Salon recommends

What we're reading, what we're liking

By Salon Staff
September 11, 2000 11:53AM (UTC)
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Say Uncle by Kay Ryan
I'm not a regular reader of contemporary poetry -- most of it seems either impenetrably cryptic, awash in navel-gazing bathos or just plain dull -- but I eagerly snap up every new volume by Kay Ryan. Her poems are blessedly compact, but they unfold like little birthday presents to reveal all sorts of surprises: offbeat observations (that the animals not included in nativity scenes are cooler than the ones that are), droll philosophical puzzles (speculations on the nature of "nothing" abound) and some pretty good jokes. In fact, I can't think of another poet who makes me laugh as often as she makes me ponder the imponderables. Imagine Zen koans as written by Noel Coward and Nicholson Baker, and you're there.

--Laura Miller


The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes
I'm reading for my trip to Australia to cover the Olympics. Robert Hughes' epic history of the continent is stunningly magisterial and incredibly well researched. Australians tend to downplay their history for obvious reasons. And it really is shocking -- the violence, luridness and brutal heroism that went into the European settling of this isolated continent, during which, of course, the oldest continuous civilization in the world was effectively wiped out. Australia was Britain's gulag. You could be sent there for stealing a couple of shoes. Hughes' descriptions of the prison system in a place like Norfolk Island, the ninth circle of penal hell, are particularly engrossing.

This was where they sent you when they considered you irredeemable; the prisoners had no rights, and the commander was an absolute despot. The prisoners would engage in a lottery to decide who would be murdered and who would be the murderer, with the victim gladly accepting his lot and the murderer happy to be sent off the island to be tried. The book is also a great social history of the class distinctions among the settlers, in which those who had never been convicts disdained the former convicts, who in turn eventually formed the backbone of Australian society. I can't help but feel a twinge at the similarities to the U.S. and even to California. A beautifully written book, and a classic.

--Gary Kamiya


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