Category Archives: Review

Dear Genius – Ursula Nordstrom

Thanks to Phinney Books’ newsletter recommendation, I picked up Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (ed. Leonard S. Marcus), which is one of the most delightful books I’ve read in a while. As Phinney Books put it, Nordstrom in these letters is “a hoot”. She’s tart, warm, witty, supremely intelligent, and as the introduction puts it, these letters create “an artfully drawn, unfailingly vivid character named Ursula Nordstrom, a literary persona by turns leonine and Chaplinesque, cocksure and beguilingly off-balance.”

She seems like someone whose letters I’d like if they were all just about New York City weather and disliking Nixon, but Nordstrom was writing to and about the children’s book authors she published as director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940-1973 — names like Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, John Steptoe, Margaret Wise Brown, Kay Thompson, and books like Charlotte’s Web, Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, Harriet the Spy, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Bedtime for Frances, The Giving Tree…the list of phenomenal classic books she brought to us all goes on and on. Continue reading

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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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Not Knowing vs Knowing

I picked up the novel The Martian by Andy Weir at our first Independent Bookstore Day stop, and the sum total of what I knew about it before buying it was:

  • The cover is orange.
  • I’ve seen people really engrossed in it on the bus.
  • I’ve seen it on several bookstores’ Staff Recommends shelves.
  • It has something to do with an astronaut left behind on Mars.
  • The first chapter begins:


I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.


And then I spent a whole Saturday (that I hadn’t intended to spend reading) not being able to put it down. Could NOT put it down. Had other things to do. Should have been doing them. Didn’t. Couldn’t put it down.

Continue reading

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Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window

My review of Jeffrey Bean’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is up at Smartish Pace, check it out. (Spoiler: I think it’s great.)





I previously wrote about Bean’s poem “Minor Seventh” for June’s music poems post.


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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A.E. Stallings’ Olives

A.E. Stallings writes lovely poems. Lovely poems that are also of the gritty real, but they look at the world through clear, feeling but not crying, eyes. A classicist by training, she works in rhyme-and-meter forms (with the sort of deft touch that kind of makes all this free verse emphasis feel silly), and she’s won a number of awards, including a MacArthur “Genius” grant. Her poems tend to balance as equally well the demands of emotion and intellect as they do form and content.

Olives, published in 2012, has poems about ancient Greece, poems about daily life, poems about motherhood and children, poems about arguments and olives and telephones. When one, as one does, starts to talk about “the state of contemporary poetry,” her books should be part of the argument for a strong state of contemporary poetry, full as they are of both fine craft and thought.

Her poems are also often funny (it’s really tempting here to make some sort of joke about an archaic smile, but I won’t). The first section of “Four Fibs” (the form of which uses the Fibonacci sequence to determine the number of syllables per line) for instance, goes, Continue reading


Warhorses and The Porcine Canticles, Briefly Reviewed

Warhorses by Yusef Komunyakaa and The Porcine Canticles by David Lee

Warhorses by Yusef Komunyakaa (2008)

Yusef Komunyakaa is, as previously mentioned, one of my all-time favorite poets. He’s a very deft writer, who can amaze, and blaze images and words into your head. Or sometimes he can be just deft. This isn’t my favorite of Komunyakaa’s work, but it’s not like he’s become a terrible writer here. It is and isn’t a criticism of Warhorses to say that it’s a collection that does something together (it’s a lyric meditation on war (so of course love too), touching on conflicts historic through present-day (it was published in 2008)), but it’s not a collection of individually great poems. (The third section is the exception — “Autobiography of my Alter Ego,” Continue reading

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