Once, a friend and I sat on a long and deserted stretch of sand. This was on the Forgotten Coast of Florida, and it was late, and the sky twinkled overhead. My friend gasped and pointed at a shooting star.
Oh my God, she whispered. I’ve never seen one before.
I, who had seen many, stayed silent in the face of her enchantment. Another star melted down the sky, and another. My friend was speechless now, and so was I. Her wonder made shooting stars new for me again.
Pigeons, by Danusha Laméris
Because they crowd the corner of every city street, because they are the color of sullied steel, because they scavenge, eating every last crust, we do not favor them.
They raise their young huddled under awnings above the liquor store
circle our feet, pecking at crumbs pace the sidewalk with that familiar strut.
None will ever attain greatness. Though every once in a while in a tourist’s blurry snapshot of a grand cathedral
they rise into the pale gray sky all at once.
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Ohhhhh I am so behind with my 2020 mini-book reviews. My lofty goal of a round-up review each month entirely fell by the wayside, along with so much else in this overwhelming year. Let me partially remedy that right this minute with mini-book reviews of books I read in the last few months, written on the spot just now.
Note that I only review books I loved or that, even if I didn’t love them, have stayed with me in inexplicable ways that somehow merit attention. Note also that all these books were ordered and bought from indie bookstores, the beautiful lifeblood of readers and publishers. Please support your independent bookstores. You can find yours right here at this handy-dandy link: https://www.indiebound.org/
Bonfire Opera, by Danusha Lameris. Oh, I love this woman’s poems. The first time I read Small Kindnesses, I wrote it out by hand and then copied it into my Favorite Poems files. And then scurried over to Magers and Quinn to pre-order Bonfire Opera, the book from whence it came. Lameris writes of ordinary life the way our greatest writers do, the way that allows us to see that no life is ordinary, that our every smallest action ripples out. A beautiful, beautiful book.
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson. I’m late to the party with this lovely book, a memoir in verse-like prose written for middle grades readers but which really, like all great books ostensibly for children, is written for everyone. Woodson writes about her life, from birth through middle school, dipping down into small details the way a hummingbird alights on the sweetest flowers. Each chapter is so brief, so full of love and wonder and subtle commentary on life as a brown girl in the 60s and 70s, and every few chapters is one consisting solely of a haiku that somehow punctuates and coheres the entirety. Such a beautiful book.
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett. This woman is such a good writer. I loved her first novel, The Mothers, and this one is equally absorbing. Identical twins Stella and Desiree, born in the 60s into an almost-mythical small town populated entirely by light-skinned Black citizens, leave home at age sixteen to make their way in the wider world. Stella chooses to “pass” as white, a decision that haunts every aspect of her life thereafter, while Desiree gives birth to a daughter as “black as tar.” Bennett infuses her fictional people with such specificity that their pain, joy, and unbreakable sisterly bonds reveal the intricacies of our nation’s historical racism and sexism while pulling the reader so deeply into their personal life struggles that they will be with me forever.
Italian Shoes, by Henning Mankell. This is my first dip into the vast array of books by renowned Swedish writer Mankell (the man who writes the Kurt Wallander detective series), It’s an intensely serious, quiet novel narrated by a former doctor who, after a tragic surgical mistake, chooses to isolate himself on the island his grandparents left to him, where he is the sole inhabitant. He cuts a hole in the ice of the bay every morning and plunges in – the only time he feels truly alive. Over the course of the novel he encounters, for the first time in decades, a past love who comes in search of him, sparking a small but profound reconnection with the wider world. While I did not love, or even particularly like, the narrator of this book, I remain both haunted and heartened by his inherent sadness and gradual, slow, opening back up to his fellow humans.
Watch Over Me, by Nina LaCour. I loved Nina’s novel We Are Okay and I loved this one too, for the same reasons – her uncanny way with the small, perfect detail that bring both setting and people to life. LaCour writes of the Bay area the way that only an observer with a poet’s eye can, so that the landscape becomes as much a character as the people. Set on a farm for foster-to-adopt children, Watch Over Me follows teenager Mila as she gradually, painfully begins to place pattern to the trauma of her past. LaCour’s descriptions of The Farm are like a dream, the kind of farm where everyone is loved and cared for, where there’s always plenty to eat, plenty of blankets, flowers everywhere, warmth when you need it, solitude when you need it, and, I imagine board games everywhere. The foster parents surround their traumatized charges with the kind of love and support that would heal the entire world should we all be so lucky to experience it. A lovely novel, full of hard-earned hope.
Now We Will Speak in Flowers, by Micki Blenkush. I read this slender book of poetry in one sitting, and felt as if I’d been given a glimpse into the poet’s entire life. Set in northern Minnesota and dipping down into childhood, young adulthood, middle age, town and country and church and work, this is a work set firmly in place and time. The poet’s perspective, wise from experience and innate understanding of how the small and subtle inform the wider world, is captivating in a quiet, gentle way. Lovely.
Open City, by Teju Cole. Set entirely in New York City and almost exclusively in Manhattan, this slender novel follows its main character, a young Nigerian scholar, as he walks about the city. As I read, I kept having to remind myself that it was a novel and not a memoir, so intimate and quiet is the voice of the narrator. As a lifelong walker who soaks up the world through the soles of my feet while silently thinking and observing, the book felt deeply familiar both in its perspective and its essential loneliness. Toward the end, a small scene in a tailor’s shop shocked me. I did not love the main character but I will be thinking about him, and what he has to say about the world we all live in, for a long, long time.
What Narcissism Means to Me, by Tony Hoagland. How I love this man’s poems, and how I wept and wept when he died, too young, of cancer. There are few poets whose poems I almost universally love and treasure; Hoagland is one of them. This book was published in 2003 but no matter, any Hoagland poem lives in its own time and place that transcend the current time and place of the world. Hoagland aches for the world, and life, and his place in it, the same way my own heart does. Go forth and read him.
When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite books of all time. So far, he has not written a book I haven’t loved, although there are several I haven’t yet read. It takes me a while to work up to an Ishiguro novel because I know that a few chapters in, he will have inexorably taken hold of me and pulled me into whatever world he’s created. This one is no exception. Set in London and (mostly) Shanghai in the 1940s, this novel follows Banks, a celebrated London detective, as he attempts to discover why he was orphaned at age nine. Nothing is as it seems in When We Were Orphans, and every small revelation leads the reader further down a path of no return. Quintessential Ishiguro in his understanding of loneliness, longing, and transcendent love.
Everything physical, everything specific: the sharp scent of the woods that night in the Adirondacks when the rain drummed down on the canvas tent. The cold clear water that dazzled your body when you plummeted from the rope swing. The softness of the loam under your boots that cold dawn hike in Vermont.
How free it feels to dance alone late at night in your dark living room. How his hand over yours felt that day on the train when you were too full of feelings to talk. How rough and full of sun the cotton sheets dried outside feel when you slide between them.
Sometimes you imagine the moment you’ll leave this physical world, and in those moments it’s these sensations that wash over you. You think, this is what I’ll miss most. Being alive in a wild animal body in a wild animal world.
Bird, by Danusha Lameris
We were sitting on the couch in the dark
talking about first pets, when I told him how,
as a girl, I kept a blue and white parakeet I let
fly around the house and, sometimes, outside,
where he’d land on the branches of pine
and eucalyptus, balancing between seedpods
and spines. Only, while I was telling it,
my companion began to stroke, very lightly,
the indent of my palm, the way you do when you’re
sitting in the dark with someone you’ve never kissed
but have thought about kissing. And I told him
how my bird would sit on a high branch and sing,
loudly, at the wonder of it—the whole, green world—
while he traced the inside of my arm with his fingers,
opening another world of greenery and vines,
twisting toward the sun. I loved that bird for his singing,
and also for the way his small body, lifted skyward,
made my life larger. And then it was lip-to-lip,
a bramble, and it was hard to say who was who—
thumb to cheek to chest. The whole ravening.
When I told him I did not clip my bird’s wings,
I was talking about hunger. When he pressed me
hard against the back of the couch, named a litany
of things he’d do to me, I wanted them all.
I, too, have loved to live in a body. To feel the way
it lifts up the octaves of sky, cells spiraling
through smoke and mist, cumulus and stratus,
into that wild blue. And though I knew
there was always a hawk somewhere in the shadows
ready to snatch his heart in its claws, still,
I couldn’t help letting that parakeet free.
At a wedding last weekend I sat near a curvy, beautiful woman with a deep voice who radiated a wild and warm confidence. She was free with opinions and didn’t care what others thought; an artist expressed admiration for a specific modern museum and she laughed outright.
She moves through the world in a way I don’t. My voice doesn’t project; I need a mic when giving a talk. A friend once described my narrow body, turned sideways, as like a piece of paper he could slip into his bookshelf. The wedding woman claims space in the world with her solid belief in herself. I claim space in the world by distilling it into stories made of all the ways it overwhelms me. Nonetheless we are alike, both of us caught inside the cathedral, singing inside the song.
Bonfire Opera, by Danusha Lameris In those days, there was a woman in our circle who was known, not only for her beauty, but for taking off all her clothes and singing opera. And sure enough, as the night wore on and the stars emerged to stare at their reflections on the sea, and everyone had drunk a little wine, she began to disrobe, loose her great bosom, and the tender belly, pale in the moonlight, the Viking hips, and to let her torn raiment fall to the sand as we looked up from the flames. And then a voice lifted into the dark, high and clear as a flock of blackbirds. And everything was very still, the way the congregation quiets when the priest prays over the incense, and the smoke wafts up into the rafters. I wanted to be that free inside the body, the doors of pleasure opening, one after the next, an arpeggio climbing the ladder of sky. And all the while she was singing and wading into the water until it rose up to her waist and then lapped at the underside of her breasts, and the aria drifted over us, her soprano spare and sharp in the night air. And even though I was young, somehow, in that moment, I heard it, the song inside the song, and I knew then that this was not the hymn of promise but the body’s bright wailing against its limits. A bird caught in a cathedral—the way it tries to escape by throwing itself, again and again, against the stained glass.
Hundreds of miles into a long drive after a sleepless night, I pulled over to get a cup of coffee at a convenience store with exhaustingly computerized coffee machines. A leathery man watching me try to program a cup of half-decaf laughed, then showed me how to do it.
Pretty good for a guy who doesn’t own a computer, a cell phone, or a credit card, right? he said. We stood talking about how the internet has changed everything. Like this right here, he said, this conversation. Everyone walks along staring down at their phones. Can’t we talk with each other anymore?
I’ll never see that man again. I don’t know how he voted in the last election or how he will vote next year. When I drove away I thought of this poem.
Small Kindnesses, by Danusha Lameris
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”