Monthly Archives: June 2010

Miss Hargreaves

by Frank Baker

Frank Baker’s Miss Hargreaves (The Bloomsbury Group, 2010) is a perfect exemplar of my as yet unnamed proposed new genre.  It is, according to the blurb on the back cover, one of the first in “a new library of books from the early twentieth century chosen by readers for readers.”  The story is this: Norman Huntley is the sort of young man who has “…never lied in order to get out of things, so much as to get into things,” a condition that leads his father to warn him to “Beware of the Spur of the Moment.” However, his father’s advice goes unheeded when Norman and his friend Henry, On the Spur of the Moment,  and for their own amusement, invent “Miss Constance Hargreaves.”  They imagine her as an elderly poet (there’s an example of her work at the end of this paragraph), with a touch of rheumatoid arthritis, who travels everywhere with her harp, her cockatoo, her Bedlington terrier named Sarah, and a large hip-bath.  After Norman (all in the spirit of getting into things) writes her a letter, you can imagine his shock when Miss Hargreaves (pronounced Har-graves), who shares some qualities with Mary Poppins, I think, not only quickly replies, but invites herself to come stay with Norman’s family for a good long get-reacquainted visit.  And then she arrives, which inevitably complicates Norman’s relationship with his family and his girlfriend.  How this deliciously impossible but strangely believable plot (think of it as a Wodehousian fantasy, perhaps) works itself out is a treat to behold.  I can’t wait to discover what the Bloomsbury Group has in store next for American readers.  (I have lots of suggestions, though.)

 Here’s a verse from one of Miss Hargreaves’s poems:

       O, bring me the cornet, the flute, and the axe,

              The Serpent, the drum and the cymbals;

       The truth has been told; I’ve laid bare all the facts—

               I cannot make bricks without thimbles.


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Words for Empty and Words for Full

by Bob Hicok

I keep changing my mind about which of Bob Hicok’s books of poetry is my favorite.  Is it Words for Empty and Words for Full (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2010) or This Clumsy Living (University of Pittsburgh, 2007)?  I finally decided to write about the former title, his latest book, although right up until I started this post I was undecided.  What I love about Hicok’s writing is its conversational tone and ways of unexpectedly turning the world inside out and making me think about it differently.  Reading these poems, I feel as though he’s talking to me about his own feelings and observations, and something more:  the universality, and— contradictorily —the singularity of those feelings. 

 The second section of this book deals with the shocking shootings in April of 2007 at Virginia Tech University where Hicok teaches English.  Take a look at “Whimper,” which describes in one long sentence, a search for reasons to help explain the tragedy, and ends with this long stanza:

…and why ask that why

of the larger why, why did this happen, and why from that why
branch to the why am I alive why, there’s the why
are we here why and the why do we let so many questions
begin with a bang why and the why do we say aftermath
when it never ends, the desire to add for some and subtract
for others, we say we want answers, that it’s very quiet
around here now, all this light, the sun more full of itself
by the day until July will strip us of shadows and time
will seem to have given up on night, why is the song
we add to nature, we’re like birds as kids, why why why,
we sang, we sing, whole flocks of us swirling now,
turning our turns into turning, not knowing
in our direction what our direction is, how things
get decided undecided, lost if you need to find us
is where we are. 

Whether it’s the progression of his musings that results from breaking a coffee carafe to the wars in far away countries  (“Kinesis”) or a description of a conversation he had with his plumber, in to fix a leaky hot water heater (“Redoubling Our Efforts”), which includes doubles, Noam Chomsky, and the plumber’s son who wants to join the Army, or, perhaps my favorite, “from the history of grade school,” reading Hicok’s poetry makes me look differently at the world.  At various times, as I read and re-read these poems, I am filled with happiness at Hicok’s language play and humor, with awe by the way he makes language new, and with a renewed feeling of terror at the randomness and unexpectedness of life.


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Three Favorites

Three of my favorite novels are Oh, Be Careful by Lee Colgate; At War As Children by Kit Reed;  and The Lion in the Lei Shop by Kaye Starbird. The first two were published in the early 1960s and the last one in 1970.   When I think about what always links these books together in my mind (I almost never think of them separately), it’s that I must have read them within a few years of each other; although I don’t remember in what order, or what was happening in my life when I discovered them.  I do know that I was in my twenties, and the experiences of the main characters were completely understandable, if not my own experiences.  Oh, Be Careful is the story of a young woman’s first serious, life-altering, love affair.  It’s about how we become the adults we are through a combination of disastrous choices, accident, and pure chance.  As far as I know, Colgate never wrote another novel—I so wish she had. 

At War As Children takes place during and after World War II. The main character is Denise McLeod, who grows up on a series of submarine bases with her mother, attending Catholic school, playing with her closest friend Bunker, and all the time waiting for letters from her beloved father, who is off at sea.  When tragedy comes close to home, Denny tries to cope with it in various ways—some helpful, some not, but all growing organically out of the young woman she is becoming.  Reed, who teaches at Wesleyan University, went on to write many other works of fiction; but none has touched me as much as this one did.  I have often wondered what she, herself, thinks about this, her second novel.

Interestingly, The Lion in the Lei Shop is also set during and after World War II. (And WWII is not really my war—that would be Vietnam, so that’s certainly not why I love these two books so much.)  The story begins on the day Pearl Harbor is bombed; Marty and her parents are living at Schofield Barracks in Wahiawa, Hawaii, where  her father is a career Army officer. Following the bombing, her father goes on active duty and basically disappears from Marty’s life.  How she tries to make sense of what’s happened to her family is affecting (boy, did I cry when I read this book!) and yet not at all manipulative or fakey.

So on the surface, what these three novels have in common is three-dimensional, pretty wonderful main female characters who are working hard at trying to understand who they are and how they’re to live their lives.  If I tried to dig a little more into the “why” of my loving them so much (I own them all in hardback, and I don’t keep a lot of books), it would probably require either a hypnotist or psychiatrist.  Or, preferably, both.  In any event, it’s clearly time for another rereading round of the three.


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Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe


by Simon Singh

My husband, Joe, recently finished a book he loved.  I asked him to write about it for the blog, and so he did:

 I’ve always enjoyed science writing.  James Gleick’s Chaos, and Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe are among my favorites of the genre; and I can now add Simon Singh’s Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe (HarperCollins, 2005) to that list. Singh, a scientist (Ph.D. in particle physics from the University of Cambridge) with a special interest in science education, relates the history of humankind’s attempts to understand the nature and origin of the universe within which we live, and especially our place in it, starting with the creation myths of various primitive peoples, and finishing with the current (as of the book’s publication in 2004) version of The Big Bang Theory.  His explication of the science is lucid, completely accessible even to the most non-mathematically inclined reader; but beyond that he communicates the drama of the science—for example, the gradual transition from the view that the Earth is at the center of the universe to the view that the Sun is at the center, and the role of the Catholic Church in resisting that transition. Then there is the drama behind the science—personal stories of the extraordinary (in intellect) and ordinary (in emotions) famous, and not so famous, men and women who passionately devoted their lives to that science.  This is the first popular science book I’ve read that was, for me at least, a can’t-put-it-down page-turner.  Suffice it to say that I took this 500 page hardback along as airplane reading on a recent nine hour plane trip.


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