Maryfrances Wagner is a poet and co-editor of The I-70 Review. She’s also taught creative and academic writing at every level from Poets in the Schools programs to graduate classes. Also, she served as co-editor with her husband Greg Field of New Letters Review of Books and as co-president of The Writers Place in Kansas City where she remains active with programming and sponsors many readings for local and national writers. She has written five books of poetry and edited three. Her poetry books include Salvatore’s Daughter (BkMk), Red Silk (MidAm), and Light Subtracts Itself (MidAm). Red Silk won the Thorpe Menn Book Award. Her poems have appeared in many literary magazines, anthologies, and textbooks including Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (Penguin Books) and The Dream Book, An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women (winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation). She lives in Kansas City with her husband, two dogs: Emily Dickinson Dog and Pablo Neruda Dog Boy, and thousands of books.
Books surround me. They hang out in stacks all over my desk. They hover in the hearth room where a ceiling to floor whole wall of books faces me every day. Bookcases occupy every room except the bathroom, where I have a basket of books and lit mags. Even the hallway is lined with bookcases. So many books and never enough time. I’m always reading several at the same time: poetry, fiction, history, science, creative essays, etc. Beside my bed is an end table stacked with six or seven books, a small filled bookcase with books stacked on top of books, and a floor stack that stands about five feet tall. Some are new, some have been waiting for years, and some are old standbys. I am a book junkie.
Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean has been an informative and entertaining read. It’s surprising that a writer can make chemistry and the periodic table so interesting, but Kean offers tidbits of funny and chilling stories of risk, competition, and sacrifice, some about famous people (Curie, Ghandi, Fermi) and some about the oddities of how the elements were discovered or named.
Salt by Mark Kurlansky is another fascinating nonfiction book. In tracing the history of salt, Kurlansky also somewhat traces civilization, all the way to the covenant of salt with David. I find myself underlining a lot through this book but never knew how important salt has been and still is in terms of power, trade, travel, and life.
The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible by Jonathan Kirsch offers insight on the treatment of women in the Bible. Lot and his daughters and the rapes of Dinah and Tamar are a few of the stories told, providing details about incidents only tangential or unexplained in the Bible that involve sex, violence, incest, and shockingly cruel treatment of women without consequence. Today, most of the perpetrators would be guilty of serious crimes.
Poetry remains a big part of what I read since I am a poet. Right now it’s Fire to Fire by Mark Doty (a new and selected collection) and Vinculum by Alice Friman, but a whole stack of poetry books are lined up to go next from Lao-Tzu’s Tao te Ching translated by Red Pine to a stack of local writers.
I’ve also set Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being back on the stack for a re-read. All of her nonfiction books are worth more than one reading, with Teaching A Stone to Talk being my favorite.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is a stunning work of complexity, philosophy, and imagination. Sometimes funny, sometimes prophetic, sometimes totally bizarre, it’s somewhat of a detective story, a surreal exploration of a failed marriage, and a strange cast of characters. What seems to be a collection of separate incidents and sub-stories ultimately becomes part of an interwoven whole that is a marvel of writing. One story interconnects with another, and the whole story gets wider and deeper. This is a book that entertains as you read, but when you finish, you sit back in awe of the accomplishment.
The highlight of the year is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, a book I kept putting aside because it was so depraved and violent. It is a phenomenal study of the dark side of human nature. The Judge, a major character, parallels and sometimes outdoes the evil of Iago. He is a fascinating embodiment of the devil and his knowledge of humankind. The book has no protagonist; all characters have shed blood and taken life, and much of the book is based upon true facts about men hired by the government to scalp Indians and kill buffalo. It’s a strong take on what violence and blood can do to a human being. The book’s messages linger.
This week I started The Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. It’s been on my list to read for a while since it’s on so many “best” lists, but it’s too early to tell what I think other than to say I like the style.
How do you organize the books by your bed? Are you systematic, determinedly whimsical, something in between?