Said and read – December 2019


I suppose there are traditions and tropes in stories like this. Someone is given a test to carry out. No one knows who the truth bearer is. People are not who or where we think they are. And there is someone who watches from an unknown location.WarlightMichael Ondaatje

December ends, and my reading has not been rapid or fruitful. I had some time off, and halfway tried to catch up on things… but it was halfhearted. I found myself sleeping for 16-hour stretches. There were scholastic readings and a stronger pull to do other things.

I’ve read a grand total of 210 books in 2019 (not sure the final tally is accurate; I’m relying on notoriously buggy Goodreads to keep count). Maybe by the time the day ends this will be 211 – one of my goals this year was to translate a book, and I am nearly done translating a book from Norwegian to English, which would be book 211. But, for one thing, I don’t think I will finish today, and secondly, I don’t think “reading” and “translating” are the same thing. This is only about half of what I’ve read in the last two or three years, which feels a bit like a letdown. But I try to remind myself that it’s not about volume, and life was otherwise so full of activity that reading was an enjoyable, if necessary, third or fourth priority.

Here’s what you missed in the last nearly two years: 2019 – November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for December:

Highly recommended

Remember that. Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.” –WarlightMichael Ondaatje

*WarlightMichael Ondaatje

I did not have high expectations for this book but found it immediately engrossing. Ondaatje is kind of hit or miss for me, but I don’t know why.  I find it hard to describe my thoughts on fiction – I just know what I like. Providing plot points and describing characters defeats the purpose, so I will simply say that I enjoyed this.

*The TraditionJericho Brown

Poetry, brief and aware.

Good – or better than expected

*The Winds of WarHerman Wouk

A few months ago, thanks to the minor, but altogether modern, not-quite-imbroglio of opening the wrong book within an e-reader, I read quite a bit of The Winds of War. I grew increasingly confused as I ‘tapped’ the pages, thinking I was reading a book about faith and its role in social good for university. I’d read some commentary about the university book claiming that the writer was “not great with women”, which is probably why I kept reading longer than I should have, wondering why the writer would be commenting in the impersonal third person on how attractive someone’s wife was. I persevered, thinking there might appear some ‘moral lesson’. Finally when the prose steered itself into discussing military life, I realized that maybe – just maybe – I had (re)opened the wrong book. Lo and behold….

At first The Winds of War left me cold – not least because I really didn’t like the way its female characters were depicted and didn’t relish having spent 15 minutes during a deadline-heavy day reading its nonsense when I should have been reading something else. Nevertheless, I finally returned to Winds and found it better than I expected. Did I love it – would I recommend it? No. But I don’t feel like I wasted my time.

Oddly the book felt in places newly timely, particularly on its discussion of the history of anti-Semitism. Anti-semitism is not new, and ‘tolerance’ — especially observing what is happening in the world right now — shallow.

“He stroked his beard and spoke deliberately, the classroom note strong. “Well! Your surprise doesn’t surprise me. Young people—young Americans especially—aren’t aware that the tolerance for Jews in Europe is only fifty to a hundred years old and that it’s never gone deep. It didn’t touch Poland, where I was born. Even in the West—what about the Dreyfus case? No, no. In that respect Hitler represents only a return to normalcy for Europe, after the brief glow of liberalism. The hostility simply moved from the Church to the anti-Semitic parties, because the French Revolution changed Europe from a religious to a political continent. If Hitler does win out, the Jews will fall back to the second-class status they always had under the kings and the popes. Well, we survived seventeen centuries of that. We have a lot of wisdom and doctrine for coping with it.” –The Winds of WarHerman Wouk

Oddly I didn’t remember how or why I started reading this, but in writing this stumbled on Wouk’s obit from earlier this year. I guess I didn’t consciously realize he only died this year at 103 years old. Surely that prompted me to add this to my reading list (as well as its sequel, War and Remembrance, and Marjorie Morningstar).

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The New Jim CrowMichelle Alexander

The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.

Nothing in this book comes as a surprise, but put together in one place, how can anyone deny that the criminal justice system is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of centuries of oppression? I can’t read books like this without getting angry, sad and feeling helpless. But such reading – and then trying to act on what is read – is absolutely essential.


*How Late It Was, How LateJames Kelman

I forgot to mention this one when I originally wrote this post. I finished it at the last minute and refer to it now only because it’s written in profane, stream-of-consciousness Glaswegian. A strange story but quite alive in the sense that you can, if you’re familiar with Glaswegians, hear someone actually rambling along in this way. It was a controversial choice as a Booker Prize winner some years ago, and I understand why. But I think it’s deserving for the way it captures a character using this unique language. Not that I am an authority on what or who is deserving or not.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s FuturePete Buttigieg

Okay, so I went into this expecting not to like it, and I was not wrong.

When Pete Buttigieg appeared on the world stage a few months back, with a slow but relentless trickle of stories drip-drip-dripping like a leaky faucet about how he’d taught himself Norwegian just to read more books by Erlend Loe and appeared suddenly and quietly at a hospital to act as an interpreter, had volunteered to join the military when he didn’t have to… and so on, it was sort of refreshing at first and an antidote to the unpatriotic and linguistically and cognitively challenged rhetoric of the current US president. Sure, this Buttigieg guy has a lot going for him and appears intelligent and humble, ticking a lot of the boxes required for fresh political talent in semi-liberal America. (Of course Americans don’t care if someone learns multiple languages; in fact, I’d argue that many Americans consider this disqualifying.)

But that’s the thing: I am not the world’s biggest cynic, but my cynicism radar won’t shut off. Every drip from the leaky faucet seems like it was cynically planted just to tick these boxes, and it was done craftily. Not all at once, quieter than the self-aggrandizing bluster of a Trump or even the standard self-promotion of most Democratic Party challengers. The strategy behind the offensive is the slow drip infiltration – starting long before Buttigieg declared an interest in running for president. It comes from all fronts, in many different forms. Perhaps it is no different from how Barack Obama ran a campaign, but we are witnessing this in a different, social-media-saturated, post-Trump world. Everything looks cynical. Furthermore, this was, frankly, a dull book.

for the dead


If I Speak for the Dead I Must Leave
Nick Flynn

You opened my mouth
& filled it

with stones, for days
then weeks then

years, we swam until we
couldn’t, like

horses, our bodies,
little noises—

now this now this—

until it didn’t make any
sense . . . . Did we really

believe that

if we could just return to
the source & fully

we might then be able
to sink back into it? I

woke up in a boat once I

remember, I opened my mouth
& then, little snake, you

were gone. I didn’t know
you might not

come back. Once I

could say I’d never kissed

who is now dead, once

that was true, as if
my lips were a cure, as if death

wasn’t the only reason we
got into that boat. It

held us for as long as
it did, that’s all we can say,

until it didn’t.

Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash

circus pony


Circus Pony
Tomás Q. Morín

What joy to say our short, winter days
are behind us now. Gone the old life we filled
with empty laughter, the times we’d pack
the backseat with every hitchhiking clown
we happened upon—our record was eight
until the year our fathers died. Gone
the red-nosed hours, our grotesque smiles
drawn large and wide, when we rehearsed
our cold routines of “Hey, are you ok?” and “Fine.
I’ll be fine.” Remember the long seconds—three
slow ones in all—before your face
that took an hour to apply turned grave
or the look you wore, sadder than any clown’s
in the rain, that was my cue to knit my brow
and continue fumbling with the three-sizes-too-small
hammer you handed me so I could once more fix
the swaybacked rocking horse we purchased
to ward off an unspoken future in which we
are continents apart, surrounded by our hungry
new families as we slice and dismantle
the same braised roast and lament how
we could have let hope stray, how the story
of our lives might have been different
if it had contained, however lame, something
we could have ridden into the sunset on.
Photo by Henry Chuy on Unsplash

fragile old heart


A Map of the World
Ted Kooser

One of the ancient maps of the world
is heart-shaped, carefully drawn
and once washed with bright colors,
though the colors have faded
as you might expect feelings to fade
from a fragile old heart, the brown map
of a life. But feeling is indelible,
and longing infinite, a starburst compass
pouting in all the directions
two lovers might go, a fresh breeze
swelling their sails, the future uncharted,
still far from the edge
where the sea pours into the stars.

religious practice


Religious Practice
Heather Christle

For a short time each morning
it is possible to believe

that God spent the night
cutting the flat black shapes

of trees from the sky,
wondrously complicated holes

that only become visible
when the sky’s light

begins to slowly come on.
It is an exercise in faith

ruined differently each morning.
For instance, today by two crows.

Then God must start over—so
many branches to retrace and snip—

it’s no wonder he can’t
hear our prayers.

Image (c) S Donaghy

creating more love


No Traveler Returns
Brenda Shaughnessy

I was like you once, a sealed plastic bag of water filters floating on the sea.

I thought my numbers proved my time and space on earth.

I thought having children was a way of creating more love.

I thought thoughts I was ashamed to speak in case they were what everyone already thought or in case they were unthinkable thoughts nobody would dare think much less say which would blow up the world everyone else had to live in if I said them.

I muddled that distinction to extinction—pure silence not a piece of peace and a breathlessness not of wonder but blackthroat, choking on backwash.

Once a wild tentacled screaming creature every inch a kissed lip of a beloved place, a true and relentless mind, all heart if heart is a dumb hope of reusable pump.

What was it you said that made me think I was like you once?


Remember the last terrifying moments? You clenched up and wanted me to be completely open.

We’d broken up (remember such terms? Such luxury? We thought breaking up a kind of preservation.) and to cut off circulation decided to sever at the place where our hair had grown together.
An axe, a pair of kitchen scissors. That rusty axe fully-fatigued and scissors which cut raw chicken bacteria into everything it touched.

Nothing did the trick. To come apart we’d have to come, together; and so I tried to make you come; you said it was our last time so you’d remember it.

You cried out, then cried and I cried and I hardened against you, then softened, then wished we could go back, wanted to love you like before, twisted myself like nobody’s pile of wires.

Did you try to make me come, and I couldn’t, wouldn’t? Or did I give you that and let you let me go?


And there will be no other way to be, once this way’s gone. The last song on earth, the last jellybean. Last because nobody wanted it, or everybody sang it, till the end.

Once this day in November’s over never another. Each day nothing like the last except that it’s the last and that’s new too.

Each moment broken glasses, a covered mirror, foxed. The waste stays in place. The rest disappears. The unrest, too.

There’s no way to follow my own mind. My own mind is not leading. I’m unleaded. I’m gasoline.

I’m everything in between this flame and that attracted wind. I forgot my glasses—how will we drink?

Seeing isn’t believing if I believe I see better with something I can so easily forget.

And what if I can’t forget? I forgot the heft and squirm of my own baby in my arms, in my own womb.

I’ll forget anything and call it an accident, match to fuel and breathing it all in as if I’m living normally from day to re-registered day.

Why is it, if I can only remember what I myself experienced, that I can also forget what I experienced? Who records the records and collects the recollections?

I had that baby in my womb for 39 weeks, for three quarters of a year, a full calendar minus summer. An unforgettable summer, each day fucking endless.

Oh I know all the numbers; everything adds up. I’ve never seen my womb but my doctor has. I never saw that doctor again.

Photo by Yifan Zhang on Unsplash



Brenda Shaughnessy
If only you’d been a better mother.

How could I have been a better mother?
I would have needed a better self,
and that is a gift I never received.

So you’re saying it’s someone else’s fault?

The gift of having had a better mother myself,
my own mother having had a better mother herself.
The gift that keeps on not being given.

Who was supposed to give it?

How am I supposed to know?

Well, how am I supposed to live?

I suppose you must live as if you had been
given better to live with. Comb your hair, for instance.

I cut off my hair, to sell for the money
to buy you what you wanted.

I wanted nothing but your happiness.

I can’t give you that!
What would Jesus do?
He had a weird mother too . . .

Use the myrrh, the frankincense, as if
it were given unconditionally, your birthright.

It’s a riddle.

All gifts are a riddle, all lives are
in the middle of mother-lives.

But it’s always winter in this world.
There is no end to ending.

The season of giving, the season
when the bears are never cold,
because they are sleeping.

The bears are never cold, Mama,
but I am one cold, cold bear.

Photo by Adam Willoughby-Knox on Unsplash



Dee LeRoy
turned from the road
toward a creek

running cold yet unfrozen
near trees beyond the house.

I circled him, faced him
grinned at his quartz pebble smile.

Though he could not tip his hat
I knew he wanted to.

“Watch your back,” I said
though I saw he had no ears.

The carrot nose twitched slightly
as if he chuckled at my wit.

Only the eyes betrayed
more somber meditation

their marbled glass
reflecting sky-trees-me

all like the creek in our flowing.

There I thought I saw
the snowman’s heart.

I recalled how in summer
I contemplate the soil

all it produces, all it reclaims.

“Water to water,” I whispered
touching the snowman’s face

lifting my hand quickly
as a drop began down his cheek.

Photo by Nathan Wolfe on Unsplash