Every month, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the month’s events or happenings. This is the archive of past books of the month from 2021 for your perusal, allowing you to explore books in our collection we’ve highlighted in the past.
July: Odes by Sharon Olds
It’s mid-summer and the time when we all start pulling our bodies out of hibernation (and lockdown!) to emerge blinking into the world. While reuniting with the sun can be joyful, it can also be a source of anxiety as advertising, social media, the media all tells us that our bodies are not worthy of exposure. We are not beach body ready.
Well, to hell with that. Instead, read Sharon Olds’s ‘Odes’ for some powerful, unashamed celebrations of the body. ‘Ode of Withered Cleavage’ proclaims, “I want to praise / what goes one way, what never recovers”. ‘Ode to Stretch Marks’ is fascinated by “the language of aging, / the code of it, the etching, and the scribbling / and silvering” which are “signs, to me, of / getting to live out my full term.” ‘Unmatching Legs Ode’ delights in the shapes and scars of her legs: “the double stem / which lifts the big odd flower of me up / and up”. Nothing is out of bounds in this collection, but nothing is shameful, as ‘Ode to the Tampon,’ ‘Ode to My Fat’ and ‘Ode to a Composting Toilet’ insist.
Olds’s aim is not to make the ageing body beautiful so much as revel in what it means and how it feels to have a body, and experience all the things that come with that. It is a deep dive into the strangeness, triumph, sufferings of living in flesh, enriching our understanding of what it means to be embodied. These poems take what we have understood as “imperfections” or “undesirable” aspects and gives them the dignity they deserve. Bodies are not just cumbersome vessels for our minds and spirits. They have their own rich existence. Olds reflects: “I’m sad they will rot. I wish our bodies / could leave us when they are done with us – / leave our spirits here, and walk away.” By the end of the collection, you’re left wishing the same thing.
June: How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil
Bhanu Kapil’s ‘How to Wash A Heart’ is not a comfortable read, but it is a crucial one. This year’s winner of the T S Eliot Prize, Kapil’s collection is a series of poems which tells the story of an immigrant staying as a guest in a citizen’s house. It gives an honest insight into the experience of being hosted, digging deep into the idea that “it’s exhausting to be a guest / In somebody else’s house / Forever.”
Kapil reflects on the tension between generosity and resentment. At first, it is subtle: tea is given but, “You bang the cup down / By my sleepy head”. Food is a presence throughout the collection, imagined in the mango and pomegranate trees of the speaker’s homeland, but in the host’s house, there is a “heaving plate / of meat,” the pain of “eating too much.” The vulnerability of being at the mercy of one’s host is tense and terrifying: “I understood that you were a wolf / Capable of devouring / My internal organs / If I exposed them to view.”
At the core of the collection is the speaker’s longing to be seen as whole and human. For the host, the speaker becomes an object of perverse curiosity, something to show off to her neighbours, and later to be feared, distrusted, and resented. “The host-guest chemistry / Is inclusive, complex, molecular,” writes Kapil. However, the voice at the heart of the poems resists the speaker being reduced to victim or threat. Some of the most heart-wrenching moments in the collection are when the speaker demands her own humanity, through diary entries or in a dream of waking up “In the arms of the person / I love.”
This is poetry unapologetic in challenging the limits of our understanding of hospitality and inclusivity. It deliberately offers no answers and no comfortable resolutions. Instead, it invites the reader in to the experience of how it truly feels to be edged out, and the cost of not belonging. In a year where we’ve all been forced to think a bit more about what it means to be at home, it feels an especially relevant lesson to learn.
May: Gator, Gator, Gator by Daniel Bernstrom (illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon)
This week’s book of the month is one of the 23 books generously donated to our Many Voices Collection by Low Carbon West Oxford. Our Many Voices Collection aims to be a rich, diverse resource of books which feature black characters, are written by black authors, or which feature an anti-racist message – and Low Carbon West Oxford’s contribution to it adds a whole new angle with books featuring black characters and an environmental message. Low Carbon West Oxford says:
We are aware of a particular lack of diversity in books about the outdoors and the environment. If kids’ books on the environment don’t feature black characters, the environmental movement will continue to struggle with diversity. We saw a contribution to the Many Voices Collection as a great opportunity to promote the great books that do exist, and enable access to these books for all.
‘Gator, Gator, Gator’ by Daniel Bernstrom and illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon is a perfect example of one of these books. Featuring a black protagonist, the book invites the reader to join the hunt for a gator whose “skin’s like nails” and “temper’s hot like sauce.” Keeping your eyes peeled for any movement in the water or any sign of the “bumpy, scaly, barky” skin of the alligator, the reader is encouraged to explore the swamp for all the creatures living there: foxes, rats, and snakes. The joyful rhyme and rhythm carries the story to its exciting climax, and readers will enjoy the use of sound effects and exclamations throughout which bring the curiosity and drama of the tale to life, perfect for young kids to enjoy.
You can read about other top picks from LCWO’s donations to the Many Voices Collection here.
Come along to the next pop-ups of the Many Voices Collection at Flo’s Place in the Park on 8 May and 12 June to borrow this book, and others like it! And if you have little ones interested in nature, keep a look-out for future workshops-and-nature-walks inspired by The Lost Words which we have coming up later in the summer at Wytham Woods.
With the one-year anniversary of lockdown just passed, our book of the month this April is 100 Words of Solitude. It’s a collection of a hundred 100-word pieces of writing, in which people from around the world wrote about their experience of Spring 2020. Predominantly in poetry, it brings together rich and varied voices, united by a dimly flickering theme of ‘solitude’ in its various forms. The short wordcount means that each piece is tightly focussed, and together they bring to life the many small moments of observation, reflection and joyfulness experienced by the authors, as well as forays into surrealism and experiments with describing the stretchings of imagination and perception that many of us experienced at that time.
Submission to the collection was open to anyone, and the final selection brings together a mixture of professional writers, enthusiastic amateurs, and those for whom this was a first real attempt at creative poetry. Almost as interesting as the poems themselves are the short biographies of the authors included at the end of the book, a section which reads almost as a poem itself. As a whole, this book provides a reminder of deep shared humanity, even (or perhaps especially) in times of solitude.
100 Words of Solitude is a strange time-capsule of a collection, for a time that has not quite passed into history. Well worth reading.
March: Say Her Name by Zetta Elliott
Zetta Elliott’s collection ‘Say Her Name’ is very much of this moment, being a response to the social movements which gained traction in 2020 around Black Lives Matter. But it speaks to a much older history of racism and oppression, while seeking to empower and energize a new generation of Black women and girls.
Elliott’s poetry is undeniably political, and in that is the personal experience of being a Black woman. The poems recount the everyday microaggressions, describe coping mechanisms of self-care (the simple things that need to be done “to make it through / another day”), and reflect on the human cost to protest and struggle: Appetite is a two-line poem which reads “sometimes I eat my rage / sometimes it eats me”.
The poetry itself is striking, the language is accessible but strong in its clarity. Many of the poems are characterized by short phrasing, line breaks creating a chant or protest song. Where the poems grow lyrical, it is to expound on the magic of being alive, of being oneself, of surviving. Throughout the collection are haiku sequences, a form which is effective in bringing into bold focus a series of simple, profound images or ideas. Elliott uses these to great effect, whether she reflects on ancestry, independence, sisterhood, or the final sequence in the collection: a battle cry to “stop killing us stop / killing us stop killing us / stop killing us STOP”.
The power of the collection is amplified by the bold illustrations throughout. These are as much a part of the poems as the words: they give richness and colour which celebrates the magic described in the poems, but also assert depictions of Black characters which are often so woefully lacking from the pages of so many illustrated books.
Besides Elliott’s own writing, the book is peppered throughout with poems by other Black women throughout history: Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Phillis Wheatley. The collection is a valuable handbook of Black women writing their own stories, and writing to remind anyone reading to be brave, to speak up, to never forget, and above all “feel something / feel something / feel something.”
Say Her Name is in the Many Voices Collection, a new project by OPL and The Children’s Allotment. To find out more please click here.
February: How To Extricate Yourself by Laura Theis
Any close follower of the Oxford arts scene knows that a debut collection from local writer, poet, and musician Laura Theis is eagerly awaited. And boy, was How To Extricate Yourself worth waiting for. Theis has previous in the music world, her songs characterized by sometimes whimsical, sometimes unsettling, always striking lyrics about unrequited love, werewolves, and recapturing your mermaid roots by sleeping in the shower. Her poetry strikes similar chords, and it’s a delight to have a whole collection to immerse yourself in Theis’s imagination.
There are elements of the tainted fairytale throughout the poems: witches and their familiars, curses and enchantments, but the strength of the collection lies in its firm grounding in reality. Theis’s tone is not fantastical, but often conversational. “Don’t tell your neighbours but / take the batteries out of your smoke detector / you’ll thank me later,” Theis warns in ‘advice from one who’s been burnt before,’ a poem with practical suggestions for taking a dragon as a pet. ‘Medusae’ offers comfort “on the day you wake up / with spiders instead of hair,” and reminds you, “They may stay. They may not. / They are here for now.” In ‘writer in residence,’ the first poet in space and stationed on the moon, writing with “black ink on moonstone / white chalk on lunar rock,” is a lonely imploring to those back home to “look up”. What is so striking about these stories is that even in their fantasy, there is something spookily familiar about them: being haunted by a threatening presence in your own house, feeling dissociated from yourself, loneliness and isolation. We’re all living through what is probably one of the weirder years of our lives. Reading poetry which not only embraces but advises on this weirdness is strangely comforting.
The collection is Theis in her element. She takes the reader by the hand to guide you into a world of monsters and insomnia, but it is a world she knows well. As ‘adaptation’ describes, she “was already expert at simmering in low-level dread / like black bath water.” It is possible to bear the worry and the uncertainty, tolerate the spiders of your hair, adopt the dragon, and live on the moon for a while. Poetry like this is there with us.
January: The Book of Hopes ed. Katherine Rundell
January is always a good time for hope: even in the depth of winter, a hope for all the bright and good things that will happen in the year to come. It’s why we make resolutions, there’s Veganuary and Dry January and gym memberships double in the first month of the year – it’s the hope that we will improve ourselves, hatch into something new. This year we’re all hoping for something a bit simpler, though: just that this year will be better than the last.
The Book of Hopes edited by Katherine Rundell is an excellent place to start in reflecting on hope. In her introduction, Rundell outlines why it’s so important: “Real true hope isn’t the promise that everything will be alright – but it’s a belief that the world has so many strangenesses and possibilities that giving up would be a mistake.” Vaccines and statistics and science can give us hope, but so too can delight and wonder. Even in the darkest times, you can find hope through imagination, which can take you to joyful places, thoughtful dreams, adorable situations. It is the possibility of change and the power of the unexpected that can give us hope, and this wonderful collection reminds us of that.
Though nominally for children and families, this book can be enjoyed by people of any age. Poems, short stories, and brief meanderings have been commissioned from over 100 much-loved illustrators and writers (including Kevin Crossley-Holland, Jackie Morris, Yasmeen Ismail, Jacqueline Wilson, Joseph Coelho…), and the result is kaleidoscopic. Put an axolotl to bed in Catherine Johnson’s instructions to “Never give your axolotl chocalatl in a botl, / Serve it in a tiny eggcup, not too cold and not too hotl.” Visit the town of Hope near Aberdeen in Anthony Horowitz’s poem. Hear Ed Vere describe stumbling across a hare while out for a walk, or learn to fly with a baby dragon in Katie and Kevin Tsang’s offering. Each contribution is bite-sized, for when you need just a shot of wonder, and is peppered throughout with doodles, drawings, and cartoons.
Now more than ever is the time to be reminded of the strange and magical world we live in, and this book is an ideal antidote to despair to keep us going until we can all explore a bit more of that world again. Here’s to a more hopeful, more delightful, and more wonderful 2021.