Seamus Heaney was real. Were he a fictional character, however, we likely would call him unrealistic, his life story and his career too good to be true. Like Robert Frost and W. H. Auden, but perhaps with fewer missteps and regrets, Heaney became the sort of modern poet whose best-known phrases circulate without attribution. At least four books are called, after Heaney’s “Song,” “The Music of What Happens”; Joe Biden and Bill Clinton have repeatedly quoted Heaney’s optimistic lines about peace in Northern Ireland, where “hope and history rhyme.” When casual readers of poetry think about Heaney, his Irishness, his charisma, his connection to thousands of years of poetic tradition (as shown by his translation of “Beowulf”), and his irenic political attitudes first come to mind.
But Heaney was also a poet of private life, and the happiest such poet among the accomplished writers of his generation. A new book, “100 Poems”—a short, career-spanning selection—completes a project that Heaney began during his lifetime. Compiled by Heaney’s “immediate family,” with a preface by his daughter Catherine, it highlights his work as a poet of friendship and family, of careful and long-felt affiliation, not only to land and language but to the people who stayed with him throughout the decades. Some of the poems are what classical musicians call warhorses, work many readers will know; others—especially the late work, and the work on domestic themes—surface parts of his talent that Americans, in particular, may not have yet seen.
The lights are dim, set to eternal dusk. You enter and blink. If there are booths, they should be plush: Naugahyde or brocade limned in gold. Napkins are linen, tables likely cloaked. Maybe a Persian rug lies underfoot. Taxidermied animal heads peer from the walls. From your seat, you might see a living white-tailed deer out the window; like you, it is ready to feed.
But eating is only half your purpose here, for this is a Wisconsin supper club, a distinctly American subgenre of restaurant that for nearly a century has largely and triumphantly ignored the passing of time. The owner greets you at the door and shows you to the knotty pine bar — no rush to get to the dining room — where there might be a cracker table waiting, with cheese spreads to sample, and a relish tray of cold crinkle-cut carrots and sweet-and-sour pickles. The bartender makes you a drink, muddled by hand. It’ll be a brandy old-fashioned, if you’re doing this right, a cocktail that bears only the faintest resemblance to the whiskey version found elsewhere in the land; the German immigrants who settled the state preferred their alcohol on the sweet side, and, according to Holly L. De Ruyter, the director of the 2015 documentary “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club,” the drink was refined during Prohibition, when people had to use fruit and sugar to mask the taste of rotgut liquor.
Despite its on-the-nose title, “Frankissstein” (which was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize) is far, far more than a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s 19th-century monsterpiece. It’s a novel fizzing with ideas, one that toys with timelines and intertextuality. It veers from the Gothic to the satirical and seamlessly interweaves social commentary on everything from gender to the cultural hegemony to our obsessions with social media and future tech. The Frankensteinian notion of creating a sentient being has obvious parallels with artificial intelligence, and that’s what Jeanette Winterson has in her sights.
A novel about a Soviet military factory whose workers must eventually adjust to a post-Soviet way of life does not sound like a thrilling read. Yet there’s a very good reason why Ksenia Buksha’s The Freedom Factory (Zavod “Svoboda”) won Russia’s National Bestseller Prize in 2014 (Buksha is only the second of three women to do so since the prize’s founding in 2001) and was also a finalist for the Big Book Award. In the author’s hands, this unpromising raw material is skillfully transformed into a genuinely and unexpectedly compelling narrative. The Freedom Factory belongs to the faction genre, a combination of fact and fiction: the material comes from interviews of workers in a real-life factory built during Soviet times in what used to be Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg. The workers’ lives are intertwined with that of the factory itself, as it and they move from the Soviet era to the heady chaos of the 1990s, and then to the more stable yet more circumscribed 2000s.
The stories all come together in the end — a swirl of blood and heartbreak, fentanyl and magic. But in the middle of it all stands Galaxy Stern, the girl who sees ghosts. And for all the good work that Bardugo does in crafting a believable alternate world where Yale's secret societies work powerful magic to alter the course of fortunes and history, it is Alex that makes Ninth House so readable. She is as disbelieving as any of us, as innocent, as skeptical, as furious. She is equal parts hard and soft, vulnerable and powerful. She may see ghosts, but she doesn't understand magic — real, nasty, visceral magic. And in Ninth House, Bardugo gives us the chance to see it all — the real and the imagined versions of Yale, the rich, the powerful, those they prey on — through Alex Stern's eyes.
Just another girl who doesn't think she belongs.
What would you do to save the world? Not the strapline for a Netflix series, but rather the question that sits behind Jonathan Safran Foer’s second work of nonfiction, We Are the Weather. The answer to the question appears to be “not very much”, given that despite the looming threat of global heating, despite the fact the next generation (and those that follow) will live more precarious lives, with food, water and clean air in ever-shorter supply, despite the fact that the future of our planet appears to be one of flooded cities, scorched forests and sulphurous skies, we continue to behave as if the climate crisis is someone else’s problem. In 2018, despite knowing more about climate change than we have ever known, we produced more greenhouse gases than we have ever produced, at three times the rate of global population growth.
Peattie’s book is the portrait of an elusive, paradoxical man, a poet who thought that words were as expendable as breath, a narcissist who disliked himself and a celebrity who laughed at his own publicity.
remember what the blacksmith
knows – dim light is best
at the furnace, to see the colours
go from red to orange