learn by going

Reading with a felonious mind, cross-genre. Also, I read contemporary poetry, and so should you.

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time - James Baldwin

There they (police officers) stood, in twos and threes and fours, in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun.

Terrible how much this text is still relevant, might have been written today. This would not have surprised Baldwin--he acknowledges more than once that things may never change in America--though I imagine it might have saddened him.

 

The Fire Next Time contains two separate nonfiction pieces, one a letter to Baldwin's nephew, the sort of message or discussion African Americans have with their younger family members that white people don't. The second is an elegant "Letter from a Region in My Mind" that explores the author's coming to (and leaving) religion as a way to discuss race and racism in America. It is, ostensibly, a solution, though perhaps an impossible one.

 

I couldn't possibly capture Baldwin's argument in a brief synopsis, nor do I want to. His prose is beautiful and crystal clear, unflinching yet humane. He's my favorite kind of arguer, one who acknowledges from where other points of view are coming while advocating for his own position. It's been too long since I first read him, and I won't make that mistake again.

After Birth, by Elisa Albert

After Birth - Elisa Albert

As we approach Mother's Day in the U.S., pop culture has lately been reassuring me that my decision to never have children is a good one.

 

Most recently, I went to see the movie Tully, in which a woman who's just had her third child struggles to sleep and care for herself until finally she relents and accepts her brother's gift of a night nanny. Life for her improves markedly, perhaps magically (for a reason).

 

Inspired by Tully, I consciously chose to read After Birth. Might as well ride this wave of mother-related trauma, I thought. The novel follows Ari, a first time mother, over the course of three months, her son just turning one. It flashes back to when she was pregnant, endured what she feels was a needless C-section, and when what is likely to be post-partum depression ensues.

 

In its bitterness, its sometimes funny rants and ambivalence about Jewish identity, After Birth felt of a piece with Albert's first novel, The Book of Dahlia, which I read last year. I admired that book for its stubbornly unforgiving protagonist, dying of brain cancer. Similarly, Ari's often caustic, volatile voice, her resentment at modern birth practices and various mothering cliques, as well as the unnecessary isolation of motherhood, was often refreshing to read. Sometimes, however, it became a bit much for me.

 

Ari wrestles with her past, doomed relationships with other women, including her mean mother, who died of cancer when she was young, former friends, roommates, lovers. In the present, she befriends and helps a new mom who was in a seminal feminist band. This relationship enables Ari to "grow up," to perhaps become less judgmental or bitter about the women in her life, and those who may become a part of her life.

 

Like everything else, motherhood in the U.S. has become commodified, both as an inextricable part of the health care industry and as a way to sell "stuff" that mothers have done without for ages. The most valuable, engaging aspect of After Birth is the insistence that, however individual birth plans and approaches to mothering may be, women are not meant to raise children on their own (whether there's a man or not); we're meant to help each other.

DNF: Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

Absurdistan - Gary Shteyngart

DNF not quite halfway through. In the beginning I was impressed by the fine line this book walks between annoyance and charm. The word I thought of to best describe it was "rambunctious." Then I thought, "Will this 'rambunction' get old?" And it basically did. Or maybe I'm just not in the mood for satire of life 15+ years ago when the present is even crazier. Like, we're living a satire right now. I will say I enjoyed the physicality that Shteyngart revels in; that's rare. On the other hand, I could do without the meta quality, references to an author with a name like Shteyngart's who published a novel that sounds like his debut novel.

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life - Yiyun Li

Reading Li's memoir was a unique experience, or perhaps one so rare I can't remember the last time I had it. It challenged me to think not only about her as a writer and reader, but about myself as a writer and reader. I highlighted tons of passages, brief and long. I read the book slowly because I frequently needed to pause and evaluate Li's notions of self, writing, and reading, often all essentially the same thing, against what I believe or thought I believed.

 

Early on, Li notes that she does not like using first person. It is unavoidable in this type of work, but she uses "one" elsewhere, as in, "One hides something for two reasons: either one feels protective of it or one feels ashamed of it. And it is not always the case that the two possibilities can be separated." I found that it functioned much like second person ("you") where it assumes the reader's agreement. Having read the book, I can't think that was Li's intention, but it created an at times adversarial stance from which I judged her obviously personal claims. This isn't a critique, only an observation of the sort I don't make often. In a way, then, it's a compliment.

 

Because Li in part is writing about writing, I put it on a mental list of texts I'd love to assign in a creative writing workshop. Though my genre is poetry (and fiction after that), its insights apply to any genre. "To write," she says, "betrays one’s instinct to curl up and hide." Upon that I can easily agree.

 

NaPoWriMo Final Update

I have officially completed the National/Global Poetry Writing Month challenge, having drafted my 30th and final poem of the month this morning.

 

30 POEMS.

 

I had to type that twice because the first time shocked me. I wrote 30 poems. In a month. That may not seem incredible, but it is for me. I'm notoriously unprolific. Doing this challenge has showed me that, yep, I've just been letting myself off the hook and that I can write more and more frequently. It's also helped me fight my perfectionist tendencies, as I told myself I was drafting poems, to be revised later. Now I can go back, reread, and revise. I fought the impulse to reread during the challenge but admit I skimmed back through once or twice.

 

I also only sort of cheated once, within the last week, when what I wrote was more like notes towards a draft rather than an actual draft. I don't feel (too) guilty about it.

 

Because 30 poems!

 

As for reading, I'm still slowly making my way through Szymborska's collected poems (I'm somewhere in the '70s). Next I will definitely delve into U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith's work; I just heard her speak on NPR, and I can see we share similar views on poetry, its role, and how to approach poems. I'm also thinking it would be a good time to get reading poetry craft/theory again.

 

Wish me luck on my revisions! Hopefully I'll get sending some of these babies out to journals. I'll be happy to share links or publication notices if any are accepted.

The Body in Pain, by Elaine Scarry

The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World - Elaine Scarry

Probably I should officially consider this a DNF, but I did at least skim the last section, so... This was perhaps a case of waiting too long to read a text I became interested in when a graduate student. At that time, I was regularly reading scholarly work either as assigned in class or for projects for those classes. But I graduated in 2012, and my brain as a reader is generally in a different gear.

 

I read some of Scarry's other works in my program but was specifically interested in The Body in Pain because I read the opening pages and was drawn in by the discussion of the inexpressibility of pain. I've mentioned in previous posts that I'm a migraineur, so I tend to take note of topics related to pain. Then as a writer I'm naturally also fascinated by works addressing communication and creativity.

 

Earlier sections on torture, making, and unmaking were worth the tough read, but the second section delves into biblical and Marxist texts, neither of which are in my wheelhouse. I gave myself permission to skim as, let's face it, I'm not likely to end up writing a scholarly paper on the topic.

 

I thought it unfair to rate what I essentially DNF. I'll say that Scarry's work in general can be unique, surprising, and compelling, but I don't always buy her premises.

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, by Paul Watson

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition - Paul Watson

This is the first book I've read that focuses on the multitude of searches conducted to find the lost Franklin expedition rather than on the expedition itself, though of course early chapters offer context. As a fellow obsessive, it's worth asking why this lost expedition to find the Northwest Passage has generated so much interest and so many searches over the years. It certainly wasn't the only lost voyage.

 

One answer is Franklin's wife, Jane, whose tenacity and devotion was the force behind many of the search efforts. What I didn't know, and this book details, is that Lady Franklin was an explorer and adventuress in her own right. She'd have gone on a voyage to the Arctic herself if she hadn't been prevented. Her efforts extended to seances and mediums, popular at the time in Britain; a few turned out to be uncannily accurate.

 

However, one of the clearest explanations why it took so long to find the two ships (both recently discovered at the bottom of the Arctic in 2014 and 2016) is that Inuit witnesses were ignored or misunderstood (in fact, Charles Dickens penned an incredibly racist rant once it was revealed via the Inuit that some men of the expedition resorted to cannibalism). Another strength of this book is that it gives these figures and their culture their due. However, I was put off a few times by Watson's language, which could go heavy on the "magical native" trope (at one point there's a "mystical glint" in an Inuit's eye).

 

I appreciated that in addition to citing those who traveled to the Arctic or gave information on the expedition's fate, Watson also highlights those whose inventions and pioneering aided in searches. He also unequivocally connects climate change with the discoveries of the ships; ironically, after many lives lost searching for it in the past, a Northwest Passage is now feasible due to the melting of Arctic ice. Canada, Russia, and the United States, along with Britain, were heavily invested in these expeditions and their recovery because a passage would be so lucrative. So...there's the bright side?

Bleaker Island, by Nell Stevens

Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World - Nell Stevens

Going to the ends of the earth (in this case, the Falklands) to write a novel in isolation, with no distractions, sounded like the kind of thing I might do (except for the novel part), which is why I was interested in reading Bleaker Island. Despite a charming start and some genuinely laugh out loud moments, I wasn't consistently invested in Stevens's account of her writing (and romantic) life. I don't read many contemporary memoirs because they can feel self-indulgent, and there's been such a boom in them that it makes me wonder whose lives warrant a whole book. Though Stevens is, in the end, self-aware about her self-indulgence, it doesn't make the book more appealing to me. 

 

In addition, I didn't understand why she included a few of her short stories. The novel excerpts made more sense, though I felt they might have been integrated better, perhaps in smaller chunks?

DNF: Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

Night Film - Marisha Pessl

I've recently made a new rule for myself to avoid purchasing or attempting to read a book by a new (to me) author if I've already purchased but not read another work by the same author. Pessl has a new book coming out this year, but I own both Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Night Film and had not read either. I decided to read Night Film first, as I remembered being intrigued by its synopsis and the first several pages I read.

 

I understood it to be literary fiction, but 50 pages in, it felt more like typical genre fiction--not that I never read genre fiction--specifically, noir, which I typically dislike. The protagonist felt like a cross between Sam Spade and Mikael Blomqvist: a disgraced journalist who gets caught up in a mystery involving a reclusive film director. I think I need to stop being seduced by books about filmmakers; this is the second I DNF.

 

The prose got on my nerves fast, especially the overuse of italics. I wondered if perhaps this book intended to do what Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island does, which is exaggerate genre tropes and style for the purpose of representing a character's point of view. After skimming some reviews, it didn't seem so, and i wasn't willing to continue reading to find out.

NaPoWriMo Update

We're a week into April (and it just got cold and snowy again where I live: April is the cruelest month), which means I'm a week into National/Global Poetry Writing Month, and it's time for an update.

 

I've successfully drafted a poem each day: hooray! I made a note to myself early on that I would suppress my perfectionism and edit after this whole month is done. Yesterday was the first day when I really felt the poem was crap, but I already have thoughts on how to at least make it okay. Other than that, it hasn't been much of a challenge to write every day. On the one hand, that's great; on the other, it shows me how lazy I tend to be otherwise!

 

I also vowed to post about poetry I'm reading. Since I was unfamiliar with U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith's work, I found some online, read a poem evoking David Bowie (I'm a big fan), and promptly ordered two books, Wade in the Water (just released) and Life on Mars, which won the Pulitzer.

 

Here is a link to the poem I read, from Life on Mars.

Girl in the Dark, by Anna Lyndsey

Girl in the Dark: A Memoir - Anna Lyndsey

I became interested in this book because as a migraine sufferer who hasn't always had my headaches under control or been able to reliably treat them, I would be shut up in my apartment, in the dark (or as dark as possible when I lived in Arizona), for up to 24 hours. I couldn't read or watch television or go online. I'd sleep but couldn't do so all day. I was bored and felt alone. The next day, when the pain was gone, it was like a first day out of prison or after a long illness. I'd be almost euphoric but also feel vulnerable, as sometimes I'd get rebound headaches. Thankfully, I now have medications both to reduce my headache days and to stop them before they become agonizing.

 

"Anna" has an extreme sensitivity to light that keeps her inside, in a light-tight room, not for a day but months (even years) at a time. Certain wavelengths affect her more than others, but she can't read, watch television, or use a computer. She listens to audio books, talks on the phone with others who share debilitating chronic conditions, plays mental logic games alone or with her partner or other loved ones. She understandably feels depressed and experiences suicidal ideation.

 

Yet the book itself is not depressing. There is a humor to her writing, and her strength in dealing with this condition is impressive, encouraging, and inspiring without being maudlin. She's candid about her frustrations, as when she talks with others with chronic conditions that don't limit them in all the ways she is limited and finds herself angry.

 

She's also a terrific writer; the book feels literary in its prose and structure, which includes shorter chapters ordered thematically and achronologically (in one chapter she goes through the alphabet--one of her mental games--to list all the therapies she's tried and their results). At the end of the book she explains her decisions about how to structure it and even includes a chart indicating periods when she could not leave her home at all and periods of remission when she could go out around dawn and dusk.

 

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Girl in the Dark to read about is the fact that doctors refused to come to her when she could not leave her home. She corresponded with some, but knowing that house calls have been part of the medical profession in the past (and still are in some places--or for the right price) demonstrates their reluctance--not inability--to engage with patients with rare conditions like Anna's. To me, that's inexcusable and shameful.

NaPoWriMo

So November (I think?) is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and I've just learned about and decided to participate in National (or Global) Poetry Writing Month (April is national poetry month in the U.S.) where the aim is to write a poem a day. Wish me luck! I am generally undisciplined and not very prolific as a poet. I figure even if I don't end up writing one for every day, I'll still write a bunch. It will be more new poems than I had on March 31st. I already wrote one today.

 

But how about also making it National Poem Reading Month? I try to always be reading poetry regularly, but most folks don't. I'm still reading Szymborska's collected and last poems. I'd be psyched to know others were reading a poem a day!

 

I'll do my best to post some lines from what I'm reading. If there's a national poetry month where you live, I'd welcome similar posts whenever that is.

 

Also, here is a link to an NPR interview with the current American Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith (whose poems I am excited to read for the first time this month), who discusses the value of poetry, especially in our rough global times.

The Animators, by Karla Rae Whitaker

The Animators - Kayla Rae Whitaker

The Animators struck a deep chord with me on two levels: as an artist and as best friend to a fellow artist. If you are either, you'll likely love this novel as I did.

 

Funny and engaging from the first page, The Animators starts with our narrator, Sharon, in college, where she meets the charismatic Mel Vaught. Both are aspiring animators who are into the same shit and share an aesthetic; both come from poor, rural southern U.S. backgrounds. Many of us in the arts could identify that time when we learn we're not actually outsiders, that others share our interests; college tends to be a place where we find our tribe.

 

But this is not a novel about being a college arts student. The narrative quickly brings us to a present where Sharon and Mel have made a successful indie animated feature that centers on Mel's life. They live together in New York City. Mel drinks and does a lot of drugs; she's the life of the party. Sharon...is not. She spends a lot of time and emotions angsting over her latest romantic interest, of which there are many.

 

Tension develops between the two, much of it, from Sharon's perspective, owing to Mel's lifestyle. There's a blowout, followed by a shocking, life-altering health crisis for one of them. It's a reset that leads them on a path to mining Sharon's childhood for their next project. This raises very real questions artists face about using their lives in their art in ways that may hurt loved ones. I wasn't quite satisfied by the resolution to this issue, but I appreciated its being seriously considered.

 

This book excels at depicting partnerships between women, their working lives as artists, and craft. The prose is engaging, the characters vivid, and there are some heartbreaking and harrowing moments. Even if you're not an artist or friends with one, I can't imagine Whitaker's (first!) novel not winning you over from page one.

White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

White Tears - Hari Kunzru

It was difficult to read the first half or so of this book because the protagonist (Seth) and his best (and only) friend (Carter) are aggravatingly ignorant of their appropriation of black culture. They're even more offensive for thinking they're woke or genuine in their fetishistic consumption of the rarest blues, at least in Carter's case. Seth is less than sympathetic in his own distinct way; he's such a follower that he barely has a personality of his own. As little as I could bear the privileged Carter, Seth is consequently even harder for me to care about given that he follows Carter like a puppy. I don't know what to make of the fact that both have or have had mental health issues. And I don't know what to make of Seth's thing for Carter's sister.

 

I patiently waited for these guys to get some sort of comeuppance. When it came, it was a whirlwind of genres, a mishmash of past and present, a blurring of identities. Formally, stylistically, this novel took off, grabbing me by the collar. It was hard to put down. I hadn't known what to expect at the beginning, which is a gift for a reader. I do think at times the cues or signals were overdone; we could have been better trusted to follow the shifts in time and perspective. But what a ride.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee

It took me almost four months to read Pachinko. As I read, I began wondering about my slow pace. My fall semesters are busier, yes, but I still manage to finish most books in what's a timely manner for me. It certainly wasn't because I found the book hard to read in terms of comprehension or engagement. As I got closer to the end, I realized: it was because I was so invested in the characters and storytelling I had to take time to process the intense feelings the novel evoked. There are also regular gaps in time that take place between chapters where characters' situations change significantly; I needed mental space before diving into the story again. I can't think of another novel that required this sort of reading from me.

 

In addition to Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, Pachinko has served to establish that "family sagas" can engage me, or at least when another culture is involved. Through the family portrayed here, I learned more about Korea, but it never feels like a history lesson. Everything comes from the characters. The novel also provokes thought about national and racial identity.

 

There were moments I dreaded, as with the return of a less sympathetic character, though not in a way that made me dislike the novel or its author. There were moments that shocked me to the point of gasping. There are many scenes that easily and vividly come to mind when I recall my reading, which I finished more than a month ago.

 

I would love to teach this novel. I have the feeling I may reread it some day, regardless. For me, that's a rarity, a compliment, and a sign of deep gratitude. 

The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Book of Joan: A Novel - Lidia Yuknavitch

More a novel of ideas than a "yarn," The Book of Joan's characters exist primarily as symbols, vehicles for ideology. This quality brought to mind older modes of storytelling, such as ancient Greek and Roman epics, fairy tales, and didactic poems. Everything is heightened--the language, the stakes, the characters. At first I highlighted many passages, dazzled by the prose, but the lyric language reached a critical mass about a third of the way through, and I became distracted by linguistic tics such as the overuse of "wrong" as an adjective. It could also be hard to read some of the graphically violent passages.

 

Nevertheless, I applaud this novel's ingenuity, its reworking of Joan of Arc's story and interesting notions regarding gender and sex.

Currently reading

The Force Awakens (Star Wars)
Alan Dean Foster
Map: Collected and Last Poems
Wisława Szymborska, Clare Cavanagh, Stanisław Barańczak
Progress: 109/447 pages
Another Country
James Baldwin