This is a transcription of ‘(Fun) Christmas To-Do List and Two New Books — 22 december 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a tricky take on a coming-of-age story.
David: A book about a native American girl and her dragon.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: In our Strong Sense of Place episode about museums, I recommended a book I loved called ‘Metropolitan Stories’ by Christine Coulson. She worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for more than 25 years, so she knows the place inside out. That novel unfolds through interconnected vignettes that bring the objects in the museum to life, sometimes literally. It’s still one of my favorite books that I’ve read for Strong Sense of Place.
Melissa: In her new book ‘One Woman Show,’ she’s experimenting again with the novel form. You know the little placards next to the works in a museum? [DAVE] They have the title of the piece and the date, along with a short description of the work to give it context. When Christine Coulson wrote those for the Met, she had a strict 75-word limit on each label. In an interview, she said that required her to choose one story about each object and to make every word count.
Melissa: This new novel tells its story entirely through those little museum wall tags. Reading it is like visiting an exhibition about one woman’s life.
Melissa: Our heroine is Kitty Whitaker. We meet her when she’s five years old in 1911. Her first wall label describes her as ‘A pretty thing entitled to pretty things.’ This is not the last time in her life that Kitty will be treated as an object to be acquired, displayed, or hidden away.
Melissa: It’s remarkable how much detail Coulson packs into the museum labels. They have an irresistible forward momentum — I couldn’t wait to see what the next placard had in store for Kitty. And I found it very emotionally engaging. From the beginning, her labels indicate she belongs to someone else’s collection: first to her parents Martha and Harrison Whitaker (known as Minty and Whit). Later, to husband number one, and then husband number two. The names pile up on her wall tag. As she ages and moves from collection to collection, her varnish is chipped, and her perceived value decreases.
Melissa: But it’s not gloomy — there’s a dark humor at work. Plenty of moments made me snort or harumph and laugh. And I sighed a few times on Kitty’s behalf. The commitment to this storytelling form could easily have tipped over into gimmicky or too show-off-y. But for me, it made the reading experience immersive and moving.
Melissa: If you’re curious at all, I encourage you to give it a go. I’ll put a link in the show notes to a fantastic interview and reading with the author. Hearing her talk about how and why she wrote this novel the way she did is very convincing. I devoured this little book in about 90 minutes, and now, a week later, I’m still thinking about it. It’s ‘One Woman Show’ by Christine Coulson.
David: It is late December, and one of my favorite things to do at the end of the year is read everyone’s best-of-the-year lists. I spend way too much time poking around NPR and Kirkus and the Guardian. A really nicely collated bookstore has shown up in my browser. It feels rude to not pay attention to it. And I’m interested in lots of things. And then I spent too much time filling up my already full TBR, instead of reading something.
David: Literally a library of lost time for me. That’s how we named this. One of the books that jumped out to me this week is ‘To Shape a Dragon’s Breath’ by Moniquill Blackgoose. This is a story about a girl — a Native American girl. She lives in a 19th-century version of America where Europeans have taken the East coast and built trains and universities — but also, there are dragons.
David: This girl, Anequs, finds a dragon egg. With her tribe, she hatches the dragon. And their plan is to raise the dragon as a community. But the colonizers- called the Anglish- have laws about this kind of thing. Future dragoneers have to train at an academy. So, off our girl travels to go elbow-to-elbow with her colonizers. And they tell her that either she learns to control the dragon, or they will have to kill it.
David: Now, I like the premise. But I was attracted to this book because of the ferocity of the people who love it. Many people thought it was the best book of the year, including a reporter for the Washington Post. NPR loved it. The Chicago Post loved it.
David: There was a lot of talk about how rich the world is. And how the author – who herself is Native American – has a lot to say about colonizers. As you might imagine. Some people thought it was preachy and a bit long. But, if this sounds like your thing, or you know someone who’s a good age for a bit of mischief with dragons and colonizers, this might be the right book. It’s ‘To Shape a Dragon’s Breath’ by Moniquill Blackgoose.
David: And now our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
Melissa: Brian Bilston is a British poet. I found his poems on Twitter, along with hundreds of thousands of other readers. The Irish Times called him the Poet Laureate of Twitter. There are two things I really enjoy about his poems. First, form is an important feature of his poems. The words often make shapes or appear in Venn diagrams. They work when you read them out loud, but there’s an added layer when you see them on the page. And second, they’re very accessible and often funny, but usually have a layer of pensiveness, too.
I have all of his books, including Days Like These which has a poem for every day of the year.
Just in time for Christmas, he released a collection of 51 holiday poems called ‘And So This is Christmas.’ it includes a poem about Jolabokaflod, a collection of haikus about Christmas songs, and one called ‘The Office Christmas Party’ which is a humorously grim as you think it will be. This is a fun book to dip in and out of — and it would make a great gift for people who love Christmas and for people who don’t.
On Twitter this week, he shared a poem that’s not in the collection, but should be. It’s called ‘Christmas To Do List.’ In his introduction, he wrote, ‘There’s always so much to do at this time of year — but what can really help is to write a well-defined To Do List of what you might realistically achieve in your day. Here’s my list.’
Now, as a celebration of having way too much to do this weekend, Dave will read us the poem.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more about Brian Bilston and the books we talked about today.
David: Thanks for joining us on the library of last time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent bookstore to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious. We’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Tyler Delgado/Unsplash.
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