Picture a graceful gondola on starlit water, pulling up under a particular window. Gentle guitar music begins, and a man stands and sings “One for my Baby.” The occasion for this serenade? The singer, a famous, if faded, American vocalist, is divorcing his wife. The couple are still in love, but he needs a younger woman to jump-start his career. His wife understands. Kazuo Ishiguro’s first collection of short fiction, Nocturnes (Knopf, $25), explores the line between the dreams and fantasy of melody and the ruthlessness of the music business. His characters are performing artists, and they appreciate both the magic and the hard knocks of their profession. Love for what they do—or aspire to do—makes them resilient. The divorced wife, returning in a hilarious story of her own, has just had plastic surgery, and though she still goes teary-eyed listening to her ex’s CDs, she’s hatching a wild plot to disrupt a music-awards ceremony.
The poems of A Village Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23), the 11th collection by the former Poet Laureate, Louise Glück, are as straightforward as the title suggests. While Glück often uses mythology, here her speakers aren’t gods or heroes but anonymous villagers living in accordance with natural rhythms and annual rituals. The stuff more of a Hardy novel than of fable or fairy tale, Glück’s men and women work hard and dream of another life in the city, but persevere where they are, believing that “whatever happened in that window/we were in harmony with it.” Glück doesn’t idealize or sentimentalize the “simple” life; it’s not simple, and like any other, it comes with disappointment and isolation. Her characters know that “to get born, your body makes a pact with death,/and from that moment, all it tries to do is cheat.” These sharply observed, often witty lyrics offer brief moments of ordinary lives, yet encapsulate a narrative fullness and complexity—from first love through loss and aging—common to everyone everywhere.
Franz Wright is the son of the poet James Wright, and though the father isn’t named in these poems, “his Everest shadow” falls constantly over the younger Wright’s life and work. Like his father a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and beset with depression and substance abuse, Franz struggles “in the mask of the first person” to achieve his own voice. The poems in his tenth collection, Wheeling Motel (Knopf, $26.95) are spare, frank lyrics that often ride the knife’s edge between pain and an achingly beautiful poignancy. Otherwise, they move restlessly among lists, sing-song rhymes, mock interviews, hallucinations, and dreams. Wright focuses squarely on unhappiness—including his father’s—but moves through it quickly, finding a difficult comfort in language; in music, “which told me early I should be filled with joy”; and, most of all, in faith, which “will tell you what no eye has seen/teach you to see/what no ear has heard.”