By Eric Olsen (with Dick Cummins, Dan Guenther, and Don Wallace)
This is the first in a five-part series.
Just before the holidays, I was swept into a maelstrom of e-mails among three fellow Iowa Writers’ Workshop grads, Dick Cummins, Dan Guenther, and Don Wallace. The topic of the exchanges ranged widely, but then on New Year’s Day, between the Outback Bowl, when the University of Iowa got whupped bad by LSU, and the Rose Bowl, when Stanford got whupped bad by Michigan State, the discussion turned to Beryl Markham’s West With the Night.
Dan, turns out, had been reading a copy of Best of Books by the Bed #1, released in early December (BrightCity Books, 2013), and came across a contribution by Dick, who mentions Markham’s work. Markham grew up in Kenya, and became an adventurer and a bush pilot. She was the first woman to fly solo from Europe to North America (in 1936), and West With the Night (reissued in 2013 by North Point Press with a new intro by Sarah Wheeler) is an account of her many adventures. The book was first released in the 1940s. Hemingway, who met Markham in Africa during his safari days, dubbed the book “bloody wonderful.”
Dick’s a big fan of books about flying, has logged more than 600 hours himself at the tillers of various small planes, and has the honor of dead-sticking one of them into a Midwestern cornfield a few years ago after the engine blew up. And Markham was one of his faves, and no matter that there’s more than a little conjecture that Markham didn’t actually write the book for which she became famous. Who did? Some figure it was Markham’s third husband, Raoul Schumacher, a Hollywood ghostwriter. In his contribution to Best of Books by the Bed, Dick had written, “Hemingway said of Markham, she ‘can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers . . .’ and he was right, about Schumacher anyway….”
“Dick,” Dan shot back in an email, “that’s not nice. But unfortunately it is probably true as I have heard that or read that somewhere more than once.”
Dan then went on to say that West With the Night is also one of his top three books of all time, no matter who wrote it, along with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes.
Which got Dan thinking about the best books he’d read in the past year. Which got all of us trying to recall our favorite reads of the same period. I always like to know what others are reading. I love recommendations. And I thought you might as well. So here, for starters, is Dan’s list of his favorite relatively recent reads. Coming up in my next posts: Dick’s, Don’s, and mine. And then another from Dick.
Dan Guenther is the author of four novels, most recently Glossy Black Cockatoos, the 2010 Colorado Authors’ League award selection for genre fiction. His collection of selected poems, The Crooked Truth, is the 2011 Colorado Authors’ League poetry award winner.
Dan’s top three books of poetry, read in the past year:
The Best 100 Poems of Les Murray (ReadWhatYouWant, 2013). For those unfamiliar with the work of Les Murray, AO, I recommend this book as an introduction to his poetry. The 100 poems span four decades. My favorite poems were “The Fisherman at South Head” and “The Hanging Gardens,” because I once spent some time at South Head. This is a fine collection of accessible poetry by Australia’s foremost poet.
Progress on the Subject of Immensity by Leslie Ullman (University of New Mexico Press, 2013). On October 5, 2013, at the Book Bar in Denver, Colorado, I had the good fortune to hear the poet, Leslie Ullman, read from this new book. Hearing many of these excellent poems read, and then later, in the quiet of evening, reflecting on their quality, I bought several copies of this book as gifts. Having lived in the Rocky Mountain region for 30-plus years, I found the poems from her New Mexico experiences, with their echoes of Taos and the limitless high desert sky, especially good. These are elegant poems. Readers will find her poetry mindful, accessible, and accomplished. This book should be nominated for the National Book Award.
Stagnant Water and Other Poems by Wen Yiduo, translated by Robert Hammond Dorsett (BrightCity Books, 2014). My favorite poem in this book is “The Conflict,” followed by “Impressions of an Early Summer Night” (May, 1922 the time of the warlords). But those choices were hard ones to make. Readers interested in Chinese poetry should consider adding this book to their permanent library. By way of background, Wen Yiduo was a poet, scholar, and political activist who was killed on June 6,1946. He was active in the political and aesthetic debates of the time, and was one of the leaders of a movement to reform the classical style of Chinese poetry, innovating, and using common speech and direct observation.
Dan’s top three in fiction for the year:
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant (Random House Trade Paperback, 2004). This historical novel was loaned to me by a friend. After reading it I bought three copies to give to each of our daughters. The novel is set in Florence during the Renaissance. A young woman is married off to an older man. It is the time of the Medicis and Savonarola and the plot twists are masterful. The language is evocative and powerful, and some of the scenes will bring tears to your eyes.
Lost Voices by Christopher Koch (HarperCollins, 2012). I bought this novel in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, in November, 2012. My wife and I were traveling with our oldest daughter back to the place of her birth. I stuck the book in my backpack and forgot about it until early 2013. Once I picked it up I read the 465 pages in two days. A month later I read it again, slowly. While this novel is unlike The Year Of Living Dangerously, also by the author, which is one of my favorite books of all time, I would place Lost Voices in my Top 20. There are two plots woven together in this tale set in Tasmania. Christopher Koch, AO, is considered by many to be one of Australia’s greatest writers. Koch passed away in 2013.
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin, 2013). I am still reading this 477-page novel, which I started Christmas Day, having received it as a gift. This book is techno-modern stuff, to borrow the jargon, but compelling reading. The heroine runs a fraud investigation business on the Upper West Side, chasing down small-time con artists. She soon finds herself mixed up with a drug runner as well as the Russian Mob. I think I’m going to keep this one.
Real Sofistikation: Essays on Poetry and Craft by Tony Hoagland (Graywolf Press, 2006). This book is simply the best book on matters of poetic craft that I have ever read, a must-have for any serious reader/writer of poetry and a wonderful tool for educators.
The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry by Adam Kirsch (W.W. Norton, 2008). A book recommended by a fellow poet. The witty Adam Kirsch is a senior editor for New Republic. He is also an incisive critic and fine poet. His essays are “spot on” as they say Down Under. This book is like a drug I’ve become addicted to. And he will have you laughing.
The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl (Harvard University Press, 2011). This book was sent to me by a friend in the publishing business, and was recently reviewed in The New York Review of Books.
Author Mark McGurl uses a lot of literary jargon in this book, and while I found the program era parts of the book boring, his model of the development of post-WWII American fiction is interesting. Some will like it. Some will hate it. Educators may find it useful. However, there are pseudo-psychological elements that run through this work that many will question. One would have to read McGurl’s work and judge for themselves the extent to which his categories present an accurate picture. No doubt Mark McGurl is an original thinker.
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, the diary of Dang Thuy Tram, translated by Andrew X. Pham (Broadway Books, 2008). This book was sent to me by my Aussie friend, Joe Dolce, poet and songwriter, while he was in Hanoi working with a development group created by his wife, the Australian novelist and singer, Lyn Van Hek. They both found the book powerful, the diary of a doctor in the then North Vietnamese Army (NVA) who served in the remote mountain jungles of western I Corps during the Vietnam War. The book ends with her death in June, 1970. I suspect she and I walked some of the same trails. This is another book that brought tears to my eyes.
Next week, Dick Cummins’ favorite recent reads.
What are yours?