A Found Poem for Poetry Friday

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A Day Like Any Other: A Found Poem

 

How do I get downtown?

The first two years of

the lease there was one point two million dollars

of rent

 

How do I get downtown?

You don’t want to be with me no more

Fine

 

How do I get downtown?

Get your ass over there

 

How do I get downtown?

I call my dad’s father Gramps

 

How do I get downtown?

That was freshman year

 

Draft ©Susan Thomsen, 2021

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I made the poem above with lines of conversation I overheard in New York earlier this week. That's one of my favorite things to do: collect random sentences and rearrange them. (Another favorite thing is taking pics of street art.) When I heard several different people on the crosstown bus asking the central question here, I knew I had to do something with it, and then borrowed the title from the last line of James Schuyler's "Februrary."

You'll find the entire Poetry Friday roundup at author and poet Laura Shovan's blog.

Photos by me. The impressive pigeon art by Michael Paulino (@infamous_moke on Instagram) in the lower photo is part of Uptown Grand Central's Grandscale Mural Project, on and around East 125th Street in New York.


Starting the Year with Smiley

Unlike what I wrote in the last post, my first book of the year was not by Rachel Cusk. That one turned out not to be the right book at the right time. My first three books of the year were the first three published by John Le Carré, an author I'd never read. Spy stories were just the ticket for the new year: A Call from the Dead, A Murder of Quality, and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, all collected in one volume, The First Three Novels. I got the idea from a Novel Readings post that mentioned Smiley's People, the last of the Smiley series. By the way, that's a great blog for Austen-ites and other literary people. It's written by Rohan Maitzen, an English professor in Canada, and she frequently writes about what is going on in her classes. 

Another fun blog that I stumbled upon is Locus Solus: The New York School of Poets. After taking Penn's Modern and Contemporary American Poetry* MOOC on Coursera last fall, I've become a fan of the poets Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, et al. Today at Locus Solus is a bit about O'Hara's influence on the young writer Garth Greenwell, whose new novel, Cleanness, waits for me at the library. Synchronicity!

In addition to the Penn course, David Lehman's book The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets was very informative.

*Highly recommended


January 1, 2020

New year, new decade. Yeah! It looks like my first book of 2020 will be one I started in 2019: Rachel Cusk's Coventry. It's rawther bracing. In a review for the Toronto Star, Nathan Whitlock writes, "The twin literary prerogatives of truth and discomfort are the threads that unite the 17 essays collected here. Whether she is writing about her ongoing estrangement from her parents in the title essay, or analyzing cultural misconceptions about creative writing classes in 'How to Get There,' Cusk is constantly scratching away at default thinking, uninformed bigotry, and received wisdom in order to find whatever authenticity may lie beneath."


My Year in Reading 2019

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Street art by Sara Fratini (@sara_fratini on Instagram), on the walls of La Libre, Calle de Argumosa, Madrid. Photo taken by me last summer. I'm on Instagram with lots of art at susanthomsen03.

Yesterday at the library I ran into Tricia Tierney, a friend and fellow blogger, and we each vowed to go home and write a blog post. Yay! Thanks, Tricia.

I'm still reading picture books, at a couple of public schools, to two classes of first graders and one of second graders, plus this year I was happy to add a small combined kindergarten/first-grade class. At a different school my husband reads to first graders, so between the two of us we still have lots of kids' books around the house. (Our own kiddo is a young adult! How did that happen? He was just a book-chewing baby yesterday.) So far the second graders' favorites are Alexis Roumanis's Dwarf Planets (nonfiction) and B.J. Novak's The Book with No Pictures (total silliness), and the first graders' fave is Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood, written by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell and illustrated by Rafael López. For the K/1 class, it was the perennially popular Turkey Trouble, written by Wendy Silvano and illustrated by Lee Harper. The conversations that follow the readings are still the best things ever. Everyone enjoys chiming in with an opinion, although occasionally some of us forget what we are going to say after we raise our hands. No matter!

My own list of favorite books of the year includes

The Carrying: Poems, by Ada Limón (Milkweed, 2018)

The Collected Schizophenias, essays by Esmé Weijun Wang (Graywolf, 2019)

Don't Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems, by Stephanie Burt (Basic Books, 2019). I'm also a fan of her book The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (Harvard, 2016).

Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen, by Mary Norris (Norton, 2019). I had the great privilege of hearing Mary, a friend and former colleague, read from her book in the Parthenon—the one in Nashville.

How to Love a Country: Poems, by Richard Blanco (Beacon Press, 2019). Blanco's memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood (Ecco, 2016), is also terrific.

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, essays by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed, 2019)

New Kid, a middle-grade graphic novel by Jerry Craft (HarperCollins, 2019)

Ordinary Light: A Memoir, by Tracy K. Smith (Knopf, 2015)


Audience Appeal

"The singer was Louise Lundy, a former soap opera star...She didn't have a pleasant or appealing voice but she was able to hit notes and had great costumes, and much of her appeal was probably due to the fact that audiences were so surprised she could carry a tune, they were willing to ignore something as insignificant as quality."

From the moving new novel by Stephen McCauley, My Ex-Life (Flatiron Books, 2018), which made me burst out laughing a number of times. You can read a longer excerpt here.


My Year in Reading

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I really like "A Year in Reading," the Millions' year-end series where authors talk about their favorite books of the year, and also admire Largehearted Boy's "Book Notes" series in which "authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book." Of course, I LOVE all the Best Books of the Year lists that Largehearted Boy curates as well. Inspired by all of those, I rounded up some of the best books I read in 2018.

Best picture book. The only criterion for the superlative was that it was the only one that made the second graders scream with laughter. Granted, they were wound up.

  • Knock, Knock!, by Saxton Freeman, et al. (Dial, 2007) Knock-knock jokes with a different illustrator for each page.

Most powerful nonfiction title

  • Heavy: An American Memoir, by fellow Jacksonian Kiese Laymon (Scribner, 2018). I could hear the various people in these pages talking to me, and found Heavy to be the best work since Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi for better understanding my hometown. (Speaking of Jackson, I also recommend Black Boy, by Richard Wright; Civil Wars, by Rosellen Brown; A World Turned Over: A Killer Tornado and the Lives It Changed Forever, by Lorian Hemingway; and Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders, by Eric Etheridge.)

¡Buenos libros! Translations from Spanish

  • The Body Where I Was Born, written by Guadalupe Nettel and translated by J.T. Lichtenstein (Seven Stories Press, 2017), and The Farm, written by Héctor Abad and translated by Anne McLean (Archipelago, 2018). How I wish my Spanish were good enough to read books in the original language. I'm working up to it slowly. I can now get through some articles in the New York Times en Español and in the more rhetorically dense El País.

Books that piqued an interest in classical music

  • The Ensemble, a novel by Aja Gabel (Riverhead, 2018)
  • Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung, a memoir by Min Kym (Crown, 2017).

Books that reminded me to Read More Poetry

  • Citizen Illegal, by José Olivarez (Haymarket Books, 2018)
  • Monument: Poems New and Selected, by Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

Novels that touched my heart

  • Everything Here Is Beautiful, by Mira T. Lee (Penguin Random House, 2018)
  • Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, 2016)
  • The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead, 2018). As good as everyone says it is.
  • The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2018). Same.

Favorite Connecticut story

  • Brass, by Xhenet Aliu (Random House, 2018). Set in Waterbury.

Books that evoked the "I wish I could write like this" sentiment. (Well, this applies to everything here, but...)

  • You Think It, I'll Say It, short stories by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, 2018)
  • How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018)

Consider the Peacock

9781476510323Recently I read the book Peacocks to the second graders, and they had a lot to say about it. The local zoo has some of these beautiful birds, and many of the kids have seen them there. Second graders are less fanciful than first graders, but every year there is someone in the class who chimes in with a tall tale during discussion time. This week not one but two children told us about peacocks who had gotten into cars with them. Logistically such a scenario seems unlikely, considering six-foot tails and all, but who I am to quibble? I usually just say something like, "Wow!" and move on.

I asked the class what other animals they would like to read about, and various students mentioned puppies, kittens, dinosaurs, and sharks. There was a lot of enthusiasm for puppies. Then, beaming, one girl added, "Tarantulas!"


Norman's Best Books of 2017

9781455563913Since 2009, my husband, Norman Trepner, has written about his favorite books of the year.  Here is the 2017 edition. (With one exception, these are books for adults.) –Susan

I was aiming to complete this roundup of my favorite books for the year back in December, but I have a good reason for being late…I was reading!

The book that had me reading into the new year was Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. This engrossing novel tells the story of one Korean family over four generations, beginning in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 1900s up to Japan itself in the late 1980s. After finishing Pachinko, I looked at several reviews, and I found Tash Aw’s review in the Guardian to best describe this wonderful book. 

Pachinko wasn’t the only culprit for my list being late; I then went on to read two other books that I highly recommend, Ghachar Ghochar, written by Vivek Shanbhag and translated by Srinath Perur; and So Much Blue, by Percival Everett. Mr. Shanbhag has written eight works of fiction and two plays in the South Indian language Kannada, and Ghachar Ghochar (a nonsense phrase said by one of the characters and meaning knotted or tangled up) is the author’s first work to be translated into English. Set in Bangalore, this slim novel is about how a small, close-knit family changes after one of the members founds a successful spice company.

The protagonist in So Much Blue is Kevin Pace, a 56-year-old painter, and the book’s chapters alternate between Kevin’s present-day family life in New England, a harrowing trip taken to El Salvador in 1979 as civil war is breaking out, and a Parisian love affair some ten years ago. The three segments stand on their own and make for good reading, but it is the author’s sharp and often funny writing that made this one of my favorite books of late.

Sing-unburied-sing-9781501126062_hrMy other favorite novels over the past year were Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward; A Horse Walks into a Bar, written by David Grossman and translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen; Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid; and Autumn, by Ali Smith. Sing, Unburied, Sing won the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, and the book definitely deserved the award. In relating the story of a poor Mississippi family, Ms. Ward manages to include a wild road trip, spirits from beyond, and a most touching relationship between a thirteen-year-old boy and his grandfather. I didn’t think Ms. Ward could top her 2011 National Book Award-winner, Salvage the Bones, but she has done so with her latest book.

In A Horse Walks into a Bar, a middle-aged stand-up comic crashes, burns, and breaks down in front of a live audience as he tells the story of his youth. This is a gut-wrenching and profoundly sad book that also happens to contains some much-needed bits that are laugh-out-loud funny. Exit West is the tale of two young adults that begins in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. The characters’ complex relationship and their travels are described in a sparse and haunting manner, with beautiful writing. This story captures what refugees leave behind, as well as what they face once they have migrated. It is also a warning about the global refugee crisis and today’s economic disparity.

There is so much to like in Autumn, but my favorite aspects of the book were, first, the friendship between a girl named Elisabeth and her much older neighbor, Daniel, and, second, the relationship between the grown-up Elisabeth and her mother. Autumn is the initial book in a planned four-volume series, and I am looking forward to reading Ms. Smith’s Winter, released earlier this month.

Several other novels that I recommend are as follows:

  • Transit, by Rachel Cusk–This is the second novel in a trilogy (Outline was the first), and Ms. Cusk once again engages the reader through a series of vignettes about Faye, a writer and divorced mother now living in London, and the different people she encounters. Ms. Cusk’s unique style and the book’s construction make this largely plotless story a joy to read and savor.
  • 9780525509714Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue–Published in 2016 and selected for Oprah’s Book Club, this is a fine debut novel about the difficulties faced by a married couple, Jende and Neni Jonga, after they immigrate to America from Cameroon. Also very well-told is the story of Jende’s employer, Clark Edwards, and his family.
  • The Idiot, by Elif Batuman–Slow-paced, but well worth the read is Ms. Batuman’s first novel, which is set in 1995 and is about an eighteen-year-old, Turkish-American Harvard student named Selin Karadag. Selin’s college classes, her roommates, her romantic crush, and her summer in Hungary are all quirky, and in this book Ms. Batuman’s intelligence and sense of humor both shine through.
  • Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander–Employing multiple time periods and settings, and with different central characters, Mr. Englander has written an intriguing and creative book about Israeli-Palestinian relations. As noted in an NPR book review by Lizzie Skurnick,  “…this is not a novel of historical accuracy, but of historical intimacy…”.
  • The Dry, by Jane Harper–This page-turner mystery is set in a small Australian town that lacks water and prosperity, but is not short on questionable characters.
  • Night of Fire, by Colin Thubron–The fate of the six tenants and the superintendent in an old Victorian house is known from the beginning, but Mr. Thubron delivers a rewarding and thought-provoking book as he delves into the lives of the building’s occupants.

Moving away from novels, I’d like to mention two top-rate memoirs and a couple of other good books.

  • Dying: A Memoir, by the late Australian writer Cory Taylor, has been called remarkable, electrifying, and a testament to life. In my opinion, it is all these things and more.
  • The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, by Emily Nunn, is an excellent “how to” book: how to pick yourself up, how to move forward, and how to make some incredible-sounding meals and treats. I had the pleasure of meeting Emily a few times when she and Susan worked together at the New Yorker, and I hope that Emily will (a) keep turning out good books and (b) have me over for dinner some time.
  • Just the title of Ottessa Moshfegh’s short-story collection, Homesick for Another World, made me want to read this, and I was not disappointed in the least. Unlike many collections where some stories are very good, some are okay, and one or two are not worth the read, each of these dark, unsettling, and outright strange stories is a winner.
  • My last recommendation is a children’s book called Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing. Written by the artist’s younger sister Kay A. Haring, and full of wonderful illustrations by Robert Neubecker, this picture-book biography of the late artist should be given to youngsters and owned by people of all ages. I read this book to a first-grade class in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and it was a big hit! Bravo, Ms. Haring and Mr. Neubecker.

Happy reading to all in 2018!

*****

Links to Norman's previous best-book lists: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016


Reading 2017: Fiction Recommendations (Most for Grown-Ups, Some for Kids)

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A shout-out to the fiction that kept me sane this year. I am especially happy that four of 2017's best are by writers from Mississippi, my home state. They are

Always Happy Hour: Stories, by Mary Miller (Liveright, 2017)

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray/HarperTeen, 2017). Young-adult novel.

Midnight Without a Moon, by Linda W. Jackson. Middle-grade novel. (Houghton Mifflin, 2017)

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2017)

 

These novels round out my list of favorites:

A Country Road, A Tree, by Jo Baker (Knopf, 2016)

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman (Penguin Putnam, 2017)

Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett (Little Brown, 2016)

The Makioka Sisters, written by Junichiro Tanizaki and translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker (First serialized in Japan, 1943-1948. Seidensticker's translation was published by Knopf in 1957. I read the Vintage International/Penguin Random House edition from 1995.)

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, by Patty Yumi Cottrell (McSweeney's, 2017. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Nancy Wu and produced by Blackstone Audiobooks.)

Photo: Street scene, Biloxi, Mississippi.


Reading 2017: Nonfiction Recommendations (For Grown-Ups)

What a year! Thank goodness for books. A shout-out to the following:

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, by Emily Nunn (Atria, 2017).

Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A, by Danielle Allen (Liveright, 2017)

Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves, by Kat Kinsman (HarperCollins, 2016)

How to Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America, written by Andrés Neuman and translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Lawrence (Restless Books, 2016)

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, by Pamela Paul (Henry Holt, 2017)

Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, by Jessica Abel (Broadway Books, 2015)

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, by Michelle Kuo (Random House, 2017)

Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For, by Rebecca Schuman (Flatiron Books, 2017)

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. Essays, by Samantha Irby (Vintage Books, 2017)

When in French: Love in a Second Language, by Lauren Collins (Penguin, 2016)