At the beginning of the year, I set a goal on Goodreads to read 50 books this year. When I was working on my bachelor’s in English literature, reading 50 books in twelve months was no problem. I can remember one particular semester where I had to read 35 books for all of my classes combined. But since navigating full time employment is a new experience for me, I figured 50 would be a pretty good, low-stakes goal to set for myself. So far, I’ve read 22 of the 50 books and wanted to share a few that I particularly loved.
- Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. JD Salinger is one of those love him or hate him authors, and personally, I love him. No one does a first person narrator quite like he does. Franny and Zooey is told using multiple perspective narration, and in typical Salinger fashion, these narrative voices are really well done and are the devices that drive the story. Franny and Zooey follows the two youngest siblings in a family of intellectual prodigies as one of them experiences a spiritual and existential crisis and the other attempts to talk to her out of it. The entire novel centers on this one plot point, but because of the distinctness of the voices, it’s a dynamic and fascinating read.
- Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. As a genre, I adore poetry, but a lot of modern print poetry really frustrates me. I know these are unpopular opinions, but I’m not a fan of poets such as Rupi Kaur or Michael Faudet. I don’t like love poems or those trendy typewritten poems you might reblog on Tumblr. What I do love are poems that are complex and beautiful and ugly and painfully real. And I think Ocean Vuong’s collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds is exactly that. This collection explores the poet’s painful early domestic life, the challenges of coming into his identity, and the wounds inflicted upon his Vietnamese heritage. These poems are the type of poems you want to read out loud so you can hear them as you see them. I loved this collection so much I read every poem twice.
- The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib. Another one of my favorite modern poets is Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib who explores race in modern America through the motif of music and stories of his own life and growing up in Columbus, Ohio. In my degree, I focused on nineteenth century British literature, the canon for which is comprised mainly of wealthy white guys. The result is that, while I read an insane number of books and poems in college, the selection of authors was not incredibly diverse. Now that I have a few months when I’m not constantly reading for school, I’m trying to read more works from writers of different races, ethnicities, genders, etc. I think it’s important to do so. I believe that literature confronts us with different perspectives and experiences that we may not be privy to ourselves and that it’s important – especially now – to listen to those perspectives and experiences, because that’s how we love each other. I highly, highly, highly recommend this collection. For one thing, it’s incredible in terms of poetic merit, but also because it’s brutally honest. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I imagine it’s relatable to many people in a way that much canonized literature isn’t. And for those of us who cannot directly relate, it challenges us to listen – really listen – to a reality other than our own. I would also recommend listening to some of Willis-Abdurraqib’s performances on YouTube so you can hear his inflections and the lyricism of the poems.
- Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Zadie Smith is so well-known and celebrated that you likely don’t need encouragement from me to read her work. Swing Time is her latest novel and it follows a nameless narrator from childhood to adulthood, the competition between her and her childhood best friend, her employment as a personal assistant to a pop star, and her relationship with her mother. Threaded throughout the nonlinear narrative is the narrator’s evolving understanding of race, and this exploration is rooted by the motif of dance. It seems to me that several of the characters represent distinct types of people that are characterized by their responses to and opinions on race. Zadie Smith is a ridiculously intelligent human and talented writer, and this is one of those novels that stayed on my mind for a while after I read it because I was trying to work out in my mind everything that the novel was saying and doing (which is a lot).
- Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer. I love everything Jonathan Safran Foer writes, because all of his novels leave me with that punch-in-the-gut sad feeling. Just read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and you’ll see what I mean. I picked up Here I Am on principle and was not disappointed. The book follows a Jewish family as they experience domestic tragedy and natural disaster and the narrator explores what it means to be Jewish in modern America versus Jewish in modern Israel versus Jewish in the Holocaust versus Jewish in biblical times. What really moved me about this book was how Foer explored the idea of constructed meanings and inherited narratives and how those things affect the ways in which we grieve tragedies. There’s a scene in the novel where a rabbi deconstructs the story of Moses floating down the river in a basket in order to demonstrate the effects of Jewish history upon modern Jewish identity and grief that left me literally crying at my desk at work. Overall, this book is complex and moving and definitely worth reading despite how heavy it will make your purse or backpack or whatever.
What have you been reading lately?
- The Fleshly School of Poetry by Robert Buchanan. Maybe it’s a little weird that I’m recommending a critical essay, but this one by Robert Buchanan is hilarious (as far as critical essays go, that is). In it, he is critiquing the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a Victorian poet and artist, member of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood, and Buchanan’s contemporary. I found myself laughing the whole way through this essay, because Buchanan is so sassy and mean. He literally uses the word “nasty” in a critical essay in order to describe D.G. Rossetti’s poetry. He even says that the world would be a better place if D.G. had never written anything at all. Such sass. To the modern reader, D.G. Rossetti’s poetry would not seem racy or provocative, but to the Victorian Buchanan, it was enough to send him into a fit. Needless to say, Robert Buchanan wasn’t amazing at his job, but this essay made for a pretty entertaining class discussion.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre is a book that I definitely should have read a long time ago. It is, by far, the most accessible classic I’ve read. That being said, there is so much going on under the surface. Common Victorian themes such as empire, gender, and reality versus romanticism rear their heads throughout the novel. Setting plays a huge role, and the book as a whole breaks several major conventions of the 19th Century novel. For example, it has an unlikely narrator and contains unusual cross-class relationships. Also, there’s a love story thrown in there, for the all the romantics. I have to admit that I’m not Rochester’s biggest fan. I do prefer movie Rochester to book Rochester, but I think Mr. Darcy has ruined me for literary love interests.
- Bluets by Maggie Nelson. How to describe this book? In Bluets Maggie Nelson documents her obsession with the color blue in a compilation of short lyric essays. The essays focus on her experiences, feelings, and connotations surrounding the color, and in seeking to describe something that is indescribable (such as a color), she addresses taboo topics such as depression and sex. It is such an interesting concept that I believe is accomplished extremely well.
- Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. I have to admit that the first time I read this book, I couldn’t make it to the end, and I had no intentions of ever attempting to read it again. But as it was on the syllabus for one of my classes this semester, I was obligated to give it another go, and this time, I absolutely loved it. The book is told from dual perspectives but focuses mostly around a king who decides to rebel against death and live forever. Magical realism, mythology, and perfume play large roles in the story as well, but I won’t give too much away. The message of the book is quintessentially bohemian in that it paints bohemianism as something that is not confined by a specific set of behaviors or circumstances, and it calls to mind the relationships between the natural and the synthetic, the animal and the civilized, the essence of a person and how he or she identifies, desire and convention. Tom Robbins’ stories and writing style are incredibly unique and a little bit weird, but I definitely plan on picking up his other books.
- Just Kids by Patti Smith. This book is in the running for my favorite book I read this month (along with Jane Eyre). Just Kids is Patti’s Smiths memoir on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and her life as an artist. Unlike so many other “bohemian” texts I’ve read, Smith portrays her art and the art of her friends as something that requires discipline, and I really enjoyed that about the book. She doesn’t romanticize the idea of the starving artist, although she quite literally was one. Rather, she outlines the evolution and journey of her art and her community throughout the sixties and seventies. The book is beautifully written and tragic, as it serves as a sort of elegy for Mapplethorpe. Even if you are not a fan of Patti Smith, I highly recommend you read it.
- Mowing by Robert Frost. I had a teacher once who said that Robert Frost is the most misinterpreted American poet to ever live, and I would probably have to agree. “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” are severely misunderstood on shocking levels. “Mowing” is no exception, and I’ll admit that when I first read it, I thought it was a poem about farming. I was partially correct. On the surface, the poem is about someone who is cutting hay and laying it in rows. However, when someone in my literature class suggested that the poem is actually about writing, a lightbulb went off. Of course it is! Through his word choice and images, Frost creates a metaphor paralleling cutting hay and writing poems. It’s brilliant, and it completely blew my mind.
- This Is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams. Although William Carlos Williams is known best for “The Red Wheelbarrow,” “This Is Just to Say” is an incredibly famous poem, because it indirectly makes a commentary on which subjects are worthy of poetry. The poem is short and reads like a note that would be left on someone’s refrigerator. There are several different interpretations of this tiny poem, but I like it because it focuses on the mundane, but doesn’t idealize it.
What did you read this month?
Typically, at the end of every month, I make a blog post listing everything I read over the course of that month from short stories and essays to novels to poems. This month, however, was crazy. For my classes, I read more than 70 pieces, about 60 of which were poems, and I am under no illusions that anyone wants to read that long list. Rather, here are my favorite pieces I read in February.
- Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison. Technically this is a chapter from Ellison’s book The Invisible Man, but holy cow. Talk about emotions. I haven’t read The Invisible Man in its entirety, but from this chapter I read, the book is about a young African American man who is haunted by some advice he receives from his former slave grandfather to maintain the appearance of submission to his white oppressors but to never submit to the oppression within his heart and mind. The narrator buys into the social philosophy of Booker T. Washington, but “Battle Royal” places him into disturbing situations that challenge his ideas of the appropriate response to racism. I read this chapter for a literary theory and criticism class I’m taking, and after reading it, I definitely want to get my hands on the rest of the book.
- On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac. Kerouac wrote this book in three weeks after spending about seven years driving around the United States. Instead of typing the book on individual pages, he typed it without any punctuation on one long piece of paper, which resembled a scroll. Because the book is biographical, the names were changed in the edited versions. However, the original scroll was recently found, and the book was republished using the real names. I’m taking a class on bohemianism, and I am fascinated by the Beat generation. I could never live the type of hand-to-mouth lifestyle that they did, but reading about it and the literature they produced is so interesting. The only thing I didn’t like about On the Road was its representation of women, but because it is largely based on Kerouac’s actual experience, I tried not to analyze it outside of its social and historical context.
- No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. This was one of two books I was able to read for fun this past month. I was first acquainted with Miranda July in my introduction to creative writing class last semester, so when I saw her book at Barnes & Noble, I decided to give it a go. The book is a collection of short stories, and most, if not all, of the stories deal primarily with female characters, explorations of loneliness, and the lengths to which people will go to feel loved. The content and subject matter sometimes verge on absurdity, but July’s ability to take the unusual, very singular habits of her characters and reconcile the character’s experience to the reader’s is something I really enjoyed about this collection. I can’t wait to read July’s recently released novel The First Bad Man.
- The Feather Room by Anis Mojgani. As I’ve mentioned before, Anis Mojgani is my all-time favorite poet and someone who I draw a lot of inspiration from as a writer. If I am correct, he is primarily a spoken word poet, but he has three published volumes of his poetry, of which I’ve read two. The Feather Room was an interesting read for me because Mojgani weaves elements of magical realism and the fantastical throughout the collection in order to traverse themes of loss, heartbreak, and love.
- You Are Jeff by Richard Siken. I’ve really been enjoying prose poetry lately, and this prose poem by Richard Siken is one of my favorites. It is extremely difficult to parse out, partially because it’s fairly long, but also because the nature of it lends itself to many different interpretations. Personally, I believe this poem is a commentary on possibility. Also, the language and narrative are absolutely beautiful.
- In Memoriam by Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson wrote this poem over a period of seventeen years following the unexpected death of his best friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The poem, which is incredibly long, is Tennyson’s exploration and acknowledgement of his own grief and a sort of coping mechanism. Each lyric, of which there are 131, was written as a separate poem and compiled into one long poem years later when Tennyson decided to publish it. In Memoriam is certainly not light reading, but it is definitely worth a read as it does such a powerful and effective job at transcribing a strong emotion at the core of human experience and embraces several Victorian themes.
- Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare. Sonnet 130 is my favorite of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Generally, I’m not crazy about love poems, so this one is just my speed. Shakespeare’s sonnets can be divided into two sections based on the person to whom they are addressed: a unknown male and the Dark Lady. This particular sonnet pertains to the Dark Lady, and I like it because in it, Shakespeare satirizes the traditional love poem. He says that his mistress isn’t the most beautiful. Her hair is like wires, and sometimes her breath smells bad. Regardless, he possesses the rarest kind of love because he sees her as she is and loves her anyway, rather than trying to force her into an idealized image with far-fetched comparisons.
Let me know what you read this month!
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