Spring books in brief.

Reading between the lines.
May 2 2008 7:07 AM

Spring Books in Brief

What Slate's reading this spring.

(Continued from Page 2)

It's a fast-moving book full of insight and surprise, and Maazel's prose is at least as compelling as the story itself. She writes with a kind of ecstatic swagger—freewheeling and cocksure, intelligent and loopy and funny as hell. "[I]t's not that I'll be at a funeral and laugh because it's funny. I'll just laugh. And maybe, from strain of withholding laughter, I will get aroused. And maybe, from horror of arousal, I will get a headache that hurts so bad, I'll end up crying anyway." I relished every page.—Justin Taylor

The Story of Forgetting

The Story of Forgetting, by Stefan Merrill Block. When the mother of 15-year-old aspiring scientist Seth Waller is diagnosed with a rare strain of Alzheimer's disease, he devotes his summer to "empirical investigation" of the illness. Bumbling and intellectually overconfident, he tries to make sense of his mother's genetics by researching her family, which she refused to discuss. Block interweaves Seth's efforts with two other stories: a C.S. Lewis-type fable about a fantastical, amnesic land called Isidora and a memoir by a hunchbacked Luddite who (in a plot twist never wholly explained) lures his brother's wife to bed by masturbating outside her window in a tree. The hunchback and his unlikely paramour conceive a girl; his brother, back from Cold War Army service, raises the girl as his own. Seth struggles with his mother's oblivion and the boilerplate anxieties of high school; the elderly hunchback struggles with his secret paternity—and so on toward a satisfying, not-so-unexpected denouement that draws the three stories together.


The province of ailing-parent literature is hardly underpopulated, but The Story of Forgetting earns its claim to the territory. It's fast-moving and raw without being emotionally heavy-handed: Block's characters share despair through apathy and awkwardness, not fireworks. Granted, less-fraught passages often stall into cliché (on New York: "four miserable years of temp work in the strange city of sneers and dirt and car horns") or else an unfortunate third-drink brand of philosophizing. ("Was science, in fact, advancing toward anything? Or was it giving more intricate form to a hopelessness as old as human history?") But the novel's energy outweighs its familiarity and fuzziness; Block tells an emotionally demanding tale with honesty and charm.Nathan Heller


The One-Strand River: Poems, 1994-2007

The One-Strand River: Poems, 1994-2007, by Richard Kenney. Richard Kenney's big new book of short poems took him 14 years to write, and the best poems make the wait worthwhile. They are encyclopedically informed (especially in the sciences) yet warmly personable and richly worked (even ornamented) despite their small scale. A sonnet called "Hydrology: Lachrymation" begins, "The river meanders because it can't think" and then investigates "lesser weather systems ... troubling the benthos where the ice caps shrink." Kenney (who won a MacArthur "genius" grant 20 years ago) makes the concerns of a comfortable middle-aged West Coast writer married love, parental love, parental fears, ecocatastrophe not only vivid but quirky, even bizarre, in part by drawing on the pleasures of rhyme. Addressing his infant daughter in lines that mimic her unrest, Kenney is cute but not cutesy, a genuine charm: "You are nothing if not a little otter./ You are a murmurous moon-miss of a wriggle./ You are one burped girl/ and no other." Not all the poems are so much fun; the first and the last quarters of this capacious collection, though, show good-humored depths no other poet now has.Stephen Burt


Everyday Drinking

Everyday Drinking, by Kingsley Amis. An editor's note to this omnium-gatherum of Amis' notes on potation observes that the author was not just a drinker but "a drink-ist," making this volume a dipsographical classic. Amis teases the brain with a 30-part quiz ("How did the bubbles get into the champagne in the first place?") and relays such seductive recipes as Evelyn Waugh's Noonday Reviver (big shot of gin, half-pint of Guinness, ginger beer) with a drollery that even a teetotaler will savor. He further offers the overindulger practical knowledge in a chapter on having been drunk, which includes instructions on treating both the physical and metaphysical hangover. For the P.H., Amis prescribes vigorous sex, copious water, and unsweetened grapefruit; for the M.H., a special regimen of literature or music. "A good cry is the initial aim," he writes, recommending Sibelius' incidental music for Pelléas and Mélisande, which "carries the ever-so-slightly phoney and overdone pathos that is exactly what you want in your present state."Troy Patterson

The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry

The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, by Adam Kirsch. What makes a poem modern, and what makes a modern poem a work of art? These are the questions that animate The Modern Element, a critical survey of contemporary poets—from John Ashbery to Jorie Graham, Philip Larkin to Richard Wilbur—by Adam Kirsch. With this volume, Kirsch, whose smart, muscular, and at times acerbic criticism has been dazzling and infuriating readers for a decade, steps into a distinguished line of literary essayists. He derives his title from a Lionel Trilling essay; he writes in the accessible, generalist vein of Edmund Wilson; and he builds his own definition of modern poetry on the one advanced by T.S. Eliot in "The Metaphysical Poets." Eliot defined the modern poet, Kirsch writes, "not as his age's interpreter but as its exemplary specimen or willing victim." For Kirsch, "a good modern poem," which is to say a meaningful or significant poem, can be written only by "poets who put themselves generally at risk in their work"—technically, emotionally, intellectually—and who avoid the "fraudulent self-exposure" and "otiose experimentalism" too many writers fall back on.

Kirsch employs these criteria—sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly—in evaluating the poets in this collection. His approach seems especially relevant now, when so much poetry reads (and is read) as journaling or therapy. Poets who, in Kirsch's estimation, merely transcribe raw perceptions get the gloves-off treatment: "[Sharon] Olds has no interest in abstracting from the contingent details of her life to a larger, more universally valid idea or symbol." Kirsch values discipline and rigorous craft; he abhors "mental laziness." Yet he also objects to the deliberate obscurity that has become so fashionable in poetry. (Kenneth Koch is "close to [John] Ashbery in his ability to sound like sense without always making it.") But even at his most astringent, Kirsch, a poet himself, exhibits an understanding of the emotional demands of writing: "It means hollowing out one's self, in order to allow all the bitterness and joy of life to take up residence there and find expression."Amanda Fortini



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