Recent Reading: Memoir and Poetry

I’m not going to do any of these books justice, but if I’m going to blog regularly I’m going to have to plow ahead without worrying too much about that. (And, I’m sorry to say, without editing my posts).


Nell Stevens, Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World:  I love Dickens’ Bleak House, which featured largely in my PhD dissertation, so how could I not read a book with this title? As part of her MFA program, Stevens had an international fellowship allowing her to spend 3 months anywhere in the world. To the horror of her family and friends, she chose Bleaker Island in the Falklands, which lives up to its name in her descriptions. For a few weeks, she’s the only human resident. Stevens packs up her laptop, a copy of Bleak House, and all the food she’ll need for her stay (strictly limited by weight), and sets off to see if she can write a novel. She doesn’t, or at least not a good one. Instead, out of the wreckage, she later produced Bleaker House, woven together from her Falklands notebooks, bits of the failed novel, and a few short stories. 

The book doesn’t have enough Bleak House for my taste, and at times I thought it was too patchwork and too much like a bleaker, equally shallow Eat, Pray, Love story of a woman finding herself. (Stevens isn’t really a fan of the EPL genre either, but she watched the movie over and over because it happened to be all she had on her laptop when she went to Bleaker). But at its best, Bleaker House is a thoughtful reflection on creativity and on the difference between being alone and being lonely. Part of what Stevens wants to discover is whether she’s up to being alone, to the essential solitariness that writing entails (for most people), and there she succeeds. The book in interesting on the ways fiction draws from life, too–at times I wasn’t sure at first whether a section was memory or fiction, and you can see how her stories refract pieces of her life. (This excerpt in Vogue will give you a sense of the book).

Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World:  To read the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir about (or rather, prompted by) her husband’s sudden death at 50 is like staring into an abyss: I’m not really afraid of dying, but I am afraid of being left behind, alone. But as the title suggests, this book doesn’t dwell much in the darkest, rawest places of grief. Rather, it brings Alexander’s husband, Ficre, and the history of their love to vivid and perhaps rather idealized life. Ficre was a multi-lingual immigrant from Eritrea, a painter and an amazing cook; their life together, in Alexander’s account, was filled with beauty of many kinds. Light of the World is more often joyful than painful to read.

Coincidentally, this week’s New York Times Table for Three” features Alexander and Sheryl Sandburg, who also lost her husband young and has recently written a book about it. In their conversation, basically Alexander sounds like a poet and Sandburg sounds like a business self-help guru, reflecting the books they made out of their shared experience of grief. But they seem to understand each other in a way someone who hasn’t shared that experience can’t. I was struck by Alexander’s response to the final interview question, about whether shared experiences like theirs can help bridge social and political divides:

One thing that moved me about the response to my book is that readers came in for love and loss, and they came out having loved some black people.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not coming away having loved Ficre at least a little. (Supply your own political commentary here).

Currently reading: Kory Stamper, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (on audio, read by author) Stamper is sure lucky her employer, Merriam-Webster, is having A Moment on Twitter, because that has to be giving her memoir-cum-lexicography-introduction a boost. But would I have heard of it otherwise? So far, I’m enjoying it. It reminds me a little of Emily Arsenault’s debut novel The Broken Teaglass, a coming-of-age/mystery set in the offices of a dictionary publisher.


In my erratic quest to Read More Poetry, I occasionally check out my library’s office. I struck lucky in April (probably because it was Poetry Month and these books were more prominently displayed). I grabbed Sharon Olds’ Odes, a new collection that is funny and beautiful and dirty and sad. Forget Romantic subjects like West Winds and Grecian Urns. Olds pens odes to tampons, balls (yes, that kind), her fat and her new hip joint, among other things. I loved these poems, which were full of surprising images.

I also found Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language, which dates to the 1970s. Some of these poems, like “Mother-Right,” are much anthologized. I enjoyed meeting them again in this fuller context. I was struck by this tribute from James Cihlar, which comments that “Rich’s work in the seventies was an antidote for the disillusionment of the Watergate generation.” No wonder these poems about women’s creative power, about finding a language in which to speak about the love between women, seem so deeply resonant, read in this newly disillusioned and anti-feminist time.

I breezed through these collections, reading a few poems a night. I felt kind of guilty–shouldn’t I be close reading? I didn’t really understand them! I didn’t get every nuance! But if I tried to read poetry like the English teacher I am, I wouldn’t be doing it. What does it matter if I don’t remember details or phrases, the way I do when I linger over a poem I read with a class? I remember how these poems made me feel. And letting them escape my “mastery” feels like the right way to read them. I am grateful to these writers for their loving attention to women’s bodies, dreams and lives.

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3 Responses to Recent Reading: Memoir and Poetry

  1. I really enjoyed this whole post; they all sound like good books, though I think I’d have a hard time reading a poem about a tampon without recoiling. The Light of the World sounds beautiful and frightening (I share your fear of losing a spouse). I wanted to ask about The Broken Teaglass; have you posted about that in the past?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I would have said that I DID post about it, but I can’t find it (I’m surprised I remember it as well as I do, then). It has some typical debut novel flaws like slow pacing and plot points that aren’t fully woven in/prepared for, and I remember (vaguely) the mystery plot as not really plausible. But I really liked the post-college-first-job focus–it’s could be labelled New Adult, really!–and all the details about working at a dictionary. And googling the book I found that Arsenault did, in fact, once work for Merriam-Webster. It’s a quirky book that for some will fall on the wrong side of the Pretentious line,but I enjoyed it (I listened to the audiobook). I keep meaning to try some of her later books.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Those were the things that made it sound interesting — the new grad and the dictionary angle. Slow pacing and plot points that aren’t fully woven in make it sound less appealing, but quirky is good. I’ll try a sample.

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