Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

book review: m train

May 12, 2018 Leave a comment


I read Patti Smith’s “M Train” after it was mentioned approvingly by my friend Irene, but I knew basically nothing about it before I started. As I read it, I never knew what was coming next, other than each chapter made the ones before it even deeper and more meaningful. Even the cover image took on multiple meanings from the first chapter to the last.

“M Train” is a very thoughtful and moving series of sketches on memory, travel (physical and mental), coffee, people, culture, reading, writing, photography, dreams, and time. The primary timeframe covers roughly two years, before and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but this is a memoir told in non-linear threads and retrospective fragments, almost “unstuck in time”, tied by themes that are sometimes only clear in retrospect. In space, it journeys through Pennsylvania, Detroit, Tokyo, Surinam and French Guiana, Paris, Tangier, Spain, Mexico, Berlin, Iceland, and London.

It also provided me a reading list, from the many authors she mentions who are important to her: Isabelle Eberhardt, Mohammed Mrabet, Jean Genet, Max Sebald, Dinah Mulock, Haruki Murakami, Anna Kavan, Paul Bowles, just to start.

This is the first book that ever made me read each chapter at least twice, and go back to reread from the start every few chapters. It is so well-written — sometimes melancholy, often humorous, always well observed, self-aware, and honest — and full of meaning and interlocking thematic callbacks, I wanted to stay immersed in her words at every step. And even then, at the very end the smallest revelation made me reassess the opening pages, and eagerly reread the whole book again with an even deeper level of understanding.

To my mind, the unspoken but ever-present core of the memoir is loss — what you lose and what you retain after loss. For Patti Smith, her many losses include a black coat, a child’s toy, a spouse, a favorite book, a literary hero, parents, a coffee shop, a house, an envelope of treasured photographs, a beloved brother, a “regular” table, a neighborhood, a rare opportunity, a tree, a boat, and a camera.

But loss is not an end. Loss is not all there is to life, but life will always include loss, so we need to learn how to lose. Not with denial, not with avoidance, nor despair. As Smith recalls all she’s loved and lost, she makes connections, appreciates the experiences, mourns deeply, cherishes memories and keepsakes, and begins to build the future after loss. Continue to “do” and make and create and live, even knowing that loss will follow.

Describing Haruki Murakami’s book “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles”, Patti Smith says it is the kind of masterpiece

“where the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry. Devastating books. I finished it and was immediately obliged to reread it. I did not wish to exit its atmosphere.”

That’s how I feel about M Train.

M Train, by Patti Smith. Published by Alfred A. Knopf (2015).

mary poppins – a modern mythology

May 8, 2018 Leave a comment

marypoppins1 marypoppins2
Nancy and I recently re-watched the 1964 Disney “Mary Poppins” movie, which we love (though it does get a little hyperactively frenetic at times). The disc included a trailer for the  2013 movie “Saving Mr. Banks” (also good!), which loosely tells the story of the adaptation of P.L. Travers’ original books into the Disney movie. Together, they got me interested in reading the original source books.

I do like the Disney movie, with its message of parental priorities, its memorable music, and its magical fun. It is (not surprisingly) straightforward and relatively light — or let’s say, not very complex. But the original books are more ambiguous and mysterious, showing glimpses of a deeper world hidden from normal adults.

J.R.R. Tolkien has said that he was looking for an English mythology in building Middle-Earth, since England did not have a “native” mythology of its own, like the Norse gods for example. I think that in writing Mary Poppins, P.L Travers has provided another proposal for an English mythology. Mary Poppins can easily be seen as a Nature Spirit, the Trickster, benevolent but with shades of gray (and sometimes even dark). In the chapter “Miss Andrew’s Lark”, Mary does a Trick worthy of Coyote or Raven, with a keen sense of poetic justice. In the London Zoo, Mary’s birthday is the Birthday, and according to the Brown Bear, the Hamadryad, King of the Animals, is Mary’s “cousin once removed on the mother’s side.” We also meet strange characters like Nellie-Rubina and Uncle Dodger, the Dancing Cow, Robertson Ay and The Dirty Rascal, Mrs. Corry and her daughters, pasting stars to the sky at the top of a ladder. When Mary tells a fairy tale to the children, we’re not sure if it’s a children’s tale, or family history!

When reading this bit from the chapter “The Day Out”, keep in mind that Tolkien, who was writing The Hobbit in the same era, used “Fairyland” to refer to the magical world:

When she came back from her Day Out, Jane and Michael came running to meet her. “Where have you been?” they asked her.
“In Fairyland,” said Mary Poppins.
“Did you see Cinderella?” said Jane.
“Huh, Cinderella? Not me,” said Mary Poppins, contemptuously. “Cinderella, indeed!”
“Then how could you have been there? It couldn’t have been our Fairyland!”
Mary Poppins gave a superior sniff. “Don’t you know,” she said pityingly, “that everybody’s got a Fairyland of their own?” And with another sniff she went upstairs to take off her white gloves and put the umbrella away.

The Starling calls Mary Poppins “the Great Exception”, and says “she’s Different, she’s the Oddity, she’s the Misfit.” For P.L. Travers, Fairyland is all around us, always available, but we’ve all (except for Mary Poppins) forgotten how to see and hear it. That’s especially true in my favorite chapters, the touching “John and Barbara’s Story”, and the nearly heartbreaking “The New One”.

Even apart from mythological aspects, I also like these books for their honesty about childhood; for example in the chapter “Bad Tuesday”, sometimes you do just get up from “the wrong side of the bed”, or in “Bad Wednesday”, some days you really just don’t want to be the responsible one — and honesty about adults; Mary Poppins is not snuggly and cuddly, she is vain and can be dismissive and judgmental. But all these qualities of real people are visible to real children anyway, so why not show them in books together with the magic of Fairyland?

Mary Poppins (1934) and Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), by P.L. Travers

(ps: it’s probably best to get one of the 1981 or later editions of Mary Poppins, where P.L. Travers laudably goes back to replace some unfortunate ethnic stereotypes in the original “Bad Tuesday”.)

book review: 20/30

April 30, 2018 Leave a comment


I love this book. The author has given us a first collection of short poems with a lovely mix of vulnerability and awareness of the world (both internal and external). They show one person’s search for meaning, not telling us some “final” answers. Much like haiku, these poems invite us to spend time thinking with compassion (and occasional humor) about the larger unseen world around each one.

A few examples of the attentive imagery:

suddenly spring
and the trees are late to the game


we are made of stars
but mine are dim
and on this still night
the fog casts shadows


it’s all one big stand-up routine
and some nights you’re on top of the world
catching laughs one after another.

but other nights you stumble over the delivery
and the crowd is thin
and the heater’s broken
and suddenly the room is full of frozen people
dying for a laugh

Here’s the author’s own description:

20/30 is the first fruit a year-long effort to write one poem per day. Here, the poet has compiled twenty-two short free verse poems, most of which were written between December 2017 and April 2018. These selected poems are an intimate scope of the poet’s most vulnerable moments. May this ragtag collection of words mean something or nothing to you.

As of this writing, the book is available on Amazon in paperback or for Kindle.

20/30, by h. sealock, Independently published (2018).

book review: time travel in the poems of brenda shaughnessy

March 25, 2018 Leave a comment

There’s a lot that could be said about the wonderful poetry of Brenda Shaughnessy (and many have), but one aspect that stood out to me on reading three of her books is the theme of “time travel”. Not in the science-fiction sense, but the looking back over time and the conversation between generations.

I noticed this first in her 1999 book, Interior with Sudden Joy, in the intelligence and wit of the poem “You’re Not Home, It’s Probably Better”, of finally having the right thing to say, or rather, having now become the person with the right thing to say. Here’s part of it:

I am calling to wish you well. I am calling because I want to
change something I said. A year ago you asked me three questions.
I thought you were asking my birthday wishes and answered all
wrong. If you remember (if I know you you’ll pretend you don’t)
I answered:

. . .

It’s my birthday again and because I am cleverer now I can answer
you with more nerve.

(The full poem is worth reading, to see the now and before answers. The questions themselves are left for the reader to imagine.)

The theme is there again, more broadly, in her 2012 book, Our Andromeda, published when she was 42, writing to her past selves in the series of four poems “To my 23 / 24 / 25 / 38 Year Old Self”, writing not to avoid past mistakes or change things, but with compassion to share that there’s someone who does actually understand what it was like. It’s also there in the conversation between generations in the poem “Magi”. Here’s part:

If only you’d been a better mother.

How could I have been a better mother?
I would have needed a better self,
and that was a gift I never received.

So you’re saying it’s someone else’s fault?

The gift of having had a better mother myself,
my own mother having had a better mother herself.
The gift that keeps on not being given.

. . .

Well, how am I supposed to live?

I suppose you must live as if you had been
given better to begin with. Comb your hair, for instance.

And the theme becomes explicit in her 2016 book, Too Much Synth, in the very first poem, “I have a time machine”:

But unfortunately it can only travel into the future
on a rate of one second per second,
which seems slow to the physicists and to the grant
committees and even to me.
But I manage to get there, time after time, to the
next moment and to the next.
Thing is, I can’t turn it off. I keeping zipping ahead –
well, not zipping – And if I try
to get out of this time machine, open the latch,
I’ll fall off into space, unconscious,
then dessicated! And I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of that.
So I stay inside.
. . .
I thought I’d find myself
an old woman by now, traveling so light in time.
But I haven’t gotten far at all.
Strange not to be able to pick up the pace as I’d like;
the past is so terribly fast.

This poem is a great introduction to a book that’s a retrospective on adolescence. I take many of Brenda Shaughnessy’s poems as speaking to, about, and between women and their experiences, and it’s a privilege to listen in and learn.

And along with all that, and apart from the time travel, there’s simply a lot of delightful wordplay and humor, for example, as in “Streetlamps”:

The unplowed road is unusable
unless there’s no snow.
But in dry, warm weather,
it’s never called an unplowed road.
To call it so, when it isn’t so,
doesn’t make it so, though it is so
when it snows and there’s no plow.
It’s a no-go. Let’s stay inside.


Interior with Sudden Joy, published by Farrar Straus Giroux (1999)

Our Andromeda, published by Copper Canyon Press (2012)

So much Synth, published by Copper Canyon Press (2016)

but who’s counting?

March 8, 2018 Leave a comment

For much of my life, my reading interests largely were science fiction, fantasy, science non-fiction, and history. Over time I branched out, adding philosophy, eastern and western poetry, and various of the classics of western literature. I never really paid attention much to who the authors were, or their gender, or so I imagined. Several years ago though, early in the second Obama term I think, after coming across by chance books by women authors that struck me with their unique perspectives on things I thought I already knew:

it (finally!) became clear to me that I had to actively seek out a wider diversity of authors, especially women authors.

Looking back now at my reading history in Goodreads, it confirms that from about 600 books read in total, there are 442 books by 260 male authors, and only 160 books by 90 female authors. That’s a good motivator to continue seeking out different voices in reading! Zooming in to just this last year, I’ve read 16 books by women and 15 by men, so at least the trend is in a good direction.

Women authors whose books I’ve liked most over the last few years:

Emily Wilson, Simone de Beauvoir, Jane Smiley, Margaret Atwood, Brenda Shaughnessy, Charlotte Bronte, Ursula LeGuin, Kathleen Moore, Rebecca Goldstein, Jane Austen, Carrie Fisher, Adrienne Rich, Hope Jahren, Mary Oliver, Erica Dunbar, Hilary Clinton, Bell Hooks, Octavia Butler, Elizabeth Gilbert, Phyllis Rose, Edith Wharton, Ann Patchett, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Toni Morrison, Anne Lamott, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, H.D., Cheryl Strayed, Roz Chast, Kate Beaton, Lydia Davis, J.K. Rowling, Sharon Creech, Louisa Alcott, Hannah Crafts, Denise Kiernan, Margaret Chula, Edith Shiffert, Rachel Swarns, Saima Wahab, Carol Tavris, and Eileen O’Keeffe McVicker.