April Bernard’s most recent books are Romanticism, a ­collection of poems, and Miss Fuller, a novel. (October 2014)

A New Trip to Lindgren Land

Astrid Lindgren with Inger Nilsson (right) as Pippi Longstocking, during the filming of <i>Pippi in the South Seas</i>, Sweden, 1969

I usually have no patience for “happy family” literature, not to mention the contemporary habit of adults reading mediocre books for “young adults,” whoever they might be. But when I read Astrid Lindgren’s Seacrow Island (1964), for the first time this spring, I liked it so much that I consumed it slowly, like a savored cake. A month later I read it again, perhaps even more deliberately. It is a beautiful book, for adult readers as well as the children to whom it could be read.

Laura’s World

Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls, circa 1879–1881

The knowledge that I was only one of a crowd of children devoted to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of American pioneer life could not have altered the intensity of my personal attachment to the brave, and often surprisingly lonely, heroine, the girl Laura whose travels with her family take her from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to Indian Territory (Kansas); then to Minnesota and, finally, Dakota Territory, in the years from 1869 to 1883. By fifteen, I was already nostalgic for Laura’s world and for my eight-year-old self who had first discovered it.

Mice: Naughty and Nice

The mice in <em>The Tailor of Gloucester</em>

As with many classics, if Beatrix Potter’s tales have become invisibly “charming,” it is time to return to them and see them anew. The Tale of Two Bad Mice captures perfectly not only Potter’s “subversive” side with respect to bourgeois society, but more primitively, her reworking of what we must surmise are the frustrations of her youth.

Lisbon, 1989

The new year lurched
on a clamor of horns
trash cans and firecrackers
rising up from the harbor
over the window sills
into a hotel room where
civility had just died.

‘In the Face of Our Ghastly Sexual Culture’

A.L. Kennedy, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2008
“Why are you telling me this?” A friend often poses this dry and disconcerting question to the stories, fictional and otherwise, that come her way. Of all the reasons someone may tell a story—and there are many more than Cicero’s famous three, “to teach, to please, to move”—surely the most …

Caged Laughter

A scene from <i>Orange Is the New Black</i>

Is it possible to feel more ambivalent than I do about Orange Is the New Black? I love the actors and I especially love that it is about a culture of women. It is good to see a light shed on the disgraceful situation of prisons in this country. But the experience of being entertained by this soap opera—which is often extremely funny—turns us into tourists of suffering.

Margaret Drabble: In Defiance of Time

Margaret Drabble, Porlock, Somerset, July 2011
It only makes sense that a novelist of such long tenure, one so preoccupied with the slippery nature of time, should actually write a novel on the subject of “prolepsis”—the anticipation of future events. Margaret Drabble uses the adjectival form of the word frequently in her new novel, beginning with the first sentence: “What she felt for those children, as she was to realize some years later, was a proleptic tenderness.” When one notices its insistent reuse, by a writer of such verbal precision, consulting the dictionary seems a good idea.

Heroines in the Garden

Evariste Carpentier: <i>A Summer Afternoon</i>, circa 1900
Andrea Barrett is a splendid writer of what, for lack of any better term, we call literary fiction; Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the extremely popular memoir Eat, Pray, Love, is an energetic scribbler. Barrett writes of science and scientists from profound understanding and passion, exploring how scientific reason and human feeling collide and illuminate one another. Gilbert’s novel is another matter.

A Poet Who Dares

Frank Bidart at a celebration of the centenary of Elizabeth Bishop, New York City, February 2011
Frank Bidart writes with terrifying candor. Himself a child of the “confessional” poetry of the 1950s and 1960s—he was a student and friend of Robert Lowell’s—he has taken the mode of confessional poetry to a kind of logical conclusion, away from penitent speaking to priest, or patient speaking to therapist, …

Sylvia Plath: Rage and Laughter

  Sylvia Plath on her first day at <i>Mademoiselle</i>, 1953

One of my favorite items in the Sylvia Plath archive is a collage she made in 1960: the central image is President Eisenhower sitting at a desk; included in the collage is a cut-out of a woman in a bathing suit with a bomber plane aimed at her, and the caption “It’s His and Her Time All Over America.” Readers may look in vain for explicit political content in most of Plath’s poems. Her own training as a poet and literature student in the 1950s inclined her to avoid direct speech about such “low” topical matters as the Rosenbergs or, for that matter, fabric choices for the spring collections. Only in a few of the poems from the last years of her life do we see her break free from the constraints of her training to speak more directly about the political, material, and sexual culture around her.

What I Hate About Writers’ Houses

Rydal Mount, former house of William Wordsworth, Cumbria, England
On the subject of writers’ houses—taken up in the books by Richard Horan and Anne Trubek—that dark genius Robert Frost would have understood the paradox I find myself inhabiting: that I hate them in general, but soften to something like affection in the face of particular places. Frost enjoyed mocking …

Here’s What I Hate About Writers’ Houses

The Robert Frost Stone House, South Shaftsbury, Vermont

On the subject of Writers’ Houses, that dark genius Robert Frost would have understood the paradox I find myself inhabiting: that I hate them in general, but soften to something like affection in the face of particular places. Frost enjoyed mocking his own, and others’, ambivalences, especially when personal feeling interfered with principle. Whether or not he also would have enjoyed hearing my footsteps in his old parlor and study is another matter; I would guess not.

A Genius Ill-Served

Elizabeth Bishop, 1940s; photograph © The Josef and Yaye Breitenbach Charitable Foundation, New York/Josef Breitenbach Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona
One wishes only to celebrate the twin volumes of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems and prose, published this year to mark the centenary of her birth. Bishop was one of the great artists of the twentieth century; her poems now tower over the landscape alongside those of Eliot and Stevens. It is no exaggeration to say that her poems get larger and stranger and more overwhelming with every reading. But there is a vexing problem that these new editions raise. One might call it the new biographical fallacy, born of this age of too much information.

Romance

I pine. There is an obstacle to our love. Every time I hear the postman, I think: At last, the letter! He has overcome the obstacle— (It is a large obstacle, an actual alp, with a tree line and sheer rock face …

Funny Weather

Clouds pushed in regular, quilted masses across the sky: this effect was visible, even in the city. Men left their women in general, and a keening rose from the land. Followed by a long silence, and in certain quarters, intense study …

Un-Efican Activities

Sometimes the most original of writers will wear his influences on his sleeve. Novelist Peter Carey goes further, draping himself in the full motley of his ancestors—chiefly, Swift, Sterne, and Dickens. But in his wiry prose and in his outrageous, hypnotic plots Carey does not insist in any dreary academic …

Exile’s Return

To one expecting a glamorous Famous Poet, the sight that first day of class dismayed: a small, white-haired woman, shy and weary, adorned with, of all things, a brooch. That winter and spring of 1977 in a basement room at Harvard, about a dozen of us met for Elizabeth Bishop’s …

Against Biography

As if my own odors weren’t enough but the drudging shape of her life page by page, hour by hour, the serge suits and the roses in the park. I don’t live there, and it’s none of my business. She doesn’t live there anymore; it’s …

Third Station of the Cross

Learning to walk is learning to fall. There’s a lot of cure songs about things like that. Fox went out on a chilly night, just down to the corner for cigarettes. Goose drove into his jaws on teetering wheels, but I guess that’s an old …