Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My 2017 Reading Retrospective

Happy Holidays, everybody! It's hard to believe that this is already my fifth annual reading retrospective, but here we are. If you're new to this blog, every year, I look back at the books I read over the past year, and share the ones I enjoyed the most/found the most thought-provoking. The books weren't necessarily published in that year, that's just when I happened to read them.

I tend to get into reading grooves-- this year, it seems, it was all short stories, fairy tales and memoirs. Presumably because my TBR list is informed by a lot of other people's lists, "15 Best Horror Novels" and whatnot.

This year, I read 61 books. Of them, the following these were stand-outs:

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter - Oh, the joy of discovering a new author you adore. The pain of learning she passed away in 1992. This book made me want to run out and get my hands on every single thing Carter has ever written. The Bloody Chamber is a collection of short stories that are re-tellings of classic fairy tales with a feminist twist. Carter's prose is sublime; stunningly, achingly beautiful, and did I mention feminist re-tellings of old fairy tales?

Deerskin by Robin McKinley - Another fairy tale retelling, this one of a Perrault story, "Donkeyskin." Be warned, this book is a little on the slow side. Like, really, really slow. I'm the sort of reader who doesn't mind when the author lingers on the details, on the day-to-day activities of the characters. I don't even mind stories that are virtually plotless, as long as the characters are compelling. Deerskin doesn't suffer from lack of plot, but sometimes, I was impatient for something to happen. However, I love the main characters, Lissar and her faithful hound, Ash, so much I was willing to stick it out with them. Also, I feel like the mark of a great book is one that lingers in your mind long after you've finished it, and I find myself thinking of this one often.

Best Horror of the Year, Volumes 1-9 edited by Ellen Datlow - Collections of the best horror fiction culled from literary magazines and anthologies. If you enjoy genre fiction, then you know Datlow's name. The lady has an eye for great fiction. I devoured all nine volumes back-to-back, so they've all kind of blurred together for me. Vampires, zombies, Lovecraftian goodness, psychos, ghosts, and everything in between. Certainly, some years are better than others, but these are a must-read for any horror aficionado. I'm already looking forward to next year's volume.

Hunger by Roxane Gay - This book has received so much praise and hype, I can't add much to it, other than to say it was the first book I read by Gay, and I plan on reading everything else by her. I've even been reading her Outlander recaps on Glamour and I don't even watch Outlander. (Though now I've started, because I trust Roxane's taste.)

White Tiger on Snow Mountain: Stories by David Gordon - A wonderful collection of stories that are warm, hilarious, devastating, and delightfully strange. The first story in the collection, I thought, was actually the weakest, but I kept reading, drawn in by his superb prose. I'm so glad I did. If I find myself following around friends and family, reading passages aloud to them, I know I've found something special.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie - A collection of short stories, poems, and prose-poems that, like most of his works, blur the line between fiction and biography, and generally defy categorization. Alexie inhabits one of my favorite minds in the literary cosmos.

The Incest Diary by Anonymous - A memoir of one woman's lifelong abuse at the hands of her father. I don't know how to even begin to describe this book, much less rate it. It's eye-opening. It's soul-shattering. You will be sickened, you will be enraged. I think it's something every adult should read. In the year of #MeToo and women speaking out (and being believed) about sexual assault, this book couldn't have hit the shelves at a better time. If you're tired of talking about abuse, imagine how tired the victims are of living with it.

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell - A fantastic collections that are so painfully realistic, I had to remind myself that they are, in fact, categorized as fiction. These are stories about mostly poor and working-class women, rural and urban, in stasis and in transit, told with unflinching honesty. They are stories about relationships: familial, romantic, professional, and everything in between. Also, having been born and raised in the Midwest and now living in the South, I appreciate stories told in the voices of the denizens of flyover country.

The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas - A Holocaust novel that defies description-- one part prose-poem, one part epistolary tale, one part erotica, one part mystical journey, the ending will leave you gutted. (But do I really need to tell you that, since it's a Holocaust novel?) Unforgettable.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie - A second entry by Alexie, this is mostly a memoir, chronicling Alexie's early life in tandem with the year following his mother's death. His life has been one of hardship, privation, poverty, and illness, yes, but it has also been rich with colorful characters, with love and As with anything else he's written, he can't not tell his story without lapsing into poetry, so be prepared to flit from prose to verse and back again. He's the writer I wish I could be. I am his eternal fangirl.

Thanks for reading! I'm always happy to hear from you, and especially happy to talk books, so please feel free to leave a comment below.

If you like this poem, check out my previous Reading Retrospectives: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Push Mountain Road: poems of nature, faith and domesticity

Pat Durmon’s third book, Push Mountain Road, is a tribute to the Ozark Mountains, the relationship between ourselves and all that surrounds us, and a life lived fully.

Push Mountain Road by Pat Durmon is actually three books in one, Push Mountain Road, Lights and Shadows in a Nursing Home, and Blind Curves, released from 2007-2015, so you’re getting quite a bang for your buck in terms of quantity. I’m pleased to report, you’re getting top-notch quality as well.

Push Mountain Road is, quite simply, a joy to read. Durmon focuses on nature, domesticity and faith. She handles all three deftly, but she is at her best when she is observing the beauty of the world around her. (She lives in Arkansas, which, if you’ve ever been there, you know is home to stunning mountains, hills and forestland.) I adore good nature poems, capable of taking something small and commonplace and transforming it into something miraculous, revelatory, and universal. We have all been enchanted by wildflowers, birds, a clear sky, and these poems assign them the specificity of place. There are poems about the home, about country-living. There is a lot of truth to be found here in ruminations on the day-to-day: marriage, arguments, divorce, aging, a mother in a care facility, funerals, illness, hairdressers. But virtually all of the poems are couched in nature imagery-- an argument pushes up mountains. The falling rain is an epiphany. Newly beautified salon clients walk out, tall as walnut trees.

Durmon’s work is imminently straightforward, accessible, yet artful. Her pieces are wise, powerful and meditative, but there’s a playfulness at work here, too, that I really enjoyed. She peppers in words and phrases like flimflam and tra-la-la. She plays with rhymes and alliteration, which, in the hands of a less capable poet can just come off as silly. Here, I think they reflect the poet’s genuine and profound love for life.

These poems are also Christian, but if you are not, don’t let that put you off. I am not a Christian myself, but I respect the faith of others. Yet I wouldn’t categorize these as Christian poems, per se-- there are allusions to scripture, but again, it mostly expresses itself in Durmon’s love of the world. These are poems for everyone, they just happen to come from a place of awe, gratitude and humility that is uniquely Christian, like this passage from “What a Good Life”:

When the sun travels its higher path,
I read a psalm. King David’s words
and the smell of beans humble me.
Suddenly, I am fed.

In all of her themes, Durmon achieves the not inconsiderable feat of being positive without being sentimental, or cheesy. These poems are solid, nourishing works, juicy and savory as venison steak. They are deeply honest, quietly funny, yet there is a sharpness here-- an eye for truths thrumming away beneath the surface of things, an inner ferocity. A husband’s scowl can rock his wife, but she gives as good as she gets, asking in a later poem, “Which ditch do you want to die in?”

The poems are mature, distinctly female. There has been a lot of discussion lately by feminist writers about how writing that deals with “women’s subjects” has been traditionally dismissed as less important. I would point to Durmon’s poetry as a reason why they matter so much. In “Upholstery Shop,” she quotes the upholsterer, who says, “Welcome to my tiny place where/important work happens.” If this doesn’t sum up literature that deals with domesticity, I don’t know what does. And just because they deal with subjects like cooking and laundry doesn’t mean they don’t have teeth. She finds beauty even in a dead skunk, in the potential of manure. She captures the fury of storms and arguments, floods and funerals. “Hanging” is a gut punch. She is a Christian with the soul of a hedgewitch, capturing the beauty of gardens, kitchens, and the earth at large.

One of my favorites was, “How to Build a Mean Mincemeat Pie,” in which the narrator consults a very famous red-and-white cookbook that my mother and I both use, and consults with her mother-in-law on ingredients. I am thrilled to share this experience with other women. “Deep Delight” is another favorite-- a quiet little poem about a single magnolia blossom.

I can’t recommend this book enough. Durmon tells me she has a new collection in the works and I can’t wait to read it.

Purchase Push Mountain Road on Amazon.

About the Author

Pat Durmon is the author of Blind Curves (2007), Lights and Shadows in a Nursing Home (2013), and Push Mountain Road (2015). Poems have been published by Rattle, Main Street Rag, Poetry East, Cyclamens and Blades, Between the Lines, Lucidity and other journals. She is the recipient of the Sybil Nash Abrams Award (2007) and the Merit Award (2013), given by Poets Roundtable of Arkansas. Pat Durmon is retired from mental health counseling and currently facilitates two groups.  She writes a weekly blog and invites people to follow her uplifting blog by signing up at Durmon is a native Arkansan and lives in the Ozarks with her husband. She sees herself as lighter and more joyful after writing a poem.