Literature

Published on December 26th, 2013 | by Timothy Thomas McNeely

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Look what I got! A winter book guide

While not “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” here are seven new ways of seeing the world at large. Our winter book guide this year focuses on how we look at our surroundings, and how we value what we see. These books can be found where you buy books.

Featuring one of the best covers of any poetry book ever, When My Brother Was an Aztec, by Natalie Diaz, is a stunningly powerful and award-winning debut by this young poet from Surprise, Arizona. Diaz looks unblinkingly at the difficulties of life, particularly life on a reservation. There is no grit here (in the sense of valorized hardship), only a clear-eyed appraisal of the facts as Diaz finds them. That’s not to say that the book is dark, though many of its poems are. Instead, the reader takes the harder road along with Diaz, through the rough terrain of poverty, addiction, war, and hatred. Along the way, though, there are vistas where one can pause a moment, catch breath, and see the beauty that adheres to even a stony path. Diaz is a faithful guide. The hike is worth it. Just read “I Watch Her Eat the Apple,” excerpted below:

She twirls it in her left hand,
a small red merry-go-round.

According to the white oval sticker,
she holds apple #4016.
I’ve read in some book or other
of four thousand fifteen fruits she held
before this one, each equally dizzied
by the heat in the tips of her fingers…

If there is a god of fruit or things devoured,
and this is all it takes to be beautiful,
then God, please,
let her
eat another apple
tomorrow.

When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz. 119 pp. Copper Canyon Press. $16.

The first thing I want to point out about On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, by Alexandra Horowitz, is that the illustrations are by Maira Kalman, which will be enough for some of you. For the rest of you, On Looking is about seeing the world around you with new eyes. To this end, Horowitz walked the same city block in New York with eleven very different walking partners, ranging from doctor and geologist to child and dog. Each different set of lenses, represented by the different observers, is itself observed in detail by Horowitz. The result is a complex, fascinating study of all we can see if we have the eyes to see it, all we can hear with the ears to hear.

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz. 320 pp. Scribner. $19.89.

A companion to Henry in Love, Chloe, by Peter McCarty, reaches some primal place in for my daughter, who, like the titular hero of this story, is the middle child (albeit of a family of 21 rabbits). She loves being in the middle, except when the family become entranced by watching TV ‒ “the worst family fun time ever!” Chloe calls it. But she wins out, drawing her family back into fun together. Chloe will draw you in, as will the lightly idiosyncratic illustrations. each moment and each bunny distinct and interesting. Also, bubble wrap.

Chloe by Peter McCarty. 40 pp. Balzer + Bray, $15.21.

For fans of Hyperbole and a Half, the blog, by Allie Brosh, this book has been a long time coming. The subtitle says it all: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened. Each story by Brosh is illustrated in her unique, manic, Microsoft Paint style, and draws you into her decidedly quirky view of the world and narrative voice. The book includes repeats from the blog, as well as ten wholly new stories. The book is worth it alone for Brosh’s two meditations on her own depression, “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two,” both of which provide significant insight into what it means to be depressed. And, it’s really funny.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh. 384 pp. Touchstone. $17.99.

If you’ve ever read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, or any other speculative historical fiction, then A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan,  will be a welcome adventure. If you haven’t, you should read them both. This book, by Brennan, pretends to be a memoir from Victorian England, and is in fact a science-loving fantasy novel, replete with detailed accounts of dragon anatomy, imaginary lands, and the joy of discovery. What the book is really about, though, is how fantastic scientific exploration and explanation can be, and the trappings of fantasy literature may just give you new eyes for the magic of the inquisitive mind.

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan. 336 pp. Tor Books. $25.99.

Everyone agrees in the value of literacy. And in the spirit of applying the term “literacy” to any realm of information to be mastered comes Vegetable Literacy, by Deborah Madison. Here, in brief, is her argument for obtaining vegetable literacy:

When we look closely at the plants we eat and begin to discern their similarities, that intelligence comes with us into the kitchen and articulates our cooking in a new way. Suddenly our raw materials make sense. We can see how we might substitute related vegetables when cooking… And when we encounter plants with all their leaves, roots, and maybe even flowers intact, we can observe the shapes of leaves, the patterns of petals, the changing forms as they progress from their first true leaves to the perfect stage for eating…

For the vegetable-lover among you, and even more for the vegetable-averse, Madison looks closely at 12 plant families and all of their relatives, providing a new vocabulary for vegetables, new ways to compose a meal.

Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison. 416 pp. Ten Speed Press. $40.

Finally, Tacoma’s own Erik Hanberg gave us The Lead Cloak this year. While you should read the full review linked above, in summary,  in 2081, there is no privacy. Or to put it another way, there is total transparency; while Big Brother may exist, everyone with a “Lattice” reader can not only identify their observers, but access their every thought and action. And while much of the world enjoys the unfettered access others want to destroy the Lattice a practical evil in their eyes. The entire narrative serves as an extended meditation on the effects of technology on relationships, the pros and cons of privacy, and the legitimacy (or not) of any argument for the greater good. Take a look at a world without walls.

The Lead Cloak by Erik Hanberg. 421 pp. Side x Side Publishing. $12.99.

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About the Author

Most days, Timothy Thomas McNeely leads federal and state education program reviews for the State of Washington. Born in Tacoma, he studied poetry and philosophy in Canada and the United Kingdom. He is editor of the Community and Literature sections for Post Defiance, and writes poetry and prose whenever he can. He and his family live in Tacoma. Find him on Twitter as @ttmcneely.



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