Category Archives: Briefly Reviewed

Recommendations from My Summer Book Bingo Reading

Summer’s over in Seattle: it’s gone all cool and drizzly except sometimes, I now want to eat things with lots of cinnamon, and I turned in my Book Bingo card. I didn’t quite make it to a full Blackout this year by the Labor Day deadline, alas, but got a couple bingos in there. Here’s a rundown of what I read (typed, to save you from my squinting at my handwriting and saying “huh…?”) with quick thumbs up thumbs down recommendations.

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Last-Minute Recommendation + A Few More Old Christmas Books

First, a quick last-minute recommendation for that english major/college professor type on your list: Srikanth Reddy’s Readings in World Literature. I picked it up while attending a lecture by Reddy in Seattle (in which I learned, among other more intellectual things, that Hermann Rorschach, of the inkblots, was totally hot.)

Readings in World Literature is a fabulous chapbook of short prose pieces delving into questions of the underworld and meaning while satirizing academia with aplomb. It comes in the form of notes written by a professor teaching a course in the humanities described thusly: Continue reading

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Summer Book Bingo (Blackout!) Book Reviews

Last week I finished the last square on the Seattle Public Library’s Summer Book Bingo card and turned it in with one whole reading day to spare! A delightful summer of both more and different reading than I’d have done without that impetus.

 

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Plus! apparently I have a 1 in 197 chance at winning that prize the SPL and Seattle Arts & Lectures folks will be drawing for this Tuesday— season tickets to SAL + a library of books by the speakers. (And 218 bingos are in for the drawing for a gift certificate to a local bookstore.) It is such a delight to be living in such a book-centric city.

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Here’s a quick rundown on the books I read, rated ◊ to ◊◊◊◊◊ (more, of course, is better): Continue reading

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Briefly Reviewed: the Catch-up Edition

Briefly reviewed: City Boy by Edmund White (2009) | Almost Invisible by Mark Strand (2013) | Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger (1990) | The Fiddler in the Subway by Gene Weingarten (2010) | A Lady’s Life in the Mountains by Isabella Bird (1870s)

I’m behind on my what-I’ve-been-reading posts (moving+new job = such things!) so here’s a catch-up Briefly Reviewed, briefer than usual. This list includes two of the best-written non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and some really excellently executed prose poems.

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Briefly Reviewed: Russia, Philomena, Traitor’s Blade

Briefly Reviewed: Martin Sixsmith’s Russia and The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade.

Martin Sixsmith’s Russia: A 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East was just what I wanted it to be — a basic survey, condensed, of course, but not dumbed-down or super gappy, of 1,000 years of Russian history, emphasis on the 21st century, written in lively, easy-to-read prose with his particular point of view on things argued well enough to disagree or agree with with clarity as you’re reading. If you already know a lot about the USSR, this book will probably bore you. If you have forgotten what happened while you were alive if you’re old enough for that, or what you learned in high school European history if you’re younger, and are interested in the Cold War again because you are watching The Americans (and if you aren’t watching The Americans, you should be because it’s one of the best tv shows out there right now), it’s a good choice.

Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee (now misleadingly retitled just Philomena to match the movie) was on the other hand disappointing and unrecommendable.  Continue reading

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Minor Seventh

For this month’s music poem, a look at Jeffrey Bean’s “Minor Seventh“, which segues neatly into a review of Jeffrey Bean’s 2009 book Diminished Fifth.

Minor Seventh” is a prose poem, it’s a list, and it is built (built of various materials, built so it holds up, and built in the way you talk about someone in very good shape being built). And like all the best list poems the items in it cohere, surprise, make sense logically and make sense in the other ways amalgams make sense (the “poetry” kind of making sense).

And so too do the sounds. They cohere, surprise, make sense and make sense. Listen to how, at the beginning of “Minor Seventh,” the ks and rs and ns in ricochet, kitchen, mixolydian run together then modulate into the ns, ms and fs of Mississippi, blues, smokestacks, hymns, grief, hiss, then swing back to timber and trucks and crawling:

Foghorns, grackles, wheat fields sighing in wind. The night hawk’s ricochet. You better come on in my kitchen. Mixolydian trumpet runs boiling up the Mississippi turning into urban blues and smokestacks over Gary, Indiana. Hymns. Grief. The hiss of sprinklers in timber yards, brawl of log trucks crawling up Mt. Hood. […]

It’s hard to talk about a poem like this without devolving into analogies of music in your description, but it really does work that way, Continue reading

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Briefly Reviewed: Rin Tin Tin & Stiff & Packing for Mars

Susan Orlean’s book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend tells three stories, well four. There’s the partly heartbreaking and partly inspiring tale of Lee Duncan and the puppy he found on a French battlefield and named Rin-Tin-Tin, there’s the legend of Rin Tin Tin in all his film, television, merchandising and dog breeding iterations, and then there’s the story of the changing place of the dog in Americans’ lives in the twentieth century, in our homes, in our wars and on our screens. It’s an engrossing read, and I found the balance of informational detail to pace just right (that’s always my litmus for a good non-fiction book).

And the fourth story is the story of Susan Orlean’s quest to find those other stories. Orlean herself is definitely a figure in the writing, not only why she became interested in Rin-Tin-Tin in the first place, but stating which topics she cares about, and is therefore delving more into than others, and why. (For instance mentioning that it’s unclear in many Rin-Tin-Tin movies which dog is actually playing the part, but not getting much into what is and isn’t provable about that, because that’s not something she finds very interesting). So it’s on that level a different style than, say, Dorothy Ours’ Man O’War: Legend Like Lightning, which I also highly recommend, but which isn’t about Ours’ personal story. I like Orleans’ voice, and found the occasional personal sections worthwhile. It’s a big-hearted book, without getting treacly.


 

I’ve read two Mary Roach books now, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Voidand I highly recommend both for learning, with just the right filter of humor and empathy, about the stuff you might never have thought to ask about the human body or if you had thought to ask wouldn’t have been sure who to ask (or might not have been sure you wanted to). But I also highly recommend not reading them while you’re eating— Continue reading

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Briefly Reviewed: Satan is Real and Suzy Zeus Gets Organized

I picked up Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers by Charlie Louvin (and Benjamin Whitmer) off a random shelf because of the totally amazing cover, was intrigued by the blurbs even though I didn’t know who Charlie Louvin was, started reading and then realized I totally should have known who he was because I know his songs, which folks like Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Alison Krauss have covered (“I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” “If I Could Only Win Your Love” etc.). The Louvin Brothers’ swooping, interchanging harmony inspired the Everly Brothers and others, and they were reportedly Elvis Presley’s favorite gospel duo (and the reason why Presley, despite this, never covered them is herein explained). Continue reading

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Briefly Reviewed: Hicok, Estes, Kasischke

Brief reviews of Elegy Owed by Bob Hicok, Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke, and Tryst by Angie Estes.

Bob Hicok’s Elegy Owed

I really like Hicok’s sensibility in this new collection, the diction mix, the word play, the self-consciousness, and the honesty that holds it all together. Many of the poems have sentences that run on a long time, over many lines (or the entire poem is one sentence) and the best of them unspool through subject after subject, turning sometimes on word play, sometimes on dark humor, sometimes on metaphor, loose in the sense athletes or musicians talk about being loose when they’re at their best. Continue reading

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White / Arthur / Willis

Brief reviews of The Salt Ecstasies by James L. White (1982), Charms Against Lightning by James Arthur (2012), and Blood Sisters of the Republic by Wendy Willis (2012).

James L. White’s The Salt Ecstasies is a gorgeous book full of beautiful, difficult longing. Its artful passion is simply excellent. The poems are both explicit and humble, (“Sometimes I’m their first. / Sweet, sweet men. / I light candles, burn the best incense. / Make them think it’s some kind of temple / and it rather is.”) and the general passion and exquisite human feeling speaks through them all (“In this joyous season I know my heart won’t die / as you and the milk pods open their centers / like a first snow in its perfection of light. // Good love is like this. / Even the smell of baked bread won’t make it better, / this being out of myself for a while.”).  Continue reading

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