Category: Poetry

Milk and Honey

Cover image for Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaurby Rupi Kaur

ISBN 978-1-4494-7425-6

“when my mother opens her mouth/ to have a conversation at dinner/ my father shoves the word hush/ between her lips and tells her to/ never speak with her mouth full/ this is how the women in my family/ learned to live with their mouths closed”

Milk and Honey is the first poetry collection from Canadian writer Rupi Kaur. The book is divided into four sections, entitled “the hurting,” “the loving,” “the breaking,” and “the healing.” Kaur describes it as “the blood sweat tears/ of twenty-one years,” and it does indeed feel like she has put her heart in your hands in paper form.

This little book deals with big themes: first love and heart break, family dynamics, and sexual abuse. It moves from girls being taught that their bodies are things to be used by men and boys, to women owning their bodies and sexualities without shame. It is an extremely intimate collection, a seemingly raw outpouring of emotion that no doubt hides a great deal of honing and hard work on the part of the author.

Kaur’s style is short and to the point, but she can punch you in the gut with only a few words. Her writing has a stripped-down feel, denuded of capital letters and most punctuation, relying on rhythm and visual formatting to do some of that work. Many of the pieces are accompanied by simple black and white line drawings, which Kaur has described as childish juxtaposition to the adult themes she is addressing. However, many of the drawings are really quite elegant, all clean lines and positive and negative space working together.

I swallowed this book in one giant, greedy gulp, undertaking the full journey from hurting to healing in one emotional sitting. It left me feeling wrung out, and yet strangely invigorated. However, it is definitely worthy of revisiting more slowly. I’ve been picking it up on and off all week, randomly flipping it open and taking in a poem, returning to my favourites again and again

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Cover image for Citizen by Claudia Rankine You might also like Citizen by Claudia Rankine

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Citizen: An American Lyric

Cover image for Citizen by Claudia Rankineby Claudia Rankine

ISBN 978-1-55597-690-3

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

Visually, poet Claudia Rankine’s fifth book, Citizen, is a striking volume, designed by John Lucas and featuring cover art by David Hammons. It is this 1993 piece, entitled “In the Hood,” that made Rankine’s book so instantly recognizable when Johari Osayi Idusuyi read it on camera while sitting in the stands at a Donald Trump rally in Springfield, Illinois. Already a hit in the world of American poetry, Idusuyi’s actions brought the collection to popular attention. This is what prompted me to pick it up when I spotted it on a display at my local library. Though Citizen is only about 170 pages, it has surprising heft, as it is printed on 80# matte coated paper. The stark juxtaposition of the black and white design echoes one of the most haunting lines of the collection: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

The contents of Citizen are a combination of essays, poetry, and scripts for video projects Rankine made with her husband, John Lucas. Though it is nice to have the scripts included in the collection for reference, those pieces are really better watched in their visual form, accompanied by Rankine’s smooth, rhythmic reading. All of the poems attempt to capture the experience of race in America today, in various forms. Two of the pieces are poetic essays about race in sports, which Rankine finds interesting because “It’s documented. You have both commentary and action simultaneously and instantaneously. So it’s not just about watching what’s happening, you’re also hearing how it’s being interpreted at the moment that it’s happening.” The shorter pieces are often small, quotidian moments that make a person suddenly aware of race. These poems chronicle an accumulation of small wounds from awkward moments and thoughtlessly spoken words, as Rankine tries to track how these small acts can lead to larger atrocities. To do so, she documented not only her own experiences with race, but stories gathered from twenty-five friends, both black and white. She uses the second person “you” to put the reader right in the middle of these moments as they unfold.

In Citizen, Rankine skillfully captures the racial violence that can appear in language. One of the most memorable lines from the collection is “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Beyond the basic idea it conveys, what captures me here—and brings me back to this line again and again as the essence of the collection—is the choice of two words, “thrown,” and “sharp,” which denote contrast in this context, but also have violent connotations. However, the idea of physical violence is never far away, either. One two page spread hit me like a punch in the gut. On the right-hand page, a haiku on Ferguson reads only “because white men can’t/police their imagination/black men are dying.” It sits opposite a piece that is also a list, which evolves with each new printing of the book. The first line reads “In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis.” In my edition, the tenth printing, the final complete line reads “In Memory of Sandra Bland.” Below it, the words “In Memory” appear ten more times, slowly fading as they approach the bottom of the page, ominously awaiting completion.

Although it is short, it would be a mistake to read Citizen too quickly; you could zip right through it without absorbing it, missing the subtleties. Not being much for more abstract modern poetry, I found the greatest strengths to be in the more concrete pieces, though I could always appreciate Rankine’s play with rhythm and repetition. I also suspect it would amply reward a second reading, as there is undoubtedly much here I have missed.

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Cover image for Ru by Kim Thuy translated by Sheila Fischman You might also like Ru by Kim Thuy

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2014

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2014. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Brown Girl Dreaming

ISBN 9780399252518

Cover image for Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonI received an advance reader copy of this memoir in verse at ALA Annual in Las Vegas this summer. I had been asking publishing house representatives at various booths about books with diverse protagonists, when a lovely rep for Penguin Young Readers excitedly pressed a copy of Brown Girl Dreaming into my hands. I’d never read anything by Jacqueline Woodson, and a memoir in verse didn’t really sound like my thing, but the rep’s excitement stuck with me, and I took the book home. Then, in November, I was following the National Book Awards on Twitter when the watermelon incident unfolded. I hadn’t yet read Brown Girl Dreaming, but it seemed like time to pick it up. I read the entire book in less than twenty-four hours. Far from being a challenging read, Woodson’s flowing free verse slides down easily, telling the story of a black girl who is born in the North in the 1960s, but grows up at her grandparent’s home in the South at the height of the Civil Rights movement. This beautifully written memoir is both timely and a pleasure to read. I never wrote a review because I didn’t make a single note while I was reading, but I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Categories: Young Adult, Poetry, Memoir

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me

ISBN 9781592407323

Cover image for Marbles by Ellen ForneyShortly before her  thirtieth birthday, artist Ellen Forney was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. Worried that medication would damage her creativity and destroy her ability to earn a living as an artist, Forney resisted treatment until she become so depressed she couldn’t function. Marbles chronicles the trial and error process of finding the right medication to treat her illness, while also exploring the relationship between mental illness and creativity that has plagued so many artists. At the same time, she must come to terms the fact that things she once considered part of her personality and identity are in fact symptoms of her disease. Forney’s evocative black and white images capture the experiences of depression and mania in a way that is entirely different from the many prose novels about the subject.

Categories: Memoir, Graphic Novel

My Life in Middlemarch (US)/The Road to Middlemarch (UK)

ISBN 9781482973556

Cover image for My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca MeadOne of my favourite reads of the year, I listened to My Life in Middlemarch as an audiobook, performed by the unsurpassed Kate Reading, who as far as I am concerned can read all of my audiobooks to me forever. Unfortunately for my blog readers, I almost never review audiobooks, since I don’t make any notes while I’m listening. My Life in Middlemarch combines memoir with literary criticism and biography. Writer Rebecca Mead tracks her long relationship with George Eliot’s famous novel from her first reading at the age of seventeen, to more recent revisitations in middle age. With each reread, it is not Middlemarch that has changed, but Mead, who finds her focus shifting to different aspects of this multifaceted novel as she moves through adulthood. Interspersed with her own memoir and musings are reflections on the life of George Eliot, also known as Mary Ann Evans, who herself led a very interesting life that defied social expectations of the period.

Categories: Biography, Memoir, Criticism

The End of Your Life Book Club

ISBN 978-0-307-96111-2

Cover image for The End of Your Life Book Club by Will SchwalbeIn 2007, Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, returned from a humanitarian trip to the Middle East with what initially looked like hepatitis, but which turned out to be Stage IV pancreatic cancer. As she began treatment to slow the disease and hopefully prolong her life, mother and son started trading books, and discussing them when he drove her to medical appointments. Their books become a proxy for important conversations about mortality and end-of-life care, helping them navigate the difficulties of Mary Anne’s final months. Packed with wonderful book recommendations, and a great story about a mother-son relationship, The End of Your Life Book Club is especially recommended for those who agree with Mary Anne, that “reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”

Categories: Memoir

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

ISBN 9780062242167

Cover image for Tinseltown by William J. MannThis true crime mystery set in silent film era Hollywood investigates the unsolved murder of film director William Desmond Taylor, who was killed in his home on the night of February 1, 1922. William J. Mann profiles three actresses who may have been involved in Taylor’s death, including two prominent stars, and reveals the secrets hiding behind Taylor’s cultured facade. Like any true crime writer, Mann believes he has cracked the cold case, but what really sets Tinseltown apart is his grasp of the history and politics of Hollywood. Mann situates Taylor’s murder in the broader context of the scandals that were plaguing the film industry in the 1920s, with particular attention to  the damage control done by Adolph Zukor, the CEO of Famous Players-Lasky, the largest film conglomerate of the period. This is a great pick for film lovers and mystery readers alike.

Categories: True Crime

That’s it for me! What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2014?

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories Volume 3

Cover image for The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories 3 by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and wirrowCompiled by Joseph Gordon-Levitt & wirrow

ISBN 978-0-06-212165-3

After a hard day’s make-believe I like to just kick back with my creations.”

They might be (very) short stories, or they might be poetry, or they might be something else entirely. It’s a bit hard to pin down the tiny stories that make up this collaborative anthology, which was compiled by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his partner-in-crime, wirrow. This is the third and final volume they have put together from a selection of contributions to the Tiny Stories project on the hitrecord.org website. Eighty-two contributors are credited in this volume, and more than 35 000 have contributed to the online archive. All contributions are available to be remixed by participants, and half of the proceeds from the publication of the Tiny Stories series go to the contributors, with the other half going back into the production company.

After a hard day's make-believe I like to just kick back with my creations.
Click to enlarge

Each page or two page spread features an illustration paired with a short piece of text. Many wouldn’t mean much alone, but together they are powerful. The drawings are mostly black and white, but more colour has crept into them as the series goes on. Volume 1 was entirely black and white, while Volume 2 included thirteen images that incorporated the colour red. Volume 3 includes fifteen colour illustrations, and incorporates a wider variety of colours. It’s a delight to happen upon the coloured pictures in the midst of their black and white counterparts. While Volume 2 didn’t suffer for exploring what can be done with black, white, grey, and red, Volume 3 opens the door on wider possibilities.

I want desperately to press you between the pages of a book and keep you forever.
Click to enlarge.

The stories cover a broad range, from sweet (“Ok let’s snuggle for the whole day and then maybe two more whole days but then we’ll get up and do some work! And we’ll just take snuggle breaks in between to reward ourselves”) to melancholy (“This overwhelming desire to be close to you directly conflicts with my intense fear of people”) to creepy (“I want desperately to press you between the pages of a book and keep you forever”). They are incredibly varied, with their greatest commonality being the amount of room left for interpretation by the reader. There’s what’s on the page, and then there’s what you read into it. Tiny stories leave more than the usual amount of room for the reader’s imagination to run wild within the sketchy bounds of the narrative. The stories are a little bit like zen koans; if you can prevent yourself from greedily gobbling them up in one sitting, you could stop and ponder each one for quite some time. The Tiny Stories have just gotten better with each successive volume, and I am beyond sad that this one is set to be the last in the series. Fortunately, they only get better with re-reading.

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The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories Volume 2

Cover Image for The Tiny Book of  Tiny Stories Volume 2by Joseph Gordon-Levitt & wirrow

ISBN 978-0-06-212163-9

“The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of tiny stories.”

You likely know Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor, be it from Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001) or his more recent work, such as Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Looper (2012).  However, he is also the founder of HitRECord, the open collaborative production company which produced The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories Volume 2, a collaborative anthology of artwork and writing that could easily be described as either a (very) short story collection, or poetry, depending on which piece you are looking at. Materials contributed to HitRECord are openly accessible and available to be remixed. Gordon-Levitt and wirrow collaborated to select and edit the pieces in this anthology. For example, illustrations from one writer may be combined with the artwork contributed by another participant. All contributors are credited in the resources section at the back of the book. 62 contributors participated in this book.

It would be difficult to identify a single unifying theme in this volume, but there are a few common threads. The text of the first piece reads “we must hide find ourselves in fiction,” and many of the pieces explore the importance of stories in our lives, and the idea of fiction as more than mere escapism, but rather as a method of making meaning. Many of the pieces also use wordplay and juxtaposition to toy with our expectations or shift our perspective with just a few words or a few pencil lines. For example, the text “one day she looked up and discovered an opening in her planet. She wondered if she wasn’t alone after all,” takes on a new meaning when placed next to a drawing of a fishbowl.

Physically and artistically, this is a beautiful book. It is small, like the stories it contains, with a navy cloth cover and illustrated endpapers. The illustrations are largely black and white, with the occasional splash of red, but the limited palate never seems to limit the expression; you see the full run of what can be done with black, white, grey and red in these pages. Although this book is available in digital form, I highly recommend the paper copy, particularly if your device has an e-ink screen.