Reading List: May 2013
The UC London biochemist and writer Nick Lane's book Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution has been fascinating me. My heart is liable to be won by a scientist like Lane who quotes Tennyson's "Tithonus" in a chapter that explores how and why death was invented. The ingeniousness with which life created itself out of the harsh conditions on early earth--a reddish smoggy place where we would have suffocated instantly, a planet where the oceans boiled--gives me a kind of perverse solace considering the maddening, myopic shrugs of the powerful when they're confronted with how threatened our planet's biology is.
The books that, over the course of a busy spring semester, I've been dipping into and trying to make time to immerse myself in are now gathered in a stack at the starting line of summer. Among them:
Sidney Wade's sixth book, Straights & Narrows, in which her inquiring mind tumbles ludically and lucidly through short-lined, punctuation-free couplets. Opening bit: "Where is God / we ask in haste // and answer slow / in winter-paced // adagio." Random other favorite bit: "so here's the plan / I'll serve as // the bravura conduit / to intuitionland // and you provide / the filthy lucre."
Tracy K. Smith's third book, Life on Mars, in which science fiction and contemporary personal and political realities illuminate each other. Opening bit: "Is God being or pure force? The wind / Or what commands it?" Random other favorite bit: "I dream a little plot of land and six / Kid goats. Every night it rains. / Every morning sun breaks through / And the earth is firm again under our feet. // I am writing this so it will stay true."
Camille Dungy's third book, Smith Blue, whose title refers to an endangered species of California butterfly and whose poems lead us on a splendid tour of various other precarious states. Opening bit: "To love like God can love, sometimes. / Before the kettle boils to a whistle, quiet." Random other favorite bit: "Come here. Come over here / and see what the bird's nest is doing. / There are these small eggs, all of these / small eggs, none of them cracked yet, / but the big bird's away."
(This God-in-the-first-line thing is, I swear, a coincidence, discovered while writing this post...)
And finally, Rodney Jones's career-spanning selected, Salvation Blues, chock full of his colorful (and often off-color) narratives with their coloratura digressions that swoop between the soil and sky of speech and thought. Opening bit: "Almost as though the eggs run and leap back into their shells / And the shells seal behind them..." Random other favorite bit: "And here on my front porch, midnight, in Jefferson's paved Virginia, / all the good students are smoking dope and talking about God."
I am midway through two books, both of which I am enjoying, but for different reasons. James Longenbach’s The Virtues of Poetry offers a model of critical elegance, economy, and insight. The graceful book says a great deal about poetry with understated sophistication. Yael Unterman’s biography, Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar resembles its subject: learned, provocative, and immensely entertaining. One anecdote among many: discussing Pharaoh’s dream of seven cows, Leibowitz cited the eminent commentator Rashi, who analyzed the dream symbolically. Leibowitz retorted, “And who asked Rashi to interpret Pharaoh’s dream?”
Lately I also have been reading a lot of Albert Goldbarth’s work, well, because I like it. I will soon turn to Alan Moore’s graphic novel, V for Vendetta (a gift from a student) and Jennifer Barber’s Given Away. Tom Chivers’s anthology, Adventures in Form, lead me to Tamar Yoseloff’s fascinating chapbook, Formerly, a cycle of fourteen sonnets about disappearing London, inspired and accompanied by Vici MacDonald’s bleakly evocative photographs. And each weekday morning I take part in a class which is slowly working through the Talmudic tractate Bava Kamma, a text which challenges me in nearly every possible way.
Because I am partial to being served good writing on a platter, I tend toward many “Best of” collections, and the new Best American Essays 2012, handpicks a stellar selection. Sandra Tsing Loh's informative consideration of menopause in the twenty-first century, "The Bitch is Back," broke the record for funny per square sentence; Wesley Yang's "Paper Tigers," about the stereotypes and realities of Asian Americans, riveted me; "Vanishing Act," by Paul Collins, combed history for those child prodigies whose lives were shortened by the massive concentration on their early accomplishments. In “A Good Short Life,” by the late Dudley Clendinen, we are privileged to hear the thoughts of a writer dying of ALS, known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Also nothing less than sacred would be David J. Lawless' "My Father / My Husband," which telescopes the felt experience of the long-married husband, often mistaken for the father, of a wife with dementia. It will make you cry, it will make you laugh, it will make you want to read it aloud and then write to David J. Lawless.
But perhaps more surprising, it will make you recommend a book edited by right wing-ist David Brooks, who recently wrote in the New York Times that petitioning the Supreme Court for gay marriage would restrict the freedoms of gay people who got married. That essay just ain't gonna work, and conveys nothing of what the pieces in Best American Essays 2012 bring to light through lovingly critical eyes on the human condition and a close inspection of why love matters.
I've been rereading Ford Maddox Ford's wickedly funny and heartbreaking tetralogy, Parade's End, and I'm convinced it's the greatest novel ever written. Well, barring War and Peace and Ulysses. But exhibiting astonishing commonalities with both. The war in this instance is World War I, the method some near cousin of stream of consciousness. That is to say, Ford captures the leaps and lapses and parallel-tracking that characterizes consciousness in the midst of social and material tasking. I'm finding the sheer, shining structural brilliance of the novel (call it that, though it's four-in-one) a source of real exhilaration. It was fiction-writer friends who first steered me in the direction of Ford many years ago. The Good Soldier was a revelation to me at the time, but the longer novel was somehow lost on me. No more.
V. Penelope Pelizzon
When Averill Curdy (whose brilliant Song & Error tops my list) was packing to travel by train across Zambia & Tanzania with me recently, the one book I burdened her with was Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun. Based on Kapuscinski’s forty years of reportage in Africa, these are wry observations on the art of nation-building by a sympathetic outsider. (Kapuscinski also has a jaw-dropping bio: “He witnessed twenty-seven coups and revolutions and was sentenced to death four times.”) Just the book to have when your train is twelve hours late in New Kapiri Mposhi.
Every trip is consecrated to a book that’s always near my desk: Susan Brind Morrow’s The Names of Things. It’s an etymologist’s pillow book as much as a writer’s coming-of-age in Egypt. Joining it in the last two months is Elias Canetti’s Voices of Marrakech, one of the best evocations of the pleasures and panics evoked by camels, souks, labyrinths.
Generally I’d rather poke hot pins in my eyes than read online, but there are exceptions. International Crisis Group does some of the smartest reporting on global conflict. After that, I cheer up by reading Another Africa’s coverage of arts & culture.
I read “Inspiration” by Hailey Leithauser recently on Poetry Daily. Another sonic rollick from one of my new favorite poets. Her first book, Swoop, is forthcoming this October from Graywolf.
The Height in Between by Timothy Houghton. Subtle music and a mastery of the couplet form. Poems that add a base note to my day every time I come back to them.
Notes from Disappearing Lake: The River Journals of Robert Sund, edited by Glenn Hughes and Tim McNulty. Sund is one of Roethke’s lesser-known students. Haiku-like poems full of the muck and grace of the Puget Sound.
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram. Just re-read this. The writing bogs here and there, but the ideas are “lovely, dark and deep.”
Search for a Velvet-Lined Cape by Marjorie Manwaring. “Rejection Letter from Gertrude Stein,” one of the poems in this book, typifies the wit and surprise of this poet.
In the Kingdom of the Ditch by Todd Davis. Thanks to Chris Dombroski and Orion, I got to read this one before its release. Striking meditative poems evoking our relationships with each other and the other creatures of this planet.
Sympathetic Magic by Amy Fleury. A tough and beautiful poet. Here’s a taste: “Like a dowsing rod, you lean toward / whatever is coming to you, the waters / of loving, the sump of loss. Lean in.”
Most poets could do with a greater allowance of prose in our diets, to paraphrase Jane Austen. Here are three novels I enjoyed this year:
The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter. I bought this in an airport bookstore based on the title and retro cover. A novel of verse (one chapter is a haiku) and reversals, a satire on the financial madness of our times, this book is wonderful all round, by turns laugh-out-loud funny, sharp-witted, and moving.
Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser. Shockingly topical in our time of Robber Barons. The rise of a financially independent woman (an artist at that) charted against her lover’s decline has a modern edginess, coming as it does without judgment or comeuppance. And is this the first depiction of a mid-life crisis in literature? (Has someone made it into an opera? It would make a great opera.)
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. A 95-year old friend gave me this novel, one of her favorites. I was worried I would find it depressing—but it is rather a hymn to how art can be a stay against despair. Much of it involves the recent tragic history of Greece—Occupation, famine, Civil War, dictatorship.