Waxing Poetic | The Reader’s Shelf

Author Colum McCann wrote in the Guardian that “poets have their fingers on a different pulse.” The creators of the following novels skillfully position poetry at the center of their tales, putting their own fingers on that very beat.

arsonistsguide.jpg42117Time has not been kind to Richard delicatebirds.jpg42117Winslow, a once-acclaimed poet who explains that he suffers from “commercial leprosy.” His wife is preparing to leave him; he drinks far too much and far too often. When a visiting professorship opens at a remote Montana college, Richard reluctantly accepts the offer. He hopes to recover from writer’s block, embrace a love for fly-fishing, and ramble through the picturesque landscape. His daydreams are one thing, but Richard also encounters Erika, a fragile and talented student who adds both intrigue and misery to his life. Sorrowful journeys are common in fiction, but Richard and Erika cover complex, poignant terrain on their rueful road trip in Kevin Canty’s ­eloquent Winslow in Love (Vintage. 2006. ISBN 9781400078554. pap. $14; ebk. ISBN 9780307430281).

A sharp satire on our dark, debt-laden times is Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets (Harper Perennial. 2010. ISBN 9780061916052. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780061965913), which follows in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Matthew Prior, a recently laid-off financial columnist, is facing marital woes as his wife’s compulsive eBay purchases have led to impending foreclosure. He hatches a plan he is sure will bring in cash flow: a website featuring poetry about money. Somehow surprised when this venture fails, Matthew stumbles upon his next outrageous commercial scheme while on a late-night trip to a store. Mildly endearing poetry is sprinkled throughout this depressingly hilarious (or hilariously depressing) view of Everyman blended with laugh-out-loud scenes.

In Seth Greenland’s I Regret Everything (Europa. 2015. ISBN 9781609452476. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781609452575), Jeremy Best is a New York City attorney who also surreptitiously writes poetry under the moniker Jinx Bell. Spaulding Simonson, an aspiring poet and the troubled, precocious daughter of Jeremy’s coworker, reads his work in the Paris Review and realizes Jinx’s true identity. The two alternate narrating chapters that unfold like a dance and tell an unlikely story of connection between two needy, lonely, and frightened individuals. This compact literary novel with its raw and realistic plot twists explores life, love, and the power of verse.

Thirtysomething sisters—the righteous ­Rosalind, brittle Bianca, and capricious Cordelia—shine in Eleanor Brown’s wise and witty debut, The Weird Sisters (Putnam. 2012. ISBN 9780425244142. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101486375). Readers quickly catch on to how the “weird” in the title (from the Anglo-Saxon “wyrd,” meaning destiny) foretells each sister’s fate as they reunite at their family home to aid their ailing mother. Their father, a Shakespearean scholar, communicates in the Bard’s iambic pentameter, with others in the family occasionally speaking in a similar fashion. This unique touch in Brown’s savvy story is quirky, but she also uses the playwright’s themes to surface deeper issues.

Lauren Groff’s delectable Delicate ­Edible Birds (Hachette. Aug. 2016. ISBN 9780316317771. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781401396374) is plump with nine riveting short stories. Among all Groff’s characters, including champion swimmers, baton twirlers, and dictators’ wives, the most alluring are the poets in “Blythe.” Stay-at-home moms Harriet and Blythe meet in a night class for creative writing and form an instant friendship. Quiet and grounded, Harriet weathers the charismatic and unstable Blythe, who brings constant dramatic highs and lows to Harriet’s world. Devoted Harriet tries to hold fast, until their thorny bonds become too complex and convoluted for even she to support. Later, attaining her own literary success, Harriet becomes aware of how Blythe’s performances and ploys shaped her life.

The befuddled and bumbling Sam Pulsifer is the key figure in Brock Clarke’s snarky An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (Algonquin. 2008. ISBN 9781565126145. pap. $13.95; ebk. ISBN 9781565126381). Upon completing a ten-year prison term for accidentally burning down Emily Dickinson’s home and killing two caretakers, Sam is acclimating to life as a free man. During his return to his parents’ home, he is amazed when his father shares several letters requesting that other famous writers’ residences be destroyed. Though he is horrified, Sam makes plans to visit the home of Robert Frost, leading to a series of vague, unsettling discoveries. Clarke’s wildly original and absurdly screwball faux memoir is not only an unpredictable detective tale but also a tragic, caustic ­conundrum.

This column was contributed by librarian and freelance writer Andrea Tarr, Alta Loma, CA

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net

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  1. Rhonda S clark says:

    Excellent! I love Andrea Tarr’s reviews!

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