Review: Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil

weapons If you haven’t been living under a rock, you will have experienced big data, whether you applied to lease an apartment or if you are a Facebook user. Generally, we see big data as a helpful way of predicting what movies we’ll like on Netflix and streamlining processes like applying for a mortgage. There are apps now to track your budget, your steps, your caloric intake, and we generally welcome it. More data is always helpful, right? Unfortunately, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy sheds light on some of the darker implications of our reliance on big data.

Cathy O’Neil has a PhD in mathematics from Harvard University and worked as a quant for a hedge fund, before becoming disillusioned with the world of finance and taking up with the Occupy Wall Street movement. She also runs a math blog (mathbabe.org) where she explores all of the newest developments in big data. So, what exactly is big data?

Define Big Data: extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions

Normally, when we see things becoming automated, we would generally assume things become less biased and more fair and predictable. O’Neil shows us all of the reasons why this presumption is flawed. She calls these automated/big data driven algorithms “weapons of math destructions” when they meet three criteria: opacity, scale, and damage. O’Neil makes a compelling argument and walks us through how WMD are with us every step of our lives – getting a job, applying for college, and even car insurance. WMDs do not impact us all the same – some people are impacted more than others, namely the poor and minorities.

O’Neil writes about math and complex systems in a way that anyone can understand, even if you slept through every math class in high school. However, nothing is perfect, and I wish that the “and threatens democracy” portion of the book was a little more fleshed out. O’Neil mentions her work with Occupy Wall Street in passing, but I think this should have been a full chapter of her book.

***

I’d recommend this book to people who are interested in social policy, nonfiction books written in plain language, and people who listen to Planet Money. But be warned, after reading this book, you’ll begin to see big data traps everywhere (does the Congressional repeal of internet privacy rules sound familiar?)

Additional resources:

Review: A Whole Life, Robert Seethaler

A Whole Life

“Every life, when you look back on it, reduces itself to a few moments. The moments are what stay with us.” – Robert Seethaler

Andreas Egger’s life may seem small to the passing observer, fitting neatly within A Whole Life, a slim 160-paged novella. (Just compare this to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which was a sprawling 720-pages. Although, I haven’t read that one yet!) But do not be fooled, it takes quite a bit of skill for Viennese-born author Robert Seethaler to distill Egger’s life into a few defining moments: dropping a bowl of cereal one morning, being draped over a cow saddle to be spanked by an unloving uncle, building a small fence along the edge of his property. These small moments culminate into a beautifully observed life. There are some important big moments too, but I don’t want to spoil the book for you.

What struck me the most about this book is that the setting almost doesn’t matter. When World War II begins, Eggers leaves his village in the Austrian Alps to enlist in the army. Not because he feels patriotic or passionate, but because it is what everyone else is doing. It didn’t even occur to me that Eggers would be fighting for the Nazis until Seethaler writes, “He… was relieved when he soon saw the familiar red of the swastikas glimmering towards him.” (“Humane Nazis” seem to be popping up in my reading a lot this year, something I’m still wrestling with, and I’ll be telling you about Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night soon.)

As I read A Whole Life, I was immediately reminded of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, a connection, as I later found out, a lot of people have made. They are both novellas, both containing some surreally beautiful moments – an entire mountain lit up in candles for a wedding proposal, a pack of wolves running and howling in the middle of the night with a little wolf girl. I wouldn’t say these are anything like magical realism, but instead, the writers have a way with creating images that haunt you long after you’ve finished reading. The setting and time period for both books could easily be swapped and you wouldn’t even notice – one is cutting trees to make room for a transcontinental railroad while the other is cutting trees to make room for alpine cable cars. Nazi or American Patriot, the writers have both created very realistic and human portraits of a lifetime within 160+ pages. 

***

I would recommend this book to you if you liked Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. I see a similar line of style, plot, and technique running through all of these books. Have you read these before? Do you agree?

Book Review: The Dim Sum Field Guide

bookcover

Dim sum is the Chinese version of small plates and offer a large variety of food types. The Dim Sum Field Guide: a taxonomy of dumplings, buns, meats, sweets, and other specialties of the Chinese teahouse by Carolyn Phillips covers about 150 different types of foods that may be found on the trolleys in a dim sum restaurant. Each entry has is two pages – one with a black and white illustration, also done by author Phillips, and the second page a playful description following the field guide style with “genus” (name of the dish in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese), “identification”, “sauce or dip” that is usually paired with the dish, “nesting habits” (how you are likely going to see the food arranged), “origins”, and “species” (similar dishes). Phillips, who has written a recipe book on Chinese food called All Under Heaven, lived in Taiwan for eight years and worked as a Mandarin interpreter back in the states before retiring to work on her food writing. (Explore her writing here.)

The illustrations are charming, though color would probably be helpful for a few of the dishes with complicated linework, and include a cross-section view of the food to give an idea of dimensions and proportions. They also indicate what type of meats are associated with each dish as well as which dishes are vegetarian and vegan, which is very helpful. The book is broadly categorized into savory versus sweet with a few subcategories.

Overall, the book is a lot of fun to flip through and informative, and I would recommend looking over it before going to dim sum to feel more familiar or after if you wanted to learn more about particular dishes. I would only take it to the restaurant with a patient group of friends. Dim sum is a pretty fast-paced environment, and I can’t imagine a waiter being particularly patient if you stop the trolley to flip through the book for each dish before ordering.

While reading the book, I found myself not thinking so much about dumplings and taro root but about the complicated relationship between exposure vs ownership of cultural foods. Something in Phillips’s writing makes me a little hesitant, uncomfortable, and un-trusting (when she writes of “the Chinese people,” I cannot help reading your people). She has a post listing the twelve points she believes Chinese restaurants must follow “in hopes of an epicurean Reformation” that is silly bordering absurd. I understand it must be difficult to devote oneself to another culture’s cuisine (is there a right way to do it?). Beyond the language barrier and geographical barriers, there will be those calling you a fraud from both sides. To publish anything, really, is to open yourself to scrutiny. All in all, I do believe that Phillips’s love for Chinese food is honest and without ulterior motive.

So to address my personal discomforts, I hope to continue having conversations with patient friends and people more thoughtful than myself about what it means that a white woman is publishing only Chinese cookbooks, why are there so many white people writing about Asian food (and conversely why shouldn’t there be?), what does it mean for food to be authentic anyway, why do Asian foods seem so vulnerable to becoming trends recently (from pho to matcha to poke bowls), and what is the right? best? appropriate? way to appreciate food with particularly strong cultural ties.

Related:

Why Hunting Down ‘Authentic Ethnic Food’ Is A Loaded Proposition

How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food — then make it trendy

An Eater’s Manifesto For Chinese Restaurants

Thanks to Blogging for Books for a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Pulitzer Project: Laughing Boy, Oliver La Farge (1930)

the pulitzer project

laughing boy.jpgA Brief Summary*: At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive “American”-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences

Setting: T’o Tlakai, a fictional town in Southwestern America

Time Period: 1914

A Fun Fact: The book was adapted into a movie in 1934.

Review: After the disappointment of Scarlet Sister Mary, I was hesitant to pick up Laughing Boy when I saw it was a “Navajo” love story written by a rich white guy from Rhode Island. But, I gave La Farge a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t completely blown away, but I enjoyed the book much more than I expected. Turns out, La Farge was an anthropologist who spent most of his life fighting for Native American rights. I think it was this interest and devotion that helped him create complex characters, especially in comparison to the caricatures we saw Julia Peterkin create.

This book tells the love story of Laughing Boy and Slim Girl. Laughing Boy is jealous of Slim Girl’s American education, while Slim Girl is trying to learn the traditional Navajo skills to fit into the community. It’s endearing to see the two of them try to figure out their place in society together, but neither of them ever feel like they fit in. I related to this predicament, as I’m sure most children of immigrants would. As Laughing Boy introduces Slim Girl to a lot of Navajo traditions, such as dances, horse taming, and blanket weaving, La Farge gives us a very basic primer as well. La Farge writes respectfully; for example, he keeps a lot of the traditional songs in the Native Navajo language instead of trying to translate into English. The book has a timeless feel, and I think part of this is due to such a narrow cast of characters and plot. Most of the story revolves around the two main characters, but we get a few glimpses into other people’s lives here and there. One scene I really liked happens when a few young Navajos go into a general store to play a prank on the storeowner.

I think there is an interesting trend going on in the Pulitzer awards. Between 1928 – 1932, four of the five books are about non-White people (even though they all had very White authors). We have just visited Peru in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the Gullah people in Scarlet Sister Mary, we are visiting the Navajo here, and in just two short years, we’ll be out of the country, in China, with Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. I am always thinking about the importance of diversity, and it’s nice to see the Pulitzer juries valued this even 100 years ago. However, I will definitely be eagerly looking forward to the first person of color to win the Pulitzer! Just taking a brief glance at the list, I’m not sure when this is – does anyone know?

***

I would recommend this book to people who are curious about Native American literature, but honestly, if you are, I would suggest you start with Native American authors, like Louise Erdrich, for starters. While I enjoyed the book more than expected, I don’t think I would recommend this to friends or revisit this book in the future.

Review: Still Here, Lara Vapnyar

still here.jpgLara Vapnyar’s “Still Here” is a pretty hilarious story about four Russian immigrants in New York. There’s Vica and Sergey, who moved to New York shortly after they were married when Sergey received a scholarship to New York School of Business. There’s Vadik, who has struggled to find an identity that fits into New York City, and finally, Regina, who has married a wealthy American venture capitalist. Like all good books (and TV shows) about a group of friends, the friend group is pretty incestuous, Vica left Vadik for Sergey who was dating Regina at the time, etc.

There’s two topics that I always love reading about. First, since my parents immigrated to the US in the 80s, I really connect with books about the immigrant experience. Second, I love reading books that take place in New York City. It’s so much fun to see my city through someone else’s eyes. Vapnyar has some really hilarious and astute observations on living in New York, that I often found myself dog-earing pages and chuckling out loud.

It wasn’t her fault that she lived on Staten Island. Vica’s personality was pure Manhattan. It’s just that her financial situation wasn’t.

Vapnyar created some characters that are each unique, fully developed, and flawed. Her characters are insecure and trying to make a home for themselves in New York City, far away from home. I found myself identifying with some of the same insecure thoughts that Vica had, as she’s trying to figure out how to make friends at work and where to spend her free time. These were definitely somethings I’ve thought when I moved here for college almost ten years ago.

She hadn’t been to the Met in ages. You couldn’t consider yourself a refined and cultured person if you hadn’t been to the Met in ages, could you? But then did New Yorkers even go there? Tourists and art students went there, yes, but what about regular New Yorkers? Vica tried to think of the most cultured New Yorker she knew. Regina? Regina wasn’t a real New Yorker. Eden? No, Eden never went there. Both Eden and her husband had graduated from Harvard, so they didn’t have to go to the Met because they didn’t need to prove they were cultured.

Another thread that ties the four friends together is an idea for an app (who doesn’t think they have a Great App Idea?) called “Virtual Grave.” The premise of the app starts as a way to control your social media after your death. Throughout the book, we see each of the friends wrestle with the idea of mortality and how social media impacts our lives, from the facade of Facebook to the vicious cycles of online dating. While this is a timely topic, I think this is where the story fell a little flat. Given the prevalence of social media today, I don’t think a book can serve as a commentary on social media if it only looks at Facebook and Twitter. What about Instagram, Snapchat, Vine? The survey is a little incomplete and dated. Maybe Vapnyar intended to do this, as her characters are all in their late thirties, but if so, she didn’t convince me.

In the last chapter of the book, Vapnyar uses a really cheesy gimmick where the first two pages resemble a group chat, with profile pictures, emojis, and all. It gave me flashbacks to books I read in elementary school. I found this a really weak way to end the book, when this gimmick wasn’t used at all in the first 270+ pages. Overall, the book was a quick and enjoyable read, but I don’t think I’ll be adding Vapnyar to my list of favorite authors anytime soon.

***

I would recommend this book to people who like reading stories set in New York City, people who watch romantic comedies anytime they’re on television, and people who are looking for a gateway into (albeit light) Russian literature.

  • I’d like to thank Blogging for Books for sending me this book in return for an honest review.

 

Book Review & Discussion Guide: Without You There Is No Us, Suki Kim

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Without You, There Is No Us is the title of a romantic drama in the same vein as Me Before You. However, the reality is a little more without-yousinister. In fact, “without you, there is no us” is a lyric in a patriotic song about Kim Jong-Il. Suki Kim is a journalist who goes undercover as an Evangelical Christian undercover as a teacher at Pyong-Yang University of Science & Technology (“PUST”). She teaches English to the children of (we assume) North Korea’s elite for half a year and writes a book about it. The book is fascinating because there simply aren’t that many memoirs about North Korea.

Most of the things that frustrated me about the book are more indicative of the North Korean political climate rather than Kim’s writing or experience. There just simply aren’t that many facts, statistics, or events in the book. Not a lot happens to Kim, because North Korea is controlling all of her experiences within Pyong-Yang: from group field trips to go hiking in the mountains to grocery shopping at approved markets for foreigners. However, I think Kim could have filled in some of the gaps with the political history of Korea or the history of the Korean War. I understand that to protect some of the people she met in North Korea, she had to change names and facts, but with so little facts already in the book, this rescrambling of information made the book less substantive than its alleged tell-all on the elite of North Korea.

A small thing that drove me (and my book club) crazy was Kim’s insertion of her “Brooklyn lover” into her memoir. While I understand that she felt isolated and cut off from her friends and family while in North Korea, I didn’t buy this connection to an ex-boyfriend. I was much more interested in Kim’s family’s reaction to and estrangement from her time in North Korea. Kim’s stories about her family’s time in Korea during the Korean War was so interesting and powerful, that I felt a much stronger investment in those relationships than in this arbitrary one that flutters in and out of her mind throughout the book. Our book club thought perhaps this was just a symptom of her solitude in North Korea — nostalgia for old flames. While it may have been true, I think she (or her editor) should have pushed through this a little more to get to the truth behind her experience.

Continue reading

Book Review: A Super Upsetting Cookbook about Sandwiches

Tyler Kord is the chef of the No. 7 Sub restaurants in New York and author of A Super Upsetting Cookbook about Sandwiches.

The New York Times said I might be “the Willy Wonka of submarine sandwiches,” but I prefer “Sandwich Batman”.

Kord comes off as an irreverent sort of guy, but the sandwiches look delicious. The text in the cookbook includes quips, sarcasm, and notes from the editor left in for humor. The writing is a bit sophomoric, but the real content are the recipes, right? (How much value do you place in non-ingredient bits of a cookbook?)

The sandwiches are definitely more creative than what you can get at Subway, and so are their names (“The Battle on Pork Chop Hill”, “Lazaro’s Revenge”). They’re divided by what the main component is — you are probably thinking this means what meat but one section is dedicated to broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, and another to muchim, a Korean brining/seasoning mix.

Included are directions for how to make a great but simple main component (how to make your own chorizo sausage, roast a chicken, and anything else needed) as well as recipes for sauces and sides that you might want with your sandwich — chips, salads, coleslaw, etc.

Overall, I think these sandwiches are very inspiring and require a bit more work than your usual ham and cheese. The book is also pleasantly well-organized, and I appreciated the extra recipes at the end. I would recommend this book to adventurous sandwich-lovers. Below is the recipe I am most looking forward to trying (though there are many close seconds).

This is a Chicken Sandwich
Makes 4 of the best sandwiches you ever had

  • 1/2 cup Special Sauce
  • 4 kaiser rolls, split in half
  • 2 cups shredded Roasted Chicken
  • 4 large slices Fried Eggplant
  • 6 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced into 4 thick slices
  • 2 loosely packed cups of arugula

Thanks to Blogging for Books for a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

On Writing Negative Book Reviews

I’ve been thinking a lot about negative book reviews recently. I often feel a twinge of guilt when I have mostly negative things to say about a book. Granted, I’m no Michiko Kakutani and my opinions aren’t important enough to impact an author’s career. However should I, as someone who has never even tried to write a book, be able to criticize others’ attempts?

There was an Op-Ed in the New York Times called “Banning the Negative Book Review” which argues that with so much negativity out there, do we really need to go out of the way to contribute to the “petty sniping” in the name of literary criticism?

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Eligible (which I reviewed here), recently spoke on how she deals with negative reviews in an interview with the New York Times: “Criticism’s Sting: The Author Curtis Sittenfeld on Book Reviews.” In it, she has a helpful matrix that she uses to categorize reviews.

I think of reviews being mapped on a graph with four quadrants, and I’ll read the ones that are smart and positive, smart and negative, or dumb and positive (hey, all our egos need a little sustenance!). But there’s no point in reading a dumb, negative review.

Curtis Graph

In Case You Need a Graph

So this leads to the question, what makes a smart negative review? Luckily, there are many articles out there on writing negative reviews. I especially liked J. Robert Lennon’s article, which lists the following thought-provoking suggestions.

  • Provide Context: “If you have space, try to characterize the shape of the writer’s career and show how the new book fits in it.”
  • Have Humility: “In your review, let your reader know what it is other people like about this writer. If you disagree, say so, in a non-condescending manner.”
  • Provide a Path Forward: “Acknowledge what kind of excellence the writer might someday achieve, even if she didn’t this time out.”

I also came across art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s approach on works that he says aren’t “immediately congenial.” I thought that was a nice way to phrase this — something that may become congenial to you, with a little work.

I’ve got certain rules of thumb for work that isn’t immediately congenial. One is, what would I like about this if I liked it? That is, I sort of project in my mind somebody who thinks, “Wow, this is great, this is what I like.” And sometimes that idea in my head persuades me, and I come around. I come around a little bit. Sometimes I agree to disagree, but it enables me to write, I think, intelligently, and if that fails, then I sort of back up and say, “What would somebody who likes this be like?” Then it becomes sort of sociological. Then I’m writing about a taste. Sometimes I might think it’s a reprehensible taste in some way and write negatively.

Schjeldahl acknowledges a book could be good but still not to your tastes. You don’t have to like every book that’s technically perfect or widely acclaimed. Part of the joy of reviewing a book is picking apart what works and why or imagining what kind of person would read or write this book. I think criticism is an art form in itself. I, for one, take a lot of pleasure in reading all sorts of reviews and spend  a lot of time thinking about what makes a review work. I don’t think books can really be rated on a scale of one to five, books generally aren’t all good or all bad. To me, reviews are a way to figure out what works and what can be better, both as a way to digest the work and to hold literary works to a higher standard. I’m still an absolute novice in constructing a good review, but it’s been a real pleasure to practice.

What are your thoughts on negative reviews? Does it make a difference whether the author is living or dead? Does it matter if you’re writing for a book blog or for the New Yorker? Is criticism a dying art? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Pulitzer Project: Scarlet Sister Mary (1929)

the pulitzer projectScarlet Sister Mary was the somewhat contentious recipient of the 1929 Pulitzer. In 1929, the jury nominated Victim and Victor by John Rathbone Oliver  to receive the prize. However, by the time the suggestion reached the Board, they superseded the pick with Scarlet Sister Mary, which was a nominee from the School of Journalism. The chair of the jury resigned in protest.

scarlet sister maryScarlet Sister Mary is the story of Mary, “a young black woman on a coastal South Carolina plantation who is abandoned by her husband and ostracized by her church for her sinful ways. Aided by a love charm she obtains from the local conjurer, Mary bears a houseful of children by different men.” Ten children, to be exact. The title of the book harkens back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and I suppose in a way, it’s the Black version of Hawthorne’s novel.

I will start with the positive aspects of the book. I can understand that in the late 1920s, this book may have been seen as very modern — a woman is sexually active with many different partners and is unapologetic about her actions. This is also the first novel that won a Pulitzer that was written about African Americans. Peterkin also has some lovely writing about the atmosphere and Southern environment. However, I don’t think this book has withstood the test of time.

What I found problematic about the story is that the author, Julia Peterkin, is a white plantation owner. She is renowned for her ability to capture the Gullah dialect and lifestyle. The Gullah people live in the Lowcountry regions of Georgia and South Carolina. However, Peterkin’s imagining of the life of Black people was offensive to me. In her book, Mary actually loves picking cotton, and she finds it fun and relaxing. She is also able to have a life of leisure and fun while being a single mother to ten children. I’m not sure where Peterkin’s imagination is coming from, but are you freaking kidding me? More than anything, it seems to me that Peterkin is imagining a happy life for African-Americans post-slavery as a way of alleviating any White guilt that she may feel. Peterkin may have felt a genuine affection for the Gullah culture, but I don’t think that this book is a respectable homage to the people or times.

I’ve spent some time reading about this book and its impacts on American literature. I find it hard to believe, but Scarlet Sister Mary actually became a favorite book during the Harlem Renaissance. W.E.B. Dubois wrote:

“Peterkin is a southern white woman, but she has the eye and the ear to see beauty and know truth.”

Apparently, several authorities (not really sure what this means) cite Peterkin’s work as paving the way for more realistic novels by African Americans including Zora Neale Hurston. If this is true, then I suppose I should relent and be grateful that Peterkin’s work exists. However, the fact that this book was adapted into a famous Broadway play consisting entirely of black-face performances makes me cringe. I am eagerly looking forward to reading a Pulitzer-awarded book actually written by a person of color. The near future of my Pulitzer reading isn’t looking too hopeful. Next up, we have a book written about Navajo Indians by a white man, and then shortly after, a book written about Chinese people written by a white woman. While these choices may have seemed very modern or open-minded at the time, I think we can all agree today that diversity is so important, not only in subject matter but in authors, editors, and jury members as well.

***

I honestly wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone unless you’re trying to read all the Pulitzers.

Don’t just take my word for it — here are some additional reviews and essays on this book:

Review: The After Party, Jana Prikryl

So far, 2016 has been the year of podcasts. I’ve been particularly obsessed with “The New Yorker: Poetry.” The way the podcast is structured is absolutely lovely. First, a contemporary poet picks a poem from The New Yorker‘s archives to read and discuss. Next, the poet reads one of his/her own poems and discusses this as well. The new poems read are generally the ones appearing in a recent issue of New Yorker.

On June 15, I listened to Jana Prikryl Reads Anne Carson.  I picked this episode because I like Anne Carson, and I was eager to hear more about other people’s analysis of her work. I must admit that sometimes I stop listening after the first half of the podcast, when the often-unknown poet begins to read her own work. I wasn’t expecting that I’d actually be intrigued and interested in the poem that Jana Prikryl had to share. After listening to the podcast, I spent some time Googling Jana and reading a few snippets of her interviews and poems. I snatched up a copy of The After Party as soon as I saw it online.

the after party.jpegOn the scale of physical to metaphysical, Jana Prikryl is definitely a very cerebral poet. My favorite poets work in both realms, mixing personal details with mythology (see Louise Gluck’s “Averno”, Jack Gilbert’s “The Great Fires.”) I don’t think that Prikryl is quite there yet, although from some of her interviews, I believe she is trying to create ties between her mental exercises and her personal experiences. For the people out there that say they just “don’t get” poetry, well, first I’d say — but not all poetry is dense and pretentious and difficult! And second, I’d say, this book is probably not for you. She is a poet’s poet — she is also an editor of the NYRB and has a Master’s degree in “cultural criticism.” Prikryl’s first collection of poems are hard work, but they can also be joyful and rewarding. I think she shines best when she is writing about nature. One of my favorite poems is “The Moth” which was inspired by something she read in Science magazine that says “New research suggests that butterflies and moths come with mental baggage… left over from their lives as larvae.” The resulting poem is evocative and does play between literal and metaphorical. Another one of my favorite lines is the opening lines of “Argus, or Fear of Flying” which starts:

A seagull at home in this valley steps into air
above the river. I’d like to follow
it holding the wind to account while flinging
itself out into it.

Each of her poems are clever and require a great amount of puzzling and pondering to fully understand. At times, I had to set the book aside out of exhaustion, and while there are still many verses that I do not comprehend, for me the joy comes from unearthing another layer of meaning and gleaning new facts through reading interviews and essays written about Prikryl. She intersperses short, light-hearted poems regularly throughout the first half (there are a total of 6, and they all have similar names: Tumbler, Timepiece, Titoism, Tumbril, Tumblehome, Tombolo.) These were a nice palate-cleanser between some of the denser poems, but still playfully provocative. Here’s “Tombolo:”

To keep them safe in time
of war we evacuated our hopes
to this island made of sand
dredged from the ocean floor thanks
to the moon’s land grabs and
remain calm if the ocean floor
under sway of the same moon
collects itself like an orator, forming
ways to talk about our island
until it quarantines no hope anymore,
young foreigners walking in and out
placing carnations and each one removing
a small stone.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the structure of this small book. The book is divided into two — the first half are just poems, not necessarily linked or connected together, and the second half is called “Thirty Thousand Islands,” which consists of forty linked, untitled poems. Part of what became “Thirty Thousand Islands” is what I heard Prikryl read for The New Yorker podcast. These poems revolve around someone named Mr. Dialect and the islands are based on the shores of Lake Huron in Canada. I’ll provide a link below to some longer extracts of her poems, but my favorites revolve around describing small moments. If you do read this collection, I’d recommend reading the poems out loud, as you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many poems rhyme in unexpected places.

***

I’d recommend this book to fans of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” to people who always look up words they don’t know in the dictionary, and to adventurous readers.