Several years ago, while wondering how to get more people to read poetry, I came up with an idea. Why not pair poetry collections with popular fiction titles in a read-all-around experience that would show folks how richly exciting and tapped in and accessible poetry really is? I’ve never gotten around to actually trying it until this year, when I took a look at LJ‘s Best Books list and got some ideas. Here are my suggestions for books to read along with LJ‘s Top Ten in poetry, focused on current or forthcoming titles, mostly but not exclusively fiction ,and drawing on other LJ Best Books when possible. Let me know if this works!
al-Jubouri, Amal. Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation. Alice James. ISBN 9781882295890. pap. $17.50.
This lyric and heartrending account of Iraq’s current turmoil might add perspective for readers of thrillers like Michael Robotham’s eviscerating The Wreckage. More literary titles include Benjamin Bucholz’s One Hundred and One Nights, a novel just out this month about an Iraqi who has returned home from America, and Stephen Dau’s forthcoming The Book of Jonas. My favorite fiction on the complexity of war in the Middle East remains Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil.
Flynn, Nick. The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. Graywolf. ISBN 9781555975746. $22.
I’ve racked by brains to come up with a current fiction title that equals the intensity of Flynn’s forthright look at human violence, but nothing works for me like Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s 2008 The Painter of Battles. In a striking parallel, Flynn focuses partly on Abu Grahib and its awful photographs, while Pérez-Reverte’s hero is a disillusioned war photographer. In addition, Flynn’s collection might add an interesting counterbalance to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, an LJ Best Book.
Foulds, Adam. The Broken Word: An Epic Poem of British Empire in Kenya, and the Mau Mau Uprising Against It. Penguin. ISBN 9780143118091. pap. $16.
This Costa Award winner uses the personal‚ a young man’s return to the family farm in 1950s Kenya‚ to tell the significant story of rebellion against colonial rule. I cannot imagine a more illuminating poetry book to read along with Alexandra Fuller’s classic Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and her recent Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, both memoirs of her family in an Africa just slipping its chains.
Kageyama-Ramakrishnan, Claire. Bear, Diamonds and Crane. Four Way Bks. ISBN 9781935536130. pap. $15.95.
When I first started thinking about this book, writers from Chang-rae Lee to Jhumpa Lahiri came to mind as possible parallel reads. But the best match for this exploration of family, love, and loss, particularly among several generations of Japanese Americans, is Julie Otsuka’s National Book Award nominee and LJ Best Book, The Buddha in the Attic. Don’t forget her earlier title, When the Emperor Was Divine. Both authors write with delicacy and distinctiveness.
Kakischke, Laura. Space, in Chains. Copper Canyon. ISBN 9781556593338. pap. $16.
Kakischke here writes breathtakingly about the luminous everyday, with poems ranging from Your Headache to Rain. She’s so wide-ranging that a good match was evading me until I thought of Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family: Stories, an LJ Best Book that vivifies the breadth of human experience in the author’s own fluid tones.
Levin, Dana. Sky Burial. Copper Canyon. ISBN 9781556593321. pap. $15.
Levin references everything from Tibetan Buddhist burial practices to Aztec sacrifice as she explores the meaning and impact of death in her singing, beautifully fractured lines. Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, an LJ Best Book and National Book Award nominee, also explores death‚ her subject is turmoil in the Balkans‚ with the same quiet radiance.
Shockley, Evie. The new black. Wesleyan Univ. ISBN 9780819571403. $22.95.
Stylistically, Shockley’s in-your-face poetry differs from the hard-won lyricism of Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winner (and personal favorite) Salvage the Bones. Yet they share an urgent need to communicate what the African American experience is today. For a real stylistic match, go for Ishmael Reed’s Juice!
Smith, Bruce. Devotions. Phoenix: Univ. of Chicago. ISBN 9780226764351. pap. $18.
Pulitzer Prize finalist Smith’s devotions are rigorous, discursive contemplations ranging from the offbeat everyday (Thirst Reduction) to the profound (the child Tchaikovsky screaming This music./ It’s here in my head. Save me from it). Try reading them with illustrator Lou Beach’s debut story collection, 420 Characters, just out this month to considerable praise. The vignettes are each delivered in 420 characters, the limit Facebook set on status updates when Beach started posting his pieces there, and they are weird and wonderful little gems.
Smith, Tracy K. Life on Mars. Graywolf. ISBN 9781555975845. pap. $15.
Smith’s exploration of art, science, and religion is couched partly as an elegy for her father, a scientist who worked on the development of the Hubble Space Telescope. A couple of books come to mind as compatible reads. The Lieutenant, Kate Grenville’s 2009 follow-up to her Commonwealth Writers’ Prize‚ winning The Secret River, explores a young British soldier’s construction of an observatory in late 18th-century New South Wales. More broadly, Gin Phillips’s Come In and Cover Me, coming in January, explores art (pottery made by Natives of the American Southwest), science (the efforts of archaeologists to find and study them), and religion (protagonist Ren is a successful archaeologist because she can commune with ghosts of the past, including her brother). That might work.
Trinidad, David. Dear Prudence: New and Selected Poems. Turtle Point, dist. by Consortium. ISBN 9781933527475. pap. $19.
Whether he’s summing up Peyton Place in haiku or looking at Diane Arbus looking at blockbuster writer Jacqueline Susann, Trinidad can be so goofily caustic that his compendium would be a perfect read with nearly any novel about contemporary mores. I had an inspired thought, though, while attending a concert this afternoon: Lorrie Moore!