News of Home
by Debra Kang Dean, M.F.A. '89.
Rochester, New York: Boa Editions, 1998. 95 pp. $12.50 paper.
The speaker in News of Home, Debra Kang Dean's first collection of poems, focuses on her life as an outsider, drawing on her Korean heritage, her Hawaiian childhood and her place on the fringe as a woman. She finds other women-the grandmothers, mothers, aunts, best friends and "tag-along" sisters of her world-and makes their peripheral presence known, thereby drawing them into centered focus.
In "With My Mother and Aunts in the Kitchen" she describes the scene in the kitchen as the men watch a football game. "My mother and aunts talk/all four of them laugh; their laughter, like the sound of the cheering crowd,/washes over the drone of the sportscaster. The women are bound together but isolated, speaking a language the writer struggles to understand. This struggle to connect is keenly felt throughout the book as Dean explores being a daughter and a granddaughter, an immigrant and outsider.
In "Courage, Temperance, and Wisdom," the writer, in a letter to a friend, remembers their mothers: "God, how we hated their stupidity/and submissiveness and swore we'd not repeat the pattern of their lives."
News of Home has the easy, comfortable weight of a packet of beloved letters. The poems lounge with conversational satisfaction, as in "Distance": "Emmylou Harris comes on/and I'm humming and next thing I know/I'm crying-though whether for what I've left/behind or where I'm going or both/I can't be certain."
News of Home offers a frank lament and a hopeful acceptance of life and womanhood. The poems stir the warm waters of casual and common experience.
Letters from Yellowstone
by Diane Smith '87
New York: Viking, 1999. 226 pp. $23.95 hardcover.
How enticing to read letters. How startling, in this age of electronic brevity and speed, to be absorbed by a long, intimate narrative meant for only two people-the writer and the recipient. In Diane Smith's first novel, Letters from Yellowstone, she constructs a historical document-part scientific mystery and part antique social comedy-revealing her characters to us through the postal service, an institution almost as extinct as the epistolary novel.
It is 1898 and Dr. A. E. Bartram is invited by a scientist named H. G. Merriam to travel from Ithaca, New York, to explore the beauty of Yellowstone National Park. Merriam doesn't know Bartram is a woman and is not initially pleased to see her. But soon Alex Bartram is welcomed into the camp and becomes indispensable.
Smith creates in Bartram a real, old-fashioned heroine, the sort who used to be called plucky. She bucks society's expectations of gentility and marriage, reveling in the Park's rugged terrain. She is the driving voice of these letters, a voice that deepens and matures with experience.
Smith has captured the thrilling privacy of the letter as well as the long-lost, courtly tone of long-distance correspondence. Against the untamed backdrop of Yellowstone at the turn of the century, her heroine is privileged to an awakening that would please Edith Wharton. Peopled with a lively cast of ruffians, soldiers, matrons and suitors, the to-and fro landscape of Letters from Yellowstone is playful and fun.
by Deirdre McNamer '73, M.F.A. '87
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 288 pp. $24 hardcover
If you have ever had the fantasy of disappearing from your life, relinquishing your responsibilities and reinventing yourself, then Deirdre McNamer has set words to your dream.
In My Russian, narrator Francesca Woodbridge is the well-groomed, upper-middle class wife of a successful lawyer. They live with their teenaged son in a large and handsome house on the leafy streets of a western university town very much like Missoula, Montana. It is a comfortable life, except that Francesca has stopped feeling her true self, her inner self, and, when the novel opens, she is living in homely disguise in a ragged motel just a few blocks away, having told her family she is in Greece.
She has spent months carefully concocting a false identity, complete with passport, birth certificate, habits and tastes. Like good police fiction, Francesca's description of building her disguise gives us a recipe to follow should we choose to disappear, too.
But this is not a detective novel about a crime, a gun, a fugitive, although these things play a part in the story. McNamer, in her third novel, writes instead about the suspense of discovering the self-examining clues, gathering evidence, making unexpected conclusions. At times almost painful to read for the wistful longing in Francesca's soul, My Russian takes us gently back and over the events of Francesca's life that
led her to this startling and desperate circumstance.
McNamer muses with a caressing hum that never lets up, suffused with wonderful descriptions of such ordinary things as a cup of coffee with cream or a salad of fresh tomatoes. This is a sensual novel of the interior life, a confessional musing that deftly arranges chronological shifts like flowers in a vase and slowly reveals the devastations of a heart.