Here for your pleasure are seven books that, in their own very distinct ways, each deal with questions of identity, authority and what we do with what we are given. For the holidays, or as a way to take stock and prepare for the new year, these books offer entertainment and insight on the human condition. These books can be found where you buy books.
Focused on nature and the nature of the self, The Overhaul is no friendly wander through the woods, to which we are often accustomed in poetry. Instead, in these poems nature is a powerful force for making the world seem strange to us again, for making it new and forcing us to attend to life.
This is the much-anticipated new book of poetry by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, first since her award-winning collection, The Tree House in 2004. As the opening poem, “The Beach,” puts it: “all of us / hoping for the marvellous, / all hankering for a changed life.”
For another example of the separation that exists in Jamie’s poetry, nature from humankind, take the poem “The Stags,” published in the October issue of Poetry. This is of a gathering of deer, viewed from a distance by the narrator and a friend. It is a distance rarely expressed in American nature poetry, and part of what makes Jamie’s observations so entrancing:
Below us, in the next glen, is the grave
calm brotherhood, descended
out of winter, out of hunger, kneeling
like the signatories of a covenant;
their weighty, antique-polished antlers
rising above the vegetation
like masts in a harbor, or city spires.
We lie close together, and though the wind
whips away our man-and-woman smell, every
stag-face seems to look toward us, toward,
but not to us: we’re held, and hold them,
in civil regard.
Jamie’s book is incisive and compelling and displays some of the very best poetry being written today.
The Overhaul: Poems by Kathleen Jamie. 64 pp. Picador Paperbacks. $11.85.
My kids and I read King Arthur’s Very Great Grandson recently, and we were all caught up in adventurous Henry Alfred Grummorson’s quest to challenge and destroy the greatest monsters he can find, only to be frustrated by their very gracious and polite counter-offers to conduct staring contests or play other games instead. They just want to be friends.
Rather than being overly cute, the engaging illustrations help the reader, like Henry, be eventually drawn in by the creatures, who must make his peace with beasts that don’t want to battle on the scale of life and death, but maybe offer something more meaningful in return.
King Arthur’s Very Great Grandson written and illustrated by Kenneth Kraegel. 40 pp. Candlewick Press. $15.99.
Like other authors of his generation (Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen), Michael Chabon is acutely interested in what men inherit from their fathers and how they grow up to really be men. This should be no surprise from the author of Manhood for Beginners.
In his characters Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, Chabon finds two men struggling both with the past they’ve inherited and with the future as represented by their children. The two own Brokeland Records on the book’s eponymous Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, CA. Their curatorial efforts, along with their basic effort to stay in business, provide a ready metaphor for much of what Chabon wants to explore concerning manhood.
As a foil to their husband’s perspectives on race, inheritance, business, adulthood and parenting, near-equal time is given to these men’s wives, Aviva and Gwen, who run a midwifery business together. Chabon is painstaking in his description of the characters, work and choices these women make, and their lives and business are also, by nature, a metaphor for greater questions of society, womanhood, race and all the rest.
Written in dense, reference-heavy prose, that is at turns obfuscating and conspiratorial, Telegraph Avenue is a dense portrait of one complicated piece of America, living, breathing and changing before our eyes.
Telegraph Avenue: A Novel by Michael Chabon. 468 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.
In The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, poet Kevin Young goes in search of what it means to be African-American in America, and comes up with an answer that may or may not surprise: African-American culture is American culture; that is, it can be taken as an encompassing example of what it means to be American.
Young traces black history in America, noting just how much personal invention – lying, storytelling, improvising – goes into creating the culture we all live in, how creativity out of adversity is the story of America as a whole, as much as it is the story of African-Americans in particular.
The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness by Kevin Young. 483 pp. Graywolf Press. $25.
In the incredibly enjoyable and extensive exploration of music offered in How Music Works, David Byrne explains it all. The musical ingenue from the Talking Heads, myriad solo efforts, and most recently the album “Love This Giant” with St. Vincent, Byrne has strong opinions about the nature of music and how it communicates in the world.
He is encyclopedic in this volume, discussing classical, tribal, and pop music with equal vigor. The book is an expression of Byrne’s own passion for music, and if you are not already convinced that you should also be so passionate about it, you probably will be by book’s end.
How Music Works by David Byrne. Illustrated. 345 pp. McSweeney’s. $32.
Far from the Tree is a challenge to all your preconceived notions of what a book on parents and children might be. It is also an instructive compendium of stories about how “not being normal” need not define a family, even when one of the children in it is anything but average.
The book is an extensively researched, personal chronicle of a number of complex families with parents struggling to understand how best to parent children as diverse as a dwarf daughter, a deaf son, a child of rape, a child who is autistic, schizophrenic, or a genius. It is a powerful and compassionate exploration of “families of individuals affected by a spectrum of cognitive, physical or psychological differences.”
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. 962 pp. Scribner. $37.50.
Last, but not least, Timothy Egan’s biography of photographer Edward Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, is Egan at his best – chasing after outsized, driven characters, who are themselves firmly attached to the landscape of America. Like in Egan’s The Big Burn, wherein he looked at the distinct personalities and impacts of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, this book takes someone impassioned about one aspect of America, and gives them the hero treatment. Egan displays Curtis as one of his favorite types: a rugged, backwoods individualist with a preservationist’s vision for the country as a whole, and he does so to great effect.
Like many of Egan’s subjects, there is a northwest angle: Curtis moved to Seattle in 1887, and the city was his base of operation for many years. He began his photographic career there, taking portraits of socialites, but gradually became interested and involved in expeditions relating to Native Americans, both in and around Seattle, and across the United States.
Best known for his 20-volume collection of photographs, songs, languages, and ceremonial rituals of Native Americans, The North American Indian, reproductions of Curtis’s photographs show just why his work was important, regardless of any curatorial license Curtis took with his subjects. These photos are a mix of accurate portrayal and icon, much like Egan’s own book, and the story of his journies through the original cultures of our country make for a fascinating read.
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan. Illustrated. 370 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $28.