What We're Reading, Vol. 7
March always swings through unexpectedly. Between longer days for some, looming academic deadlines for others, and ever changing weather for all, reading becomes a respite from the hectic schedules and running around. Women’s History Month might inspire us to pick up some forgotten titles, but the brightness of Spring approaching encourages us to move quickly and seek enlightenment in new reads.
Here’s what’s living on our shelves this month:
This month has been about reading for pleasure but also for discovering books that I put off reading for too long. It may be Women’s History Month, but my most important read of the past few weeks if not months has been James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. I was absolutely blown away. I had put off reading Baldwin in the past because I was both afraid of an onslaught of sad feelings – having only heard, at length, about Giovanni’s Room – and dealing with my resolution of several years to only read books by women when given the choice. What a loss not picking Baldwin up sooner was! His voice is an incredible one and while yes, the material he covers is heartbreaking (and still so socially relevant even now – over forty years after its publication – that it could unfortunately easily take place today), he writes in such an incredible way that you’re carried away by the depth of humanity. Every character in If Beale Street Could Talk jumps out of the page, and the novel provides one of the most moving, supportive portrayals of a family I have ever come across in literature. What love, what strength, what writing!
Having thus been carried away by Baldwin, I’ve picked up more of his books to read later this month, but March has also brought me other reads. I read my first Anaïs Nin early in the month, inspired by Annie Jo Baker’s piece on Nin and mental health, turning to A Spy in the House of Love. I also turned to some shorter works of writing – reading a selection of essays from Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard (which I am continuing to read a little bit of every day), Sylvia Plath’s Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom and Sally Rooney’s Mr Salary. Right now, I’m reading Brit Bennett’s The Mothers – which I know is going to be a favorite even though I’m only a couple of chapters in!
After putting it down in January, The Glimpses of The Moon made its way back to the top of my reading pile. I was enjoying my time with it before the Great Reading BlockTM of February hit and so decided to try and finish over the course of one weekend, where I read the last hundred and fifty pages in a single five hour sitting. Unlike Wharton’s other famous novels, it takes place majorily over the summer before jumping forward months at a time, and I feel like it would probably make a fabulous holiday read. Regardless, I loved the story of Suzy and Nick and their clumsy feelings for one another. I haven't read Normal People yet, but from what I know of that it gives me similar vibes.
The rest of March has vacillated severely for me. I’m not usually the kind to read multiple books at once (my focus doesn't appreciate it) and it’s probably not going to end well for the current cocktail I’m working with, but it’s where I’m at so I’m going with it. I’ve been rereading Summer Brennan’s forthcoming High Heel, an intriguing catalog of short entries all centered around the history and discourse of the shoe, and the book’s references to The Bell Jar have had me picking that up in spurts as well. I’ve loved Sylvia Plath’s poetry for most of my life but had not, until now, picked up her most famous work. Falling down the rabbit hole, I’ve also been picking up other titles as the mood strikes: Pain, Parties, Work: a fascinating study of the exact summer Plath lived through that would inspire The Bell Jar, popped up in my library suggestions and I jumped at it; My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which I finally picked up this week when my first illness of 2019 struck; and finally, for some uplifting comfort, Leslie Cohen’s This Love Story Will Self Destruct. Touted by its summary as a modern day When Harry Met Sally, I chose it for my love of Nora Ephron but applaud Cohen for attacking me from the very beginning. Her lead Eve has all of the neuroses and anxieties I cannot shake, and to say I am invested might be an understatement.
Aside from the tomes by and on Virginia Woolf, which I have been poring over for my thesis lately, much of my current reading list consists of short fiction, essays, and poetry, to which I always return to anchor myself, whenever things get too hectic. Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, for one, has been the most welcome respite from my heavy volumes of critical theory, given that she manages to distill the same, lofty ideas on life and language into such playful, little musings, that you begin to think, “huh, Derrida could’ve been so much more concise!” Likewise, Tove Jansson’s generous — yet deceptively simple — meditations in The Summer Book return a glimmering spot of calm into my life, reminding me of the possibilities for kindness that still exist even as the world grows increasingly chaotic today. In a sense, you could say that such literature keeps me grounded, against the overwhelming urge to become a jaded and cynical bore.
In the same vein, Ali Smith’s books often evoke similar, quiet feelings of warmth and tranquility — this comes as no surprise, since Smith herself is a massive fan of Jansson’s — which is why I cannot wait for her latest, Spring, to be released. Having immensely enjoyed the first two instalments of her seasonal quartet, Autumn and Winter, I do look forward to seeing what wonders she can spin out of this season’s connotations of beauty and hope. Now you know what I’ll be doing (devouring Spring from cover to cover) and where I’ll be (my local bookstore) on March 28.
Annie Jo Baker
I’m in my last term of undergrad so I haven’t been reading much for fun lately, much less anything “high-brow,” but I did hop on the Gillian Flynn train again, having morbidly devoured Gone Girl a couple of years ago and recently came across Sharp Objects in the magazine aisle at the grocery store. Gone Girl is as depressing and demoralizing as Sharp Objects is humane and even hopeful, even with the serial murders at the center of the story. As a former goth teen, I’m also always reading weird and decadent cosmic horror. After I finally grew out of my high school H. P. Lovecraft phase, I took to Arthur Machen and then Algernon Blackwood, and currently Robert Chambers, whose The King in Yellow is public domain, available for free on the Internet, and great for reading on your cell phone on your bathroom floor at 3am (that’s a joke).
I spent last week on spring break in Montreal, Canada, where I had lots of time to catch up on reading. I finished Diane Setterfield's new spellbinding novel Once Upon a River. Set in a lively pub along the Thames in January, I found it to be an ideal late winter read- cozy and mysterious. I also read Angie Thomas' new Young Adult novel, On the Come Up. She gives vibrant sense of voice for her protagonist Bri, an aspiring teen rapper, who must deal with issues beyond her age: drug abuse, gang violence, racial profiling, and urban poverty. I loved Thomas' first novel, The Hate You Give, and her sophomore novel is certainly just as challenging and well-written. On my flight home, I picked up Michelle Obama's autobiography, Becoming, which I am so in love with. As someone in my mid-twenties feeling a bit lost, it's wonderful to read about how Michelle dealt with the some of the same life decisions that I am trying to make.
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