On Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Wings and Ruin”

9781619634480_p0_v3_s550x406The third installment of Sarah J. Maas A Court of Thorns and Roses series is an absolute thrill ride. Readers, strap in: Maas goes full throttle from start to finish.

This novel’s predecessor, A Court of Mist and Fury, triggered some unexpected plot twists. We find out that Rhysand and Feyre are mates and that the King of Hybern plans to use the Cauldron—the entity from which their universe was created—to destroy the wall separating the faerie world from the mortal world in an attempt to gain back what he feels is rightfully theirs. In the process, the lives of countless humans and lesser faeries will be compromised—left to the whims of the sadistic King and his cronies.

Driven by jealousy, Tamlin aids the King in A Court of Mist and Fury, which leads all the High Lords to question his loyalty in the war against Hybern. Feyre and Rhysand’s biggest challenge lies in rallying forces together that are strong enough to combat the power that the King yields. Feyre’s sister, Nesta, becomes the key to unlocking the mystery. The iron-willed, fiery-tempered young woman took something from the Cauldron when it changed her so that she can communicate with it in ways no one else can.

The Night Court crew has to convince the other High Lords to offer their armies in defense of Prythian and the human lives that are at stake. But the High Lord of Autumn—Lucien’s father—is rotten to the core, constantly wavering on the cusp of loyalty to Prythian and becoming a sycophant to Hybern. The battle of wills that ensues between the courts is only a minor bump in the road. Feyre and Rhysand must also harness some of Prythian’s darkest forces to defeat the King. These entities come from other realms and are as old as time itself.

In the midst of all this, each character has to deal with his or her own personal demons. Mor and Azriel are still doing their painful dance; Cassian and Nesta maintain a hate/barely tolerate each other relationship that contains obvious passion; Feyre has to deal with the fallout from Tamlin; Amren has to unlock the Cauldron so she can finally return to her original form; and Lucien has to keep a distance from his mate, Elain, who remains a shell after her encounter with the Cauldron and is devastated over her broken engagement with a rich, faerie-hating human.

Everything comes to a head in one of the most breathtaking battles I’ve ever encountered in young adult fantasy literature. Maas’ imagery is brutal and vivid, and the way she weaves each character’s personal dilemma into the final reckoning is beyond compare. Everyone pushes beyond brokenness to defeat the evils the King of Hybern plans to unleash on the people and faeries of Prythian.

All the organizing Feyre and Rhysand accomplish over the course of the novel almost crumbles when several unexpected twists and turns nearly destroy everything. But with the unbridled bad-assery of the three Archeron sisters, the Night Court, and its assembled forces, save the island from a terrifying end. What they’re left with, though, is the mass carnage of thousands and thousands of faeries. What will become a new age for Prythian will also be another period of great mourning for all involved.

a court of frost and starlight sarah j maas
Bloomsbury

I was ecstatic to find that this novel—what I thought was going to be the final installment in the trilogy—is not the end for our heroes. In May 2018, Maas will be releasing a novella titled A Court of Frost and Starlight. Narrated by Rhysand and Feyre, it will bridge the gap between the original trilogy and a new trilogy set in the Court of Thorns and Roses universe. Next spring cannot come quickly enough.

On Maureen Johnson’s “The Shadow Cabinet”

shadesWHY HASN’T THE FOURTH BOOK COME OUT YET?!?! Oh…have I given myself away already? You could say my investment in this series has gotten out of hand. Or you could say my enthusiasm/outrage is entirely proper because I NEED to know what happens between Stephen and Rory, and what those crazy Lannister-like twins are going to get themselves into.

As I’ve said before about Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, the novels are so fast-paced and intricately plotted that the reader cannot put them down easily. The Name of the Star will, perhaps, always be the strongest installment in the series, but The Shadow Cabinet is a close second. The devastation and anger that wracks the Shades after Stephen’s death provides the foundation for great fiction, and we see Johnson’s characters grow as they move through this trauma.

Rory is at a crossroads. Her guilt about the car accident that caused Stephen’s head injury overwhelms her at times, and she’s determined to use her power as a terminus to keep him around as a ghost at the end of The Madness Underneath. Callum, who is driven in his work by his hatred of ghosts, can’t stand the thought of his best friend taking that form–being trapped in the liminal space between life and what comes after.

Boo and Thorpe are left to rebuild after the fallout. Despite their loss, they must locate Charlotte who has been kidnapped by Jane Quaint and her weird cult. Of course, Rory fails to follows instructions and tries to find her own information when she inadvertently brings a new member to the team–Freddie Sellers. Her intelligence and enthusiasm repel Boo and Callum at first, suspicious that she might be working for Jane. But the grudgingly come to accept the skills she can offer.

Johnson packs quite a few punches into this book because, when we find out what Jane has planned, it seems impossible that Rory and the others will make it through unscathed.

*Spoiler alert* Jane is attempting to revive her friends and mentors–the power hungry twins, Sid and Sadie. We find out that, like Stephen, these two have been in a state between life and death since the night they murdered ten people and drank poison in 1973. Jane wants them back so that she, too, can “defeat death” and reach some new level of consciousness or whatever. Rory just wants Stephen back.

The most compelling pieces of this novel take place in that liminal space as Rory tries to pull them back to the living. We found out that Stephen is a member of the illusive Shadow Cabinet whose sole purpose is to guard the stones that keep the boundaries of life and death separate, and aid souls on their way to whatever comes after death. The termini the Shades had been using before the Ripper threw them into the Thames were cut from the Eye of Isis–one of the nine stones that protected London. When it was destroyed, the tear made London a hotbed for the supernatural.

Since Rory is a stone, Stephen is also tasked with protecting her. Loving her isn’t part of the plan. It can’t be. The push and pull of their relationship is heartbreaking, and the reader wants nothing more than for it to be okay for them to be together, living like normal teenagers. In peace.

But it is not to be. Once Rory and Stephen return to the world of the living (with Sid and Sadie in tow), they have to return another major stone that Jane stole to complete the ritual. Of course, they manage to do it, but nothing is the same. No one else in the Shades knows about the Shadow Cabinet. Rory doesn’t remember what happened when she went in after Stephen, so she doesn’t know why she and Stephen can’t be together. It’s just the hint of a feeling that something is off…and Sid and Sadie are on the loose, murderous as ever.

You can understand why Johnson needs to release the fourth novel pronto. The lives of these beautiful characters hang in the balance. *lets loose a sigh* Stephen and Rory have to get their happy ending…and Sid and Sadie need to pass from this life.

Reading Helene Hanff in 2017

hanff-1A few weeks ago, I finally got around to reading Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. (It doesn’t escape me that I’m always “getting around” to reading things, but here we are). It’s a slim text, comprised solely of Hanff’s correspondence with Frank Doel, chief buyer at the antiquarian bookshop Marks & Co., and other members of its staff.

Hanff–whose reading tastes were heavily influenced by writer and literary critic, Arthur Quiller-Couch–had a fondness for the Classics and non-fiction accounts. (Don’t get her started on the journals of Samuel Pepys!) She quickly found that Marks & Co. could cater to her tastes. But what starts as a simple request for a specific text turns into a decades long correspondence.

Frank Doel, ever the professional, did not initially reciprocate Hanff’s teasing, lighthearted letters. At the time, Englanders suffered from post-war food shortages that required rationing essential everyday items. Hanff took the time to send various foodstuffs, such as meat and eggs, which the staff of Marks & Co. greatly appreciated. The softened Doel then became a confidant of sorts to the eccentric Hanff.

It’s difficult not to feel a great kinship with Helene Hanff. Good readers gravitate towards each other from across time and space, and the world Hanff created for herself through literature and the written word is everything I aspire to in my little life. Her greatest passions about this translation or that, or the quality of various editions are often humorous, something that clearly amused Frank Doel and his colleagues.

The most striking aspect of 84, Charing Cross Road, though, is the intimacy and sense of close friendship that comes through in these letters. Not only did Hanff build herself a world through literature, she built relationships across the ocean through a mutual love and respect for words.

At times when things seem overwhelming, books like this are deeply comforting. To relate to another person’s obsessive reading habits is one of my greatest pleasures when reading memoirs or non-fiction accounts. Helene Hanff’s particular brand of wise-cracking humor and unbridled enthusiasm just makes it all the better.

On Meg Rosoff’s “How I Live Now”

rosoffThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Meg Rosoff‘s 2004 novel, How I Live Now, is eerily prescient. At the time of its publication–only three years after 9/11–the dystopian world in which our protagonist, Daisy, and her cousins live could have seemed like the reality we were headed towards. While it has always been true that, at any given time, parts of the world are besieged by the atrocities of war, most inhabitants of the West cannot conceive that our societal structures will collapse. That kind of endless violence–the inevitable outcome of hundreds of years of colonialism and imperialistic greed–happens to others in “those parts of the world.”

How I Live Now tears down this facade of safety. 15-year-old Daisy, a spirited teenager with anorexia, is sent to stay with her Aunt Penn and cousins in England. Her father and his new wife have little space in their new lives for Daisy, and everyone agrees that a summer away from New York will do her good. When she reaches England, terrorist attacks have blossomed all over the world, and security is high. But her cousins’ life in the countryside is secluded from the dangers in London and other cities.

Homesick at first, Daisy finds herself isolated from their insular world. Aunt Penn keeps odd hours and travels often for her work. Osbert, the oldest cousin, takes on a superior role to his brothers and sister. He keeps track of the war we discern as World War III while the others go about their chores and games. Twins Edmond and Isaac, along with their young sister, Piper, possess preternatural abilities when it comes to understanding the earth and other people’s unspoken thoughts.

Soon enough, Daisy is completely wrapped up in their world–an idyll in the midst of a brewing storm. Aunt Penn has to attend a conference in Oslo shortly after Daisy’s arrival, so the children are alone in the house. Rosoff’s sparse narrative captures the lushness of summertime and the young love that blooms between Daisy and Edmond. The taboo of their incestuous relationship is mitigated by the circumstances the children find themselves in. Right after Penn leaves, a nuclear bomb goes off in London, and their isolation is complete. They live off of government rations and what grows on the farm.

Daisy and Edmond–two lost souls–are bound together by more than family ties. The chemistry of their blood and bones and the way they can know each others’ thoughts without saying a word becomes a refuge. They make promises to never leave each other.

Of course, their summer sanctuary goes as soon as it comes. Osbert, eager to contribute to the war effort, offers their home as a barracks for a local regiment. The children are separated from each other. Daisy and Piper are sent to live with an army officer and his wife. The boys are sent to another farm nearby. While Daisy’s days are consumed with physical labor, she and Edmond still communicate with each other through whatever invisible rope that holds them together. He is in her mind, telling her stories, bringing them peace.

But violence erupts again. Daisy and Piper are forced to flee. They make their way towards the others only to be confronted by mass slaughter. In this moment, the vertiginous out-of-body experience that accompanies the sight of heinous carnage takes over Daisy and Piper. Rosoff’s brutal sentences convey the horror of the atrocities they encounter without falling into hyperbole or melodrama. The facts are what they are. The horror of the images speaks volumes without prodding.

Eventually, Daisy’s father brings her back to America. She leaves home as soon as she can to work in the New York Public Library. Living to see the end of each day is a gamble,  but she is determined to make it back to England. When she finally goes back seven years later, the farm is still the sanctuary it once was. Daisy learns what happened to Osbert, Isaac, and Edmond all those years before. They made it out. But Edmond is a shell. He hates Daisy for breaking their promise. For leaving.

Daisy begins the process of salvaging what was lost, rebuilding the structure of their happiest days. Despite all that’s happened, the novel ends on a hopeful note. Daisy will stay in England with Edmond and the others and live out the rest of their years in peace.

How I Live Now is a gorgeous, heartbreaking reflection on war and sanctuary. In just a 192 pages, Rosoff explores the ways in which young people can build worlds for themselves outside of what society claims is right. Through a deep connection to the earth and the natural world, Daisy and her cousins shape a niche under the weight of world-ending terror. In a world that is starting to appear more and more like that in How I Live Now, this story of love and resilience resonates as strongly as it did over a decade ago.

10 Latinx Poets Everyone Should Know About

This article appears on paperbackparis.com:

Writers of Latinx origins have long contributed to the artistic fabric of the United States, irrevocably altering the framework by which we construct our literary canon. At the best of times, a writer of Latinx origins in the United States must contend with several questions of identity. These intersections—from race and language to the way you say our names—have informed the work of Latinx poets from generation to generation.

So many poets deserve to be recognized for their talents. This list is just a biased sampling of writers whose works have become canonical, or, in this age, viral. Each poet captures an essential element of what it means to exist in the liminal space between cultures, to have a view from society’s periphery.

The pain and beauty come from a place in the heart of somewhere else—of lands left behind. These voices are here to tell us what’s been lost, what’s been found, and what’s been created.

1.  Miguel Piñero

miguel pinero
Arlene Gottfried

Puerto Rican poet and playwright, Miguel Piñero, was a leading member of the Nuyorican literary movement and founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café—an influential forum in Alphabet City known as a haven for music, poetry, theater, and comedy.

Piñero migrated from Puerto Rico to Manhattan in 1950. Enmeshed in poverty and abandoned by his father, Piñero began stealing food for his family.  Eventually, he was incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility where he got the inspiration for his groundbreaking play, Short Eyes.  The influential producer and director, Joseph Papp, was so impressed by the play that he moved the production to Broadway—the first play written by a Puerto Rican to make it there.

Though he is best known for his plays and screenwriting, Piñero’s poetry is essential to the mid-century Puerto Rican experience in the United States. At a time when thousands of people were leaving the island for the mainland in search of better opportunities, artists like Piñero accurately depicted the pain of inescapable poverty and institutional racism, set to the beat of an unforgiving city.

So here I am, look at me
I stand proud as you can see
pleased to be from the Lower East
a street fighting man
a problem of this land
I am the Philosopher of the Criminal Mind
a dweller of prison time
a cancer of Rockefeller’s ghettocide
this concrete tomb is my home
to belong to survive you gotta be strong
you can’t be shy less without request
someone will scatter your ashes thru
the Lower East Side.

– excerpt from “A Lower East Side Poem”

2. Sandra Cisneros

sandra cisneros
Milbert O. Brown for Chicago Tribune

Sandra Cisneros is, perhaps, the most recognizable figure of Chicana literature in the United States, best known for her 1984 novel, The House on Mango Street. Other notable works include Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories and Loose Woman: Poems.

While growing up in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago, Cisneros felt isolated from the rest of her family and found solace in writing.  As she began training in her craft, she realized her particular intersection of race, class, and gender granted her a perspective that her classmates did not have. Her work focuses on navigating the mixing of cultures that characterized her experiences as an adolescent in Chicago, as well as being a woman in male-dominated environments.

Okay, we didn’t work, and all
memories to tell you the truth aren’t good.
But sometimes there were good times.
Love was good. I loved your crooked sleep
beside me and never dreamed afraid.

There should be stars for great wars
like ours. There ought to be awards
and plenty of champagne for the survivors.

After all the years of degradations,
the several holidays of failure,
there should be something
to commemorate the pain.

– excerpt from “One Last Poem for Richard”

3. Lorna Dee Cervantes

lorna dee cervantes
Image Courtesy of Americas Studies

Lorna Dee Cervantes is considered one of the greatest Chicana poets of all time by her contemporaries and has contributed some of the strongest pieces of poetry to the canon of American literature. Born in San Francisco in 1954, Cervantes grew up in a household where English was strictly enforced so that she would not encounter racism in the outside world. This relationship with language and culture shaped her future work. A self-described Chicana, feminist, and political writer, Cervantes’ poems explore themes of identity, language, and womanhood in great depth.

Once I wasn’t always so plain.
I was strewn feathers on a cross
of dune, an expanse of ocean
at my feet, garlands of gulls.
   Sirens and gulls. They couldn’t tame you.
You know as well as they: to be
a dove is to bear the falcon
at your breast, your nights, your seas.
   My fear is simple, heart-faced
above a flare of etchings, a lineage
in letters, my sudden stare. It’s you.
It’s you! sang the heart upon its mantel
pelvis. Blush of my breath, catch
of my see—beautiful bird—It’s you.
– excerpt from “Love of My Flesh, Living Death”

4. Victor Hernández Cruz

Victor Hernández Cruz
Academy of American Poets

Like Piñero, Victor Hernández Cruz is an influential figure in the Nuyorican school of poets, having grown up in the Spanish Harlem section of Manhattan. In 1981, Life magazine lauded him as one of the greatest American poets to ever write. He was the first Hispanic poet to receive such recognition.

In which everything goes backwards
in time and motion
Palm trees shrink back into the ground
Mangos become seeds
and reappear in the eyes of Indian
women
The years go back
cement becomes wood
Panama hats are seen upon skeletons
walking the plazas
Of once again wooden benches
The past starts to happen again
I see Columbus’s three boats
going backwards on the sea
Getting smaller
Crossing the Atlantic back to the
ports of Spain Cadiz Dos Palos Huelva
Where the sailors disembark
and go back to their towns
To their homes
They become adolescents again
become children infants
they re-enter the wombs of their mothers
till they become glances
Clutching a pound of bread
through a busy plaza
that becomes the taste
of the sound of church bells
in reverberation.
– excerpt from El Poema de lo Reverso

5. Rigoberto González

Rigoberto Gonzalez
Rutgers-Newark College of Arts & Sciences

Born in California and raised in Michoacán, Mexico, Rigoberto González’s troubled early life informs much of his work, particularly his memoir, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa. His training with writers such as Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gary Soto, and Francisco Xavier Alarcon honed his poetry into something fierce and beautiful. He is known for his efforts to assist marginalized artists in getting platforms for their work, and, in 2009, was named one of the 25 most influential LGBT Latinos in the country.

I am not your mother, I will not be moved
by the grief or gratitude of men
who weep like orphans at my door.
I am not a church. I do not answer
prayers but I never turn them down.
Come in and kneel or sit or stand,
the burden of your weight won’t lessen
no matter the length of your admission.
Tell me anything you want, I have to listen
but don’t expect me to respond
when you tell me you have lost your job
or that your wife has found another love
or that your children took their laughter
to another town. You feel alone and empty?
Color me surprised! I didn’t notice they were gone.
– excerpt from “Casa”

6. Aracelis Girmay

Aracelis Girmay
Kalamazoo Poetry Festival

Aracelis Girmay‘s work has influenced countless writers, including Junot Díaz who pointed to her collection Kingdon Animalia as a life-changing piece of literature. In 2011, it was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. She was also a winner of the prestigious Whiting Award for Poetry in 2015.

I want to sleep. I do not want to sleep. See,

one day, not today, not now, we will be gone
from this earth where we know the gladiolas.
My brother, this noise,
some love [you] I loved
with all my brain, & breath,
will be gone; I’ve been told, today, to consider this
as I ride the long tracks out & dream so good

I see a plant in the window of the house
my brother shares with his love, their shoes. & there
he is, asleep in bed
with this same woman whose long skin
covers all of her bones, in a city called Oakland,
& their dreams hang above them
a little like a chandelier, & their teeth
flash in the night, oh, body.

Oh, body, be held now by whom you love.
Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars,
when dirt’s the only animal who will sleep with you
& touch you with
its mouth.

– excerpt from “Kingdom Animalia”

7. Daniel Borzutsky

Daniel Borzutsky
Brooklyn Arts Press

Daniel Borzutsky has garnered critical acclaim for his collection The Performance of Becoming Human, which won the 2016 National Book Award. As the son of Chilean immigrants, his work joins ranks with other Latino writers who explore the pain of diaspora, exploitation of migrant workers, and the politics of immigration.

I love you, she said, as she smacked her child’s head.

I love you for your holes, she said,
not just the holes in your shoes and socks, but the
gaping holes in your personality.

When she asked me if I was uncomfortable,
I told her I wasn’t.
I really was uncomfortable.
What I neglected to say
was that I enjoy being uncomfortable.

Two old friends meet in a café to discuss
mutual funds and stock options. Thus begins a
story that ends with one man slicing off the
other’s neck, and stuffing his mouth with love poems
to Young Werther.

Life is too short to be genuine,
he said, as he stared into her deep
brown eyes. It was the most genuine thing
he’s said all day.

– excerpt from “The Ecstasy of Capitulation”

8. Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo
Courtesy of Un-Ruly / Pictured: Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo is an Afro-Dominican poet best known for her stage presence at renowned venues such as The Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She was a National Slam Champion and the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam representative for Washington, D.C. Her collections include Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths and the forthcoming novel, The Poet X.  Her work specifically explores Dominican culture, the Dominican diaspora, and the experience of being Afro-Dominican.

9. Melissa Lozada-Olivo

melissa lozada olivia
Pictured: Melissa Lozada-Olivia

Melissa Lozada-Olivo is a nationally recognized spoken word poet whose work has been heavily featured on Button Poetry. Her debut collection, Peluda, explores the body’s imperfections, writing, “our bodies have always made love to shame.” Known primarily for her stage performances, videos of her have received widespread acclaim.

10.   Denice Frohman

denice frohman
Twitter: (@denicefrohman)

Denice Frohman is an award-winning poet and performer whose work “explores the nuances of race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and the ‘in-betweeness’ that exists in us all.” Her exploration of this intersectionality has garnered her recognition from various outlets. As an educator, she also spends time working with young people to develop their abilities with the craft, most notably The Philly Youth Poetry Movement.

 

From Woolf to O’Hara: Four Authors for Your Anxiety Addled Brain

This article appears on paperbackparis.com:

There are several authors whose work I keep returning to in times of acute anxiety, which is more often than I care to admit these days.

When I’m not thinking about nuclear annihilation, escalating racial tension, hurricanes and natural disasters striking with alarming frequency, and our broken capitalist system, I find myself facing smaller anxieties—the very stuff of my personality. The only reprieve is a set routine that keeps me grounded.

But when faced with simple tasks that enter the wrong side of my wormy brain, I find that I can’t breathe properly; my blood pressure rises; I have to walk around briskly to catch ahold of myself.

Sometimes I think about those larger cataclysms in order to keep my mind off of the smaller ones—the nagging bits of daily life that keep me pinioned to solitude. Little heartbreaks aren’t so bad when I think about the state I live in—and the entire East Coast—being swallowed by the ocean. When I’m feeling especially blue about my crippling social dysfunction, I think about the planes that land at the Air Force Base near my house during odd hours, which 1) make me think of nuclear war, but 2) are actually carrying the bodies of dead soldiers.

Then I think of my parents firmly telling me to pull myself together because people like us have shit to do. My world, after all, was not as tough as theirs.

It’s a lot of give and take.

Many of us have brains that bend towards bleakness naturally, and these unsettling times don’t help. When the above-mentioned periods of recursive, claustrophobic thinking become overwhelming, I turn to the authors who have worked through their own fear, paranoia, and anxiety to construct great essays and pieces of fiction. It’s also helpful to explore the work of writer’s whose concision is so pointed it rearranges the brain’s neurons into an organized stream. Literature has, and always will be, the only real solace we have.

Here are just a few of the authors I’ve been reading:

1. Virginia Woolf

Creative Commons

Much can be said about this giant of the literary canon. Virginia Woolf‘s work is characterized by vibrant prose and the methodical exploration of her character’s lives. Her sentences are so complex, so nuanced, they seem sturdy and tenuous simultaneously. The goal is to show the mind as it is through stream of consciousness, drawing attention to the myriad thoughts that flicker through people on a daily basis. The plot plays second fiddle to her characters’ minds. After all, it doesn’t matter that Mrs. Dalloway is buying the flowers herself; it matters that she is stepping out in search of something.

“You look, eat, smile, are bored, pleased, annoyed — that is all I know. Yet this shadow which has sat by me for an hour or two, this mask from which peep two eyes, has power to drive me back, to pinion me down among all those other faces, to shut me in a hot room; to send me dashing like a moth from candle to candle.” —from The Waves

Woolf’s particular style of writing mirrors the frenzy and passion of an anxious mind because it takes into account every sensory input, every stray thought. Her 1931 novel, The Waves, is a particular favorite of mine. It’s experimentation yields an array of emotion and imagery that soothes my brain to the point where my only functioning thoughts are completely wrapped up in her prose.

2. Lorrie Moore

Credit: Linda Nylind / (Pictured: Lorrie Moore)

Lorrie Moore‘s short stories are so good, they make me blush with envy every time I open one of her collections. When one of my high school English teachers had our class read “How” from her collection Self-Help, it was the end all, be all for me. At that time, I’d only experienced the systematic breakdown of one romance and a whole lot of unrequited pining. These were teenage heartbreaks, of course, but they meant a lot at the time.

At seventeen, “How” felt like the greatest series of truths about love ever put down on paper. That feeling hasn’t faded.

It resonates, perhaps, because the little anxieties Moore highlights in the story are the same ones that keep one from acting like a normal human being in public…which tends to preclude romance. Reading about people who have the same modes of thinking–people who keep love and affection at bay because of their neuroses–casts feelings of solitude in the face of love into perspective, making them slightly less daunting.

“Wake up one morning with a man you had thought you’d spend your life with, and realize, a rock in your gut, that you don’t even like him. Spend a weepy afternoon in his bathroom, not coming out when he knocks. You can no longer trust your affections. People and places you think you love may be people and places you hate.” —from “How”

3. Junot Díaz

Junot Diaz

My obsession with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is no secret. From time to time, I’ll grab it off my bookshelf just to read sections out loud, reminding myself just how powerful the narrative is. These days, I’ve been listening to the Audible narration by Lin—Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo. I’m unashamed to say I’ve listened to it three whole times in the past two months. Driving around and listening to this story of an overweight Dominican nerd who falls in love at the drop of a hat but who has no chance of ever being loved in return hits close to home.

“— Nothing else has any efficacy, I might as well be myself.

— But your yourself sucks!

— It is, lamentably, all I have.” — from Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz‘s narrative speaks to a deeper cultural anxiety. Despite being Dominican on paper–a product of the great Dominican diaspora–Oscar is ostracized for his nerdiness, his unattractiveness, and his complete lack of sexual acuity. (I mean, same here, obviously. That’s why I sit inside and read books all day.) One of the narrator’s friends tells Oscar, “Tu no eres Dominicano.” “You are not Dominican.”

And all he can say is, “Soy Dominicano. Dominicano soy,” hoping people can suspend their disbelief enough to see it.

The concept of feeling “other” is nothing new for most people. We all have those moments of exclusion. But to get rejected from your culture for not being enough of this or that, or lacking some specific quality is a different kind of pain. In addition to feeling uneasy in the world because of the way your brain works, you also have no tribe.

It’s some dark shit to think about, but the novel’s beauty, humor, and complete boundlessness make it all feel less painful.

4. Frank O’Hara

Pictured: Frank O’Hara

I’ve talked about my love for Frank O’Hara in the past, and nothing has changed. I still read from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara every day, opening the book at random to catch just a little bit of calm before moving on with my day. His great capacity for crafting the smallest details of life into pieces of beauty (with a touch of cheeky humor) make for some amazing poems.

 ” I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it” —from “Having a Coke with You”

To this day, “Having a Coke With You” is the only poem I’ve read that sounds exactly like my brain does when I’m half in love and want to show that person everything I’m obsessed with. Unfiltered enthusiasm is the hallmark of my affection after all.

Reading these poems makes human contact seem less elusive…As if maybe the anxiety-ridden can experience love after all.

On “Holding” by Graham Norton

31364727One of my favorite pastimes on days when I cannot concentrate on anything or sleep more than a few hours is to watch The Graham Norton Showa slightly ostentatious, mildly campy chat show that features major Hollywood stars and musicians who go on to talk about their work. Graham Norton, the eponymous show’s host, has a knack for navigating the personalities that settle on his red couch for the evening—expertly pivoting between guests in order to make a cohesive, often hilarious, show.

So when I found out the same Graham Norton was turning his hand to fiction, I was surprised. The solitary act of writing fiction seemed like the antithesis of something Norton would do. But as he explains on the BBC Radio 4 broadcast, “Books and Authors,” he has always wanted to write a novel and seized the opportunity when it came along.

After already having written two acclaimed memoirs, So Me (2004) and The Life and Loves of a He Devil (2014), Norton strays from using autobiographical content in his debut novel, Holding, though he does return to his native land to tell the story.

Set in a small Irish town called Duneen near the city of Cork, Holding explores the lives of those lifelong residents who, for one reason or another, find themselves stuck there. Sergeant PJ Collins—the town’s sole police officer—is overweight and has nothing else to do but dispense parking tickets. Brid Riordan, Duneen’s resident alcoholic, will not admit that she has a problem even though her family is slipping away from her. And Evelyn Ross—beautiful and composed—lives with her spinster sisters in their family estate, refusing to abandon each other after their parents’ untimely deaths.

When skeletal remains are discovered at a construction site on the old Burke farm, these three—and the entire town—are thrown into the past. Finally, PJ can put his skills to use; his time to shine. But the police lieutenant from Cork who supervises the case questions his competence, secretly referring to him as “Sergeant Sumo.”

They come to believe that the remains belong to Tommy Burke, a boy no one has seen or heard from in twenty-five years. For Brid and Evelyn, the reemergence of Tommy Burke dredges up painful memories. Right before Tommy disappeared, he had been engaged to Brid. He did not love her, which Brid knew, even then; he valued her family’s farmland. But she’s never been able to get past the idea of what her life could have been like with Tommy instead of her husband, Anthony, who looks at her with disgust more often than not.

Evelyn was in love with Tommy and believed he was in love with her as well. For twenty-five years she’s mourned a love that never got the chance to form. She’s lived a half-life instead. Just like Brid. Completely loveless.

Norton’s story hinges around the discovery of a body, but its primary function is to explore the psyches of Duneen’s residents. They wonder what life could have been if things had been different in their youths—if they had only had the chance to leave. If, perhaps, love had come easily for them.

One of Norton’s greatest strengths in Holding is the exploration of solitude as it relates to never attaining love. For his characters, love has been lost, stolen, killed, buried by circumstance, or, quite simply, never found in the first place.

It’s the exact opposite of what people would expect from the public persona Graham Norton puts forth, but this novel exhibits his keen ability to dissect the inner workings of human turmoil. Any reader who is fond of simple little mysteries will enjoy this book. Though Norton’s fans might be hard-pressed to find the entertainer’s personality displayed obviously, they will be able to find his humor in the slight details. It’s well worth a read.