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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 12.11.2008

 

Winter Reading

Fiction & Poetry

Nonfiction

Graphic Novels

Selected New Books From Oregon Authors

Terrorists, Dragons and Survival 

The World, Changing and Changed

 

FICTION

Long Labors, Both By Sea and Land

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson. Candlewick, $22.99. A New York Times Notable Children’s Book of 2008.

The first half of this 900-page young adult work, I wrote two years ago, “trumps [Tobin Anderson’s] other novels in complexity, character development and the moral rigor required of those reading the book.” Octavian’s character, readers of Volume I: The Pox Party will know, undergoes severe stress. Pampered and coddled but also made to perform like a pet, Octavian figured out in the first volume that in the end, his masters regarded him as nothing more than any other slave. His escape at the end of Pox Party sets up this book, which moves from a scene that closely parallels the beginning of The Aeneid (a point noticed by Octavian, of course, because of his classical education) through the Revolutionary War from the point of view of those who have little to win from either side.

White men’s cries for liberty didn’t include liberty for their slaves, and those slaves had to figure out how to make decisions that might help themselves. In Virginia, the British governor Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation that any slave of the rebels could become free by fighting for Dunmore. Octavian sees that there’s little for him in the town of his childhood and he, along with his mentor and instrument of his freedom, Dr. Trefusis, heads for Virginia. 

Some find the language in the Octavian Nothing books challenging; some find it hard to read a tale that includes so much physical and emotional pain. Given that the true history of Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment could scarcely be more depressing, this second volume ends with much more hope than one might expect. And on the way, there’s much history to learn, including stories of slaves from various parts of Africa. The first volume won the National Book Award; this one, perhaps because of some longeurs in the narrative of Octavian and his shipbound peers, was unaccountably slighted. I hope it will show up in the American Library Association’s Printz Awards come January, but no matter, this one’s a remarkable book that The New York Times’ reviewer compared to Poe, Melville, Twain, Hawthorne and Italo Calvino. Then there’s Virgil. How much does Octavian resemble Aeneas? Readers may hope that Octavian’s brains and newfound brawn serve to found some new, truly enlightened, free city-state. But as Octavian discovers, reason doesn’t reveal everything. — Suzi Steffen

 

As We Lay, Dying

The Gathering by Anne Enright. Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic, 2007. $14. Winner, 2007 Man Booker Prize. A New York Times Notable Book of 2007. 

The suicide of a favorite brother, Liam, brings together the Hegarty clan, a dispersed family of 12 Irish Catholic siblings, their sometimes harsh but mannerly father long dead. Liam’s dearest sister, Veronica, must inform their family of his death and retrieve his body. Veronica is devastated, but their “vague” mother barely notices. Though she cries, she would cry the same “no matter what son he was” because “she has plenty more” and can barely remember their names anyway. 

At his wake, the siblings bicker and drink a bit much, revisiting the shared turbulence of growing up. Veronica’s unfettered grief leads her to run away from her marriage and avoid her daughters, working late or taking long night drives.

She acknowledges that Liam was an alcoholic, “a terrible messer,” though she isn’t quite sure how drinking became his biggest problem. They shared the same upbringing, yet some “distant gear” moved her towards middle-class comfort while leading him to fill his pockets with rocks and walk into the ocean off of Brighton. In trying to comprehend what brought Liam to the water’s edge, Veronica allows snatches of their childhood experiences to enter her consciousness. Shadowy moments in their grandmother’s house when Veronica and Liam were 8 and 9 are revealed as a possible source of Liam’s pain. We can’t be certain what happened or what burdens Liam bore after that summer, but Veronica’s devotion to him is transformative for her and the reader, who must face Liam’s possible traumas as unflinchingly as Veronica does when the final picture emerges. — Vanessa Salvia

 

Through the Ghoulish Gate

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. HarperCollins, $17.99.

Neil Gaiman’s latest novel — in theory for young readers, though it should be picked up by just about everyone — has such a timeless feeling, it seems as if it ought to begin “Once upon a time … ” But at the same time, it’s entirely modern: Cars rush by in the small town outside the graveyard in which the boy Bod (short for Nobody) is raised, and a young girl from the outside world longs for a cell phone. This criss-crossing of time and tone is to be expected from Gaiman (American Gods, Neverwhere), and in fact is what he excels at; his best stories are entirely new and entirely familiar at the same time, like tales you’ve always known but only remember as you read each word and turn each page. 

In The Graveyard Book, Gaiman creates a suspenseful, sweet, original story about an orphaned boy raised by ghosts, vampires, werewolves, long-dead witches and ancient Romans. Carefully, beautifully, the book grows with the boy; its vocabulary stretches and snaps, the scary bits get scarier and darker, the outside world looms ever closer and “the man Jack,” who murders Bod’s family in the very first pages, creeps closer to the child he never stops hunting. In Gaiman’s hands, there’s nothing very odd about growing up in a graveyard — or anywhere else different, for that matter. If you’ve never read Gaiman, you’re missing out, and there’s no reason not to start here; if you know Gaiman fans who looks skeptically at his children’s books, urge them to reconsider immediately. The Graveyard Book, like its author, is one to treasure.  — Molly Templeton

 

Forecast: Cloudy

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23. A Salon Best Book of 2008.

Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” So says Leo Liebenstein, a New York City psychiatrist whose younger, Argentine wife, Rema, he is quick to note, does not like dogs. The woman is carrying a dog. As his story continues, Leo’s list of terms for the woman he does not believe is Rema include “the dog lover,” “the simulacrum” and “the doppelganger.” He’s convinced the real Rema, like his patient Harvey, is missing. It’s possible the Royal Academy of Meteorology, which sends Harvey coded messages about weather control via The New York Post, has something to do with it; it’s possible a meteorologist named Tzvi Gal-Chen is connected. And it’s possible Leo is simply mistaken, his perception warped, shifted or locked down at a moment in the past. In her first novel, Rivka Galchen carefully never spells anything out. She leaves clues in Leo’s reading material, in his choice of words, in the things that attract his attention about Rema or Harvey or a beautiful waitress in a coffee shop. Leo is a hard character to connect with, but his story is strangely affecting all the same, mostly for the inventive way it considers the twin questions of whether we ever really know other people — and how we can possibly keep up with knowing them as they, and we, constantly change.  — Molly Templeton

 

Whetting Your Appetite

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane. William Morrow, $27.95. 

Lehane scored big with Mystic River; with this novel, he takes his place among the craftiest practitioners of mystery’s dark art.

Time: 1918, pivotal year in American and world history: WWI ending and soldiers returning, bringing deep wounds and disease; Russian Revolution fresh, spreading dreams of workers’ rights and anarchist bombings; women struggling for suffrage against bitter resistance; Prohibition looming, the amendment that will plunge America into a decade of corruption and criminality; lynchings and race riots leaving black people terrified and their homes in ashes; labor unrest resulting in hundreds of strikes and crushing repression. “What a time to be alive.” 

Place: Boston, “Athens of America,” thriving with industrial growth and technical innovations, riven with poverty and child labor, harshly divided by race, gender, religion, class and ethnicity, a bubbling stew of unmet needs and unvented emotions, rapidly coming to a boil.

Down these mean streets walk two sharply etched, deeply sympathetic characters, both honest and daring, strong but tender. Aiden “Danny” Coughlin is an Irish beat cop who finds himself in the vanguard of the movement to unionize the BPD, caught between irresistible forces that would crush him or kill him if necessary. Luther Laurence is black (actually “sandpaper-brown”), smart, athletic and on the run from Tulsa gangsters. Contacts with members of the nascent NAACP put Luther on the bull’s-eye of risks and hatred. 

A third character weaves an oddly colorful thread through the narrative: Babe Ruth, 23, baseball’s “Sultan of Swat,” seems an icon of America’s hope, a good man, talented, deeply flawed but essentially decent, obsessed with his game, blithely confident that “it’ll all work out.”

This is a terrific novel, but it’s not satisfying. Instead, it leaves readers hungry for more — about these characters and America’s history — as it should.  — Lance Sparks

 

Lacking a Pride

A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire. William Morrow, $26.95.

For his third book set in a reimagined, politicized Oz, Gregory Maguire turns his attention to a character who was just a tiny, frightened cub in Wicked: Brrr, the Lion (capital letters denoting a human-like consciousness) whom Elphaba, the Witch, defended fiercely in a college class. Brrr, like his L. Frank Baum-created counterpart, is indeed cowardly, but not in the usual sense. Here, he’s socially inept, lacking empathy, unable to understand how to connect with others after his solitary childhood in the forests of Oz. But how he is linked to Elphaba, even after all these years, and how he comes to connect, in his way, to other characters from Maguire’s dark, irresistible Oz, turn Lion into a necessary read for

fans. — Molly Templeton

 

Morally Adrift

The End of Manners by Francesca Marciano. Pantheon, $23.95.

As a Western journalist, I have to decide each day which portion of these people’s suffering is going to be my theme of the day and which is the portion I’m going to have to ignore so it doesn’t get in the way,” a man in The End of Manners says to the main character, Maria Galante. Maria’s a photographer hired to accompany a feature writer into the world of Afghani women whose despair and anguish most people can’t see behind their veils. But should she take photos of women whose lives will be in danger, almost certainly forfeit, should she publish them?

That’s not a question the feature writer, the magnetic and mercurial British Imo Glass, worries about. The writer has compassion, but she wants to get in, get the story and get out safely. Meanwhile, Maria, an Italian woman who made her name with a photo of a young Thai prostitute playing with a Barbie doll, questions her motives and her sanity. Shooting women and shooting women — an obvious parallel, and not a new conundrum for Western journalists who know they’re more likely to win awards with stories from war zones. But Marciano explores the problem through compelling characters both Western and Afghani, especially Hanif, the driver and fixer for Maria and Imo. At the close of the novel, Maria might have to make a choice that will both affect her career and determine whether the story of the women gets told at all. But the choice might be a false one; Marciano leaves readers with plenty of questions about privilege, paralysis, pity and possibility. — Suzi Steffen

 

Once More Into The Great Maw

A Mercy by Toni Morrison. Knopf, $23.95. A New York Times Best Book of 2008.

The land was ours before we were the land’s,” read Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Oh … er … not quite. Native Americans, Africans, white indentured servants — the great maw of colonialism swallowed everyone in the European search for Eden. That’s bluntly illustrated in Morrison’s slim new novel A Mercy, set in the late 17th century. The novel could almost be a fable but for the individuality of her characters: Florens, the slave girl who longs to understand how her mother could have given her up to the trader Jacob Vaark; Sorrow, a woman of indeterminate origin who serves erractically on Vaark’s estate; Lina, whose people were mostly wiped out by sickness and by settlers torching the remains of the village; two white male indentured servants who have found some sort of life with each other. Then there’s Rebekka, Jacob’s wife, who turns harsh and hostile after a bout with smallpox, and of course Jacob himself, who begins as a rather surprisingly gentle man, an orphan who had some luck in his fortune and in his wife. He’s the one who takes Florens in exchange for a debt, but he does it out of what he thinks is generosity. Jacob makes one very bad decision, born out of lust for a larger, better house, to invest in the sugar trade of Barbados.

The gates of paradise — literally, the gates to Jacob’s new house, which he never gets to inhabit even for a second — are wrought by the one free laborer in the book, a black man and blacksmith who attracts young Florens with his beautiful body and his freedom. He tells her to own herself, but she doesn’t understand much about how she got where she is or what she needs. Nor do the other characters, all of them trying to survive and carve out a life in an unimaginably hard time, made harder by the relentless lack of freedom and the crushing desire to dominate the land and other humans. A bare-bones description of the book makes it sound like a morality play, but as usual with Morrison, her thick writing saves everything even while she shows that the City on the Hill has always been built over the desires, soft flesh and bones of those sacrificed in pursuit of Paradise. — Suzi Steffen

 

One, Two, Many New Yorks

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. Pantheon, $23.95. A New York Times Best Book of 2008. A Salon Best Book of 2008.

Perhaps both Molly and I are missing something, for we both consider this book one of the more overrated of the year. That’s not to say that the story of a Dutch man’s broken marriage and friendship with Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian mobster and entrepreneur, doesn’t have value as a beautifully written story about immigration and 9/11. But sometimes the entire thing’s rather obvious. Yes, all right, everyone in the other former British colonies plays cricket, and most people in the U.S. don’t, so it can stand as a metaphor for New! Immigrants! Coming! Here! The book’s not loud in the way of that last sentence, however — if there’s an exclamation point, it won’t be from the voice of narrator Hans van den Broek, whose quiet despair has such little affect that he ends up a rather blank

bore.

Also: Yes, guess what, the narrator’s marriage is like New York. The city is wounded during 9/11, and so is his marriage. The city heals with its multicultural, immigrant-welcoming, continual reinvention … and so does the narrator once an eclectic group of hotel residents and, of course, the very necessary person-of-color friend come along to help him. D’oh!

But Netherland contains passages of lovely writing, especially about cricket (which most Americans still won’t understand, no matter how many times we read this novel) and about Ramkissoon. Plus, just about every end-of-year top-10 list contains Netherland, so perhaps we’re just picky. Check it out for yourself and see if, like Queens, Eugene needs a cricket pitch. — Suzi Steffen

 

Posthumous Recollections

Wild Nights: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway by Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, $24.95.

From the über-prolific Joyce Carol Oates comes a collection of stories that imagine the last hurrah of venerated

American novelists and poets. But the centerpiece of Wild Nights is “EDickinsonRepliLuxe,” a George Saunders-esque tale set in the near future in which a husband and wife purchase a robotic replica of Emily Dickinson and, like the poet’s critics, tear her fragile, stubborn world to shreds, and vice versa. While at the robot replica store: “The husband said, irritably, ‘What about Sylvia Plath? She killed herself.’ The wife said, ‘Oh but with us, in our household, I’m sure Sylvia would not. We would be a new, wholesome influence.’” You get the picture.— Chuck Adams

 

Dysfunction in Denmark

To Siberia by Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born. Graywolf Press, $22.

In recent years the often dark, sometimes merely melancholy novels of the cold Nordic climes have been making their way onto American must-read lists. In 2007 Out Stealing Horses by Norwegian author Per Petterson was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times. This year, readers who loved the loneliness of Horses can read one of Petterson’s early works, his 1996 To Siberia (Til Sibir), which was translated for a British audience 10 years ago but only now made available in the U.S. 

To Siberia is narrated by a nameless Danish woman looking back on the history of her dysfunctional family on the shores of northern Jutland during the outbreak of the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Distant from her parents, she and her beloved brother Jesper dream of faraway places. He sets his sights on Morocco while she imagines herself in Siberia: “I wanted skies that were cold and clear, where it was easy to breathe and easy to see for long distances.”

Torn apart when Jesper must flee to Sweden after the Nazis discover he was working with the Danish Resistance, the siblings never reunite, nor does To Siberia ever really find its footing again. Unfortunately the storytelling of the last third of the book mirrors the narrator’s listless adulthood, but because the first two thirds are filled with that spare prose that made Out Stealing Horses so mesmerizing, To Siberia is worth the read. — Camilla Mortensen

 

Embroidered History

The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles. Harper, $25.95.

Don’t be fooled by the seemingly simple narrative conventions of The Seamstress, a hefty book which tells the tale of two sisters in the north of Brasil of the 1920s and 1930s. Yes, it’s the kind of straightforward story that walks the line between genre historical romance and literary historical fiction. What tips the scale is not the writing (it’s fine, workable) but the philosophical concerns that de Pontes Peebles stitches in — the ways sewing becomes more than an occupation. It’s a metaphor, of course, and a useful philosophical touchstone for the roil of modernity versus the sometimes more useful, sometimes stupidly grinding ways of tradition.

Unless you studied Latin American history in more detail than several college classes can provide, you probably won’t know the tales of Brasil’s northern interior, where rebels/thieves/escapees from trad-ition, called cangacieros, made deals with a variety of wealthy landowners and enforced their own brand of justice. But you might know about eugenics and about what’s likely to happen when a man of science thinks he can analyze personalities from head measurements, or you might know about the jolt of difference between rural expectations and society life in cities. In this tale of Emilia, who makes it to the city by marrying into a socially prominent family, and her sister Luzia, who ends up with the scrubland as her empire, both sisters discover life beyond the tiny town where they grow up. They can only communicate through coded photos and newspaper stories written by others, and their various hardships and proscribed actions make for compelling reading as well as a good launching point for learning more about the history of the sprawling, resource-rich land to our south. — Suzi Steffen

 

Drowning Strength

Goldengrove by Francine Prose. Harper, $24.95.

Francine Prose’s 15th novel has a premise that could so easily, in the hands of someone less subtle, turn into a mawkish movie of the week: Thirteen-year-old Nico’s gorgeous, talented older sister, Margaret, dives from the boat in which she and Nico are floating on Mirror Lake. She never resurfaces. 

But Prose isn’t concerned with dramatics. As Goldengrove — which, like Margaret, takes its name from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem — progresses, Nico’s parents turn inwards, one to a manuscript, the other to a handful of pills, and Nico is left to work through her grief and confusion almost alone. The one person who seems most likely to understand is her sister’s boyfriend, Aaron, an artist whose gradual pushing shapes Nico into the image of her sister even as she’s trying to figure out how her world will reshape itself around a Margaret-sized hole. 

Goldengrove is reflective and heavy but cool and still, the weight of memory hanging over a quiet house of mourners. Prose is aware of every unexpected roadblock that appears in the wake of grief, the way the page of a book or a faint whiff of vanilla lands like a boulder, blocking all progress on the path out of mourning. But though it’s grief-stricken, lonely and haunting, Goldengrove isn’t a slog; it isn’t swamped with bleakness. Instead, Prose finds — in old movies, art books, melodies and paintings; in solitude and strange companionship — the moments, no matter how tangled or awkward, that move Nico forward, out of her sister’s complicated shadow, into her own life.  — Molly Templeton

Prodigal, Prodigious Pain

Home by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25. A New York Times Notable Book of 2008. Finalist, 2008 National Book Award for Fiction.

Gilead, Rbinson’s previous work about the small town of Gilead, Iowa, addressed thorny questions of religion and race, among other things, such as Iowans’ participation in the Civil War. Home, a parallel tale as slow as the most deliberate moments of Gilead, mixes the Biblical tale of the prodigal son with investigations into the nature of aging, friendship, secrets and love foolishly, helplessly spent. Robinson’s books never hit on only two or three levels, however. The complex nature of her intellect emerges not in the direct narrative — the tale of siblings Glory and Jack Boughton returning to Gilead when their elderly, fragile pastor father and his best friend John Ames (the narrator of Gilead) are dying — but in her steely grappling with large historical questions and quiet internal revolutions.

Glory’s grief about her much-loved and usually absent brother, the loss of a personal dream and the death of her father overlay every incandescent description of small-town Iowa. Then there’s bad boy alcoholic/scoundrel Jack, who was redeemed, he explains, through the love of a woman named Della but who seems destined to descend again as his letters to Della return to Gilead unopened. Reading this book, one can’t help but consider the truly lifesaving revolutions of the mid-20th century: birth control, the Civil Rights movement and, yes, Alcoholics Anonymous and addiction treatment programs, not to mention the power of personal therapy and communal action. A big reveal at the book’s conclusion should surprise no one but the willfully blind Glory, but that’s not the point: A Robinson novel, like a six-hour movie or, hey, years of gorgeous summer nights in Iowa, rewards persistence, thought and contemplation. — Suzi Steffen

 

What God and America Hath Wrought

The End by Salvatore Scibona. Graywolf Press, $24. Finalist, 2008 National Book Award for Fiction.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith recently lamented the strength of 19th-century literary realism in novels of the more fragmented 21st century. She need read no farther than Scibona’s challenging, brilliant work, a kaleidoscopic look at a bit of Italian immigrant life in

Ohio that opens on Assumption Day, 1953. Various characters spiral out and around the day, and the first portion of the book, written in extremely close third-person and occasional first-person narration from/about a baker, proves the most difficult. Get past the sludgy, maddening voice of Rocco, and the book opens up. Sort of. Kirkus Reviews called The End “a demanding but rewarding novel likely to appeal to a very small audience,” a most accurate assessment.

Scibona, whose talents were shaped at Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1990s and in years since at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, clearly spent years constructing this tough portrait of immigrants interacting with their new land and with an overarching loneliness. When the author occasionally writes in the voice of a smart American teenager and thus reveals his natural clarity, readers will understand that he’s explaining exactly what the book concerns: a spooling out of history, the tale of white resistance to African American rights, a move from the farm to the city and the old country to the new, the ways people avoid and move towards the E.M. Forster command to “only connect.”  — Suzi Steffen

 

A Lady, First

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. Random House, $26. A New York Times Notable Book of 2008.

Would American Wife be as interesting a read if we didn’t know that the protagonist was Laura Bush with the details considerably smudged? Curtis Sittenfeld’s depiction of measured introvert Alice Lindgren might get a little boring after 550 pages were it not for the extraordinary circumstances in which she finds herself. 

Throughout American Wife, Alice attempts to apply the lessons of her wholesome Wisconsin childhood to her relationships with everyone she meets, including her idiosyncratic suitor, Charlie Blackwell, and his gleefully wealthy and prestigious family. For this we mostly admire her, marveling that someone so staid and thoughtful could handle the curveballs that marriage to a man like Charlie throws her. (Alcoholism, check. Cocaine use, check. Creepy political mastermind puppeteering from the wings, check.) But Alice’s strength in the face of adversity and tragedy (a great deal of the book is devoted to the death of her teenage soulmate) begins to take on an almost defensive tone as she is thrust unwillingly into the spotlight. The more eyes rest upon her, the less responsibility she is willing to take for anything that goes on around her, stubbornly insisting that her disinterest in public life exempts her from facing the discord between her husband’s beliefs and her own. 

Although Alice narrates the story, Sittenfeld’s hand is clearly and cleverly present as we watch the eventual first lady grow from sad teenager to independent young woman to mature bride to mother and, finally, White House occupant, all the while protesting her fundamentally unaltered nature just a little too much.  — Adrienne van der Valk

 

Strange Kidnappings

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti. Dial Press, $25. A New York Times Notable Book of 2008.

Hannah Tinti’s first novel is an odd little piece, a strangely charming story about a young one-handed boy who is whisked away from the orphanage in which he was raised. Benjamin Nabb, the fellow who comes to get the wary Ren, isn’t the boy’s brother, as he claims, but what he turns out to be — over the course of adventures involving the likes of a giant named Dolly, a chimney-climbing dwarf and a corpse-buying doctor — is, like the book itself, something more than it seems at first glance. Tinti writes with clarity and empathy, winding even the book’s oddest, darkest moments around Ren’s need for family, be it biological or chosen.  — Molly Templeton

 

The Pursuit of Wackyness

Crazy Love by Leslie What. Wordcraft of Oregon, $13.95.

In her second short story collection, Nebula Award-winning Leslie What conjures up a handful of unconvent-

ional  tales of love, lust, devotion and attraction — but mostly love, in many guises. A woman waits to give birth to countless strange, tiny babies; a girl tends lovingly to a tumor that’s all that’s left of her dead mother; a man faces the thousand children he never expected to have; the ghosts of old lovers visit a woman in a world where love is a game you never really win. What has an unexpected perspective on the ways love, to borrow a phrase from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, makes you do the wacky; her characters suffer strange love-related symptoms, their feelings made flesh, their bodies poised on betrayal, their conditions physical manifestations of the good and terrible parts of loving someone else. Vivid, scary, sympathetic, Crazy Love is unsettling and unforgettable. — Molly Templeton



POETRY

Okra, Bacon, Grits and Heartache

Dear Darkness by Kevin Young. Knopf, $26.95.

For whatever reason, death and dying seems to bring out the best in writers. Last year Mary Jo Bang wowed the poetry world with her steely Elegy, an entire book of poetry devoted to her dead son. This year we have Kevin Young, a professor of English and writing at Emory University, writing a body of work indirectly addressing the shock of grief he experienced after the death of his father. Dear Darkness, Young’s sixth book of poetry, is mostly composed of odes that are, on the surface, dedicated to grits, pork, New England, sweet potato pie and barbecue sauce, among others. But in the same breath and heartfelt yearning with which he praises the places and foods of his life, Young grapples with the bittersweet memories of his family, especially his father.

At times Young’s poetry reads like what I’d expect to come from a poetry professor who publishes a nearly 200-page collection with Knopf. Young knows this. In “Flash Flood Blues” he writes “I got my master’s / degree in slavery,” though even this poem ends up, ultimately, about his father: “Death pretends / not to know me / Though the grapevine say / he’s my daddy.” But Young’s strengths in Darkness are his mournful, deeply felt odes, where he commonly threads a line between a delicious dish and the sorrow in his heart. In his “Ode to Boudin,” it is unclear if Young is addressing the sausage or his father: “You are the reason / I know that skin / is only that, holds / more than it meets.” In the end, it doesn’t matter: Life is still beautiful. — Chuck Adams