From the Shelf
The War on Drugs
The United States has spent an estimated $1 trillion on the war on drugs since the 1970s, and currently has the largest prison population in the world--a large percentage of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes.
The problem of drugs--and how to combat them--is not particular to the U.S., however, as evidenced in Johann Hari's carefully researched Chasing the Scream. Hari, a British journalist, spent three years traveling around the world to understand the war on drugs, from its origins in the United States nearly a century ago to the beginnings of its end in Canada, Colorado, Portugal and Sweden. The details in Hari's work can be heartbreaking, revealing the gruesome and cruel stories of the current war on drugs, as well as how racism and racial tensions have both shaped and been shaped by these efforts at prohibition.
Michele Alexander's The New Jim Crow explores the war on drugs specifically through this lens of race and racism. Alexander argues--compassionately and compellingly--that modern drug laws are in fact a continuation of social and racial controls put in place under the Jim Crow laws of the South. Alexander's truths are not easy to read, nor are they easy to live for the millions of people whose lives are affected by the systemic racism in the United State's legal system.
Journalist Dan Slater focuses on the impact of the war on drugs even more specifically in his book Wolf Boys. Centering his story on two young Latinos caught in the drug war in Laredo, Tex., Slater explores the Mexican drug trade and the impact that the war on drugs has had on youth in the United States--rather than the Mexican cartels it is said to be fighting against. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
In this Issue...
by Antoinette Portis
Kindling a host of sensations through words and images, a child takes readers on a bold and brilliantly colorful grand tour of some of her favorite things.
by Roxane Gay
A voice of feminist literature ruminates on her internal struggles with body size and body image in a brutally honest, no-holds barred memoir.
by Gail Godwin
An orphaned 11-year-old works through his grief when he goes to live with his great-aunt on a remote South Carolina island.
Review by Subjects:
Shakespeare, the Perfect Beach Read
Signature considered "why Shakespeare is the perfect beach read."
"Celebrating the better halves: our favorite literary sidekicks" were featured by the New York Public Library.
Food for thought. Shari's Berries served up "20 desserts Inspired by your favorite children's books."
"Plan a rainy day and we'll reveal which book you should read next," Buzzfeed promised.
Mental Floss offered "7 tips for how to read faster (and still understand what you read)."
"The word choices that explain why Jane Austen endures" were examined in the New York Times.
Rediscover: The Death and Life of Great American Cities
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by journalist and activist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) is a savage critique of 1950s urban planning, the failures of urban renewal, and remains among the 20th-century's most influential urban studies books. With no academic credentials, Jacobs made lasting strides in the fields of economics and sociology. Her experience came first hand--as a resident of a Greenwich Village under threat by Robert Moses, whose plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway would have destroyed Washington Square Park. In 1968, Jacobs was arrested at a public hearing during which the crowd rushed the stage and destroyed a stenographer's notes. She later moved to Toronto, where she remained for the rest of her life, over opposition to the Vietnam War.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) criticized mainstream urban planning of the '50s and '60s, in which designers created unnaturally separated areas for residential, industrial and commercial use, a sort of decentralized city that was anathema to the original purpose of cities. She claimed that this anti-urban vein of urban planning was causing severe, if unintentional harm to American cities. Jacobs advocated mixed use development, small blocks with plentiful pedestrian permeability and retaining the unique character of neighborhoods, even at the cost of efficiency. In 2011, Modern Library published a 50th anniversary edition of The Death and Life of Great American Cities with a new introduction by Jason Epstein, the book's original editor ($23, 9780679644330). --Tobias Mutter
The Writer's Life
Beatriz Williams: Connecting the Past with the Present
|photo: Marilyn Roos|
A graduate of Stanford University with an MBA from Columbia, Beatriz Williams spent several years in New York and London hiding her early attempts at fiction, first on company laptops as a communications strategy consultant and then as an at-home producer of small persons, before her career as a writer took off. She lives with her husband and four children near the Connecticut shore. Her latest novel, Cocoa Beach (Morrow), is reviewed below.
One of the most intriguing elements of Cocoa Beach is its evocative setting, and your literary descriptions beautifully transport the reader into Florida's atmosphere during the 1920s. What influenced you to set this novel in that location and time?
When I visited that area of Florida during my book tour for A Hundred Summers, I was struck by the region's lush landscape and wilderness-like aspects. I was getting all these gothic vibes and knew I wanted to set a book in that environment. At the same time, I happened to be reading Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, and I became fascinated by Frederick Lewis Allen's energetic voice, especially his chapter about Florida's social and cultural changes during that time. There were scoundrels making a quick buck, dreamers, a big land boom happening with enormous real estate development. Somehow, I had to find a way to capture all of this in a story.
All those elements seem to come together effortlessly. Were there any challenges?
Definitely. I had written historical fiction, but this was more historical psychological suspense, which was new for me. Cocoa Beach is told in a dual narrative format, a style I love because it's such a great way to juxtapose two characters and different time periods while building suspense and hooking the reader. I wrote this in a linear fashion, almost like two novels; the 1917 section was first, followed by the 1920s and then I connected the two timeframes with Simon's letters.
You have a family connection to Maitland, the plantation that is central to Cocoa Beach's plot. How did you discover this coincidence?
This is one of those things that sends shivers down my spine. My in-laws were downsizing, and while we were visiting, my mother-in-law was sorting through old papers and letters. I picked one up completely at random. In those days, letter writers included the location where they were writing from and this particular correspondence was from Maitland. "Why would one of your relatives be writing from Maitland?" I said. And my mother-in-law answered, "Because we had a plantation there." You know, just like my fictional characters did in the very next scene I was writing in Cocoa Beach, which involved my character traveling to their family's plantation in Maitland! Sadly, my family sold their plantation years ago, but this intervention of fate seems to add to the gothic flavor of the book, I think. In many ways, Cocoa Beach was a troublesome book for me to write and perhaps this was a sign that I was on the right track after all.
What interests you most about the 1920s?
There were great historical events during that time, of course, and a focus on business. At the same time, it was a return to frivolity with people becoming interested in film stars and sporting figures. When you're talking about the '20s, it's the culture, society and people that leads to rich, character-driven stories. With few exceptions, like The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty and The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell, there isn't much fiction set in this time. Everyone always thinks of The Great Gatsby, but Fitzgerald wrote that contemporaneously.
How do you balance the research aspect with telling a compelling story?
A considerable amount of research goes into my books, but I only bring about 10% of what I learn to each novel. I try to remember that my characters are living in their present. I don't want a history lesson to pull readers out of the scene. Instead, I weave the history into the plot, and that's a fun challenge because I need to entice the reader into figuring out and interpreting what's happening. I love when I get readers who know about the period because the more informed and engaged a reader is, the more they tend to enjoy the story while hopefully finding something new and intriguing about the characters or the plot that sparks their curiosity.
Speaking of your characters, several people from your book A Certain Age reappear in Cocoa Beach.
I think I've been slowly building up to this book over the course of several others. One character in Along the Infinite Sea was beginning a new life and I gave her a villa in Cocoa Beach. There's a line about buying it "after the 20s, when it was built in the land boom." I knew that somehow, a few books later, that same villa was going to be the focus of a different novel. While I was writing A Certain Age, I gave my main character Sophie a sister named Virginia, who had an absent husband. All this family really knew about this husband was that Virginia met him while she was a nurse in World War I, there were these letters and she had to go to Florida after he died.
It's a fun connection without being required reading. You don't have to read A Certain Age before Cocoa Beach.
Exactly right. When I heard someone refer to the comics and superhero world as a "shared universe," I thought, "That's what I do, too!" Theoretically, you can read any one of my books alone but having that knowledge about the backstory enriches the story a little more.
So, do you envision any of your characters from Cocoa Beach making a reappearance in another novel?
Yes. There's some mystery to the ending of Cocoa Beach, as readers will discover. It's intentional and related to The Wicked City, which was published in January 2017. I wrote Cocoa Beach before The Wicked City, which takes place two years after Cocoa Beach. My next book is The Wicked Redhead and readers should look forward to seeing a familiar character or two. --Melissa Firman, writer, editor and blogger at melissafirman.com
by Gail Godwin
In Gail Godwin's novel Grief Cottage, Marcus Harshaw is 11 years old when he faces the sudden, tragic death of his single mother. That summer he is left in the custody of his great-aunt Charlotte on a remote South Carolina island. His new guardian--a thrice married and divorced, set-in-her-ways, reclusive artist--takes in precocious, self-contained Marcus, and provides him a safe haven.
The young man's formative years with his mother--and their chronic struggles to make ends meet--made Marcus wise beyond his years, enabling him to adapt and be sensitive toward his aunt's brooding, hermetic life. Charlotte gained notoriety painting images of a deserted, dilapidated local house nicknamed Grief Cottage; its occupying family disappeared during Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The battered, run-down residence becomes a source of intrigue for Marcus, too, as he seeks to learn more about its history and those who perished there. This quest also unearths questions about Marcus's background--his relationship with his mother, how he lost his best friend from school and the identity of his absent father.
Godwin (Publishing: A Writer's Memoir) has written an exquisite narrative with metaphor embedded in subplots like the preservation of nested Loggerhead turtle eggs and the presence of a ghost at Grief Cottage. This grace-filled story probes aspects of life and death, isolation and family, and how great pain and loss can ultimately lead to unforeseen transcendence. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
Discover: An orphaned 11-year-old works through his grief when he goes to live with his great-aunt on a remote South Carolina island.
by Beatriz Williams
A master of the historical fiction genre, Beatriz Williams (The Wicked City) sweeps readers across war-torn Europe to the tropical landscape of Central Florida with Cocoa Beach, a breathtaking family drama set amid the backdrop and aftermath of World War I.
It's February 1917, and Virginia Fortescue is driving a rickety ambulance across the muddy battlefields of northern France when she becomes smitten with army surgeon Captain Simon Fitzwilliam. Virginia is determined to resist Simon's charms, especially considering he has a wife back in England. It's an unconsummated marriage of convenience, Simon explains; his wife, Lydia, loved Simon's deceased twin, Samuel, and she stood to inherit a vast fortune. Marrying Lydia would guarantee that the wealth would remain in the family and that Simon would have easy access to the money. Despite Virginia's hesitations, the two eventually marry.
Five years later, Simon dies in a mysterious fire at a lavish villa he's building for Virginia and Evelyn, their daughter. Determined to settle his estate and learn the truth behind Simon's death, Virginia travels to Cocoa Beach, Fla., where she encounters bootleggers, bandits, criminals and conspirators. She also discovers there's much more to Simon--including a shady past and layers of deception--than she ever could have imagined.
The literal and figurative symbolism of a once grand home that has been destroyed allows Williams to give everyone who has suffered heartbreak and been wrong in love and life a chance to see themselves in Virginia. Amid the ashes, it is possible to find the truth and emerge stronger, renewed and with a foundation built upon self-assurance and independence. --Melissa Firman, writer, editor and blogger at melissafirman.com
Discover: Cocoa Beach is a breathtaking family drama that moves from the battlefields of World War I France to the sun-soaked beaches of Prohibition Era Florida.
by Kelly J. Ford
Kelly J. Ford's novel Cottonmouths captures life in backwoods America like a fish in a frying pan. Ford takes her young, raw, flailing characters and rakes them over the heat of a high-octane plot until their vulnerable insides sizzle on the page.
When Emily Skinner drops out of college and returns to Drear's Bluff, a small town in the Ozark region of Arkansas, she finds her best friend Jody Monroe raising a child by herself. The single mom lives on an old farm and leases an outbuilding to meth-cookers in order to make ends meet. That Emily, a closeted lesbian whose sexuality disturbs her conservative parents, is in love with Jody adds even more heat to an already explosive set-up.
The results are thrilling. The only hangups occur when Ford uses Emily's internal voice to recapitulate plot points, as though the reader needed to be reminded of major developments. These narrative reminders are unnecessary given that Ford is such a strong writer. Her prose is sharp and lyrical, rendering the South--and outdated attitudes--with uncompromising candor, though such honesty doesn't preclude sympathy for the many small-town characters caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and resentment. Ford's writing fully shines when addressing young, forbidden love and the way it torments her protagonist: "The craving came on like a fever, as if a coal had been stoked within and blurred the edges of reasonable thought." It's a love that burns and breaks and leads to dangerous places. Cottonmouths grips the heart and doesn't let go. --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author
Discover: In this intense debut novel set in rural Arkansas, a young woman is torn between her heart and conscience.
by Helen Simpson
Aging is no fun, as the protagonists of Helen Simpson's Cockfosters are all too aware. The breezy, dialogue-heavy style of these stories, each named after a location, masks the melancholy that drives them, with each piece focusing on middle-aged Britons who wonder what the rest of their lives have in store. The title story sets the tone: two 40ish women ride the Piccadilly Line back to Cockfosters, its northernmost terminal, to retrieve the glasses one of them left behind. As they discuss the pain of not knowing when they'll die, their journey is a metaphor for one of the collection's themes: life might be easier, or at least more predictable, if people knew the date on which they'll reach the end of the line.
Simpson explores this theme, as well as that of economic inequality, throughout these stories. A husband frets as much about aging as about the impending visit of his bombastic mother-in-law. After their holiday reading of The Chimes, book group attendees converse about "very average people who've made a great deal of money over the last twenty years." A 50-year-old acupuncturist likens the coming stage of life to Arizona, "brilliantly lit and level and filled with dependable sunshine," to a history professor client. The other woman agrees and says that one might as well be brave about death. After all, as another character in this wise book says, it "makes nothing out of something, and it lasts forever." --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer
Discover: Nine stories dramatize the problems of income inequality and aging among residents of modern-day Britain.
Mystery & Thriller
You'll Never Know, Dear
by Hallie Ephron
The cover of Hallie Ephron's You'll Never Know, Dear gives the impression that the sinister reside inside. Indeed, the opening pages include some marvelously unnerving descriptions, with shelf after shelf of bisque heads, glass eyes, stiff wigs and "bald, celluloid baby dolls, placid and patient, their painted eyes forever open." Fear not: in the first-rate hands of Ephron, four-time Mary Higgins Clark Award finalist, working through the creepy is worth the reward.
When Lis Strenger was 7, her sister Janey disappeared from the family yard under her watch. Also missing was Janey's doll, a special owner-replica doll made by the girls' mother, Sorrel Woodham. Unbeknownst to Lis, now a mother herself, for almost 40 years Miss Sorrel has purchased a classified ad on the anniversary of Janey's disappearance. Along with a photograph of the doll made in her daughter's image is a $5,000 reward offered for its return.
In the 39th year, Janey's doll may have finally come home. A mysterious young woman shows up with a very old, worn and dirty doll that bears Miss Sorrel's stamp. She runs off before Sorrel can question her, but three decades of Woodham women are determined to identify the doll, find the mystery owner and perhaps discover what happened to Janey.
You'll Never Know, Dear is a grabber, a mystery ballasted by women on a mission and the ties that bind them. Ephron is sharp; she swerves around potential plot snags and tosses red herrings like a master. Power past the menacing doll-head cover and reap the benefits of great writing. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: A mysterious woman shows up with a doll that might have belonged to Sorrel Woodham's missing daughter Janey, reigniting the investigation into her disappearance 40 years earlier.
Biography & Memoir
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist) has tackled issues of race, gender and class head-on with intelligence and unabashed insight. In Hunger, Gay turns the lens inward on her lengthy battle with body image and weight loss, reflecting on the hypocrisies underlying modern notions of beauty and femininity.
A violent rape at the age of 12 propels Gay into a 30-year psychological battle in which she turns to her appetite to stop the hurt and "fill the gaping wound of me, or to try to fill the gaping wound of me." Food became a source of safety for her. In this memoir, Gay uses her experiences to draw out the fallacies of unrealistic demands society places upon women to occupy a smaller space. Behind the deceptively simple passages lies a minefield of emotional pain and longing, whose revelation exposes uncomfortable truths about the destructive patterns that push women to embrace unhealthy behaviors.
"Fat, much like skin color, is something you cannot hide, no matter how dark the clothing you wear, or how diligently you avoid horizontal stripes," she writes. "And then I think about how f***ed up it is to promote this idea that our truest selves are thin women hiding in our fat bodies like imposters, usurpers, illegitimates."
At its rawest, Hunger addresses the dreams and desires, the hopes and fears, and the actualities of living in an overweight body, "hungering for what I cannot have, or perhaps wanting what I dare not allow myself to have."
Gay's journey ends not with the silver linings promised by reality television, but with uncertainty, the unknown and a quiet confidence despite the brutality of her past. Hunger is a work of exceptional courage by a writer of exceptional talent. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: A voice of feminist literature ruminates on her internal struggles with body size and body image in a brutally honest, no-holds barred memoir.
Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen
by James Suzman
For more than 25 years, anthropologist James Suzman has lived, worked with and studied the Bushmen of the Kalahari region in southern Africa. In this mix of memoir and scientific analysis, he shares a comprehensive history of one group in particular, the Khoisan, whose ancestors were among the earliest humans on earth. He traces the changes they have endured, particularly those created when Western explorers arrived in the 1600s and commandeered the land, forcing the Khoisan into increasingly smaller areas, a displacement similar to that of Native Americans onto reservations in the U.S.
Using personal stories from his adoptive family, Suzman discusses the Khoisan's methods of hunting with poison-tipped arrows, the importance of meat in their diet and the effects of drought and overhunting by nonnatives, including the widespread slaughter of elephants. He also explores the Khoisans' concepts of time, money, work and personal freedom. Many of this group, however, are turning their backs on the old ways, preferring cell phones and connecting on social media to scratching out a living in the sandy soils of the Kalahari. Ironically, Suzman shares, there are Khoisans of this latter demographic who earn a meager wage by living in mock tribal villages. These facsimiles harken back to the days of their ancestors and give eager tourists the opportunity to see "real" Bushmen. Suzman's thoughtful details preserve an insightful link to a shared human history. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer
Discover: A rich compendium of historical and scientific facts augmented by personal stories of life among the Khoisan tribe in southern Africa.
Essays & Criticism
The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing
by Margot Livesey
Literature lovers looking for a better understanding of their favorite works, as well as writers who are struggling to create good literature will find new insights in Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing. Margot Livesey (Mercury) is an admired writing teacher and a graceful and perceptive writer, the author of eight novels. This collection offers her experienced opinions and insights on the mechanics of writing fiction, novels in particular. It is also a memoir of her development as a writer in the context of her life and relationships. She describes her early misunderstandings and errors in composing fiction, and how she has moved from unconscious to conscious choices of techniques.
Much of her teaching is by example, using walk-through analysis of classic novels and stories such as Madame Bovary, Persuasion, A Passage to India and The Portrait of a Lady. She distills useful advice from authorities such as Aristotle, Francine Prose, E.M. Forster and offers "sixteen golden sovereigns" of advice that she has extracted from reading Shakespeare. Bad writing can also be educational, in her experience, but the main thing is to read with careful attention to how an author succeeds and fails. "For the practicing artist, influence requires a more active engagement. We must work to be influenced." There are many good books on the art of writing, but even those who have a collection of favorites will appreciate these clear and thoughtful essays on writers and the architecture behind their art. --Sara Catterall
Discover: Admired writer and teacher Margot Livesey combines memoir, analysis of classic works and discussion of techniques in this useful and enjoyable essay collection.
Children's & Young Adult
by Antoinette Portis
In the world of young children, what is right in front of them most often dictates their preferences: "This is my favorite cloud/ because it's the one I am watching." Throughout a day, a child's favorite friends, colors, foods and books may change based simply on what they can see or hear or touch at that exact moment. Author and illustrator Antoinette Portis (Wait; The Red Hat; Not a Box, winner of a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Award) uses this adorable tendency as the basis for her picture book Now.
The book's narrator, a lively little girl, shares her favorite things with readers: a breeze, a hole, a tooth, a hug. Her delightful bouquet of cherished choices blooms into rich sensations through the child's wonder and awe, as well as Portis's vibrant illustrations (using sumi ink, brush and bamboo stick). She basks in it all: "This is my favorite smell. This is my favorite bird. And this is my favorite song/ because it is the one I am singing." Portis's strong, solid brush strokes elicit the simplicity of childhood--everything stable and certain with little room for shades in any ideas or colors.
Now is a story that invites discussion between an adult reader and a child audience. It's a conversation that ignites analytical readers: identifying shapes and colors; sharing thoughts on sights, sounds and smells; and, of course, selecting one's own favorites, which are likely to change with each subsequent read. Sweet, charming and destined to be a favorite. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: Kindling a host of sensations through words and images, a child takes readers on a bold and brilliantly colorful grand tour of some of her favorite things.
Waste of Space
by Gina Damico
Chazz Young, CEO of DV8, a cable television network dedicated to trashy reality shows like So You Think You Can Pole Dance, has a vision. As he tells the astrophysicists he's hired from NASAW (National Association for the Study of Astronomy and Weightlessness), "[w]e want to take a bunch of teenagers and shoot them into space." Of course, "we'll be faking it," he reassures them: "[T]he mission commences. Lifelong friendships are formed. Bitter fights erupt. Maybe a slap or two. A slap in zero gravity--that's never been done before!... Every eye in America will tune in to check on their new cosmic sweethearts."
But--surprise! Things don't go quite as planned, as the 10 unwitting teens, carefully selected to fit Chazz's hilariously offensive stereotypes--the Party Girl, Rich Kid, Black Gay Astronaut--proceed to do... nothing much. Desperate to hold his viewers' attention, Chazz stirs things up with a manufactured asteroid attack and other space crises. But it's when the 24/7 live streaming contact is unexpectedly cut off--and not by DV8--that the strain of the adventure begins to show in each of the space travelers. Are they the victims of Chazz's heartless manipulations for TV ratings, or some other nefarious force performing psycho-social experiments?
Gina Damico's (Wax; Hellhole; Croak trilogy) biting satire is a fun and funny read that turns darker as it goes along. Watching the typecast caricatures become more human as they begin to crack, readers will experience the disintegration of the wall that usually separates viewers from the more absurd reality programming. Told in a series of transcripts, e-mails and personal accounts and "edited" by an unnamed whistle-blowing intern, Waste of Space is, decidedly, not a waste of time. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Discover: A reality TV show fake-launches 10 teenagers into fake space with disastrous effects when the astrophysicists hired for an authentic touch go rogue.
Reference & Writing
The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story
by Edwidge Danticat
Edwidge Danticat established her credentials as a memoirist with her 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Brother, I'm Dying. In The Art of Death, another entry in Graywolf Press's "The Art of" series on literary craft and criticism, Danticat again displays abundant prowess. She seamlessly blends an account of her mother's death from ovarian cancer in 2014 with an enlightening and compact survey of death in prose and poetry, "in order to learn (or relearn) how one writes about death, so I can write, or continue to write, about the deaths that have most touched my life."
Moving from fellow memoirists like Christopher Hitchens and Susan Sontag, through the searing suicides of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, to the works of Tolstoy and Chekhov, the breadth of Danticat's literary reach is impressive--especially so in a book that spans fewer than 200 pages. She confesses that her selection is "not an objective grouping but a deeply personal one," encompassing the body of literature she has turned to "when living with and writing about death."
Embedded within this literary criticism, she also offers a concise, but moving, description of her mother's final illness. Sitting by her mother's bedside, Danticat, ever the writer, imagines "a type of story I could tell her to keep her awake, and thus alive--a story that would never end."
"We cannot write about death without writing about life," Danticat says. And so, despite its ostensible subject, The Art of Death overflows with life, quietly but insistently inspiring anyone reading it to make good use of what remains of that precious gift. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer
Discover: Novelist Edwidge Danticat combines a memoir of her mother's death with a meditation on the subject of death in literature.
Scribbled in the Dark
by Charles Simic
Acclaimed poet Charles Simic is 79 at the time of Scribbled in the Dark's publishing. It's hard not to read the images of darkness falling and lost hope contained in these poems as anything other than meditations on death. But that discounts the streak of puckish glee throughout the collection, the joy in language and in a good joke. Simic may know the lights are being turned off, but there's no reason that that can't be both laughed and cried about.
The quatrain "Shadow on the Wall" is a perfect example of this humor. "Round midnight/ Let's invite/ A fellow bedlamite/ For a bite," he propositions the reader, using a sing-song rhyme that is found nowhere else in the collection. Is Simic suggesting a merry midnight snack with a lunatic? And who is getting bitten? The poem is a lark, only to be followed two pages later by the titular piece, which soberly depicts "Streams of blood in the gutter/ Waiting for sunrise."
Most of the poems in Scribbled in the Dark are simply images teased into verse. Simic will take a single motion (eyes catching on the street, a shout from outside his door), and pry open all its energy onto the page, evoking the tiniest fraction of time to reveal its beauty. None of that might be enough in the case of the man who finds that "little by little night overtakes him," but it might elicit a smile now and again. --Noah Cruickshank, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: Charles Simic, one of America's most celebrated poets, faces darkness with both sadness and glee.