During this last year of pandemic, when I turned to fiction, I often wanted comfort food – a good mystery, or something light and entertaining. I also read a greater amount of poetry – maybe because you can read a bit at a time and jump around. Here’s what I enjoyed in poetry, mysteries, and novels.
The Collected Poems of Audrey Lorde. Lorde died in 1992 but her work feels even more relevant and important today.
The Best of It by Kay Ryan. I only recently came across Ryan who writes accessible and clever poetry that I enjoyed.
An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo. Harjo is the incumbent poet laureate of the United States, and the first Native American to hold the post.
Poems New and Collected by Wislawa Szymborska. Wislawa Szymboska was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2020. This collection features poems from her throughout her career. Her poems by Ella are colloquial, humane, and often surprising.
I read a good number of mysteries for entertainment or balm. Among those I enjoyed these stood out:
James Lee Burke is, in my humble opinion, the greatest living writer of detective fiction. His Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux has a wonderfully complex back story, extensive personal history, and amusing and dangerous sidekicks. And he sometimes sees Confederate Ghosts in the Louisiana Swamps. The Robicheaux series was dormant between 2013 and 2018 but returned with vigor with the following titles, the first of which Robicheaux (2018) may be one of his best, and which were followed by the also excellent The New Iberia Blues (2019), and A Private Cathedral (2020).
If your idea of detective or cime fiction is a page turner that you stay up reading late in the next morning to finish, you can’t do better Michael Connolly. Connolly’s LA detective Harry Bosch is now an Amazon series that is satisfying and somewhat darker and grimmer than the novels themselves but that really showcases Los Angeles better than any show I can think of. In the meantime, in his novels by him, Connolly has a new detective, a young woman Rene Ballard who teams up with Bosch to solve a number of thorny crimes in works such as The Late Show (2017), Dark Sacred Night (2018), The Night Fire (2019), and The Dark Hours (2021).
I also enjoyed the recent Razorblade Tears by SA Crosby. This is a relentless revenge saga, with two unlikely heroes, a pair of mismatched favors avenging their sons’ murder. There is not so much a mystery novel as a “how will they exact revenge and will they survive and get away with it.” The characters are distinctive and well drawn. And although you can imagine where things will land, the getting there is plenty dramatic. The movie version can’t be too far off.
The Vixens by Francine Prose. Ethel Rosenberg is a femme fatale in this entertaining romp set in the publishing world. What I loved most about this novel was that you could tell the author had as much fun writing it as I did reading it.
The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin. This is a classic western with a twist, the avenging gunman being a Chinese immigrant who worked on the railroads
Inner Chinatown by Charles Yu. This is a novel told in the form of a screenplay in which the characters are all Asian-Americans actors hoping to rise from Asian Guy #1 to Kung Fu Master.
The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen, This novel takes a true fact that Bibi Netanyahu’s father, Bentzion Netanyahu, an academic who put a nationalist spin on the Inquisition, interviewed for a job at a small liberal arts college in the US – and imagines this event form the point of view of the college’s one Jewish faculty member who has been chosen to serve as host. Rothian hijinks dream.