Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, by Tony Hoagland


First off, how great is that title? I laughed out loud when I saw it. Such a wonderful combination of humor, ordinary things, and Japanese poetic traditions. Plus, my #1 son is finally getting a Honda like the rest of us, so I guess I’ve founded a Honda dynasty of my own, however late he is coming to it.

I love Hoagland’s poems. He uses the things of this world to craft seemingly simple poems, poems that always leave me staring off into the distance thinking new thoughts. I’ve written before about his work.

Here we have a stroll through a mall food court, a cement truck, and “A middle-aged man / who cannot make love to his wife”. We have fathers and foghorns and teaching children to eat slugs. But what we really have are our buried emotions surprised into the light, like the grubs and bugs revealed when a “slab of bark” is “pried off”.

In “Plastics” he takes us through many manifestations of our relationship with plastic, throwing in these thought-provoking lines: “you could mull over the ethics of enslaving matter / even while feeling admiration for the genius it takes / to persuade a molecule to become part of a casserole container.” Then he brings it in to the personal, to a couple at a table in the park, and the insinuation of the nature of plastic into our relationships.

My favorite poem in the collection is “Demolition”. I love the way it starts off, with men watching a building being demolished, “swivel chairs and lathe / crashing and bashing into giant bins five floors below.” Having a fun relationship with a three-year-old boy these days, I totally get how the crowd of men stands “in a little cluster of hypnotized testosterone.”

But it’s really where he goes from there, the emotions he pulls up and the images he uses to push them into not just my brain but my heart.

We are all unincorporated, walking the line between loneliness and linked. I love getting the man’s point of view, a man who is respectful of women but not above calling out the changes in an aging beloved. I love the path he has found between feminism and manhood, between this world and what might transcend it.

In poems I look for mystery just as much as the next person. I want the condensed discernment of haiku and tanka. But there is a place in the poetic firmament for Hoagland’s work as well. These are poems that anyone may find themselves in, man or woman, poetry novice or expert. Check them out.

Who is your favorite poet?

After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman

After I'm Gone

A new novel from Lippman is always cause for rejoicing. She has a series of crime novels featuring Tess Monaghan and almost as many stand-alone crime novels, all of them excellent reads. I call them crime novels; they are certainly mysteries, and I make no apologies for loving that genre. However, in these books, what I value more than the puzzle demanding a solution are the story structure and psychological depth. Well, also that they usually take place in Baltimore, a city I know well.

Here, we meet five women who are circling around an empty space in the center of their lives. Felix Brewer, a bookmaker with an office above a club on Baltimore’s notorious Block, has vanished. He’s a self-made man, bursting with confidence and entrepreneurial energy who has run into legal trouble and, facing a prison sentence, disappears in 1976.

He leaves behind his beloved wife, Bambi, and three daughters, as well as his young mistress, Julie, a dancer at the club. As one character remarks, it is the wife who has the stripper name and the stripper who has the country club name, though of course Julie calls herself a hostess. I may not have the reference exactly right. Acing the Bechdel Test, Lippman’s main concern is these five women and how they fare in Felix’s absence, all of them expecting him to return any moment.

The story moves around in time, part of it set in the present of 2012 when Sandy Sanchez, a retired detective who acts as a consultant for the Baltimore Police Department, is given Julie’s murder as a cold case. Julie had disappeared in 1986 and her remains were found in 2001 in Leakin Park, a popular dumping ground due to its many rough and overgrown areas.

The rest of the story takes us back to Felix and Bambi’s meeting, to the events around Felix’s disappearance, and other touchpoints. It should be confusing, but isn’t. Lippman always comes back to Sandy’s investigation, our understanding enriched by whatever story from the past we’ve been treated to.

I loved getting to know these characters. While it raises my ire, I completely understood Felix’s adoration of Bambi and his daughters while having many girlfriends on the side, including a long-term relationship with Julie. I also felt Julie’s pain as she drives past the home Felix shares with Bambi, and her hopes for the future. I loved the daughters: Linda who is practical and bossy, Rachel who keeps everyone’s secrets, and Michelle, the baby who has her mother’s beauty. As we move around in time, we see the women these girls become, and that to me was the most fascinating, the changes they go through.

I was also interested by some of the insights into what it might mean for a woman to be outstandingly beautiful, as Bambi and Michelle are, and what elements other than the physical contribute to that beauty. And, being always interested in friendships between women, I appreciated the subtle movements in Bambi’s relationship with her best friend, Lorraine.

Having recently read Margo Christie’s excellent novel These Days, based on her own experiences working at a club on the Block, I was hoping for more detail about Julie’s and Felix’s work. However, I understand why Lippman chose not to go there, and certainly her choice makes for a better, tighter story.

I’ve learned that if there’s a new Lippman novel in the house, I can forget about getting anything else done until I’ve finished it. I highly recommend this, as well as all of Lippman’s novels.

Have you read any novels recently that passed the Bechdel Test?

West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan

West of Sunset

The curse of early success: we may say we’re willing to risk it, but there are certainly plenty of cautionary tales. The prime example may be the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The immense success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, made him the golden boy of the 1920s. Along with his wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald danced and drank and partied up a storm.

The two were known for crazy, reckless stunts. But all of those drunken escapades left little time for writing. For a while, he kept going by selling stories to magazines, but that market almost completely dried up after the economy crashed in 1929. His other novels, including The Great Gatsby, didn’t sell well at the time.

This novel starts in 1937 with Scott holed up in a rundown hotel near the North Carolina asylum where Zelda resides. I’ve read and speculated a lot about Zelda’s supposed schizophrenia–there have been too many women diagnosed as insane for nothing more than independent thinking–but O’Nan doesn’t go there. His Zelda sees visions of Michael the Archangel and alternates periods of clarity with violent attacks on those around her.

O’Nan doesn’t let her husband off the hook either. Scott cannot escape from his alcoholism; worse than that, he is a mean drunk.

Scott can’t afford Zelda’s hospital fees, so, like many other writers at the time like his friend Dorothy Parker, he gives in and moves to Hollywood to write for MGM. However, the film work isn’t steady, and Zelda is not well enough to leave the hospital where the bills continue to mount. Worry about money percolates throughout this novel of Fitzgerald’s final three years.

Then at a party he sees a woman who reminds him so much of Zelda that he thinks his friends are playing a trick on him. Sheilah Graham is a gossip columnist, engaged to an English aristocrat. The portrait of her that eventually emerges helps me finally understand why she would fall for his faded charms.

O’Nan is a captivating writer, long one of my favorites. I first encountered his writing when I casually picked up a book a friend had left on a table, the bookmark clear proof that he hadn’t finished it. Yet, I’m ashamed to say that I was so mesmerized by the first page that I stole the book and only returned it to my mystified friend the next day, confessing my disgraceful crime.

Though I was already familiar with the story of those years from biographies, memoirs, and other research, O’Nan brings the writer and his friends to life. It’s all here: parties with Bogart and other stars, trial reunions with Zelda, attempts at normalcy for visits by daughter Scottie, drunken fights, determined “cures”. O’Nan walks a delicate tightrope, never excusing Scott’s excesses, but convincingly showing us the world from Scott’s point of view. After every failure, he returns to writing, trying to earn the necessary money, and drinking only cola.

Sometimes I wonder if his success did have much to do with the disastrous arc of his 44 years. His one-time friend, Hemingway, blamed Zelda for Scott’s drinking and reckless behavior However, Scott’s alcoholism started before that, when he was in college. Others have blamed the times: for many people Scott and Zelda epitomized the Jazz Age. I wonder, though, if his appetite for a wild and hedonistic life would have carried him to the same end no matter when he’d been born.

What can we know of another person? A good writer helps unravel the mystery. Read O’Nan’s absorbing novel, even if you think you already know the story.

What did you think of The Great Gatsby the first time you read it?

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

children act

This very short novel begins with a crisis in the stable and ordered life of High Court Judge Fiona Maye, a specialist in Family Law. Childless herself and partner in a long and comfortably loving marriage, Fiona finds the deep pleasure of her life, the moments when she loses herself, in sorting out tangled cases and writing opinions that can themselves become standard references for later cases.

Her superior view from the bench is challenged when her husband informs her that he is embarking on an affair. He says that he still loves her but wants one more passionate adventure before he dies, complaining that their sex life has waned. Indeed, when challenged, she cannot remember when they last had sex. When she refuses to go along with his scheme, he sneaks out of the house with a suitcase he’d packed before talking with her, thus giving the lie to his grand protestations of honesty and openness.

At the same time, Fiona is confronted with a challenging case of a young man only a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday stricken with leukemia. He and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and thus are refusing the blood transfusions that are almost certainly required to save his life. The hospital asks the court, in the person of Fiona, to intervene.

I think that McEwan is a marvelous writer, though I’ve found his books to be uneven, some excellent and some duds. Yet, while I appreciate his plotting and his prose, I cannot warm to his characters. Some I actively dislike while some, like Fiona, seem held at such a distance, perhaps from themselves as well as from me, that I cannot begin to care what happens to them.

In this case, I rather wanted to cheer for Fiona in her new single life, but she quickly knuckles under, allowing Peter to return after mere days. I enjoyed reading about the various court cases, but found the story of the Jehovah’s Witness boy and his reaction to her ruling unrealistic. I felt that the characters were being moved about like chess pieces to suit the plot rather than the plot growing out of the characters.

I will say that I was happy the story did not start off with a show-off set piece, like a home invasion or balloon accident. I also loved the descriptions of the various musical bits, whether a performance or an appreciation of a recording. And I appreciated the tightness of the prose. I’ve become rather annoyed with sprawling novels that betray the lack of an editor’s hand. Here, we charge through the story and a variety of cases with alacrity yet without sacrificing necessary detail.

I feared this would become a story about religion, but it is not. It is a story about the degree of responsibility we bear for those whom we encounter in our lives, whether chosen or accidental. It is a story about work, which I love to see, work that absorbs us and brings out the best in us.

Have you read a novel centered on the protagonist’s working life?