Poetry Madness


Friday, February 4th


Caribou Island by David Vann


A review by Ian Crouch

It may be premature to identify a writer's interests as obsessions when his fictional output includes just a single collection of short stories, and now a novel; but from the first pages of Caribou Island, it is clear that David Vann has some things that he cannot get out of his head. Bleak and terrifying things, too: suicide as an act of aggression, nature's power to reflect and inspire madness, and the perverse allure of doomed endeavors.

A narrative could be expected to sink under the weight of such an insistence on catastrophe. Yet Vann's first book of fiction, Legend of a Suicide, in which a father's suicide forms the axis around which a dazzling set of stories are sent spinning, had the weighty thrill of a loaded gun -- you knew it would go off, but the suspense came from not knowing how or when. The opening, straightforward stories are told from the perspective of the child, Roy, whose father, Jim, a dentist and manic-depressive would-be outdoorsman, has killed himself. Yet...

Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary: With Additional Material from a Thesaurus of Old English by Christian Kay

A Word by Any Other Name

A review by Sarah L. Courteau

Confess that you regularly consult a thesaurus, and you call your writing skills and even your intelligence into question, such is the ill repute into which this worthy reference has fallen. In a diatribe published in The Atlantic some years ago, Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman (about the making of The Oxford English Dictionary), lambasted Peter Mark Roget, the compiler of the granddaddy that spawned today's myriad online and school-bag versions. Many writers I know scoff when asked whether they ever crack one. Of course, using a thesaurus -- in its basic form, a book ...

Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath

A review by Andrew O'Hehir

British novelist Patrick McGrath is the acknowledged master of the super-unreliable narrator. So one would be wise to approach Gin Rathbone, the "tall, thin, untidy Englishwoman" who narrates his new book, Port Mungo, with considerable caution. But Gin isn't deranged after the fashion of the nut-case narrators of McGrath's Spider or Dr. Haggard's Disease -- or rather, she's deranged in her own uniquely repressed and uniquely English way.

The story of Gin and her rangy, charismatic brother Jack, a tormented painter she believes to be a genius (and whom we suspect, quite early on, may be...

The Sisterhood of Blackberry Corner: A Novel by Andrea Smith

Save the Children

A review by Ron Charles

So many infants were abandoned in Houston in 1999 that Texas passed the nation's first "Baby Moses" law. Almost every other state has since followed suit, allowing mothers to drop off their newborns at hospitals, police stations and fire houses without fear of prosecution. Critics warn that such laws encourage abandonment and deny children access to information about their parents, but defenders point to the hundreds of babies who have been saved from probable death in restrooms and trash bins.

Andrea Smith's new novel, The Sisterhood of Blackberry Corner, begins almost 50 years ago in...

1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America by Andreas Killen

A Year, Examined

A review by Anna Godbersen

The historical project organized around a single year is a strange animal. While it promises to give a truer flavor of a past era than a book about a single person or a fixed series of events, it also opens the door to over-labored connection and irrelevant anecdote. Such, anyway, are the fruits and faults of Andreas Killen's 1973 Nervous Breakdown, a cultural history of that year, whose subject and style are aptly reflected by the strutting, hysteria-tinged tone of its title. 1973 was the year that the Paris peace accords brought troops home from Vietnam, and the year that Watergate heated...

Shot by Christine Hume

A Third-Wave Nocturne

A review by Joyelle McSweeney

Given third-wave feminism's rejection of second-wave gender absolutes, the recuperation of mother- and fatherhood as content has got to be one of the most unexpected developments in poetry in recent years. The admission of the biological into poetry has in turn engendered a potent, deranged, seemingly communicable multiflorescence of voices and forms, forms seemingly without teleology or destiny. Poets like Bhanu Kapil, Cathy Wagner, Gabriel Gudding, Arielle Greenberg, and Aase Berg, poets from the recent Not For Mothers Only anthology to the upcoming Gurlesque, have generated grotesque...

Home: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson

Witnesses to a Mystery

A review by Claire Messud

In the opening paragraphs of Marilynne Robinson's 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, the elderly narrator John Ames, a Congregationalist minister in the small Iowa town of Gilead, tells his young son:

I don't know how many times people have asked me what death is like.... I used to say it was like going home. We have no home in this world, I used to say....

He goes on to explain that this was an analogy born of what he elsewhere refers to as his "dark time, as I call it, the time of my loneliness, [which] was most of my life": "I didn't feel very much at...

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