Valerie Nieman’s poems have appeared widely and been collected in two chapbooks, her debut collection, Wake Wake Wake, and the new Hotel Worthy. She has held writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council. Her books of prose include three novels, with the most recent, Blood Clay, being honored with the Eric Hoffer Award. She is a graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte. A professor of creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University, she teaches at John Campbell Folk School and other venues, and serves as poetry editor for Prime Number Magazine. You may encounter her on a train, or solo hiking, or over a cup of lemon-ginger tea at a local bookstore. Find out more about her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.
All the Names by José Saramago —
This book just left the bedside table (of which I am very fond, as I built it myself at John C. Campbell Folk School).
It’s my second venture into his wonderful parables that take place in the hearts of civil servants and lonely people who live on the fringe of their societies. I had read Death With Interruptions and was enchanted. In that novel, death decrees that no more people will die in this unnamed country, unleashing a cascade of events as people try to cope – until death takes human form and a new approach.
In All the Names, a low-level bureaucrat in the Central Registry of an unidentified city spends his days filling out birth and death forms with an antique pen and inkwell. In the evenings, in his poor little home attached to the side of the registry building, he obsesses over the lives of the famous and infamous in his country. But when he inadvertently collects the records of a young woman, his focus shifts to finding her. This new obsession takes him on strange nocturnal journeys both internal and external.
Saramago won the Nobel Prize in 1998, but his first attempt almost ended his writing career. According to The Guardian, he had sent out his first novel, Skylight, when he was 31 years old. It disappeared into the files of the publishing house, much the way things are mishandled and missing in the government bureaucracies he delineates. He did not write another novel for 20 years. He eventually returned to fiction and began publishing in the 1980s; in 1989, the publishers contacted him to say that the manuscript had been located in a move. He refused their offer of publication.
The Psalms of Israel Jones by Ed Davis —
In the spirit of full disclosure, I received this book to blurb, and was absolutely delighted to do so. It’s a great read, tracing the entwined lives of a fading rock and roll hero and his preacher son, complicated by past sins and the presence of apocalyptic cults. I found his depiction of people consumed by the spirit, whether of God or of music, to be true and compelling. Here’s what I wrote: From the opening power chord to the feedback echoes that keep crashing through the mind after the last sentence, this novel is a rock testament to the power of music and the Word. Tight as a spring coiled to release and generous as an open hand, this is a book for fathers and sons, lovers, losers, doubters and believers – in short, for us all. The Psalms of Israel Jones was the 2010 Hackney Literary Award winner for the unpublished novel. Davis taught writing and humanities courses at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, and at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.
American Sideshow by Marc Hartzman —
Maybe not to everyone’s taste for late-evening reading, if you are given to grotesque dreams. This is a compilation of short biographies and illustrations of sideshow “freaks” or naturals from the mid-19th century to the present. From the tamer curiosities of midgets and fat ladies to the truly bizarre – Turtle Boy, Alligator-Skinned Woman, the Human Torso, and the Man with Two Noses and Three Eyes – these are the stories of people who found their way in the world despite sometimes staggering odds. They sometimes made a lot of money, and more often than you might think, they found love.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed —
You’ve probably seen the movie, and quite possibly read the book. I tend to fight shy of hugely popular products, but this book surprised me – not least because her story of traversing the wilderness to heal her wounded heart had real resonance for me. My mother died in September of 2012 from liver cancer, not a good end. Strayed’s mother was also lost to cancer. She discovered healing while on the great solo walk of the Pacific Crest Trail. I headed for Scotland solo in 2014 with a 16-pound backpack – I was one up on her there, as she overloaded a huge backpack and suffered under that weight. Of course, I overnighted at inns, hostels (and once a tent) as I spent a month walking across the country, in Orkney, Iona, elsewhere. Not so great a feat as hers, but hey, I was 58 and had never done a through-hike in my life. So I felt echoes in her struggles to understand herself, her needs, and her grief – and the severe joys of time alone in the wild.
Poems of Arab Andalusia translated by Cole Franzen
These poems were written at the height of Arab civilization in the Spanish peninsula, but remain as fresh today because of their direct approach and powerful sensuality. They are based on the 13th century codex of Ibn Sa’id, who sought poems “whose idea is more subtle than the West Wind, and whose language is more beautiful than a fair face.”
These are poems of a cultured warrior people, with verses that depict love and battle, sensual delights of wine and lovers, and the requirements of honor.
A couple of excerpts:
From “My Beloved Comes”:
You came to me just before
the Christians rang their bells.
The half-moon was rising
looking like an old man’s eyebrow
or a delicate instep.”
From “In the Battle”:
I saw her slim waist
among the lances
and when they leaned toward me
I embraced them.”
These mostly short poems had a strong influence on the Generation of 27 and especially Federico García Lorca, who was at work on a collection of poems inspired by Arabic forms when he was assassinated. I bought this book at City Lights in San Francisco (also the publisher) as a small reminder of the wonders of the Poetry Room.
What wonders reside in your book trove? Any followup recommendations for Val?