Devotions: Or, My Third Time Reviewing a Poetry Collection

It’s true. Check the archives and in 13 years I’ve reviewed hundreds of novels and works of non-fiction, (reluctantly) dozens of collections of short stories and… two works of poetry.

But today make that three. The reasons are several: this one person I follow on Twitter keeps posting these poems and I read them and think, I should read more poetry; this one person kept referencing Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” and I kept thinking yeah, that’s beautiful, and I should read more poetry; this other friend, D., was sending poems a day to Their Person and I thought, I should read more poetry.

And so I got Mary Oliver’s Devotions from the library and boy did it deliver. Spent a whole night chatting with E. and sending screenshots of poems that were reading my mind. Poems that do a lot with nature (like maybe Oliver saturates the market on goldenrod and moss and different types of birds) but get at mindfulness, and pointlessness, and existential yes-ness (one poem is delightfully titled Yes! No! and nailed the experience of Having! An! Opinion!) of being alive and an optimist in a degrading humanity.

And poems that you, skeptic of poetry, thinker that it is impenetrable or difficult or Too Much, can sink into. Can read in the breath between text messages and appointments and on-your-way-to-the-next-… and will be better for them. Slow in line breaks but fully digestible in a way that will make you feel like I Am a Person Who Reads Poetry – and not just the Instagram kind*. And I am a person who is alive in a universe both infinitely larger and where I am irrelevant, and in a particular place where my breath can change the outcome of the existence of this moth.

So truly I don’t know if this is the poetry collection for you. There are a lot of poems about trees and birds and flowers and wind, but in all of them are line turns that wrench and see and pull. And so if not this collection then make your summer resolution to be a person who reads a poem. And let me know what you discover.

*Not that there’s anything wrong with that

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Sea of Tranquility: My Simulation is Broken

I didn’t read the news all day. Had Roe v Wade broken to me at a pizza picnic in the park and just.

The simulation hypothesis goes like this: we are living in a computer simulation. I mean it’s more complicated than that, but also that simple. And so all the bananas things we individually and collectively experience are just the simulation playing itself out. Like today. Just a part of the program.

Emily St. John Mandel, in an interview with Ezra Klein talks about how the idea of the simulation hypothesis and the current fascination with the multiverse offered her a way to write a book – Sea of Tranquility – she already wanted to write about time travel. That if we live in a simulation it solves the problem of a recursive time loop that time travel in reality would introduce.

And those of you who read The Time Traveller’s Wife this is not that. This is… god, I don’t even know where to start with how good this book is. But that’s my job here so let me try:

Let’s start with a novel self-aware that its novelist is most famous for her pre-Covid incredible pandemic novel, Station Eleven, but that the new novel is being written during a pandemic and all of its readers will have been in a pandemic and so why not make a narrative space for that experience. And it’s so breathtakingly sharp in the section of the novel set (oh yeah, it covers 600 odd years with lots of jumping around in time) just before a pandemic is going to rip across Earth and the moon colonies (oh yeah, much of the setting is the literal moon (hence the title)). The conceit of time travel means we know already what will happen in a way we didn’t and couldn’t and still don’t with Covid, and the helplessness of watching what is about to happen, to not being able to intervene, the (what is a stronger word than desire?) desire to go back to yourself in December 2019 with a set of instructions. (and what would yours say?)

And then a novel that is guttingly beautiful writing. Just come on.

And a protagonist in each temporal section – but particularly Olive and Gaspery-Jacques – that are whole and human but also believably in their future settings. Like the particular genius of describing one of the moon colonies as having broken it’s artificial sky and so it being perpetual night (The Night City) in a way that fills a world-building function but also gets at the particular ache and beauty of feeling (or being) alone in the darkness when government just won’t or can’t spend enough to fix the sky.

And then back to the question of how do we know that there is anything approximating a ‘real.’ That even if we believe that we are not in a simulation – that the couch under you and the ground under that is just material in an ever-expanding universe of material – we are nevertheless in simulations of identity and community and politics and nation and family where we convince ourselves (as we must) that our beliefs and our choices are somehow real.

So not a book to read while high, maybe.

But a thousand times a book to read.

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The Pull of the Stars: Pandemic, Abortion and… 1918

Historical fiction. Such a great genre. Have I said it before? I have? Well, I’ll say it again: such a great genre. Something about the space to explore the impossible problems of the present in the safety of the past. Not sure what we should do with the right to abortion? Worried about the lasting impacts of a global pandemic? Fretting about the crumbling of institutions like Church and marriage? To the past! Where we can hod these problems and turn them around without the delightful haze of knowing these are both immediate to our own lives and yet so distant as to be cute: how sweet, they just figured out they should wash their hands before surgery.

So right, what’s the book, Erin. It’s Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, released in summer of 2020, but written pre Covid. Though someone should by Donoghue a lottery ticket (or start calling her prescient instead of Atwood) for the cluster of issues explored in this book. Set in Dublin in 1918, it is the height of the influenza pandemic. Our protagonist, midwife and nurse Julia Power, is on her own on the influenza maternity ward, where we meet a series of women who have had too many children for want to bodily autonomy or reliable birth control. Julia trades off her duties with another nurse, a nun from a neighbourhood ‘house for women and babies’ where unwed mothers are sent and their children then taken into servitude, and so the narrative probes the consequences of Church and moral absolutism on women’s bodies and family. One of these grown children, Bridie, comes to help on Julia’s ward, and (I’ll admit somewhat unexpectedly – my fault as a reader or that of Donoghue?) introduces questions of sexuality and redemption as she and Julia come to find one another. Which is to say, it is a book thick with Issues for Discussion.

And while I expected to be struck by the similarities to our present moment with respect to the pandemic – the eerie familiarity of advice to keep distance, the shuttering of schools, the terror of a loved one with a cough – and I was, it was the exploration of women’s ability to choose the course of their lives that I found most relevant. The series of women that pass through the maternity ward come as a type: married woman subjected to domestic violence; married woman with 10 babies already; unmarried ‘fallen’ woman bound to a life of shame and exclusion; married woman has stillborn baby but must go home and Carry On. Each of them share in small descriptions of their lives the ways the babies they carry are – whatever else – expected – that even if they are unplanned (as in our ‘fallen’ woman) that there should be a baby born Out of Wedlock, is itself a certainty. That there would be a choice about having the 10th baby or an ability to decide instead of staying with an abusive partner you might… not. These women are contrasted with Julia, of course, but also the woman doctor on the ward – Kathleen – who is literally on the run from the police for her involvement in political ‘crimes’ while she cares for patients with compassion, competence and curiosity.

This contrast serves to sharpen the sense of oppressive constraint and claustrophobia following all of these women. That even those who appear to have the most freedom – Julia who can for some pages ride a bicycle! – are limited by institution and by expectation.

And while it is a wildly topical book that would serve your book club discussion well, it wasn’t fabulous. Parts dragged and some of the passages read as too aware of their own Significance. And there are better (much better ) books about reproductive choice to read right now. But if you find yourself with this one you I suspect you’ll find a certain relief. Things feel bad; things are bad. And perhaps they’ve always been that way.

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The Splendid and the Vile: I Spent Two Months Reading a Biography of Churchill

I can’t blame Erik Larson. The Splendid and the Vile is a page turner (even at 600 pages).

Though tell someone you’re reading a biography of Winston Churchill that covers just one year of his life and watch their eyes roll. It’s true. There are many more lesser-known figures worthy of 600 pages and two months of time* that I could have (should have?) devoted my energies to reading. But I’m glad I read this one and eagerly recommend it to you.

Not because of Churchill (though also because of Churchill – there’s a moment late in the book where he is hosted by Roosevelt, and opts to take the entire meeting spanning several hours naked with his cigar and you think okay, good – and because it does from this telling make a strong case that Churchill’s energy and capacity to rally and to appoint and keep strong colleagues fundamentally altered history) but because of the way Larson explores the fear of living in history.

And ummm… that’s an easy sentiment to get behind. Larson names the absolute particular ways the English were living each day in absolute uncertainty and – well, I was going to write ‘helplessness’ in the sense the ordinary person couldn’t do much to change the direction of a bomb or to influence the strategy of the war, but Larson avoids a portrait of helplessness. It’s more the sense of uncertainty and limitation – that there is So Much to Be Afraid Of and so the people carry on shopping and dancing and going to the park. And maybe it should be the opposite – maybe the better book for our moment should be the one where when there is So Much to Be Afraid Of we all take to the streets screaming for something different (and we should) but there is something of a mirror to the human instinct of just… carrying on (not, god forbid, that I reference *that trite keep calm poster).

I guess I should back up and say it’s a biography of Churchill from the day he’s named Prime Minister in 1940 to a year later in ’41. It cover the relentless onslaught of the German airforce, and the wartime preparations of the British government, but it is – so brilliantly – laced with the lives of Churchill’s immediate family, as well as his secretaries and ministers. To witness in one chapter the devastation of the attack on Coventry, to the marriage proposal of his daughter and her total twitterpation with her fiancee is to perfectly capture the way history operates at the levels of the national tragedy and the personal… what is it. I’m tempted to call it dissociation – but that human ability to completely ignore all the evidence of mounting calamity and the encompassing disaster, and to just continue to fret about a crush, or a party, or a ruined dress. Which I know nothing at all about.

And then it also offers insight into how the Germans were thinking and planning at this stage in the war and I found that totally fascinating. If you don’t know the story of Rudolf Hess, that alone would be sufficient reason to pick this one up.

So yes – I know you don’t need another WWII recommendation, or a suggestion to read a biography of the archetypal old white man. But really, it’s very, very good.

*to be fair, the two months owed to pressing life deadlines that are soon enough resolved and I am now reading a book of poetry, so that is short. OH and I started and got halfway though but didn’t finish Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians (not for any reason of the book but because I just couldn’t find my way through it and will try again next year) so perhaps it’s not quite as dire reading just one thing for five months. NOT THAT YOU’RE COUNTING. (I am counting).

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