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Reading Life Roundup, 2019

I am so grateful to have had more time and space to read this year. And one of my most enjoyable adventures in Montreal has been to explore a few of the city's public libraries. To celebrate, I thought I'd wade back through and pull out a few standouts to recommend. The more I thought about it, though, the more I noticed intersecting concerns emerge from the books I happened upon in my wandering browsy way. I'm sharing some first explorations of those connections.


Humanity Behind Bars

  • The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner (2018, fiction)

  • The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead (2019, fiction)

  • The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home, Janice N. Harrington (2011, poetry)

Also...

  • An American Marriage, Tayari Jones (2018, fiction)

  • The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989, fiction)

Of these, Rachel Kushner and Colson Whitehead's novels stand out as complex, frank portrayals of the dehumanizing forces of the American prison complex. Kushner's novel is set largely in a women's prison, and Whitehead's in a "reform school" for juvenile offenders. Both tell stories with biting depictions of cruelty and physical punishment that make it clear the more appropriate term is not "punishment" but abuse. Readers experience how the central characters are cut off from their own aspirations before prison snatches them up, Kushner's by poverty and sexism and Whitehead's by the racist grip of Jim Crow just as the Civil Rights movement is being acknowledged.


Existence under the unwritten rules and norms of prison pits the humanity of Kushner and Whitehead's characters against a dead-eyed system that works actively to grind out thought and emotion. When readers experience these characters loving and caring for others, rooting for justice in both brute and noble forms, dreaming a future for themselves and others, and making all too recognizable mistakes, what has been and is being done in the name of justice seems flimsy. Neither novel is for the faint of heart, but both are important for us all.


A nursing home is not a prison, but it is an institution in which marginalized people are so often severely restricted and further marginalized. Janice N. Harrington's (overlooked, I'd argue) collection of poetry demonstrates imagery's power to deliver that reality directly to readers. Harrington's fierce eye conveys the aging body and the body in the work of taking care, suggesting that no body can stand as "the body."


Harrington's poems puts both groups squarely in the frame, giving readers snapshots of brief particular interactions, mostly between residents and aides. These poems present highly specific images of bodies still and in motion, and the effect is that the poems hit readers first as physical experiences. Then, these images keep resonating, refusing to allow readers to see their subject in just one way and certainly not the same way they did stepping in.


As the collection progresses, the frame zooms closer and closer. All the while, Harrington keeps distance, allowing those interactions to stand for themselves. This compact volume packs its wallop in one slow-motion blow, ending with a poem that shifts perspective in a remarkable way. If you pick this one up, be sure to read the poems in order. The poems accumulate shame, weariness, and longing that honor individual experience and raise important questions about what it means to age and work with dignity.


The Female Fraughtship known as Friendship

  • Cat's Eye, Margaret Atwood (1988, fiction)

  • Swing Time, Zadie Smith (2016, fiction)

  • Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy (2012, poetry)

Also...

  • Motherhood, Sheila Heti (2018, fiction)

  • A Pillow Book, Suzanne Buffam (2016, poetry)

A few books I read this year presented strains of difficulty in female friendships that felt painfully familiar. Margaret Atwood and Zadie Smith's novels include formative psychological wrestling matches staged between girls on and off the playground. I was struck by the ways Atwood and Smith were able to write characters that take readers into how unknowingly and easily a girl and slip into the thrall of another girl in the name of friendship and what can come from being enthralled by or in control of that spell. Atwood, especially, demonstrates the psychological damage of this dynamic and suggests how narrowly restricted ambitions create and perpetuate competition among and between women.


I know and enjoy Brenda Shaughnessy's poems as acrobatic performances of verbal association and quick wit. For example, here's the start of "One Love Story, Eight Takes:"


One version of the story is I wish you back—

that I used each evening evening out

what all day spent wrinkling.


Our Andromeda felt different from the start in a way I couldn't quite pin down. By the time I started the long poem that ends the collection, I began to understand that Shaughnessy's typical approach had shifted to grapple with the experience of giving birth to her son. Shaughnessy's verbal verve and swerve is still at work, but the gaze of "Our Andromeda" is so direct that it flays the subject of any least bit of elusive wink-wink or pretense of distance.


The poem's direct representation of fear and anger exposes the speaker and in doing so challenges the way obstetrical professionals and female friends withhold their compassion and attention from women marked by "complications." "I don't know what to make of such spiritual inertia," Shaughnessy writes, "but it seems like the stuff racism's made of: fear of difference: As long as it's not me, I don't have to know anything about it. As long as they stay the hell away from me, it never has to be me." Shaughnessy's indictments pull no punches, but from and through that anger emerges an expression of love and compassion that, due to its vulnerability, shines and keeps shining.


Human, You Are Not Alone Here

  • Dart, Alice Oswald (2002, poetry)

  • Woods etc, Alice Oswald (2005, poetry)

Also...

  • Fox 8, George Saunders (2013, fiction)

A writer friend recommended Alice Oswald this summer, and I fell in love hard with Oswald's poems. They are tender, clear-eyed but imaginative, musical glimpses of the natural world. A "natural world" inseparable from humans and our history and industry.


Dart is a river in the form of a book-length poem. The poem and book begins at the Dart's source and flows with it to the sea. This is one poem in which many voices emerge and recede, one into the next. Often readers aren't sure where one begins and the other ends and in this uncertainty, the poem slows and gathers momentum like water left to its own motions in the world. At times, the voice seems to be the river itself and, at others, the living things that make their way in it. Here's what seems like the river siren-calling to a downing victim:


come falleth in my push-you where it hurts

and let me rough you under, be a laugh

and breathe me please in whole in hale


come warmeth, I can outcanoevre you

into the smallest small where it moils up

and masses under the sloosh gates, put your head,


it looks like a good one, full of kiss

and known to those you love, come roll it on my stones,


The word "outcanoevre" alone was worth reading the book for. Apologies for spoiling that pleasure, but, don't worry, there are so many others in store. After you discover them for yourself, check out these perspectives in West Branch's most recent issue. And get in touch with me; I would love to talk about this book.


Another Oswald collection I could find in English was Wood etc. And so with warm wishes for a new year and decade that brings you reasons to hope and love in more concrete and imaginative ways, I give you Oswald's expansive imagination, sparked by everything from the tiniest corner of our green planet to the far reaches of our solar system, as in "Excursion to the Planet Mercury:"


as for the catastrophe

of nights on mercury,

hiding in a rock-smashed hollow

at about two hundred degrees below zero


the feather-footed winds

take off their guises there,

they go in gym shoes

thieving and lifting


and their amazed expressions

have been soundproofed, nevertheless

they go on howling

for gladness sheer gladness

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