty portrait of this heroic hat-loving, fishing-loving, food-loving, joke-loving, family-loving human who learned to embrace his disability rather than ignore it.
At his funeral, Jacob’s brother said: “love continues to exist in the world, even though (my) little brother has gone to be with his ancestors. Somehow, love remains”.
This is a life lived with love. This is a book of LOVE. This is a book of remembrance.
It is a book written in the shadow of grief. It is funny. It is heartbreaking.It is filled with heart. And hands on heart, it is the best book that I’ve read this year.