U-M Writer-in-Residence Caroline Harper New's poetry book “A History of Half-Birds" unfolds time and explores human-animal interplay

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Caroline Harper New and her book A History of Half-Birds.

Author photo by Steven Kardel.

“Control is a delicate science,” writes Caroline Harper New in her poetry collection, A History of Half-Birds. This book won the 2023 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry as selected by Maggie Smith.

New is a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Michigan and a U-M alumna with an MFA in Writing. She will read and be in conversation with poets Abigail McFee and Maia Elsner on Thursday, February 15, at 6:30 p.m. at Literati Bookstore.

A History of Half-Birds examines destruction from both natural events and human actions. The consequence is that a person’s life—or an animal’s life—is no longer the same. Since “We study the past to know the future,” there is no forward movement in these poems without probing what happened previously, whether that is Amelia Earhart’s disappearance or a reimagined Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy repeats “there’s no place like home anymore” amidst alligators. 

This poetic investigation finds that pain and love are intertwined during these trials. A songbird that appears dead awaits its burial, but when the poet is ready to place it in a newly dug grave, the bird has vanished. This different type of loss brings new emotions. The poet implores that “I need you / to know I would have kept you, and loved you / most, had you never escaped my hands.” The past, present, and future are tinged with wondering what could have been if details had been altered. 

The Gulf Coast storms raging throughout this collection are out of control, but they do not only consist of fury because “our lemon trees bloomed most brilliantly post-hurricane.” Specks of light also emerge. All people can do is name what they see, as the poem “Garden of Eve” suggests:

U-M anthropologist Ruth Behar sails “Across So Many Seas” through the stories of four 12-year-old girls

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Ruth Behar author portrait and her book Across So Many Seas

Spanning hundreds of years and four countries, Ruth Behar’s new middle grade novel, Across So Many Seas, features four 12-year-old girls, each facing their own momentous challenge. 

Behar, a University of Michigan professor, will be in conversation with fellow professor Devi Mays at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, February 13, at 6:30 pm. 

The common theme among the girls’ challenges is exile. They are part of the same Jewish family, and different generations of their relatives find themselves traveling across different oceans to a new home. Benvenida journeys with her family from Spain to Naples and then Turkey in 1492 owing to the Spanish Inquisition. Reina is abruptly forced out of Turkey to forge a new life on her own in Cuba in 1923. Alegra escapes Fidel Castro’s regime with her family and relocates to the United States in 1961. Lastly, Paloma has the chance to learn about her history on a trip to Spain from her home in Miami in 2003. In fact, Paloma is the daughter of Alegra and granddaughter of Reina. 

Each move causes pain for the characters, and each new country marks a new chapter in the long history of the family. As Benvenida takes a ship from Spain to Naples, she reflects: 

Zingerman’s “Celebrate Every Day” cookbook offers recipes that correspond with the seasons and holidays

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Zingerman's Bakehouse Celebrate Every Day book cover and four author headshots.

Authors from top to bottom: Lindsay-Jean Hard, Amy Emberling, Corynn Coscia, and Lee Vedder. Photos courtesy of Zingerman's.

Picking just one recipe to make first from Zingerman’s Bakehouse Celebrate Every Day: A Year’s Worth of Favorite Recipes for Festive Occasions, Big and Small is a difficult decision. 

Would it be something savory, like “The Works Grilled Cheese Sandwich” and “Tomato De-Vine Soup?”

Or would it be something sweet, such as the “Maize and Blue Cobbler” or “Not-Just-Chocolate Babka?”

The 75-plus recipes to choose from emphasize the seasons and holidays so there is a dish or dessert for every time of year. 

The inspiration for the book stems not only from the seasons but also from COVID-19. For authors Amy Emberling, Lindsay-Jean Hard, Lee Vedder, and Corynn Coscia, the seasons include not only the big things but also the little things. One reason for this approach was that the pandemic changed many people’s outlooks and the ways they spend time. Despite the modifications to day-to-day life, food remained central—and even grew in importance—when the world stayed at home in 2020. As Emberling writes in the book’s introduction:  

A Search for Meaning: Nishanth Injam's new short-story collection hopes for "The Best Possible Experience"

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Nishanth Injam and his book The Best Possible Experience

What is “the best possible experience?” Is it subjective or objective? How does one find it? Does it fulfill or disappoint? 

Nishanth Injam’s new short story collection, The Best Possible Experience, seeks to find out whether the best possible experience is everything that it is chalked up to be. The University of Michigan MFA alum’s characters endure losses, yet they nevertheless hold on to their longings. Those longings may or may not be their own, and sometimes their actions mask a deeper desire.  

The characters in The Best Possible Experience live in or are from India. They seem to be at odds with something. Here is not there. A significant other or close relative is not present. Despite trying hard, “It wasn’t supposed to have been this way,” says Rafi, who lost his wife, in “The Sea.” 

The characters who have left India struggle with being neither at home in the United States nor having a place that feels like their own in India: “Once you go, there’s nowhere to return.” When Sita travels from the U.S. to her village in India to visit her grandfather, Thatha, in “Summers of Waiting,” she reflects on how much time she has there and the way that time passes: 

Who Has What: Connections Between College Students and a Visiting Professor Lead to Scandals in Kiley Reid’s New Novel, “Come and Get It”

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The cover of "Come and Get It" is green and has yellow and blue fonts on it along with an outline of a pig in blue. The cover is next to a photo of Kiley Reid wearing a black sweater.

Kiley Reid photo by David Goddard.

Kiley Reid’s sophomore novel, Come and Get It, centers on the lives of college students, mostly juniors, seniors, and one super senior, plus a visiting professor. What starts out as a job for a resident assistant and a place to live for the three students in the suite next door gradually and unexpectedly escalates into several related scandals. 

Reid, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, is debuting Come and Get It during a January 30 event at the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown location. Hosted by AADL and Literati Bookstore, it features Reid in conversation with Austin Channing Brown and doubles as the publication date of her new book. 

With this book following her first novel, Such a Fun Age, which was the 2023 Washtenaw Read book, Reid reinforces her expertise in writing plot-driven adult fiction full of sharp insights into characters, their choices, race, materialism, and the very human emotion of humiliation. Reid’s situational humor in Come and Get It also brings laugh-out-loud moments via student pranks and misunderstandings that are both cringey and hilarious. 

At the start of Come and Get It, Millie Cousins is returning to the dorms as a resident assistant (RA) following her year off to care for her mother Glory. This time she has a goal, which is saving up to buy a house in her place of choice, Fayetteville, where she is finishing school at the University of Arkansas. This setting has resonance for Reid because she lived there for a year before earning her Master of Fine Arts. 

“Fayetteville is an incredible place and one of my favorite towns,” said Reid. “It’s beautiful and hilly. There’s an ease to living there and there are four true seasons. None of my characters are from Fayetteville, and they’ve all come there for very different reasons. I was interested in what would bring them there and what they were expecting to get out of it.” In Come and Get It, what the characters end up getting out of it is not what they expect. 

Love Country: Erin Hahn's latest romance novel is humorous, songful, and lyrical

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Erin Hahn and her book Friends Don’t Fall in Love

Photo courtesy of Erin Hahn.

Nothing burns like unrequited love or miscommunication. 

The two characters in Erin Hahn’s aptly named new romance novel, Friends Don’t Fall in Love, prove the title either right or wrong by the end of the book. This novel is the spicy second addition to Hahn’s trilogy that started with Built to Last

Friends Don’t Fall in Love takes place in Nashville, and things are already complicated given that character Lorelai Jones rents the other half of her friend—and crush—Craig “Huckleberry” Boseman’s duplex. The plot presents humor, missteps, sex, music, romance, and the potential for redemption.   

The cards are not exactly stacked for these two. Craig and Lorelai are both navigating their thorny profession—and pasts. Craig is growing his indie record label and songwriting prowess after separating from the popular but toxic lead singer, Drake Colter. Lorelai is taking baby steps to rebuild her career after getting kicked out of the spotlight—a choice she made at her last concert—and having that same singer, Drake, break off their engagement. 

Despite the setbacks, Craig and Lorelai are both in it for the love of music. Craig reflects on his connection to songs: 

Helena Mesa discovers “Where Land Is Indistinguishable From Sea” in her new poetry collection

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Helena Mesa and her book “Where Land Is Indistinguishable From Sea”

Helena Mesa measures the space between places and people through the poems in her new collection, Where Land Is Indistinguishable From Sea. The poems teem with longing, whether from loss or distance or both. 

This longing is sometimes for a person and other times for a place. In the poem “First Year Gone,” the poet speaks to an unreachable person as she undoes her knitting: 

                       You’ve become
a dream, my lips tasting only
damp wool, an ocean bed
drained of seawater, its kelp
drying in summer heat—if only I could 
cross the dry basin
before storms flood the ocean once more.

The impossible task of traversing the ocean bed illustrates how “you remain as far now as you were / when I first knit these rows.” The loss is a drought, and more storms are on their way. 

Another poem, “After Exile,” narrates some attempts to feed another person’s bird after she has left. The bird does not eat: “It understood longing hungers longer / than anyone could hold out / their hand.” Mesa, too, understands what it is like to not have the one thing that a creature needs, the one joy in this all too bleak life. 

Religious undertones permeate the poems, especially Eden which appears in several places even though “I did not ask to be an Eden.” “The Lesson” reflects on the concept of God’s presence when “She said, He is everywhere, / even inside you.” While Eve must deal with her shame in the garden after eating the forbidden fruit, the shame becomes a side effect in Mesa’s poem. Exile moves to the forefront, and it is even a foregone conclusion at the outset of sin because “He lived inside her / and felt the thought form.” Another poem calls forth “Lot’s Daughter,” and the poem titled “The want for faith” describes the tenuous nature of faith that allows one “to glimpse / what might be the blurred edge / of a dog chasing a hare / or nothing at all.” Clarity is elusive. 

The longing in these poems brings not just the ache of loss but also the occasional fruit of “sweet persistence.” The poem named “Waiting to Meet in San Francisco” is breathless with hope, and the poet takes the imperative to implore: “Say yes. Say you will / let go, say you’ll never, / say air will catch us both.” The time of day also brings splendor, as “Morning crackles more clearly through the trees.” Brightness seems to cut through the grief and desire. 

Since some loved ones are gone forever and religion does not provide all the answers, Mesa’s poems continue questioning what distance means. Mesa’s parents left Cuba for the United States when they were young, and that drastic move informs poems in the collection. The recurring questions about time and space appear in multiple poems, such as “Catalog of Unasked Questions,” which starts with the lines:  

How far before home
receded beyond the horizon? 
(54 km) How far before It’s too late
to turn back
? (22 km) 

The mileage and time add up. These totals may or may not change the outlook, as the last question of the poem asks: 

              …And how far
Before the distance
No longer felt distant? 
(                            )

Distance is the reality as “Everyone I’ve ever known / lives so far.” Fulfillment remains out of reach given that “The map to reach you pale and wordless” does not offer answers to close the distance. 

Mesa lives in Ann Arbor and teaches at Albion College. I interviewed her about Where Land Is Indistinguishable From Sea

AARON BURCH EMBRACES AMBIGUITY AND NOSTALGIA IN HIS NEW ESSAY COLLECTION, “A KIND OF IN-BETWEEN”

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Author Aaron Burch is on the left and the cover of his essay collection, "A Kind of In-Between" is on the right.

Aaron Burch recounts major life changes and memories in the essays of A Kind of In-Between. Throughout the pages, Burch questions what is important in life. What do you remember? What does it mean? Why are you happy or not? 

Focusing on the places he has been is one approach that Burch takes to inform these inquiries. He shares that he grew up in Washington and has subsequently lived in Michigan and Illinois as an adult. In the sentence that lends itself to the book’s title, he narrates his road trip:

I’m somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, driving around this big, long turn while also going down a decent decline. I don’t know how steep; I don’t really have any idea how to measure or guesstimate that kind of thing. I can tell it’s steeper than anything in Michigan but less so than Washington, a version of the kind of in-between that I return to again and again—known but not, neither childhood nor adult, not quite then or now, here or there. 

This ambiguity begins in the physical world and then seeps into other contexts. The human urge to name and define things breaks down when something is neither one nor the other. Burch concludes this essay called “Ohiopyle” with a question: “Were you to ask me, somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, whether home meant Washington or Michigan, what would I answer? I’m not sure.” Still, maybe one does not have to decide, as Burch highlights “the interconnectedness of everything and everyone” in the first essay of the collection. 

The Lord of the Screens: U-M professor Daniel Herbert chronicles the history of New Line Cinema in "Maverick Movies"

Daniel Herbert and his book Maverick Movies.

Late August at Hotel OzoneStuntsGet Out Your HandkerchiefsA Nightmare on Elm StreetCrittersHouse PartyTeenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesTwin Peaks: Fire Walk with MeDumb and DumberAustin Powers: International Man of MysteryHedwig and the Angry InchThe Lord of the RingsThe Notebook.

These films all have one thing in common: New Line Cinema.

University of Michigan film and media professor Daniel Herbert chronicles and analyzes the history of the production studio and its films in his new book, Maverick Movies: New Line Cinema and the Transformation of American Film.

Herbert initially launched his interest in New Line by teaching a course on the company. Back in 2010, the idea came from U-M librarian Philip Hallman, who also speculated about a possible book. The class evolved, and Herbert conducted extensive research that culminated in his book. He studied the Robert Shaye-New Line Cinema Papers and the Ira Deutchman Papers, which are in the Screen Arts Mavericks and Makers collection at the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Michigan Library. The closing lines of the book describe the origins of its title:

Public and Personal Policies: Airea D. Matthews’ autobiographical poetry collection questions economic theory amid the realities of poverty and violence

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Airea D. Matthews and her book Bread and Circus.

Necessity and amusement. Sustenance and transaction. Security and turmoil.  

Airea D. Matthews’ autobiographical poetry collection, Bread and Circus, brims with contrasts. One situation or item is paired with another to show a lack or miscalculation. The poems hover on a precipice, even as the guests “…watch a lovely commodity / reluctantly agree to her own barter.” 

Early in the book, the poems witness a shotgun marriage, and the family grows in the subsequent years. Making ends meet results in how “Papa despised the vestiges of a hand- / out” – and especially “one specific symbol of his failure – corn.” Over time, the father’s drug addiction causes trauma, along with broken promises like, “I owe you a bike, right?” though it never materializes. These memories stick in the poet’s mind, as the poet reflects on a past hurt: