Lucky Fish, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

lucky fish

True confession: I bought this book for its cover. Not knowing much about graphic design, I took advantage of an AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference to wander through its sales hall where a couple of gymnasiums full of publishers displayed their books. When a cover caught my eye, I started a conversation with the representative staffing the table about why it was so intriguing (I’d chosen a slack time so as not to inconvenience them).

Tupelo Press, the publisher of this collection, Nezhukumatathil’s third, had quite a number of outstanding covers. And their representative was generous with their knowledge.

But it’s the inside of the book I’m here to talk about. Nezhukumatathil draws on her Indian-Filipino heritage, her Florida childhood nurturing recalcitrant citrus trees, and her husband’s Kansas farming experiences to create these poems. She writes about two-headed calves, made-up folk remedies, fables and families. She writes about love in fresh yet simple ways, such as this excerpt from “Suppose You Chopped Down a Mulberry Tree”:

I know a man who has such a sweet face,
bees follow him down the street. Ants still collect

in the tread of his shoes.

Many of the poems are a luscious cornucopia of images. The author doesn’t hold back, but sprinkles them liberally throughout, often in surprising combinations that still work. Here’s the beginning of “Fortune-Telling Parrot”:

I will pick
a black card

of luck for you;
star, pinkmoon,

mirror, ostrich, eye,
and jasmine bloom.

How does she do it? What a remarkable imagination!

In the third part of the book the poems are about giving birth, speaking simply and directly about this most fundamental experience, yet incorporating whimsical images and strong emotion. She imagines her baby born with a hedgehog resting in its hand and how that might play out. She speaks of the small moments every new mother will recognise, such as in “Waiting for Him to Speak” where she notes that “his hair // is the tobacco hue of an owl feather.” She worries about whether the baby will latch properly, thinking that “if she thought to wear the silver anklets her Indian grandmother gave her, at least there would be happy bells.”

But she doesn’t shy away from the larger world, writing about the Chinese children assembling her child’s toys. In other poems throughout the book there is a welcome astringent note within the sweet and magical songs. In these specific and sensual poems, whether about the taste of soil or the sound of the stone found in an eel’s head, Nezhukumatathil captures the universal and invites us to share the celebration.

Have you read any poems that overwhelmed you with their richness?

Memento Mori, by Charles Coe

memnto

I heard Charles Coe read from his new collection at the Brattleboro Literary Festival and had to take a copy home with me. Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet, designated “A Boston Literary Light” by the Associates of the Boston Public Library. The poems he read that day celebrated ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight.

The poems are those of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

Coe is also a jazz musician and his musicality comes through in every line. His experiences and knowledge of jazz rhythms come through especially in several poems about musicians where he explores the peculiar doubleness of performing: the invitation to the audience to respond and the physical, intensely personal, rapt absorption in the playing itself.

He writes movingly about Boston, by which I mean Boston and its surrounding towns, taking a moment on a stalled subway train, for example, to illuminate the peculiar raggedness of a New England winter and the moments that can lift us into the universal.

Long ago, with other young friends, I visited an older man we knew in New York City who took us on a peculiar tour. “Don’t look at anything until I tell you to,” he said, leading us to one odd and beautiful space after another: corners, pockets, a particular painting. In the same way, Coe’s poems celebrate the secret delights of city life. One such is “The Dance Hall of Porter Square”, inviting us to share a sweet moment among the street people gathered there.

Some poems speak specifically to the experience of being old in this culture, while others to the experience of being black. Many find something unexpected in common sights, such as divining the lineaments of their ancestors in landscape gardeners in “Yardwork”.

Using humor as seasoning, he can pull the rug out from under the reader, turning our laughter to thoughtful frowns as the reversal sinks in. Even “The Saga of the Fish Sticks”, which is even funnier than its title, takes us back to the theme of his title poem and of this collection.

He includes a few prose poems, which use the syntax of prose but have the imagery, compression and music of poetry. An example is “The Night My Sister Danced with a Mouse”, a retelling of a family anecdote taken to a higher plane by the use of an image reimagined in the course of the piece. With humor and minimal but precise details, Coe brings us into this scene to relive it with him, and be warmed by it.

As with some of the best poems, Coe’s work draws our attention to something so small and ordinary, perhaps even ugly, that we would normally overlook it. He invites us into the fullness of the moment, unfolding the lotus to reveal the heart. Here is one such poem quoted in full:

mnemonic

It is sometimes necessary
to walk along a moonlit riverbank
barefoot, on the sodden strip
where water meets land,
to remind oneself
that something in the mud
remembers the stars.

Have you read poetry that made you see the world with new eyes?

The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield

Jane2

Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers for my poetry discussion group. I’ve written before about her essays on poetry in Nine Gates. I return to these essays frequently to remind myself of what I love about poetry and what I aspire to in my writing.

The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days, such as these from the beginning of “Within This Tree”:

Within this tree
another tree
inhabits the same body . . .

Or this from the beginning of “Floor”:

The nails, once inset, rise to the surface –
or, more truly perhaps, over the years
the boards sink down to meet what holds them.

My favorite poem in the collection is “Autumn” which so brilliantly evokes this particular moment in time, as the wind sweeps through the trees here, taking our glorious season into its next phase. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Again the wind
flakes gold-leaf from the trees
and the painting darkens –
as if a thousand penitents
kissed an icon
till it thinned
back to bare wood,
without diminishment.

Think about these images for a moment: flaking gold-leaf such a perfect description of yellow leaf-fall, an icon thinned by kisses for the tree’s gradual disrobement. Most of all, though, the bare wood—of the painting, of the tree—is not only without diminishment but is in truth the real value of each. What do we value? What do we repent of? What do we revere?

Winter-lover that I am, I adore the bare black skeletons of trees; they are a revelation, the strong bones beneath the leaves and fruit, a promise.

One thing I love about The October Palace is the section at the end titled Notes on the Poems where she gives a snippet of background on some of the poems: a dedication, a description of a proper name, a slight hint at what inspired the poem.

With some of the poems, my group floundered a bit, offering different interpretations and personal responses. To me, this openness is one of the great gifts of poetry: the leaps we readers must take, as Robert Bly said. Or as Hirshfield says in Nine Gates about storytelling in poetry:

. . . the reader as well as the writer must bring the full range of memory, intellect, and imaginative response. The best stories are almost mythlike in their ability to support alternative readings, different conclusions . . . The words of a poem are not ends, but means into an exploration without limit.

Rather than a response to the commonly asked question “What author living or dead would you like to have dinner with?”, I would most love to walk in the woods with Hirshfield or perhaps prepare a meal with her. I would ask her questions about her poems and essays. But in the end it’s the poems that matter, and I value the distance they must travel to reach me because it leaves me free to bring my own memory, intellect and imagination to them.

Have you read any of Jane Hirshfield’s poems? Is there one you particularly like?

Taproot, by Kathy Mangan

Taproot-COVER-web

I immersed myself in my friend Kathy Mangan’s poetry this week. In this new collection, each poem reaches deep into our common experience to bring out the bitter herbs and sweet blooms that crowd our lives. Reading them while watching my late sunflowers finally unfurling their fragile gold petals makes me consider the ground they have sprung from. I try to imagine what this patch of earth takes from the vast mantle of living soil that surrounds it, that we walk on every day, heedless, and what it gives back.

Mangan deftly welcomes us into each poem, ensuring that we find ourselves in that particular time and place. For example, “After Morning Visiting Hours in the ICU” begins:

The suck of the hospital’s revolving door thrusts
you into the stun of noon sun, and you stop at the corner,
squinting down Lombard Street —

You don’t have to have experienced Baltimore’s roasting summers to feel the heat here. Mangan’s strong verbs and vivid gerunds—suck, stun—surprise us even as the music of stresses and internal rhyme lulls us into a daze.

The title of “Portrait in a Foreign Flat” begins our orientation, while the first lines make it specific:

Before I knew anything;
she was simply the sweet blond
girl in the gilt-framed portrait
over the piano in the living room.

We know because of the first line and the “simply” in the second that we are in for a story, and Mangan does not disappoint. I could not help being stirred by the story that unfolds before returning to the portrait over the piano.

Each poem is like a miniature novel, an entire life in a single moment, each scene an emotional experience. These are the sort of poems that I delight in, poems where the personal becomes universal and the everyday opens to new revelations.

I especially enjoyed the marvelously titled “Instead of Preparing Your Morning Composition Class on MLA Documentation, You Want to Write This Poem.” The narrator’s reactions—sometimes warm, often hilarious—to specific things and people encountered on her walk to work, bounced against footnote rules, delighted me.

Whether she’s writing about little things like a grandchild’s fantasy game or watching a son take the ice for a hockey game, or big things like illness and death, Mangan finds a new way into them, a way to bring them directly to our consciousness. We grieve with her; we celebrate with her.

Most of all, we remember our own joys and losses with sudden clarity. These poems give us our lives back.

What poets have you read who have opened your eyes to the world around you?

My House, by Nikki Giovanni

My house

This month my poetry discussion group read and discussed the work of Nikki Giovanni, one of my first favorite poets. It was a joy for me to reread her work, including this collection from 1975. We all were delighted by her sly sense of humor and her true-to-life portraits of people and places. We appreciated the way she sometimes uses these gifts to open up political and social issues in a down-to-earth way.

Some of the poems we particularly liked take an everyday occurrence, use vivid language to draw us in, and then at the end open up into something larger. An example is “Legacies” where a grandmother calls a girl in from the playground to teach her to make rolls. The girl can’t express her reasons, which have to do with foreseeing the old woman’s death, so she says:

“i don’t want to know how to make no rolls”
with her lips poked out
and the old woman wiped her hands on
her apron saying “lord
these children”
and neither of them ever
said what they meant
and i guess nobody ever does

Giovanni captures family dynamics with subtle accuracy. In “Mothers” she describes going home to visit her mother and how they “kissed / exchanged pleasantries / and unpleasantries . . .” and the encounter calls up a memory from childhood:

i remember the first time
i consciously saw her
we were living in a three room
apartment on burns avenue

We were fascinated by this and talked at some length about consciously seeing your mother, about the moment when a child recognises and acknowledges another as a person, when, as Sartre describes, she realises that what she saw as another object (which he calls “being-in-itself”) in the world is actually a subject (or “being-for-itself”).

The poem goes on to describe her mother sitting in the darkened room.

she was very deliberately waiting
perhaps for my father to come home
from his night job or maybe for a dream
that had promised to come by

I couldn’t help but think of Faith Wilding’s amazing poem “Waiting”, first performed in 1973. But Giovanni goes in a different direction. Her mother calls her over and teaches her a little poem about the moon, and Giovanni ends with an intriguing and profound reversal:

i taught it to my son
who recited it for her
just to say we must learn
to bear the pleasures
as we have borne the pains

Giovanni has written many children’s and young adult books, so it’s not surprising that some of her poems speak in a child’s voice, capturing so well a child’s outlook. One in this collection is the short but lovely “Winter Poem”.

Once a snowflake fell
On my brow and I loved
It so much and I kissed
It and it was happy and called its cousins
And brothers and a web
Of snow engulfed me then
I reached to love them all
And I squeezed them and they became
A spring rain and I stood perfectly
Still and was a flower.

I’m reminded of this poem whenever the two-year-old I care for squeezes the cat because he loves her, not remembering that she is fragile and could melt like the snow.

Do you have a favorite poem by Nikki Giovanni?

You Kiss by th’Book, by Gary Soto

Soto Shakespeare

In this collection by Gary Soto, whose work I have been enjoying, he takes a line from Shakespeare and uses it as the first line of a new poem. This is similar to an exercise that poets sometimes use where you take a line from one of your own poems and use it in a new poem. It’s always fascinating to see what different directions you find yourself taking. Soto read not just Shakespeare’s poetry but also his plays, always on the lookout for lines that pique his imagination. Some of the lines he uses are well-known; others obscure.

One of the things that surprised me in these poems is that he sets them in the time of Shakespeare. While Soto’s language is, as always, straightforward and accessible, it hints at the syntax of the time period, even sometimes using words now considered archaic. His poems are also effective because he uses specific images to create the world of the poem. Interestingly, many of these images are from life in the mid-16th century, as in this excerpt from a poem based on a line from Measure for Measure.

We must not make a scarecrow of the law.
Citizens, let the law rise naturally strong,
And be fed mutton, fowl, and stern mead.
Gloved or ungloved, laws hand should be mighty,
His jaw square, his eye fiery, his arm veined,
Not like the scarecrow who gives up
His innards when a paltry wind doth blow . . .

Yet even with such images, we connect with these poems because the ideas are timeless. How relevant to today’s issues is the need to protect the power of the law, the calling out of cowards who throw out their principles when the wind changes direction. Another poem, based on a line from Venus and Adonis, strikes me hard during this week when we are so outraged and pained by the terrible abuse of children taken from their parents and other family members trying to emigrate to the U.S.

The colt that’s backed and burdened being young
goes not far, for he has no spirit.
He has but a routine of grinding corn.

He eats little, drinks even less.
Flies scrub his eyelids when he doth cry.

The emotions are also timeless, whether pity or outrage, grief or—as in this poem based on a line from The Merchant of Venice—love.

One half of me is yours, the other half yours,
My thirteen cows reduced by one are still yours,
The chickens reduced by three are yours,
The candles and spoons,
The windows,
The very roof troubled in wind and rain,
The fire I build for you,
All yours.

I’m grateful to my friend Nichael for sharing this book with me. I love the idea of widening the relevance of Shakespeare’s work. Even more intriguing for me is the way Soto takes us into Shakespeare’s world and shows that however much the details have changed, our lives in many ways are the same.

What line from Shakespeare’s work sets your imagination on fire?

New and Selected Poems, by Gary Soto

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I’m grateful to poet Lynn Martin for introducing me to Soto’s work. Born in the U.S. to Mexican-American parents, Soto grew up hard after his father died when he was only five. Many of the poems in this collection speak of that life, work in the fields and factories, encounters on the street.

He tells stories of collecting copper and dancing in Kearney Park. He tells of his grandma who “Pounded chiles / With a stone / Brought from Guadalajara” burying a cigar box of money. He tells of a couple getting ready to leave a cantina and a widow “slumped down in the closet / Among a pile of dirty clothes”.

Many of the poems are like paintings, landscapes—urban and wild—that he conjures for us so clearly. The first poem, the title poem of his first collection, “The Elements of San Joaquin” is a perfect example. In sections with titles like field, wind, sun, fog, he seduces us with images:

A dry wind over the valley
Peeled mountains, grain by grain,
To small slopes, loose dirt
Where red ants tunnel.

The wind strokes
The skulls and spines of cattle
To white dust, to nothing,

Covers the spiked tracks of beetles,
Of tumbleweed, of sparrows
That pecked the ground for insects.

Yet, the way he shows us the reality of a migrant worker’s life, without rancor, is persuasive. There’s no need for political slogans or outraged cries.

When autumn rains flatten sycamore leaves,
The tiny volcanos of dirt
Ants raised around their holes,
I should be out of work.

. . .

The skin of my belly will tighten like a belt
And there will be no reason for pockets.

With moments of witness like these, I understand why his poems are often used in schools. I see that he is also author of 21 Young Adult and children’s books. In fact, I am astounded by his output: fifteen poetry collections, eight memoirs, a play and two films, while also editing four anthologies.

Sometimes a poem is a story; sometimes just a slice of life. One of my favorites is “Mission Tire Factory, 1969” which starts out:

All through lunch Peter pinched at his crotch,
And Jesús talked about his tattoos,
And I let the flies crawl my arm, undisturbed,
Thinking it was wrong, a buck sixty five,
The wash of rubber in our lungs,
The oven we would enter, squinting . . .

It then delves into an incident both tragic and funny, as well as sweet. I particularly appreciate this aspect of Soto’s work because I know how harmful and hurtful stereotypes can be, whether we’re talking about welfare mothers like me or immigrants or people of color or those with mental or physical handicaps. By taking us into the lives of Latinx workers, parents, and children, Soto gives us reason to respect them and—even more—see ourselves in them.

These poems show Soto walking a sometimes uneasy path between his early life working in the fields and his current life as college professor and award-winning poet. While “The Elements of San Joaquin” gives us an inside look into the life of a seasonal fieldworker, “Ars Poetica, or Mazatlan, on a Day When Bodies Wash to the Shore” holds the mixed emotions of how far he has come (or not come) since those days.

With vivid details, the narrator describes how he and Omar, presumably a friend, explored the town.

Earlier, we were at the mercado,
With its upside down chickens
Blinking blood from all holes.

Fat cats from the north, they left big tips in restaurants, happy to be able to help the poor of Mazatlan. Then he says, “Now we’re not so sure.” In even more vivid detail he describes the body of a man washed up on the beach. Again he says:

Now we’re not so sure.
. . .
The truth is, we want to go home,
Vanish in the train’s white smoke,
And miraculously find ourselves
In America.

It is death that finds us, unready, our work unfinished, and no amount of privilege will save us.

There is craft here, in the sounds and tastes, in the choice of details, in the music of the lines, but these poems are so accessible that you don’t need to know any craft to enjoy them. He welcomes us into his world and we find ourselves at home there.

Have you read Gary Soto’s poetry? Which of his poems would you recommend?

Questions for Ada, by Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Questions for ada

My friend Audrey recommended this extraordinary collection of poems. Umebinyuo’s first book has received lots of well-deserved praise for its passion and openness. You can read individual quotes online, but reading the book as a whole is a different experience altogether.

She writes of love and brutality and pain in the lives of women and of men, too. Yet each poem tells us that we can still rise. Umebinyuo is the sister, the best friend, who knows all our secrets and encourages us to go on. In “Poem No. 1” she tells us:

I did not know
the bodies of women
were meant to be
a museum of tragedies,
as if we were meant to carry the ocean
without drowning

Yet she understands that we are:

. . . imperfect daughters
still trying each day
not to call themselves failures

you are here. you are becoming.
isn’t that enough?

The emotion in even the shortest of these poems is astonishing. Many of the poems are direct, some even telling a story. Others are more oblique, such as “Maternity” told through the eyes of a child, watching the shadows of her mother and auntie.

Her sometimes surprising images, such as women carrying the ocean without drowning quoted above, stir my imagination. And this, from “Obioma”:

Your father came back
a soldier from peacekeeping
with a calloused heart
left somewhere between Sierra Leone and Liberia;
he says war grinds pain into souls.

One night,
you saw him talking speaking to himself
screaming his anger,
eating the moon for dinner.

I am especially moved by her evocation of the immigrant experience, from the brief but powerful “Diaspora Blues” to the song of praise in “First Generation” which begins:

Here’s to the security guards who maybe had a degree in another land. Here’s to the manicurist who had to leave her family to come here, painting the nails, scrubbing the feet of strangers.

Umebinyuo’s poems give us the courage to go on. She tells us to care for ourselves, as in “The Clinic”: “Write yourself a love poem, / welcome yourself home. Even amid the sorrow and grief, she looks for celebration, as here, from “Morning Liturgy”:

I want to write about
women who scream with joy.
at the sight of you
dancing for joy
at your arrival
I want to write about
women who pray for me
in a language so beautiful
english will bow.

I look forward to see what else she will write as she grows as a poet while continuing to bring her ability to plumb the depths of emotion that flood our lives.

Have you discovered a new poet—or poet new to you—whom you recommend?

Night Picnic, by Charles Simic

simic-night

I actually read several of Simic’s poetry collections to prepare for the poetry discussion group I lead. He’s certainly well known, although I had not read much of his work before. In addition to serving as poet laureate, he has won many prizes and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Griffin Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award.

One reason I had shied away from his poetry was that I’d heard it was dark and depressing. That turns out to be untrue. I actually found his work to be curiously uplifting.

Born in 1938 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Simic’s youth was buffeted by the dangers and disruptions of war, emigration, and poverty. His work shows the lessons he’s absorbed about the workings of fate and chance, his awareness that an elevator is likely to take you to an “icy cellar” before going to the desired upper realms.

What impresses me about his poetry is his close attention to the world, the precision of his details, and the concision of his lines. Each poem feels finished, in a way many poems I read do not. Each word is there for a reason, and sometimes more than one. Most of his poems are fairly short, often presenting a fairly ordinary scene before inviting us to explore it, turning it over in our hands, letting the resonances build. Here’s an example.

The Altar

The plastic statue of the Virgin
On top of a bedroom dresser
With a blackened mirror
From a bad-dream grooming salon.
Two pebbles from the grave of a rock star,
A small, grinning windup monkey,
A bronze Egyptian coin
And a red movie-ticket stub.

A splotch of sunlight on the framed
Communion photograph of a boy
With the eyes of someone
Who will drown in a lake real soon.

An altar dignifying the god of chance.
What is beautiful, it cautions,
Is found accidentally and not sought after.
What is beautiful is easily lost.

We see a seemingly random collection of items on a dresser, imbued with humor. Yet there is foreshadowing here: the blackened mirror, the bad dream, the grave, the punched ticket. So we are surprised, but not completely, by the sudden turn at the end of the second stanza. Chance can change things in an instant, as we are warned by the pun in the title (altar/alter).

Each word here works so hard. My group talked at some length about the inclusion of the word “communion” in the description of the photograph. It tells us a great deal: not just the approximate age of the boy when he died and what he is wearing, but also the poignancy of leaving life the age of reason, just as he can begin to understand about death. Simic doesn’t need to tell us the photograph commemorates the boy’s first communion. What I find uplifting in the final stanza is the assurance that we will find beauty, even if accidentally, even if it is easily lost.

In many of his poems, Simic uses humor to leaven the gloom, as he does in “The Altar”. Sometimes the humor is ironic, such as a blackened mirror or a salon that delivers bad dreams. He uses puns as well, and changes of tone, such as the shift to a more colloquial “splotch” and “real soon”. Some poems, such as the aptly titled “Avenue of Earthly Delights” with its nod to Bosch, verge on the surreal.

I appreciate his attention to the darkness inherent in something as simple as the berries in “Roadside Stand” that “will stain our lips and tongue / As if we were freezing to death in the snow.” To me, adding the possibility of death to a poem that starts out as “a paradise” and ends with the bored boy “Straightening crumpled bills in a cigar box” creates a necessary shading that rounds the picture.

As I read these poems, I found myself thinking of the online flood of Mary Oliver poems following her recent death. It may seem ludicrous to compare the two but both have an attention to even the smallest things in the world around us; both don’t hesitate to include the darkness and danger in that world; and both to me feel ultimately positive.

If you are looking for a way to acknowledge the dark forces in our lives and address the meaninglessness of existence—and to do so without despair—then these poems are for you.

What is your favorite Charles Simic poem?

Best books I read in 2018

Best books I read in 2018

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2018. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor
This unusual and remarkable book is the story of a village in the Peak District and its surrounding countryside. It’s a story about time, stretching over 13 years with each chapter covering a single year of the village’s life. This is not a book to rush through. It is a book to savor.

2. Waking, by Eva Figes
It’s quite short, only 88 pages, but don’t be deceived. There’s a lifetime packed into this stunning novel. Each of the seven chapters takes us into the thoughts of our unnamed narrator at a different point in her life, from childhood to the edge of death.

3. Priest Turns Therapist Treats Fear of God, by Tony Hoagland
In crafting his poems Tony Hoagland, who passed away this year, brings together humor and tenderness, wit and emotion, gentle satire and surprising insight. Using the things of this world, he invites us to be present in our lives and appreciate each moment. The poems in this, his final book, often moved me to tears.

4. Collected Poems, by Jane Kenyon
For me, reading Jane Kenyon’s poems for the first time has been like falling in love, that moment when you meet someone who seems to be your soulmate, who speaks your language, who knows what you have been through.

5. My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor
This memoir by the Supreme Court justice is remarkably well-crafted and imbued with a generous spirit.

6. A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi
In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser talks of the influence of Melville and Whitman, one “the poet of outrage”, the other “the poet of possibility”, and we can see both of these influences in her poems. She also speaks of different sorts of unity and embraces the possibility of our coming together, of our finally bringing an end to war.

7. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley
With this novel, Mosley takes us into the mind of ninety-one-year-old Ptolemy Grey, a mind that is fraying at the edges. It is one of the most moving portrayals of aging that I’ve read. Mosley’s novels are always entertaining, but for me as a writer they are also a masterclass in writing craft.

8. [Asian Figures], by W.S. Merwin
Merwin, a prolific and popular poet, a former poet laureate, chose to translate these proverbs from various Asian cultures. He side-steps the thorny question of whether they are poetry, and instead concentrates instead on what they share: brevity, self-containment, and “urge to finality of utterance”. What they also share is humor, wit, and true wisdom.

9. My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
This quiet story is not for everyone, but I fell in love with Lucy’s voice. In addition to the voice, what I admire most as a writer is the way Strout releases information. Among the themes of imperfect love and family is the theme of reticence. The story seems to ramble haphazardly, but when I went back and looked more closely, I could see how well crafted it is.

10. How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff
Fifteen-year-old Daisy arrives in England, sent by her father and new stepmother to visit her aunt, only to find herself embroiled in an invasion. Daisy’s voice is the best thing about the book—surly, smart, funny and vulnerable. We are all flawed beings; Daisy is no different, yet in rising to the occasion she finds an unexpected heroism. I felt privileged to spend these pages with her.

What were the best books you read last year?