My latest for Library Journal
The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill
Poets and Poetry – 20th Century – Epics
Vast in both size and scope, Merrill’s epic poem is heavily influenced by his decades-long use of an ouija board to communicate with voices from the beyond. At once humorous, and unsettling, the poem shifts from past to present and dark to light, all the while casting long shadows of the dearly departed. Yet even in this shaded realm, Merrill’s images gleam like fine-cut jewels: “The room/Grown dim, an unknown curtain in the panes’/Glass night tawnily maned, lit from below/So that hair-wisps of brightness quickened…”
The Vinland Sagas
13th Century – Epics
Tucked inside these thirteenth century tales of Viking exploration is the strange story of Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, perhaps the first European woman to set foot in North America. Gudrid, born in Iceland circa 985 AD, helped to lead a Norse expedition to Newfoundland. One night, Gudrid is visited by a ghostly vision of a woman who looks exactly like herself– the the shade even calls herself Gudrid. Entranced by her spectral doppelgänger, the living Gudrid welcomes the stranger into her dwelling. The brief visit ends abruptly when the ghostly presence vanishes with a deafening clatter, leaving Gudrid astonished. Contemporary scholars posit that this encounter serves as an allegory for the coming colonization of the Americas and the erasure of the female explorer from our popular understanding of the “discovery” of the Americas.
“Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning
Poets and Poetry – Dramatic Monologue – 19th Century
While not exactly a ghost poem, Browning’s dramatic monologue haunting and deliciously macabre. The poem begins as the narrator describes how his lover, Porphyria, comes to him during a raging storm. Defying the wishes of her family, she gives herself to him, almost willing him to take her life so he can forever possess her body. The speaker knows what he must do in order to preserve their forbidden love- he gathers her abundant hair “in one long yellow string” and winds it “three times her little throat around.” Once Porphyria is no longer breathing, her lover can truly own and use her.
The Beautiful Ones by Prince
Autobiography – Music and Musicians – 21st Century – Cultural History
One part personal scrapbook, one part cultural history, The Beautiful Ones is Prince’s final “letter to the world.” Filled with handwritten notes, lyrics, and journal entries, Prince’s singular vision springs from the pages like a flight of doves. The Beautiful Ones begins with Dan Pipenbring’s moving introduction and then winds its way through Prince’s early life as the child of two musicians, his beginnings on the stages of Minneapolis, and his inevitable mega-stardom. Every inch of this book is pure Prince: witty, naughty, melodic, and brilliantly, blisteringly cool. Even his handwriting, looping and elegant, is a sparkling work of art.
Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm
Biography – Music and Musicians – 20th Century – Cultural History
Fans of Please Kill Me might like to fast forward twenty or so years to the start of the nineties when a sound that is often considered the wayward stepchild of punk began raging out from the basements and garages of the gloomy Northwest. Mark Yarm employs the model set forth by McNeil and McCain in their landmark oral history to tell the story of grunge. Comprised of almost 250 interviews conducted over twenty years that cover all the glory, gore, and greed that accompanied the movement. Everybody Loves Our Town is compulsively readable and deeply nostalgic.
Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin by Alice Echols
Biography – Music and Musicians – 20th Century – Cultural History
Alice Echols uses the life of Janis Joplin to illuminate the seismic cultural shift that took place between the late 1950s and early 1970s. Beginning with her conventional but lonely upbringing in Port Arthur, Texas, Scars of Sweet Paradise traces Joplin’s journey from a misunderstood school girl to a raucous genius of rock and blues all the way to her tragic end in a lonely hotel room and the legendary status she has maintained ever since. Echols gives us a vibrant and honest portrait of this one-of-a-kind artist.
The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell
Okay, so this isn’t officially released in the US until January 12, but it was published in the UK back in October. Paraic O’Donnell’s second novel is the perfect Frankengenre-read for anyone who digs historical fiction, mysteries, supernatural yarns, snarky yet sensitive detectives. Set in London during the harsh winter of 1893, the story begins with the suspicious death of a young seamstress who is found with a message stitched onto her skin. As the narrative winds its way through the dark recesses of some of Victorian England’s most peculiar occult societies, it is up to the unlikely threesome of a Scotland Yard inspector, his bashful and insightful assistant, and a curious young beat reporter to unravel the mystery behind a continuing series of unusual deaths that are somehow all connected. While The House on Vesper Sands doesn’t really have anything profound to say about the hellacious year we’ve just experienced, it does have is a whole lot of suspense, humor, atmosphere, and charm. That’s exactly the kind of story we could use right now.
Dark Eros by Thomas Moore
Non-Fiction – 20th Century – Human Sexuality – Psychology – Spirutuality
What does the work of the Marquis de Sade look like from the perspective of psychotherapist and former monk, Thomas Moore? The answers may surprise you. Dark Eros explores how sadism fits into the realms of psychology and spirituality, and can ultimately serve as a therapeutic tool for understanding the often repressed sides of our nature. Moore tackles this subject with the candor, empathy, and warmth that have made him such a beloved guide to the human psyche.
Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty and Venus in Furs by Gilles Deleuze and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Essay – Novella – Human Sexuality – Psychology – 19th Century – 20th Century
“BDSM” has become a catch-all for any number of obscure or out of the ordinary human sexual proclivities yet it fails to illuminate the full definition of each word that initializes the acronym. In his essay, “Coldness and Cruelty,” Deleuze carefully dissects “Masochism” from “Sadism” in an effort to better understand the very separate psycho-sexual aspects of each tendency. The essay is followed by Sacher-Masoch’s seminal work, Venus in Furs which, when read with Deleuze’s insights in mind, shines in a whole new light.
Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire by Eric Berkowitz
Non-Fiction – World History – Human Sexuality – Criminality – 20th Century
Eric Berkowitz’s history of the criminalization of one of the most essential components of human nature is shocking, heartbreaking, and highly entertaining. From the temples of ancient Greece to the dark forests of the New World, to the prisons of Victorian England, the cases presented in Sex and Punishment offer us some answers to the question that hopefully, we will never tire of asking: Just how far have we evolved as a species when it comes to the acceptance of our sexuality?
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
New Fiction – Dystopian Fiction – 21st Century
Set in a bucolic Long Island vacation home during the chaos, confusion, and uncertainty that comes from an unnamed global crisis (the internet and cellular services are down), Alam’s latest novel feels almost uncanny in its sagacity about the current state of America. The main characters (a white family of four from Brooklyn and an older black couple from Manhattan) are unexpectedly drawn together as they attempt to understand why and how their connection to the outside world has been destroyed. At the same time, they grapple with age-old assumptions about race, class, sex, and intellect in a series of pointed conversations and silent observations. Leave the World Behind is not only a tense page-turner but also a lucid cultural commentary that seems to have come to us at just the right time.
Snow by John Banville
New Fiction– Mystery – Crime Fiction– 21st Century
The singular Irish novelist John Banville has gotten himself into a bit of a pickle recently after making some disparaging comments about the “woke” movement and its political impact on the literary prize racket. None of this, however, changes the fact that his latest novel, Snow, is not only crafted like a fine silk brocade but also almost impossible to put down. The inaugural novel of Banville’s latest criminal investigator St. John Strafford, Snow is set in mid-century Wexford, during an unprecedented snowstorm that, like the snowfall in Joyce’s “The Dead,” somehow carries the weight of all the nation’s troubles in every falling flake. A Catholic priest is brutally mutilated and murdered on a rural estate and protestant DI Strafford must carefully probe the scene and the larger community in order to uncover the local secret that has been festering like an undressed wound for far too long.
The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun by Sebastian Japrisot
Noir – Psychological Thriller – Female Protagonist – 20th Century
What if OTHER people seemed to be having deja vu when they saw you, swearing you’d been in the same place just a while ago, when you knew that was impossible? That’s just the start of the mind-bending plight of Dany, a Parisian secretary whose trip in her boss’s car to the sea has turned her world upside down and brought death along with it. A puzzle that will drive you mad and never lets up until the very end.
The Bride Wore Black by Cornell Woolrich
Noir – Female Antagonist – 20th Century
A woman, chameleon-like, seeks out seemingly unconnected men and kills them one after another. But why? What connects the men? Who is Julie, the mastermind of these murders? Woolrich, writing as William Irish, was a prodigious, mid-century master of suspense and this one became the basis for a Francois Truffaut homage to Hitchcock. The original novel still sustains its power as we wonder all along, “Why is she killing them, and should I be rooting for or against Julie?”
The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin
Noir – Psychological Thriller – 20th Century
A psychiatrist listens as his new patient tells him leprechauns are making him give away his money. When the shrink meets what seems to merely be a little person, who now tells his patient to start giving away horses, things go from bad to worse and the shrink wakes up six months later in a psychiatric hospital with a disfiguring scar and no idea what has happened. Nor do we, but the little-read Bardin ingeniously unravels the mystery for us as the doctor assumes a new identity and strives to find out.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
21st Century – Bildungsroman – Immigrant Narrative
Darling, an adventurous and curious young girl lives in the chaotic yet exhilarating atmosphere of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe before immigrating to Detroit to live with an aunt she hardly knows. As she adjusts to the realities of America, Darling learns to grow into her young adulthood by carefully observing the hardships, triumphs, and tenuous sense of freedom felt by those who have endeavored to begin a new life in an unfamiliar land. With honesty, humor, and downright gorgeous prose, Bulawayo has crafted a powerful bildungsroman that illuminates the struggles and surprises Darling faces as she navigates her new home and reckons with dark and blissful memories of the country in which she began.
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
21st Century – Immigrant Narrative
The melancholy and unadorned loveliness of Brooklyn tells of both the promise and the heartbreak Ellis Lacey endures as she leaves her native Ireland for a chance to build a life in New York City. Though the novel centers around the relationship Ellis builds with a young Italian-American man, it Toibin’s depiction of the dueling forces of excruciating homesickness and the desire to learn and excel in a new country that makes Brooklyn such a lucid and moving portrait of human migration.
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
21st Century – Immigrant Narrative – Graphic Novel
Illustrator and novelist Thi Bui’s groundbreaking graphic novel tells the story of her family’s immigration from Vietnam to the United States in the late seventies. Through her haunting illustrations and poetic language, Bui lays bare the struggles her family faced as refugees and immigrants as well as her own navigation through the unfamiliar territory of first-time motherhood.
The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith
20th Century – Noir – Suspense – Thriller
Best known for Strangers on a Train and the Ripley novels, Highsmith was best with psychopaths and stalkers. His marriage in ruins and his sexuality in doubt, Robert Forester starts observing and then stalking a young woman, who befriends him. But in this odd and awful small-town tragedy, few things are what they seem, fewer people can be trusted, the dead live, the past returns and the stalker may be the least evil person we meet. Highsmith at her most acidic.
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
20th Century – Noir – Suspense – Thriller
Dix Steele is aimless in Los Angeles after World War II, a former Air Force pilot who now sponges off a rich relative while prowling out of the way places and following women out on their own. But is he the strangler that is haunting the city? And will his war buddy, now a cop, figure out what Dix has become? We spend the novel inside the mind of the charming, volatile sociopath while wondering when he will make a mistake and when we, like his friend Brub, will know for sure what Dix has done.
Beast in View by Margaret Millar
20th Century – Noir – Suspense – Thriller
Who is Evelyn Merrick and why is she calling? Nothing good happens anytime this mysterious stalker calls, and while Millar’s febrile psychological thriller may resemble a standard “find the stalker” potboiler, the thrills come not from figuring it all out but the fascination about what drives Merrick and the titillation from what she will do next. The madness behind Merrick’s behavior is a dreadful poison for anyone it touches and Millar’s mid-century classic deserves revisiting.
because in times of uncertainty, poems can be buoys
“The World below the brine” by Walt Whitman
Poets and Poetry – 19th Century
My very favorite Whitman. Something about the world that exists below, in the darkness of the ocean, reminds me that there are things that we humans will never know, and that, for some reason, makes me calm and hopeful.
“American Smooth” by Rita Dove
Poets and Poetry – 21st Century
Rita Dove is a genius of verse and one of our greatest living poets. The dueling powers of serene elation and melancholy reality make this poem both exquisitely tragic and perfectly (and tragically) American.
“High Windows” by Philip Larkin
Poets and Poetry – 20th Century
Larkin is one of my top five favorite poets of all time. This was the poem that first pulled me to him.