The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik


The River at Night - Erica Ferencik

A compulsively readable survival thriller ala Deliverance and The Descent that is begging to be adapted into a show or film. It features a group of friends in their late 30s, all women, who don’t regularly see one another in their day to day lives but who take periodic, adventurous vacations away from it all. On this vacation their fearless leader, Pia, has arranged for them to raft a river in Maine, one that is virtually “undiscovered,” according to their young, male guide. Read “undiscovered” as in the middle of nowhere, no cell phone coverage, and no help nearby. You see where this is going.

Disaster strikes during the trip, and the group is forced to make tough decisions and survive a dangerous situation that only gets more dangerous. The strain heightens tensions and reveals cracks in the group, and everyone loses their shit in a way specific to each character. Our narrator is Winifred (Win or Wini), clearly the least brave of her friends, a woman who’s recently lost her husband (divorce/separation) and younger, deaf brother. She’s lonely, at sea in her life but without the impetus to make changes and be happier.

All the women bring their own baggage, but it’s Pia’s need to be “off the grid,” be authentic, whatever that means, that brings them to the river. Besides Win’s relatable narration, the adventure, and some very cool descriptions of their environment, the book’s refusal to say, simply, that nature is better and civilization is corrupt is a favorite aspect of the story.

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The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik

Anime Withdrawal: Chihayafuru

This winter I went on another anime binge and experienced that awful, bittersweet fangirl/boy feeling when you fall in love with something…and there’s no more. Although I loved Claymore, another anime I watched, Chihayafuru (and Chihayafuru 2) owns my heart right now. Already I’ve plowed through the (ongoing) manga and read most of the fic of interest to me on Archive of Our Own. The only thing saving my little fangirl heart is the fact that I just learned there will be another season of the anime once the manga finishes its current arc. THANK GOD. (And thank you to the fan writer who pointed this out in a note to her fic!)

To begin, here is what I loved about the anime (both seasons), in random order:

A love triangle done right. Love triangles are infamously mishandled and infuriating for fans. Typically, there is a clear “winner” or choice (even if only for the fan), and the other character is not an option at all. The girl/woman is often a prize and has little agency or is defined by her romantic interests. But I love both Taichi and Arata (okay, I admit I have a slight bias for Arata), and it is Chihaya’s search for an identity that leads her to learn and succeed at karuta, not romance. Arata introduces her to it, and her admiration for him plays a role, but even after reading 179 chapters of the manga, karuta is still her driving force. The romance is not the focal point; it’s wonderfully subtle–much goes unsaid or lies behind what is said. I also appreciate the way the characters’ love for one another manifests as respect and challenges each person to grow.


Gorgeous animation and music.

The idea of karuta: a game that revolves around cards with poems written on them. Poems. (Reminder/Note: I am a poet.) Kanade’s love of poetry also shapes how she plays and informs the story and Chihaya’s play as well. The last time I was so psyched about the role of poetry in a show, it was the Buffy the Vampire Slayer reveal that Spike was an awful Victorian poet as a human.

Likeable side characters. Whether fellow club or karuta society members or rivals (often the same), each character is distinguishable and showcases another facet of the karuta world or the main characters’ lives. At first, I was worried about Sumire, who initially appears to be a rival for Taichi’s affections and not much more, but as with everyone else, she’s developed nicely.

Arata’s Fukui dialect. Is Arata my first example of this, or is it something about Arata’s character that makes the sound of his speech so. damn. hot to me? It reminds me of a Southern drawl.

Competence as a defining trope. If you enjoy watching characters improve and excel at a sport/game/skill/whatever, you will have your fill of competence porn with this anime. It also never stops revealing new insights into the many ways and reasons why people play karuta. The matches and tournaments are dynamic to watch and include both team and individual play.


Just enough Arata but almost not. Once Arata moves back home from Tokyo where Taichi and Chihaya live, he appears sporadically. As much as I wanted the three to reunite, his absence is as powerful as his presence and builds a delicious tension for the viewer that mirrors the characters’ feelings.

Look at this fucking kid, I can’t even.

I’m enjoying the manga–though the anime brings matches to life more clearly and dynamically–but hope the current arc finishes soon so the next season of the anime is on its way!

Anime Withdrawal: Chihayafuru

Magdalene, by Marie Howe [poetry]


Magdalene: Poems - Marie Howe

I began reading Marie Howe when I was an undergrad taking my first poetry workshops. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked her style, which is deceptively simple or plain. This was a contrast to many other poets I was introduced to at the same time, such as Mark Doty and Yusef Komunyakaa. But somewhere along the line, I fell in love with her aesthetic, and that first book of hers I read, What the Living Do, remains a favorite and a touchstone.

I now recognize and admire the delicate straightforwardness of Howe’s language, which packs as much power as any formal poem or one with more verbal jujitsu. Her lines can be long, with lots of room between them or stanzas. They feel quiet, contemplative, so when there’s a turn or revelation coming, it heightens the impact. I’m trying to explain her appeal, but part of it is that I can’t. Or I could if I analyzed it to death, and I prefer letting the magic linger.

The poems’ subjects range from desire to mental health, self-perception, spirituality, and motherhood. Though I don’t read the book like one overarching narrative, it does feel like there’s an arc; there’s a fullness to that arc that somehow replicates the sensation of completing a big, fat novel. You have an idea of a life.

Here’s a favorite:

“How the Story Started”

I was driven toward desire by desire.

believing that the fulfillment of that desire was an end.

There was no end.


Others might have looked into the future and seen

a shape inside the coming years —

a house, a child, a man who might be a help.


I saw his back bent over what he was working on,

the back of his neck, how he stood in his sneakers,

and wanted to eat him.


How could I see another person, I mean who he was–apart from me–

apart from that?


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Magdalene, by Marie Howe [poetry]

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher


Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher

I’ve had this book forever but was prompted to finally read it by the series adaptation that just came to Netflix.

(Spoiler-free until the note.)

The most impressive element of this book is the fact that it takes on toxic masculinity and rape culture head on. It’s the sort of book that I’m not sure would have existed when I was going through high school. That alone makes it a relevant, disturbing, but necessary read for students (and teachers, counselors).

The story is divided between protagonist Clay’s perspective and Hannah’s, the girl at the center of the narrative who committed suicide. One day Clay finds a package containing seven cassette tapes, which he must pass on to the next person spoken about on the tapes (one side per person). Each person had a role in Hannah’s downward spiral, so the book is set up as a mystery. What happened to Hannah? Why did she kill herself?

Each chapter takes on one tape, and as he listens, Clay follows the map Hannah made and slipped in his locker before she died that marks key spots in her story. It was sometimes difficult for me to engage with this structure; someone wandering around listening to audio tapes isn’t all that dynamic. I liked the idea of the book’s structure but not necessarily its execution.

(SPOILERS) I’m also disappointed in the revelation of Clay’s role once he reaches his own tape. I understand the choice to keep Clay a “good guy” in the reader’s eyes since his is the point of view we’re following, but I think the story would be more impactful if there was something he did or didn’t do that forced him to reevaluate his own actions or inaction. He does regret leaving Hannah alone, but it’s when she asks him to, which felt a bit problematic because generally when a girl tells you to leave, YOU SHOULD LEAVE, so technically Clay did the right thing. He blames himself for not helping her, for not persisting, but it feels like he’s making Hannah’s pain about him.

Clay also feels guilty and angry at himself for not standing up to others when it comes to how girls are treated, and by the end, in the last scene, we’re to understand that will change (in contrast to another person on the tapes he runs into earlier, who still seems incapable of understanding his role–or won’t acknowledge it). Though there are girls among the thirteen reasons, there’s a way in which their roles enact rape culture and patriarchy (not that this makes them beyond blame). At the same time, the potential saviors the narrative suggests could have made the difference are boys/men, which both fairly places the responsibility on their shoulders–but also suggests the old man-as-rescuer trope. (END SPOILERS)

Regardless of my concerns, I’m grateful there’s a book like this out there, tackling these subjects, and I’m interested in how the show on Netflix adapts its particular structure.

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Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

Why I Love Poetry

I was disheartened but not surprised poetry was left out of the “Why I Love” featured posts in February. Poetry, especially contemporary poetry, has a comparatively small readership, at least in America. As a poet, it sometimes seems that only fellow poets read poetry, which is a shame.

Before I explain why I love poetry, here are some reasons why it appears readers avoid it (feel free to skip!):

1. Poetry tends not to be taught in school as consistently as prose, at least in the U.S. When it is, it’s often works that are at least 50 years old, if not centuries. I went to a good public school, and in addition to Shakespeare’s sonnets, we may occasionally have read the likes of Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, and Emily Dickinson. Fine poets, but not contemporary and not representative enough. As a result, students think all poetry must rhyme or be in form and sounds antiquated.

2. Poetry has a reputation for being “difficult.” This is related to the reason above in that students erroneously learn to see poems as puzzles to be solved. Poems are not math problems (one more reason I love them). There is no mystical key you must stumble upon to “unlock” a poem. Poems are like living beings when encountered in that space between the words on the page (or in the air if heard) and what happens in your mind and body. When poems are approached as if they are puzzles, it’s like treating them as dead things, or like Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s poem, when he is “fix[ed]…in a formulated phrase…sprawling on a pin…pinned and wriggling on the wall.” If a reader is fixated on “solving” it, he/she will miss the poem’s beauty.

3. We’re living in a time when the arts and humanities are undervalued. In the U.S., funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has been gutted in Trump’s budget proposal, even though it’s a minuscule slice of the federal pie. Even in Obama’s presidency, the emphasis was on training and education for the science and technology fields. I have a PhD in English and still have been unable to find a full-time teaching position as the recession hit a few years before I graduated. As universities’ budgets are cut, so are the literary journals they help fund. Essentially, there are fewer places to publish and read poetry.

So here’s WHY I LOVE POETRY, and you should too!

1. Every line of a poem (or sentence/phrase in a prose poem) can be a surprise, can change everything, including the reader. Prose forms and drama build tension and suspense through plot; poetry doesn’t need that. That combination of surprise and recognition that happens when you read a good poem is like having an epiphany over and over with each line, with no dilution of its revelation, or like hearing a favorite comedian deliver a punchline. My favorite example of a poem that embodies this sort of surprise is Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”

2. Sound and language for their own sake. Even if you have no idea what a poem is “about,” you can enjoy the way it plays with language and sound. This is why nonsense poems like Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” are still a delight. Also a reminder that poems are meant to be heard.

3. Diversity: of form, source (writer, culture, time), purpose. Every culture with which I am familiar has its own poetry (or poetries). Before prose, there was poetry. Before we wrote anything down, there was poetry. So whatever you’re in the mood for, there’s a poem for it, whether it’s something political, personal, social; narrative or lyric; formal or free; angry, joyful, sad, funny.

Here’s my favorite site to browse poems: You can browse by occasion, poet, movement, time period, place, etc.

Here are some contemporary poet recs. (Also feel free to browse my poetry tag(s).)

Anne Carson

Billy Collins

Mark Doty

Rita Dove

Daisy Fried

Louise Gluck

Matthea Harvey

Robert Hass

Seamus Heaney

Zbigniew Herbert

Juan Felipe Herrera

Marie Howe

Ko Un

Yusef Komunyakaa

Jamaal May

Harryette Mullen

Adrienne Rich

Tomas Transtromer

David Wojahn

Adam Zagajewski


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Why I Love Poetry