Lee Upton’s sixth book of poetry, Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles won the Open Book Award. Her collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, was selected as one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews and received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Library Journal. She is the author of fourteen books, including the novella The Guide to the Flying Island; the essay collection Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy; and four books of literary criticism. Her awards include the Pushcart Prize, the BOA Short Fiction Award, the Miami University Press Award for the Novella, the National Poetry Series Award, and awards from the Poetry Society of America.
I do most of my reading at night. Below are the titles that, I’m grateful to say, have been keeping me awake recently:
Cate Marvin’s Oracle is searingly attuned to violence and paradox, and not at all reluctant to mix unhappy realities with comic possibilities. “Memory in Plain English” rewrites Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo.” Millay’s famous poem begins “We were very tired, we were very merry— / We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry. ” Here’s Marvin’s revision: “We were very drunk and not very merry. / Always, it seemed, the dismal end to our /evenings met us at the Staten Island Ferry.” Marvin gives traction and serious attention to the lives of not only mature women but adolescent girls. These are exciting, propulsive, and uncompromising poems.
Jacob M. Appel’s Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets is a collection of complex and finely wrought stories. I’ve just read “The Orchard,” a coming-of-age story about a boy who wants to be a poet and is obsessed with T. S. Eliot. Reluctantly, the boy tags along with his mother as she attempts to install herself and her son in a new life in Connecticut. The story reflects on secrecy and enacts the way secrets eventually are unearthed. The story is also, beautifully, about apples. The author is a physician, and his attention to the body’s vulnerabilities illuminates his fiction.
How to be Drawn by Terrance Hayes is a book of philosophical and ethical investigations—delivered in intimate and clarifying ways. Hayes opens up common words and applies pressure. “Cruelty is pretty damn lazy, actually,” he writes. The book is marked by the author’s discipline as a visual artist and by his rethinking, for large purposes, of traditional forms of poetry. These bracing poems, capacious in their references, unsparing and alive to pain, are shot through with a searching desire to confront a culture’s most limited and damaging beliefs.
A Manual for Cleaning Women collects stories from Lucia Berlin, who died in 2004 and whose fiction is at last gaining much-deserved wider recognition. Berlin’s stories grew in part from the details of her difficult life—especially from her work as a cleaning woman, a hospital clerk, and a physician’s assistant. The voices Berlin creates are candid, intimate, and cunning. I recommend “Stars and Saints” in particular for its close-grained rendering of a little girl’s experiences at the parochial school she attends. The child, like Berlin herself, suffered from scoliosis. The story almost fumes with the child’s loneliness and thwarted hopes. I know much of the terrain of “Stars and Saints” well, but I’ve never seen that terrain rendered in a manner so nimble and harrowing.
Disclaimer by Renée Knight. A woman begins reading a book and discovers she’s the main character—and the target of an obsessive man’s desire for revenge. What sets this thriller apart is its surprising and satisfying ending. Just when the narrative is closing with all mysteries solved, the main character makes an unexpected choice—a choice that liberates both her and Disclaimer from conventional expectations.
What book has surprised you?