Les Murray, The Vernacular Republic

The Vernacular Republic by Les Murray My rating: 4 of 5 stars I started reading Les Murray almost by accident five years ago. I was in my adjunct peregrinations asked to teach a poetry-writing class at the last minute—though fiction is my preferred form—and self-consciously started to read more verse. Murray, meanwhile, was a favorite … Continue reading Les Murray, The Vernacular Republic

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen My rating: 3 of 5 stars The ambition and audacity of this Pulitzer-prize-winning 2015 novel can't be denied. Synthesizing postcolonial theory with the tradition of the Great American Novel, Nguyen retells the story of the Vietnam War and its aftermath from the perspective of—not quite one of its victims, … Continue reading Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare My rating: 3 of 5 stars Like many modern readers and viewers, I am not shocked or outraged but rather fascinated by Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's earliest tragedy and most notorious play. Wikipedia assembles a good collection of critical sputtering at this revenge drama's sensationalist logic of rape, mutilation and murder, … Continue reading William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

Elizabeth Bishop, Questions of Travel

Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop My rating: 5 of 5 stars Elizabeth Bishop went to Brazil in 1951 and stayed for 15 years, living with her lover, Lota de Macedo Soares. The first half of this 1965 volume of poetry, her third, variously documents this extended sojourn: titled "Brazil," it includes not only lyrics … Continue reading Elizabeth Bishop, Questions of Travel

Robert Lowell, For the Union Dead

For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell My rating: 3 of 5 stars The tag next to Robert Lowell's corpus in the museum of literary history designates him the most influential American poet of the 20th century's second half—less the founder of a school (Confessional Poetry) than an author the gravity of whose work legitimated … Continue reading Robert Lowell, For the Union Dead

Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany My rating: 4 of 5 stars In a coruscating epistolary critique of The Bluest Eye, innocuously titled "Letter to Q——" in the 2005 collection About Writing, Samuel R. Delany tabulates what he sees as the many flaws of Toni Morrison's classic first novel. The gravamen of his indictment is that Morrison … Continue reading Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17

Juliana Spahr, Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment

Du Bois's Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment by Juliana Spahr The first thing to be said about this book is that it is brave. Poet and critic Juliana Spahr does not make her startling argument in general, nor does she make it in unreadably dense jargon that could only be followed by academic insiders. … Continue reading Juliana Spahr, Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett My rating: 4 of 5 stars Like Arthur Conan Doyle, who begins The Sign of Four with Sherlock Holmes in a drug trance, Dashiell Hammett can't get his detective novel started without an infusion of aestheticism. The Maltese Falcon, named as it is for an objet d'art, opens with two descriptions … Continue reading Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

Machado de Assis, The Alienist

The Alienist by Machado de Assis My rating: 4 of 5 stars We could learn a lot, both about life and literature, from this 1882 novella by the Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Machado is only now becoming prominent in the Anglophone world with Liveright's publication last year of his collected short stories … Continue reading Machado de Assis, The Alienist

Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy My rating: 3 of 5 stars Cities of the Plain began life as a screenplay, and it shows. For most of its length, it is bare description and dialogue. While its scene-setting is often concisely vivid and its cowboy conversations laconically witty, it lacks either the lived-in quality … Continue reading Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain